The More Things Change… the More We Need to Lean on the Fundamentals

I recently came across this article written nearly 10 years ago. In some ways it felt a bit quaint, but I was struck by how applicable the ideas were to not only this decade, but to our current Covid business reality. Enjoy.

Results-Based Performance in a Virtual World

This posting is co-written with my colleague Stefanie Heiter, CEO, Bridging Distance.

In the emerging virtual workplace, do you miss the comfort of walking by an employee’s desk and feeling confident she or he is working hard and doing a good job? If you can’t see them working, do you wonder what they are really doing? Are you baffled by how to set expectations that will drive results when you are not working in the same place? Are you concerned about whether your talent has the right competencies to hit the ground running when it all turns around?

Today’s workplace is characterized by people working in dispersed locations, within matrixed structures, with colleagues from multiple functions – even multiple organizations. Gone are the days when high performance was assessed by how much time someone ‘put in’ at the office. We are less likely to be ‘going to work’ and more likely to be ‘working’. Technology affords 24/7 access from almost anywhere. ‘Do more with less’ is now a mantra heard across countless companies via all communication media.

Despite these changes, managers are still expected to manage performance, regardless of location, time zone, function, or even language barriers, and often in the face of decreased budgets and reduced labor force. Successful managers have learned to overcome the challenges of virtual leadership, and move to results-based performance management. Here are strategies and tips successful virtual leaders use to create an effective results-based performance management approach:

Focus first on intentional, consistent relationship building. Create presence with employees by checking in (not checking on) frequently. Use more real-time technologies like telephone, instant messenger, chat, or text. When you check in, ask questions focused on getting to know their locations, resources that are needed, what else is happening, sharing information and decision-making whenever possible, and asking about their lives. Presence involves being available to people so they don’t have to make up reasons to be in contact.

Slow down to speed up. Take time upfront to define how you are going to stay in touch, share status, keep people in the loop, and when and how you will ‘meet’. Considerations here are protocols for high use technologies such as email (i.e., names in ‘to’ line means action required whereas ‘cc’ line means information only, when to ‘reply’ versus ‘reply to all’). It means agreements about when and when not to use technologies, defining who should be included and NOT included in particular categories of information and meetings.

Discuss both the ends and the means. Clearly understand the expectations you have of the individual. What does success look like? Make sure your definitions of success focus on the results the individual is achieving, not just the activities. Think about using the SMART criteria – specific, measurable, attainable, relevant and time bound – to both set and communicate goals. A goal of “Have 5 customer satisfaction meetings each month’ focuses on what you want someone to do. The goal “Increase annual customer satisfaction by 10% through improvements identified in customer satisfaction meetings” focuses on the result.

Another thing to think about is how the individual will achieve the goal. What behaviors will they exhibit? When people work virtually, they don’t have the opportunity to learn the culture and the way things get done. Explicitly help them understand what works and what doesn’t in your organization. How are people expected to behave? How should they be working with others to meet their goals? Sharing stories of how others have been successful is a powerful tool for communicating expectations. It paints a picture of the type of results and behaviors you expect.

Create a game plan. Once you’ve set clear expectations, staying connected and establishing accountability is essential. Specifically discuss which technologies you will employ for different communication needs. Is status best delivered through email? Do you utilize Sharepoint as a repository for different types of documents? How should time sensitive conversations occur? How should the individual communicate with others on the team? When should they make a decision on their own and when should they make sure the two of you talk first? Determine the most effective mix of ‘old’ and ‘new’ technologies.  A client recently shared that their geographically-dispersed sales team is using a private Twitter site to share product information, market intelligence and sales tips in real time. They credit the site with increasing the effectiveness of their sales efforts. Determine what suite of technologies you will use to assess progress against goals. Real-time conversations will be part of it but also consider the use of technologies that allow for asynchronous communication.

Create a feedback and coaching loop. Feedback on performance is most effective when it is timely and about performance that you’ve directly observed. In a virtual world, the ability to physically see someone’s performance is not always possible. Create processes that allow you to gain meaningful information about an individual’s performance. For example, a sales director uses a survey with customers to get input into a sales person’s performance. While she created the survey to get direct feedback from customers who interact with her salespeople in live situations that she is unable to attend, it has created better customer relationships. The customers have told her that they are thrilled to be asked because it allows them to be heard. Also use technology to coach. For example, virtual meeting software could allow a less experienced team member to simulate a client presentation to you, providing you with the opportunity to coach them in real time.

