Keep Your Team Focused on Shifting Priorities

When is the last time that you felt like things were comfortably status quo? Changing business strategies, morphing project parameters, and turnover that leaves you short-staffed are more the rule than the exception these days. So how do you ensure your team stays focused in an environment of ever-changing priorities? Clear communication with your team and proactive change leadership are key to keeping your teams engaged and on track. Here are three strategies you should employ on a regular basis.

Strategy 1: Talk About Priorities Regularly

Setting priorities doesn’t come naturally to everyone. The good news is that it’s a skill that can be learned relatively easily. Start by making it a part of your ongoing conversations with your teams. Yes, work with them regularly, in a structured way, to help them establish and revise priorities. For more on that, Derek Lidow outlines “A Better Way To Set Strategic Priorities” in this Harvard Business Review article. But it’s also important to engage the leaders who report to you in general, ongoing conversations about their priorities. It helps them become more fluent in the language of managing priorities and it conveys the importance you place on that fluency. And it helps you to gauge how closely their priorities are in step with yours and the organization, and where their prioritization skills need to be improved.

A lot of leaders struggle with how to engage in everyday conversations with their direct reports about priorities. Here are some questions to start the conversation:

Strategy 2: Get Ahead of Changes in the Workplace

When teams get hit with unanticipated changes, it can feel like “here we go again… another fire-drill.” Well, preventing fires is a lot more effective than putting them out, especially when they seem to crop up on regular basis. Not only is it a more efficient approach, but it keeps the level of frustration down when people don’t feel blindsided.

As soon as you anticipate changes that will affect your part of the organization, reach out to your direct reports (or your leadership team?). Apprise them of what you know and ask them questions. You want them thinking about this… really engaging in the challenges ahead. The earlier they’re involved, the better their responses will be. And they’re also likely to provide food for thought that will help you manage the change upward.

Consider these conversation starters to help make the inevitable transition happen more smoothly:

  • What obstacles do you anticipate with the upcoming change?
  • What knowledge and skills do you think will need to be shored up to make this change work?
  • Which of your team’s current priorities can take a backseat while we’re transitioning?

Strategy 3: Teach Your Team to Shift Gears On Their Own

Ideally, you want your teams to be able to shift their priorities effectively with only the lightest of steering on your part. That leaves you more time to focus on strategic issues. The challenge? Too many managers have been taught by their organization and past bosses to take direction on prioritization.

If you’ve been leveraging the first two techniques, this third one will be easier. Some things to keep in mind:

  • First, make sure they’re well-acquainted with your organization’s business strategy and goals. They provide a framework for them to understand what their priorities should be.
  • Second, in the simplest terms, what are your highest-level priorities? “Client problem resolution will always be my number one concern.”
  • Third, what are your expectations on the latitude they have for changing priorities and how to communicate with you about them?

If you want them to better manage their own priorities, never, ever tell your direct reports what you want right away. Encourage them to present you with their ideas first. Probe for why they’re thinking the way they do. Test their assumptions. Here are some effective conversation starters for setting parameters and promoting self-reliance:

  • Let’s talk about our organization’s goals and how they should be reflected in our department’s priorities. How do you see them aligning?
  • If you were in my shoes, what would be your biggest priority? Why? How will you reflect that in your priorities over the next quarter?
  • On a regular basis, you’re more than capable of managing your team’s priorities. Here’s what I want you to do any time you’re on track to miss your monthly goals…

Once upon a time, managing priorities was a standard, quarterly process. Now shifts happen too often and too quickly for such a static approach. In my Harvard Business Review online article 5 Behaviors of Leaders Who Embrace Change I talk about how critical it is for every leader to integrate change leadership into the very fabric of who they are and what they do on a daily basis. An essential part of that is guiding your team leaders’ ability to re-prioritize.

Help Your Team Learn From Mistakes

One of your people walks into your office with that look. You know the look. The one that says… I have something I need to tell you that I really don’t want to tell you.

I’ve written in the Harvard Business Review online about ways to help your team be open to change. How you handle mistakes is key part of helping you team thrive during change and become more innovative themselves. The way you handle mistakes can create psychological safety or fear. You have to ask yourself… what’s my goal here? How can I manage this conversation so that we make the mistake a growth opportunity… one that pays dividends down the road?

