Leading with Trust

Too Many Priorities? 3 Tips to Focus on What Matters Most

overwhelmed-350x350Do you feel like you have too many priorities to accomplish at work? Yeah, me too. It seems to be all the rage these days, although I think most of us would rather not be part of this popular cultural trend. Most professionals I speak with struggle with the same sort of issues: the rapid pace of change, tight organizational budgets that force us to do more with less, and trying to encourage the growth and development of our team members in flat organizations with limited mobility.

I took on an increased scope of responsibility this year, and as the year winds down and I reflect on how I invested my time and energy, I’ve realized my focus was diffused over too many competing priorities. It left me a bit unsatisfied with my level of effectiveness, so I want to enter 2017 with a renewed focus on channeling my efforts into the most important activities that will drive the highest levels of impact.

If you find yourself in the same boat as me, then maybe you can benefit from the following three steps I’m going to take to renew my focus in the coming year:

Acknowledge you’re not serving yourself or your team—It took me awhile to recognize this truth. I kept expecting the white water of change to smooth out at some point, and when that happened, I’d be able to refocus and feel more in control of my efforts. News Flash—change isn’t going to stop! The constant pace of change makes it even more important to be crystal clear on your top priorities. Having a fewclear priorities gives you the flexibility to deal with new ones as they arise without causing you to drown in a sea of work. You, and your team, deserves your full attention and focus. Taking on too much dilutes your leadership effectiveness.

Assess where to focus your energy—We need to focus our leadership on the most important areas that will have the greatest impact on our teams and organizations. Looking at importance and impact through the lens of a 2 x 2 grid can help us decide which priorities deserve our focus.

Obviously, our primary focus should be on those initiatives that are of the highest importance and carry the most impact. A prerequisite is to first determine what important and impact means for your particular situation. Your definition of important and impact will likely differ from mine depending on the needs of your team or organization. But whatever activities qualify for this quadrant, that’s your sweet spot. That’s where you add the most value as a leader.

The opposing quadrant, low importance/low impact, are activities you need to discard or delegate. Those are the projects that don’t warrant your time and attention. Getting rid of these activities can be challenging. They may be something you personally enjoy doing, are impact-vs-importancefun, and may have even served an important purpose at one time. If these activities still carry a modicum of importance and impact, delegate them to someone who can make them his/her primary focus. If not, jettison them. They’re holding you back.

The toughest ones to figure out are the other two quadrants: high impact/low importance and high importance/low impact. These require analysis and decision-making. If the activity provides a high level of impact, but isn’t that important, you have to ask yourself why that’s the case. To help you make a decision, estimate the return on investment if you devote your energy to this activity. If the ROI is there (the impact makes it worth doing), delegate it to someone who can make it a primary focus. If the ROI isn’t there, discard it.

If an activity is important but carries low impact, it’s likely something that isn’t urgent but needs attention at some point in time. Prioritize these activities, get them scheduled out, and/or assign them to someone else to manage. These activities are important, but you have to keep your primary focus on those activities that are of higher importance and carry greater impact.

Act—This is the final step. Using the criteria above, you have to take action and make decisions about where to invest your time and energy. You may have to give up some pet projects in lieu of other initiatives that warrant more of your leadership focus. It may also involve some uncomfortable changes for your team members. Perhaps you may need to realign reporting lines or restructure your team to help you, and them, focus on the most important and impactful areas of the business. This isn’t a one and done process. Throughout the year you’ll need to periodically reassess your priorities and make necessary adjustments.

Feel free to leave a comment with your reactions or additional thoughts on how you handle the challenge of focusing your energies on the activities that drive the most value.

Depressed Over Losing a Star Player? Consider These 5 Benefits

star-playerA few years back my team underwent a tremendous amount of change as several of our long-term, star players moved on to other opportunities both in and outside the organization. For several years the composition of my team had remained relatively stable, but we entered a new phase of growth, which was both scary and exciting. It seemed like each day I was having the old Abbott and Costello “Who’s on first?” conversation with my managers, as we tried to sort out who was going, who was staying, and how we were going to get our work done.

It’s easy to get discouraged when top performers leave your team. The immediate reaction is often to look at all the challenges that lay ahead — How do we replace the intellectual capital that’s walking out the door? Who is going to cover the work while we hire replacements? Will the new hires be able to match the productivity and contributions of the previous employees? All those questions swirl through your mind as you ponder the endless hours you’re going to have to invest in recruiting, interviewing, hiring, and training new team members.

Rather than being discouraged, I get energized and look forward to the future because the long-term benefits outweigh the short-term difficulties. Here’s five benefits I see to losing top performers:

1. It proves you’re doing something right. Huh? Doesn’t it mean that something must be wrong with your leadership or team dynamics if you’re losing your top people? Well, if you’re a toxic leader and your team’s morale and performance is in the tank, then yes, there’s something wrong. But if you’re doing a good job of leading it means you’re hiring the right talent and developing them to high performance. I take pride in knowing that other leaders see the immense talent I have on my team and they want to hire them away.

2. Your team is better off for their contributions. The contributions of my star players have helped raise the level of professionalism, productivity, and capability of my team over the last several years. They have redefined what “normal” performance looks like and we’ll be looking to existing team members and our new hires to reach that same level. We are better off for having them on our team and I believe they are better off for having been on our team.

3. It provides a chance for existing team members to step up. Losing valuable contributors is an opportunity for other team members to step up their game, either by moving into higher levels of responsibility or by taking on short-term duties to cover the gap. When you have several high-performers on a team, it’s easy for other valuable team members to get buried on the depth-chart (to use a football metaphor). Losing a star player allows second-team players to step into the limelight and prove their capabilities.