Maintain the relationship. Our first tip was about relationship building. Once you’ve built the relationship, take steps to maintain it. When we primarily use technology to communicate, we often feel like we need to have a reason to communicate.

Develop a culture that says it’s ok to just check in – not check up on – by calling or initiating contact without a specific need. Make it clear that you don’t see this as a sign that someone doesn’t have enough to do. Also, make a point to communicate the positive.

Say thank you, recognize an individual’s achievements and results. If we are in the habit of using technology as a vehicle for only task oriented communication, we miss an opportunity to use it as a vehicle for building capabilities and engagement. Model this behavior with our team and you’ll find that when you do need to communicate because of a specific need, those conversations are more productive.

Effectively leading performance in a virtual world is similar in many ways to effectively leading performance in a more traditional workplace. Leaders need to communicate expectations, monitor behavior and results, and establish an effective relationship so that we can work through the invariable issues and problems that arise. In a virtual world, we have an ever growing toolkit to help leaders be more effective. By understanding how to use each appropriately, leaders can get strong performance in any of the many work arrangements we find today.

Let’s Change the Change Paradigm

“We, as humans, are built for positive disruption.”

That’s how a speaker at a recent virtual conference described change.

Is that how you think about change and disruption?

At about the same time, I read an article in Talent Quarterly by Joe Folkman about research into the push and pull approaches to leading change. When leaders use the push approach, they set a target, and create stretch goals. They then initiate new processes and procedures, and hold people accountable with incentives and discipline. In the pull approach, leaders articulate a north star – a vivid picture of the future. They engage people to adopt it as their goal and lift their aspirations to achieve it. Positive reinforcement helps the organization to accomplish the goal. Until now, I think we’ve relied too heavily on push and too little on pull.

Together, these two thought leaders confirmed something I’ve thought about for a while now. We need to change the change paradigm.

  • We currently define how we think about change into a few common phrases.  Change is hard. People resist change. Change is overwhelming. Change is scary, even when it’s good for us.
  • For decades, we’ve talked about the change acceptance curve  – awareness, questioning, despair, acceptance and, finally, commitment. The curve reinforces those ideas of change being hard and representing loss rather than representing growth and opportunity.
  • I recommend we take the change curve and, literally, flip it on its head, changing the language we use to talk about change.
No alt text provided for this image

This re-envisioned change curve looks at change as growth. When we are learning – experiencing that positive disruption I talked about – we are motivated to master the new rather than pine for the past. For example, when we start walking we don’t look back and miss when we were only able to crawl. When we learn to drive a car we don’t fondly think, “Oh I wish I could go back to only knowing how to ride a bike.” We see change as additive instead of the loss of what we had before.

We start at a place of inexperience.  Because we are inexperienced, we need information, support and encouragement. We need the opportunity to “try things on” and have some ownership of how we integrate the new way into our work and our lives. We see that the end is a worthwhile place to be and we pursue it.

In this paradigm, change is something we embrace and seek. Even when we make mistakes, when the change doesn’t work as anticipated, or we hit roadblocks, it doesn’t mean the change is bad. It doesn’t cause us to stop changing. Go back to the bike analogy. When we are riding our bike too close to a curb, hit the curb and fall off, we don’t decide to never ride a bike again. We pick ourselves up, dust ourselves off, get back on the bike and ride… knowing that next time we’ll avoid that obstacle.

When we think about change this way, we become engaged. We are achieving successes – sometimes small, sometimes large – which are motivating us to pursue more success.  We actively seek out additional opportunities to gain more experience, experiment, and learn. We see value in this new way.

In mastery, what was the change is now completely the normal. And, when we stay at mastery too long, we get bored and it’s time to pursue something that brings us back to that feeling of growth and learning.

And that’s the new paradigm – that we see change first and foremost as growth and opportunity and that when we, as leaders, engage people in that way, change is interesting, exciting and something to be pursued.

Why is it so hard to get my organization to change? And what to do about it.

Why is it so hard to get my organization to change?

You know that change is hard. You’ve experienced it. Often, leaders feel that, with all the day-to-day demands on them, they just don’t have the time to be working on how to get to the future. It could be that the team is faced with a challenge so complex that it seems un-manageable, so they don’t face it head-on. Or it can simply be that assumption that people really don’t want to change.