Helping your team learn from mistakes includes 5 actions you should take during conversations with your team.  The first and last are actions you should take during conversations with your entire team on a regular basis. The other three are for those times when someone with that look walks into your office:

Action 1: Model the Way

Acknowledge and be accountable for your mistakes, especially if you are a senior leader. Too often, people who are a few layers removed from you in the organization feel like you may be where you are because you did not make significant mistakes. Tell stories of times you made mistakes and how you moved forward. Learning from mistakes is easier if leaders show you how.

Action 2: Respond Rather Than React

When someone comes to you with a mistake, you may feel frustration, disappointment or even anger.  Use your emotional intelligence to respond rather than react. Ask yourself a few questions. How does this make me feel? What would be the most productive response in this situation, if our goal is to use mistakes as a learning and growth opportunity? How is the other person feeling? How can I help both of us use this as a springboard for innovation?

Action 3: Acknowledge feelings first. 

No one feels good about making a mistake. Ask how they feel about the situation. Recognize that it can be difficult to make a mistake, much less to have to tell your boss about it.  You might want to tell them you’ve made that mistake (or one like it) yourself in the past.

Action 4: Ask questions. 

During the conversation, you may be tempted to jump right into problem-solving mode where you explain how to fix things. Resist the urge. Instead, ask questions. Let the individual explain the situation and follow-up with questions that allow the two of you to turn this into a learning conversation.  If you could do this over again, how would you approach it?    What do you think we need to do at this point? What is an important take away you have from this situation? What could I have done to support you differently? How can I help going forward?  When someone figures out how to fix their own mistake, they begin to learn how to fix mistakes in general and even how to avoid similar ones in the future.

Action 5: Champion the mistake-makers (judiciously, of course)

In a 2010 Inc. article, Michael Alter tells the story of how he created a ‘Best New Mistakes” competition at SurePayroll and its impact on the culture. The rules were simple – you must nominate yourself, explain the mistake, and what you learned from it. Entries were read, discussed and winners were chosen at company meetings. It was approached in a light-hearted way, allowing everyone to have fun and learn at the same time. Alter ‘formalized failure’ and allowed people to get over the stigma associated with mistakes.  

When one of your team members comes into your office with that look you want them to walk out feeling understood and even energized by the opportunities created by their mistake.

What other tips do you have for helping your team learn from their mistakes? We’d love to hear from you. Email us at info@nextbridgeconsulting.com.

What do 181 CEO’s Agree On?

Purpose Matters

181 CEO’s signed a letter from the Business Roundtable last week, stating that purpose matters and shareholders are not the only stakeholders who should receive value from the endeavors of business.

They specifically note that there are 5 stakeholders they are accountable to – shareholders, employees, customers, communities and suppliers. Interestingly, as a young consultant, my firm used this framework for strategic planning with our clients back in the late 1980’s. By taking this more holistic view of who should benefit from the corporation, the purpose of the organization became more meaningful to everyone the organization touched.

We’ve spoken about purpose for years. It’s what gets people up in the morning. It’s what makes people put in the extra effort when it’s needed. It’s what makes us feel a part of something bigger.

Empirical research now supports the fact that purpose and profit go together. Research by Gloria Gartenburg and George Serafeim found that companies with high levels of purpose outperform the market by 5-7%. This finding, according to Gartenburg and Serafeim is on par with companies that have best-in-class governance and innovative capabilities.

According to Gartenburg and Serafeim just having a purpose is not enough. Success comes when:

  • Senior leadership has embedded that sense of purpose through the organization, especially at the middle manager level
  • There is strategic clarity throughout the organization about how to achieve that purpose

Purpose as a Core Tenet of Successful Change: These findings made me think about one of the critical elements of change I’ve been writing about for years, including recently in HBR Online and elsewhere. Clear, compelling purpose provides clear direction and ensures that everyone understands the “why “ of the change (i.e., the purpose), not just the what.

Today, organizations have to be able to change quickly. A natural outgrowth of rapid change is uncertainty and, at times, frustration that what we’re doing today flies in the face of what we did yesterday. However, if your organization has a clear sense of purpose and change is continually tied back to that purpose, uncertainty can be managed, and frustration minimized.

And when that purpose is not just aligned to shareholders but to the multiple stakeholders, the change will be meaningful in new ways. It will not just be a singular group who benefits. Rather it will have more meaning for the entire ecosystem of the organization.

