Year-end Reflection: Two choices

It’s almost always true that there is an easier path and a harder path in front of us for pretty much every life situation. Both yield different results. Many articulate what would be nice to have, but often don’t follow through with action. Whether it be change at work or change in ourselves. For whatever reason, many people tend to choose the path of least resistance. And yet we admire those who don’t. We watch them on TV, we follow their accomplishments, we read their books and we talk about them. No one talks about average. So what keeps us from becoming like those who we admire? Why are there 100 yellow or green belts for every black belt in the world?

“It’s never crowded along the extra mile.”
– Wayne Dyer

Take heart: For those willing to go that extra mile to undertake the complex and challenging work of driving progress, you are not alone. If it’s a personal challenge, there is a community of like-minded people out there who will happily accept you into their fold, and teach you what they know. In almost every organization, there are those who are either ready to band together, or can be co-opted to the cause of progress.

Whichever path you choose, do it consciously. At the end of the year, it’s worth reflecting upon what is truly important to you, and to what extent you have been true to your own dreams. What things have you talked about this year and not acted on? Were they worth acting on, or not worth talking about? There’s not much in the middle.

“You must be the change you want to see in the world”
– Gandhi

As you go into 2012, be purposeful about your life and the things you do with it. Every day brings the gift of 86,400 seconds that can’t be re-spent once they’re gone.

Acknowledging the artistry in what people do

An executive that I worked for years ago told me that one of the secrets to his success was to “hire talented people, and get the hell out of their way.” And while I believe there’s a lot of truth to that, I’d like to add the following. That is to acknowledge your recognition of the artistry in what the high performers around you do. People perform according to their self-image, and when you recognize their talent (reminding them of that portion of their self-view) they are far more likely to demonstrate their full capability.

Top performers bring things to the table that less engaged or inspired employees does not. They create. They take pride in what they create. And sometimes, when their talent is overlooked for long enough, they stop self-identifying as an artist.

Not everyone is an artist in what they do, nor do they aspire to be… but some people are. It doesn’t matter what function someone serves, be it a strategist, a hair stylist, an accountant or a writer. Being an artist isn’t about the form, it’s about the creativity and individual brilliance. When people know the results of their discretionary effort and unique talent brings a smile to someone else’s face, they’ll show you their best every time.

• Work with brilliant people
• Let them know you appreciate their unique talent and artistry
• And get the hell out of their way

The winds of change

The dimensions of every work environment are complex. Having said that, there are two prevailing winds in terms of corporate progression; the one the pushes for progress and one that pushes for security. In any organization you will almost certainly have both in play at any given time. This has to be true because within most people, this tension exists as well.

Wind #1 – Security

Those that push for security tend to be more tactical in nature, their priority to is to maintain the safe environment that they have created or have acquired. These organizations may have even gotten to their current position by being high performers, and then became satisfied with what they accomplished. It’s human nature to look for information that supports our current paradigm, so inevitably, this group looks for information that supports why dramatic change is not required. Following suit, communication tends to focus on how positive things are today.

Wind #2 – Driven to continuously improve

The second pushes to create their own destiny, they are strategic in nature and they look for information to help them continuously improve. This group’s core belief is that they haven’t captured all of their potential. This drives them to look for information to hint at where the next opportunity to improve exists. Discovery of an area where performance is challenged excites those that ascribe to this thinking, because it represents opportunity to take things to the next level. These employees literally demand leadership. The focus of communication within this environment is more around creating a compelling view of the future, and progression.

When comparing these two environments, the differences in focus are interesting:

Hard working vs. high performing
Tactical vs. strategic
Satisfied vs. engaged
Focus on effort vs. focus on impact

The irony here is that the drive to pursue security can easily create a stronger view that you are safe in your market, when in fact those who demonstrate a continuous improvement are often much safer in reality.

“There are risks and costs to action. But they are far less than the long range risks of comfortable inaction.” – John F. Kennedy

I don’t know

When was the last time you said those words? It’s my belief that if you can’t remember the last time you used them in a conversation that you are selling yourself short. You are missing opportunities.

It suggests that you have lost your fire for learning, developing, exploring new concepts, and creating. Regardless of the level of your job, high performing, top shelf thinkers are always on the edge of something they don’t yet fully understand. Those are the kinds of people you want.

Strategy communication: What do you want from me?!

You can only expect people to do things that you can describe clearly. A strategy will always been tough to get off the ground until you take it from a conceptual level, to a principle level, to where you can describe a future state, to a descriptive level where you define the exact changes that need to happen overall, to knowing which things need to be done first, and finally to the employee level where you answer the ultimate questions:
1) As an employee, what specifically do you want me to do in order to contribute to it?
2) Why?