Close-Up Radio

Recently, I had the pleasure of spending 30-minutes with Jim Masters on the difficulty of change and related topics. We also talked about what leaders and organizations need to do to thrive through continual change, why we call our firm NextBridge and how I came to this place in my career.

Listen to the interview.

What role does purpose play in being agile?

Being agile means asking people to step out of their comfort zone and into uncertainty. That can be a scary proposition. Purpose is the north star of an agile organization. Purpose creates the guardrails for action.

Trends, Bends and Opportunities

Dr. Loren Murfield, Pat Lynch and I discuss this topic and how to create agility in your organization. This daily Facebook Live podcast is a learning opportunity that helps you navigate your business in a rapidly changing environment. We discussed practical information everyone can use today to build agility and stay ahead of the competition.

Are You Ready for What’s Next?

As of today, 48 of the 50 U.S. states are ‘re-opening’. Massachusetts, one of the last to take the step, has decided to begin a phased re-opening next week.
I’m curious about what you envisioned re-opening would be like when we all starting staying home about 8 weeks ago. Until recently, I’ve been so focused on trying to master the current reality that I hadn’t given it enough thought. But now, my focus is mostly on the future.
Right now, we have Zoom fatigue and would welcome being able to focus only on work instead of our work, kids, dogs and parents. That said, we’ve settled into this way of making it work and, dare I say it, it feels sort of normal. But as our workplaces start to think about re-opening, we should acknowledge that re-opening won’t put an end to leading through disruption. Going back to our workplaces is going to be disruptive all over again. Soon many of us will be pulled from our current uneasy normal into the next one. Who will go back first? When will I go back? How will that be determined and how do I help my team manage all of this?
In addition, when we go back to our workplace, they won’t be the same place we left. Some, perhaps many, of our colleagues will no longer be working. We may have to go through screening on top of badging in to get into the building. Only a small percentage of us may be allowed in our offices at any given time. Hand sanitizer and overnight sanitizing will be de rigueur. And, how exactly will we all have socially distant meetings in some of those small conference rooms?
When you’re leading your teams through this next transition, remember that you have some resources and tools to rely on – like our 10 Tips For Leading During Disruption. It won’t be leadership as usual when you walk back into the office. There will be new and different challenges. When you find you need support, reach out and let us know how we can help you.
“Edith is working with us during a pivotal time for our company. Her pragmatic approach, ability to understand our business and people, along with her deep expertise in leadership and change make her my go-to call for critical, highly-visible initiatives.”
— Marcus Tgettis, most recently Vice President of Talent
Sage Therapeutics

Silver Linings of Covid 19

We are about a month into widespread WFH (work from home). As people tend to do during significant change, we notice the things that we are missing – our favorite lunch restaurants, seeing colleagues and friends without social distancing, and the opportunity to go to the office.
During my conversations with a number of leaders over the past couple of weeks, it’s been interesting to hear about some of the positive impacts the new way of working is having on them and their teams. They are simple but powerful examples of how leaders and their teams are responding to challenges.  Here are a few:
  •   A much deeper connection with each other. Leaders and members of their teams are starting conversations by asking, very genuinely, ‘how are you?’ It’s no longer a throw away greeting we use with each other. Communication is more frequent and it’s not just about the work. Leaders are finding and sharing the innovative ways in which they are creating connection with their team.  One shared that he interviews a member of his team each week and shares their bio with the entire team on Fridays. He said he talks to some of these people all the time and now knows them on a completely different level. Teams are building in other ways to have fun and strengthen connections and trust – trivia Tuesday, times to share something silly they did as a child, and so many more.
  • Intentional communication. Leaders are having short stand-up meetings at the start or end of every day to talk about what’s going on, issues that have arisen and what is on the horizon. These meetings are helping teams become more united because they are continually discussing common purpose and creating greater awareness of what each other are accomplishing, struggling with, and how they can support one another. Several leaders have shared with me the frequent check-ins they have with their teams. They are asking people if they are getting what they need, what else they can do and how they can improve the way they are working together. They are hearing that their teams are communicating more frequently and effectively than they ever have. One leader uses a survey to check-in. His team gave the current way they are working a 4.9 out of 5.0 and said they need to talk about how they continue communicating and collaborating this way once they are co-located again.
  • Greater agility. Working remotely when other members of your household who are doing the same or your children are home from school or daycare, creates distractions. Learning to use meeting tools like Zoom or Microsoft Teams is new to some people and sometimes the technology is overloaded, so you can’t work as planned. Leaders and teams are being more agile in how they’re approaching the work — readily sharing best practices, calibrating expectations, creating alternate approaches in the moment,  laughing when someone’s cat walks across the keyboard, or understanding when you have to step away from a meeting for a few minutes because the 3 year-old needs something.
Even with all the positives, we are all still adapting. One area where people are struggling is how to make sure work doesn’t take over their lives (or at least anymore than it had prior to the pandemic). Most leaders have told me that it’s difficult for them and their teams to turn work off.  It’s easy to lose track of time – you aren’t catching a train, getting in your car, or seeing that everyone else has left the office. It’s just you and your laptop. You can just keep working or go back to it after dinner or before breakfast.
One solution to this challenge is to create a visual signal – for yourself and others you work with – that you’ve ended your work day.  It could be a simple “I’m signing off now” text. One leader I know has a brief team call right around 5:00 or so which has become the signal that they are done for the day. Physically putting your laptop away, shutting off the desktop, or closing the ‘home office’ door are other signals you could use.
No one is glad the coronavirus has changed our world. But we must and we are finding ways to rise to the challenge. The real silver lining is that the pandemic has forced us to become more agile in ways that will pay dividends long after things return to “normal.”
What are you doing with your teams to help them adjust, be more flexible and remain productive in these difficult times? I’d like to hear from you. Please email me at e.onderick-harvey@nextbridgeconsulting.com