Those organizations who establish a meaningful purpose and embed it in the culture of their leadership and their organization stand the best chance of thriving amid the chaos of constant change and upheaval in the world.

How Not to Lead Disruptive Change

A few weeks ago, I returned from an amazing family vacation that took us to Budapest, Venice and Rome. We decided to take a train from Budapest to Venice to take in the soaring beauty of the Alps as we made our way through Austria and northern Italy. And it was spectacular… until we reached our last stop in Austria. That’s when we got a first-hand lesson in how NOT to handle disruptive change.

Throughout Austria we had several 5 to 10-minute stops, with announcements made in German, Hungarian and English. We made what turned out to be our last stop in Austria in the beautiful city of Villach. The screen showed our usual 5-minute wait and then suddenly it changed to 45 minutes.

Soon an announcement was made, in German only. Slowly, groups of people began to get off the train sporadically. Not knowing what was going on, I finally found a train company information officer and he told me there had been a minor earthquake in northern Italy and all rail service was stopped indefinitely so tracks could be inspected. We were going to be bussed to either the station after the areas affected by the earthquake effected or all the way to Venice – they weren’t sure.

Eventually we made it to Venice, but the hours in between that conversation and our arrival were a great example of how not to lead change…

The leaders assumed everyone understood the message:  while most of the people on the train spoke German, a very large minority did not. While other announcements had been made in multiple languages, this critical one wasn’t. We found out from fellow travelers that he announcements, even in German, didn’t explain exactly when passengers should get off the train and where they should go to wait for the buses. Passengers were only able to get this information by taking the initiative to talk directly with individual company representatives.

Focus on the technical side; forget the people side:  there were a couple of coordinators from the train company in charge of arranging the buses, monitoring their arrival and getting us on board. Eventually there were 3 buses that arrived several minutes to an hour apart. We weren’t told where to wait for the busses or when they would be arriving. And we weren’t assigned in any way to a specific bus. After the second bus, someone asked ‘how long until the third?’ The coordinator answered “5 – 10 minutes.” His colleague then chimed in “or maybe 30.” In the 45 minutes until the third bus did arrive, they were on their phones in regular communication with the transportation company.  They simply didn’t communicate with any of the passengers.

Don’t tell those affected by the change how to move forward: We finally arrived on the outskirts of Venice about 3 hours later than anticipated. The bus stopped and we all got off. Only problem was, this wasn’t the normal train station stop for those going into Venice. The bus driver didn’t tell us this; another passenger did. When we all disembarked from the bus, we asked the driver where to go. He said to the footbridge. Only problem – the footbridge is closed at midnight. The bus driver then got into the bus and drove away leaving about 20 of us to figure out how we were supposed to get into Venice. In the distance we saw what looked like a ferry stop and we went there. Eventually, through trial and error, we all figured out which way to go.

Assign change leaders who don’t know that leading change is part of their job: The coordinators understood their role to be to get the busses arranged and ensure everyone got onto a bus. The bus drivers understood their jobs to be to drive us to Venice. No one had set expectations with them that they also needed to step up and lead – to inform us of the overall plan and how each step for the rest of our journey would work, to reassure us when the busses were taking much longer than anticipated, and to prepare us for the rest of our journey.

Disruption – of your industry, your company, your team – can happen with little advance warning. Understanding that leading change needs to be a skill set that can be called on at any time, is the only way you and your team will navigate it successfully. How well prepared are you to lead change?

Disruption, Anyone?

Google is getting into the gaming business. According to the Wall Street Journal, they’re launching with a cloud-based service, hardware component and separate controller. Google is set to disrupt another industry.

There are plenty of disrupters out there. Some are behemoths like Google or Amazon. Others seemingly rise from nowhere. And, no matter what our industry, disruption is a very real possibility. We can’t run from it. We can’t hide from it. We need to be ready for it.

How can you get ready? Or even better, how could you become the disrupter?

Keep in touch with new technology. It can be overwhelming because it changes so rapidly. That’s the exact reason we need to stay in touch with it. Join a tech-focused professional group. Check out tech blogs. Pay attention to the everchanging buzz words – AI, autonomous vehicles, blockchain – and then find out what they mean. And ask, ‘how could this impact the work we do and the value we provide to clients?’