Why is a powerful question, and one that needs to be answered. It will always be the job of leaders to answer that question. It will always be the job of leaders to maintain the focus on that once it’s communicated. It will always be the job of leaders to model the change. Until you do, your strategy is just an academic exercise.

A strategy isn’t a useful strategy until the employees understand exactly how they contribute to it all day long.

Environmental Anaylsis as a basis for strategy management

I’ve gone on about this somewhat in the past, but why would your organization want to maintain an ongoing environmental monitoring system? Can’t leaders always come up with all the right answers on the spot? It’s my opinion that when you pay attention to what is going on around you in a methodical way, always improving and elevating the knowledge you have, the opportunities to support strategy development simply increase.

A well deployed system provide the following benefits:

• Is the ultimate input to executive planning – already knowing the top issues and opportunities, which ones are most important strategically speaking, and where top management and the board predict they will trend (and the consistency with which those b beliefs are held)
• Engages a broader management group than typically has the opportunity to participate in planning (creates more rounded perspectives through the wisdom of crowds)
• Identifies the key issues and opportunities most likely to impact the implementation of strategy
• Allows management to participate over time, which creates ongoing incremental improvements in the quality of what is discussed, as you’re never starting from scratch
• Allows a single corporate view to be accessed for planning across the organization (everyone benefits from the perspectives of others, no more blank SWOT analysis charts, ever)
• Is a primary input to the risk management process, can be fully integrated with an ongoing strategy management program
• Becomes the primary guide to what the research program focuses on (everything that is strategically most important)
• Is used to guide strategy review discussions throughout the year (if deployed that way)

Never start from scratch, and never forgot what you learned last time you met. Always take steps forward.

Strategic thinkers

The kinds of people you have in key decision making positions plays a huge role in what your organization will accomplish. The fact is that the future of your organization is set by the degree of potential acknowledged by those in this room. Our views of the future potential of the organization create an immediate ceiling, positive or negative, to what the organization can achieve. Beware of those with defensive orientations, as this can result in too great a focus on stability to the extent where it rules out growth.

It’s worth taking a minute to consider whether your organizational structure is generating a ceiling that is tall enough. How much do you actually reach? Finally, ensure that key decision making positions are based on the connection they have to strategy. Those areas wherein alignment to strategy is most critical should be represented at key meetings and decision making opportunities.

What is leadership

Real leadership is about a lot of things…

It’s about being willing to have tough conversations, and acknowledging uncomfortable dynamics that need to be addressed
It’s about being willing to be challenged in your perspective by subordinates
It’s about having vision, and communicating it in a way that it’s meaningful and compelling
It’s about communicating in a way that is driven by the needs of the audience
It’s about treating all people as having equal value
It’s about empowering people to succeed and giving up control
It’s about motivating without using fear based methods
It’s about trusting people to bring their best to the table
It’s about being primarily driven by a motivation to help others succeed

Challenges with achieving and sustaining success

One of my absolute favorite quotes is something Einstein once said:

“Problems cannot be solved at the same level of awareness that created them.”

For this reason, we sometimes thrash about with the objective of changing our performance, but to no avail. I think we’ve all been there; we feel the symptoms of a complex challenge, but have no idea on how to resolve the issue.

Taking things to the next level requires not only new knowledge but also the openness to discovering weaknesses you don’t yet know you have. Overconfidence in what you have in terms of skillset limits your likelihood of continued learning. Overconfidence in competitive advantage or positioning reduces the likelihood that you’ll be able to continue improving at the same rate. Then, once you achieve something significant, you risk the greatest trap of all: success driven complacency.

We are motivated by dissonance between how we think things should be, and how they currently are. This is why for change to occur, or continue, it requires a meaningful gap that needs to be filled. When dissonance is created, your body and mind (including your subconscious) releases energy to close the gap. When the gap is closed, the dissonance disappears, and everything goes back into rest mode. For this same reason, people will often be energized at work all day long, and within minutes of getting home they are exhausted.

Key questions:

Is your organization capable of much more? (Hint: The answer is always yes)
In the realm of theoretical possibility, is there a totally different future or path that your organization could create for itself? (Hint: The answer is always yes)
Is there an unrealized market that could be created from scratch? (Hint: The answer is always yes)

Just because you haven’t thought of it yet, doesn’t mean the potential doesn’t exist. The future is for those brave and willing enough to do the difficult work of dreaming it, and then creating it.