What’s Next? Saving 2020

Congratulations on getting through the past three weeks! We’ve just been through the early days of the biggest social and economic disruption of the last 50 years. We don’t have a rule book, so we’ve been figuring it out as we go along.

Honestly, many of us have been focused solely on what’s in front of us, on what’s happening today and tomorrow. That’s completely normal in this kind of situation. Unfortunately, that’s not enough. These aren’t normal times. Now that we’ve started to settle in, we should be asking ourselves “Now what?”

We need to be thinking about how we will pivot to save Q2, where we need to be six months from now, and how we will be ready to succeed when we are at the next new normal. 

It’s not either focus on today or focus on what’s ahead. We need to do both – focus on today and prepare for what’s next.

Managing that balance – between today and the future – doesn’t have to be a daunting task. Engaging your team for just a few hours a week to start with will have a huge payoff. Emotionally, it will help people feel there is a greater purpose. They will have a sense of control over the future. It will also give your business a significant competitive advantage. You will be positioned and ready to restart as soon as you’re able, putting you ahead of the game.

Here are some ideas to get you started: 

1. Set Expectations. Tell everyone that we all are responsible for adapting as rapidly as possible to changes – not just as individuals but as a team and a business. Survival and future success depends on it. We are all in this together.

2. Keep Everyone Focused on the customer, employees and what they can control.

3. Engage Everyone In the Conversation. Certain people may carry through on the tasks that come out of the conversations, but great ideas will come from everywhere.

4. Set up a cadence for communication. What was your cadence up to this point for team and individual meetings. Keep that. What else do you need to add? This is a rapidly changing situation. At a minimum, daily updates, should be the norm until the pace of disruption slows down. The length of the updates can change, but the regularity shouldn’t change abruptly.

5. Ask Pivot Questions. These questions get us out of our normal way of thinking about a situation. They could be questions like:

  • What if we could start from scratch? What would we do?
  • What are our customers going to need when the economy rebounds?
  • How would someone in another industry approach this
  • Why this and not that?
  • If you were CEO /head of the business unit / functional EVP for one day, what would you do?
  • What are our assumptions? What is the complete opposite?

6. Develop Potential Scenarios based on answers to the questions.

7. Create a Regular Cadence of future-focused conversations – at least once a week for an hour.

This situation isn’t permanent. It will end, even if it doesn’t feel that way. But it will be different. You and your team should start creating that future now.

Are you ready to focus on what’s next? Do you need some help figuring out how to get your teams to pivot?

Call us at 1.978.475.8424 or email us: e.onderickharvey@nextbridgeconsulting.com.

10 Tips to Help Your Team in a Disrupted Environment

Coronavirus is creating more disruption than many of us have ever experienced. It impacts our personal lives and professional lives. It’s doing the same for everyone around us. The situation changes daily with closings, cancellations, and now, decisions to have many people work from home.