Look outside your industry. Clients invariably ask me ‘what are other company’s like ours doing?’ It’s not a question of what other company’s like yours are doing, it’s what are other companies unlike yours doing? I don’t know the gaming industry but it’s quite possible gaming companies didn’t look at Google as a company ‘like ours.’ Have your team look outside, too.

Listen, really listen, to your customers. Don’t just ask how you can do what you do better or how to improve your product. Ask them what their problems are. Find out what they want to solve. It quite possibly will have nothing to do with what you are currently providing. The question is then, do we have an opportunity here? Your team is probably positioned even better than you are to ask these questions and see the opportunities. Make the asking part of their job.

Build space to experiment. With different perspectives added to your thinking, there should come new ideas. Give space and resources to experiment. Try out ideas on a small scale. Learn from the failures and build on the successes.

Disruption, almost by definition, is something you’re not prepared for. It can be a disaster for companies and individual careers alike… so you have to get prepared. So, before Google, the start-up around the corner or across the globe turns you and your company upside down, invest time and resources making yourself as disruption-proof as possible.

How is Your Ballast?

For Boston, the connection to the sea is inseparable from its history. The early economy was largely dependent on the captains who sailed the ocean and the materials they brought on their return. On journeys that took months, ships would invariably hit rough seas. To counteract being tossed about in the ocean, ships were loaded with ballast – often heavy stones, that were added to the hull to create greater stability.

Today’s business challenges can feel like those rough seas. And, as leaders we may need to provide ourselves and our teams with some ballast so that we push into the waves without capsizing. We also need to be aware of when it’s time to reduce our ballast so that we can skim along at a faster clip.

Manage your ballast effectively by:

Knowing your true north. Where are you going? Where is the organization going? What is the alignment? Answers to these questions will center you and provide a sense of stability because you know who you are.

Reminding yourself that you are resilient. We’ve all faced strong winds and rough seas before. And here we are on the other shore. What skills, capabilities and attitudes helped you? Would they be helpful now? Most likely at least some of them are applicable in the current situation. Keep them on the ship.

Questioning your assumptions. We all make assumptions about how something will work or what will be effective. Those assumptions can be outdated and not valid, or even more important, valuable anymore. Push back on those assumptions. Question their value in current situations. Before you hold onto them, test that they are still valid. If not, get rid of them and replace them with insights and information that will allow you to move along with the waves rather than fight them.

Making sure it’s balanced. If ballast is not balanced, it’s very difficult to steer the ship. It can pull you too much in one direction or the other. Your ballast needs to help you stay on course but remain agile enough to change and adapt. When innovation and change are required, if all your ballast is keeping you aligned to how we do things now, you’ll soon be off course.

Right now, take a quick assessment of your personal ballast. Are you managing it or is it managing it or is it managing you?

Learning as a Journey

A question many of us think about on a regular basis is ‘what do I need to do to continue to be successful?” The definition of success itself is very personal. If you’ve been successful up until now, it could be easy to assume that what made you successful in the past will work in the future. In reality, it’s uncertain what will make us successful in workplaces, markets, careers, and industries that are changing so rapidly.

Change has a way of doing that – creating uncertainty. What do we seek when we feel uncertain? A return to a comfortable degree of certainty again. Certainty helps us feel in control. News flash: at work, we’ll never have 100% certainty. That said, maybe rather than searching for certainty, we should ensure our relevancy.

There is a prescient article in the Wall Street Journal titled “I’m Still Under Construction; Six Tales of Lifelong Learning.” It profiles six very different individuals who are living the idea of life-long learning. It demonstrates that learning can happen in a wide variety of ways and that it pays off in big ways. If you read the article, you’ll see that learning didn’t create more certainty, but it gave them more opportunity and relevancy.

There are some predictions that 30% of today’s skills and knowledge will be obsolete in a few years. Overstated or not, this statistic represents the reality that we need to be thinking about how we are continually preparing ourselves for what’s next. Second news flash: learning isn’t a destination, it’s a journey.

Where is your journey going?

Am I Dressed for This?

Much of the country is experiencing record-breaking, bitter cold this winter.  And yet, some weeks, we’ve had snow storms on one day, with bright sunshine and 50 degrees the next.  In a few months, we’ll be experiencing heat and humidity.  The old saying goes ‘if you wait a minute, the weather will change.” As human beings, we readily adapt to these weather changes. We build a wardrobe for whatever the weather in our area brings – hot, cold, rain, snow, sun, etc. 
 