Working from home may be a new way of working for some people or old hat for others.  Either way, it’s now a reality for everyone. Here are some tips to help you successfully lead your team as they adjust to working in a new way, in a new location, in a world of disruption.

1. Reflect. how are you feeling about what is going on? How do you feel about the remote work? In times of uncertainty, your team largely will calibrate their response to the uncertainty based on your response. Set up routines for yourself to help you ‘keep calm and carry on.’

2. Show empathy. people are experiencing everything from minor concern to outright fear, not to mention disruption on multiple fronts. In addition, people may not be able to create the most productive work environment. Schools may close. They may have older relatives they need to check in on. Their ability to shut it all out may be taxed. Talk about Feelings First.

3. Move off email, communicate real time. Even in the most email-driven organizations, we see each other all the time. When everyone is remote, we don’t. Relying only on email can feel isolating. Pick up the phone. Get on Skype. Make a live connection.

4. Set up a cadence for communication. What was your cadence up to this point for team and individual meetings. Keep that. What else do you need to add? This is a rapidly changing situation. At a minimum, daily updates, should be the norm until the pace of disruption slows down. The length of the updates can change, but the regularity shouldn’t change abruptly.

5. Check-in, 1-on-1. do personal check-ins with each person. Make sure they are adjusting well and have what they need to succeed. Ask questions. Actively listen.

6. Collaboratively create contingency plans. There are lots of unknowns and risks right now.  What contingencies might your team need? For example, how will the team adjust if members become ill and are out for several days? What if someone has an ill family member they need to care for? Working collaboratively on these plans will create buy-in and better solutions.

7. Create a virtual break room.  Create ways that team members can catch up with each other and chat. It can be as simple as having each other’s cell phone numbers to send texts, hop on Skype/Facetime or actually call each other.

8. Focus on engagement. It’s really easy to feel disconnected when everyone is remote.  Key drivers of engagement are helping people feel they are part of something bigger, the ability to make progress and feel competent, and the ability to make decisions about how one works. Make sure your team members are feeling good about these factors.

9. Break the tension. This entire situation can be nerve wracking.  If your team is not dealing directly with the health crisis, building in some fun could help bring some relief.  A silly contest, posting pictures of your ‘home office’(which may be the kitchen table!), a rotating responsibility to share a dad joke everyday could be just what the team needs.

10. Review the week. Whether on shared drive, Slack, or a live meeting, review the week with everyone. What did we accomplish? What issues are we having? How is our communication cadence working? How is everyone feeling?

One of your goals is to create a level of predictability for your team in a highly unpredictable situation. The more quickly you can use some of these tips consistently, the quicker you will all create a rhythm that works for your team.

Do you need some help getting your head wrapped around what to do with your group, specifically? Do you want someone to help your group exceed expectations in a very difficult environment? Call Edith at 1.978.475.8424 or email her at e.onderick-harvey@nextbridgeconsulting.com.

Feelings First

When I’m facilitating leadership development workshops or coaching executives, I often find that participants – who are often very high performing individuals —  really struggle with how to handle emotions that arise during important conversations.  I’m not even talking about those really difficult situations where someone has an angry outburst or is crying in their office.  I’m talking about the conversations that happen every day.  It may be those times when a new mandate comes down from corporate that causes disruption and frustration.  It can be when the individual has made a mistake.  It’s when deadlines are tight, and tension and stress run high.

For many of these leaders, the natural reaction is to jump in and act, to focus on tasks, figuring out what needs to be done move things forward or fix the situation.  The problem with this approach is that the emotions get in the way.  Until someone feels their emotions are recognized and addressed, it’s challenging to just push through or get on with it.

We need to start those conversations with empathy. Empathy is the ability to understand the other person’s experience, perspectives and feelings.  These five tips can help you become more comfortable with and skilled at putting feelings first:

Check in on yourself How do you feel about engaging with you team members about their emotions related to work situations? Are you aware of what you naturally do when presented with others’ emotions?  Do you go right to task?  Do you just try to avoid the conversation until the emotions go away?  Are you naturally empathic?  The starting point for increasing your empathy is to start with understanding yourself.

Increase your social awareness.  How good are you at picking up on how people are feeling?  It comes naturally to some people and is difficult for others.  One way to do this is be present in the conversation with the person.  Don’t be thinking about the meeting you just had or what is on your to-do list.  Do a gut check with yourself.  Are you completely focused on this individual and this conversation right now?  This can take practice. If this is a development area for you, keep practicing.

Recognize the emotions the person is feeling.  Call out what the individual is experiencing.  Say something like “that sounds really frustrating” or  “these deadlines are stressful.  I’m not surprised that you feel overwhelmed.”  Many times, people feel like their emotions aren’t recognized enough, especially at work.  Speaking to the emotions will help the person feel those emotions are important.

If you don’t know how they’re feeling, ask.  Rather than shying away from emotions, ask about them.  A simple question like “how are you doing with the change that was just announced?”

Recognize when someone feels really good about something that you may need to say no to.  To this point, my tips have focused on negative emotions. Sometimes people come to us with really positive emotions connected with something that can’t move forward.  Rather than simply telling them it can’t be done and why it can’t be done, recognize the positive they see in it.  Saying something like “I can see why you would be really excited about that idea.  Unfortunately, we can’t move forward with that for two reasons.”  This recognition of  how they feel will keep the individual from feeling embarrassed or unrecognized by having an idea turned down.  Also, remember:  do NOT use the word “but” after you recognize it. The word ‘but’ is interpreted as nullifying everything said before it.

By recognizing emotions that impact how people are feeling about their work, their team and the work environment, you can then more effectively move to the task at hand.

The Listening Post

Most leaders I know have a degree of comfort talking about the nuts and bolts of change – things like what’s going to change, what process is being put in place to make it happen, and when it will happen. This article shifts the focus from “what the change is” to “how are we doing with it?” That makes most leaders a lot more uncomfortable.

However, don’t despair. There’s a structured approach you can use with your team to discuss how change is affecting them and how they, in turn, can affect change. It’s called The Listening Post.

Here’s an excerpt from my 2019 article “5 Ways to Help Your Team Be Open to Change” that originally appeared in the April 3 edition of Harvard Business Review online.

Change stirs up emotional responses that often cause people to pull back rather than to lean in. Inspiring and enabling your team to affect change requires having conversations that move people from reaction to action. Try having 30-minute meetings to discuss both the emotions related to change and the actions participants can take to affect change. I call these “listening posts.” Listening posts were originally facilities that monitored radio and microwave signals to analyze their content. Like that original definition, your listening post can help you understand key information, and can help others take action. Listening posts consist of:

  • Table setting: Define the purpose of the meeting for your team. Encourage them to discuss how change is affecting them. For example, “We’re here to talk about the change we are experiencing and understand how it’s impacting you personally and us as a team.” Invite everyone to define actions that the group will take to influence how change is happening.
  • Listening: Encourage individuals to start the conversation by sharing their experiences by using metaphors or adjectives. This gives them a safe way to talk about emotions. Share your metaphor first to break the ice. For example, you may feel like a juggler trying to keep all the balls in the air. Share that with your team. As people share their metaphors, remember to listen for who is dissenting or significantly challenged by the change. The voice of the outlier can provide key insights.
  • Consolidating: Ask the team what common themes they are hearing. Use questions like, “What does it seem like we all have in common? What is different for each of us?” Summarize key themes and confirm what you’ve heard.
  • Acting: Identify actions. These ideas need to come from the team, with you as the facilitator. Ask questions like, “What do we control, or can we influence?” “How do we want to change this?” “What role will each of you play in making this happen?”

Two things to keep in mind about this approach:

1)  Your honesty and candor about change will set the tone for this conversation.If your metaphor is that you are skating on smooth ice, your team will not feel like they can share their challenges and real feelings. If you are completely on-board and having an easy time of it, save your metaphor for last.

2)  When talking about actions, be neutral in how you discuss any corporate mandates.  Phrase them in terms of what is controllable and how your team can make decisions that affect change. For example, if people are frustrated by the change in priorities from the organization, you can say something like “Yes, the organization is shifting priorities based on what they see as critical business needs. We can’t change that. What we can decide is how we will shift our work to support those priorities. Let’s review what we have on our plates right now and make some decisions.” This response reaffirms that everyone does have some control in this situation and enables the team to make decisions about how they can move forward.

Would love to hear how you engage your teams in dialogue to move them from reacting to change to acting to make change. Let me know at info@nextbridgeconsulting.com.

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.