You could apply that old saying to what happens at work these days – wait a minute, and it will change. As I sat yesterday evening in front of the fire, I was thinking about what kind of wardrobe we are building for ourselves at work so that, when change happens, we have what’s needed to adapt. Are we building an athletic wardrobe so that when we need to reach  across silos we are comfortable and able to move easily?  Do we have our creative hat when we need to approach a challenge in a new and unique way?  Do we have our metaphorical heavy coat so we can get results even when things feel blustery? 

Too often we put on armor to protect ourselves from having to adapt and change.  Wouldn’t a wardrobe with a nice pair of shorts help us to be comfortable when things get heated?  Or a well-tailored coat for when we have to face a cold front?  Or a comfy pair of jeans for when we need to be ready to stretch and reach feel so much better?
 
What are you doing to not only broaden your work wardrobe, but to update it for what’s needed in 2019? How about your teams?  Are they stuck in a snowbank?

Hold Onto Your Hat

Happy new year!!  2018 is in the books and now we’re looking at 350+ new days ahead of us. What will 2019 bring? Hard to say with certainty. With that said, what are some experts saying may be ahead of us in the coming year? Let’s take a look:

Hello Generation Z: For the first time in 2019, Gen Z is entering the workforce in meaningful numbers. For the first time we’ll have 5 generations working side-by-side. What are Gen Z all about? According to Brené Brown, “My experience is that they lean in and lean hard. They are all very different people, but as a group I experience them as curious, hopeful, always learning, painfully attuned to the suffering in the world, and anxious to do something about it.”

AI and machine learning come to workforce management: According to TheWorkforce Institute at Kronos, AI and machine learning will finally be integrated into workforce management practices. It will lessen the burden of admin-heavy tasks for managers and provide predictive analytics to head-off potential issues. Managers will have more information for data-driven decision making and more time to lead. The question in my mind is, are managers prepared and equipped to lead?

Economic uncertainty causing angst: With the behavior of the stock market over the past month, the early signs of trade wars and some economists predicting recession, the economy seems to be full of uncertainty. With uncertainty comes doubt and fear. Even though the great recession started over a decade ago, the scars are still fresh for many.

Leaders will need to handle a potential downturn in ways that sustain trust and guard against over-reaction to any changes it brings. In any scenario, organizations will need to ensure they have the right talent focused on what adds the most value. Effective leadership will be essential. 

What do you think is going to be impacting you this year?

The Leadership Link to Sustained Excellence

Can your organization sustain performance excellence? Recently, McKinseyresearched the link between leadership and organizational health (i.e., the company’s ability to sustain exceptional performance over time). Key findings:

  • 80% of a company’s variance could be explained by the strength of leadership.
  • 57% of companies don’t think their training efforts are developing the leaders they need to meet their strategic priorities.

Too often, they note, leadership development focuses on bringing universal leadership capabilities to a limited number of individuals in the company. Why doesn’t this work? Change is constant. Decision-making needs to be decentralized. Impacts need to be achieved across the organization. Effective leadership needs to be local.

They suggest four principles that closely align with our approach to developing leaders who can thrive in high-change environments.

  • Focus on leadership behaviors most effective for driving performance.McKinsey identified 4 that account for as much as 89% of leadership effectiveness. One is focused on results. The other 3 on people.
  • Identify a critical mass of influencers so that change becomes self-sustaining. This is true for any change. You need to identify your key stakeholders and influencers and make a plan for engaging them.
  • Use neuroscience to create lasting change. Neuroscience helps explain why we resist change and what we can do to create change. It provides insight into motivation, decision making and influence. Leadership development needs to utilize these concepts to help leaders create highly effective and efficient leadership practices.
  • Integrate programs into broader organizational systems and measure impact. Leadership development can’t stand alone. It needs to be aligned to the strategy and integrated into how you hire, enable high performance, reward and recognize.

Leading change is now central to every leader’s role, and the organization’s success.  

It follows that leadership development and change leadership development should not be looked at as separate topics or processes. Change leadership should be fully integrated into training programs, but also into all leadership development strategies, plans and assignments. And every senior leader should be asking themselves:

How ready is my team to lead change?  

What are their change leadership strengths and weaknesses?