4. You can bring in new blood. Having long-term, high-performers on your team brings stability and continuity. However, stability and continuity can easily become routine and complacency if you aren’t careful. Hiring new people brings fresh perspective, a jolt of energy, and a willingness to try new things you haven’t done before. Teams are living organisms and living entities are always growing and changing. I see this as a new era to bring in a fresh crop of star players that will raise our performance to even higher levels.

5. It facilitates needed change. Bringing in new team members is a great time to address broader changes in your business. You have new people who aren’t conditioned to existing work processes, systems, or ways of running your business. They aren’t yet infected with the “that’s the way we’ve always done it around here” virus that tends to infiltrate groups that stay together for a long time. It’s a time to capitalize on the strengths and ideas of new team members to help you take your business to new heights.

Losing high-performers is never easy but it doesn’t have to be devastating. I’m grateful to have worked with star players that are moving on to other challenges and I’m excited about developing a new wave of top performers that will lead us in the years ahead. It’s time for change…Bring it!

Focus On The 7 Minutes, Not The 2 Seconds – 3 Leadership Lessons From Skydiving

skydiverBarbara was coming up on a milestone birthday and decided she wanted to do something adventurous and out of the norm to celebrate the occasion. So why not go skydiving? That certainly fits the bill. Her daughter Courtney, a manager on my team, went along and the two had a fantastic experience.

I knew from previous conversations with Courtney that she was unafraid of jumping out of a perfectly fine airplane. She doesn’t have much of a sense of fear. So when I had the chance recently to speak to Barbara, I was curious to learn her perspective. I asked her if she was afraid or nervous leading up to her skydiving adventure. Barbara said the only time she started to feel anxious was when she thought about actually jumping from the plane. Then she added what I thought was a profound insight: “So instead of focusing on the two seconds of fear of leaving the plane, I chose to focus on how fantastic it would feel to fly through the air for seven minutes.”

Thinking about Barbara’s insights has caused me to draw a few interesting parallels to leading in challenging or fearful circumstances.

1. Your focus determines your reality—Barbara intentionally kept her focus on the seven minutes of fun and joy she would experience as she floated to earth under a safe parachute rather than the fear and panic that arose inside of her when thinking about jumping from the airplane. The principle is the same for leaders facing situations that conjure up feelings of fear. We can choose where to place our focus: on what causes us fear or on what the benefits will be if we act with courage. When facing challenging situations, focus on what you can control, not on what you can’t. Focusing on what you can’t control only leads to worry, anxiety, and fear, whereas focusing on what you can control makes you feel empowered and purposeful.

2. Acknowledge your fear but don’t let it rule you—Fear is a normal response. Sometimes it’s a helpful warning sign that assists us in making decisions to protect ourselves. Many times, however, we experience fear in anticipation of a particular situation or outcome and it causes us to stop dead in our tracks before we even get started. If Barbara had let the fear of jumping from the plane hold her back, she never would have experienced the thrill of skydiving. The next time you feel fear rearing its ugly head, step back and try to view it dispassionately. Step outside of yourself and acknowledge what you’re feeling but also look at it logically. Understand what needs to be learned from your fear but don’t give it more credit than what is due. Be prudent, be smart, think things through…but don’t let fear rule your life.

3. Approach challenges with openness and positivity—There are many factors that shape how we typically respond to challenges in life. Some of these factors are largely out of our control: personality, temperament, and early childhood experiences, just to name a few. However, there is one factor completely under our control: our attitude. We can choose what kind of attitude we have in the face of challenges. We can choose to be fearful and resistant, or we can choose to be open and positive. Approaching challenges with openness and positivity opens the door to learning and growth, both essential characteristics of successful leaders.

I don’t know about you, but I don’t have a burning desire to jump out of an airplane and parachute back to earth. However, after talking with Barbara, I have a better picture of how I could get beyond my fear of skydiving if that was ever a challenge I wanted to tackle. But there are plenty of other challenges I face as a leader and I’ll be relying on these three principles to help me approach them in a more positive, empowering, and healthy way.

Do these principles ring true to you? Feel free to leave a comment and share your perspective.

The Single Biggest Difference Between Leaders and Managers

leaders-vs-managersI’m not dogmatic when it comes to distinguishing the difference between leadership and management. In fact, I think the difference between leadership and management is often over-exaggerated. I’m sure you’re familiar with the common refrains:

  • Leaders do the right thing; managers do things right
  • Leaders lead people; managers manage work
  • Leaders establish the vision; managers implement it
  • Leaders are originals; managers are copies
  • Leaders have a long-range perspective; managers have a short-term view
  • Leaders inspire and motivate; managers plan, organize, and coordinate

I could list a dozen more but you get the picture. Yes, there is a kernel of truth in these statements. There are certain activities that are more germane to one function or the other, but by and large, the practice of leadership and management overlap significantly. Leaders have to manage and managers have to lead. We have to learn to do them both well because they are much more similar than they are different.

Having said that, I do believe there is one key mindset that distinguishes someone as a leader versus a manager. Notice I personalized it—being a leader versus a manager. Regardless of whether your formal position or job title classifies you as a leader or manager, it’s your mindset, and the resulting behaviors, that identify you as one or the other.

So what is the key mindset that distinguishes someone as a leader instead of a manager? It’s this:

Leaders proactively initiate change to improve the organization, whereas managers deal with change on a reactive basis.

Leaders display a desire to consistently make things better. They aren’t content to maintain the status quo just because “that’s the way we’ve always done it around here.” Leaders frequently question the way their business operates, with an eye toward making things simpler, better, easier, or more efficient. When was the last time you asked questions like:

  • Why are we doing it that way?
  • What would happen if we stopped doing that?
  • How can we reduce this process by ___? (fill in the blank…number of steps, people, amount of time, etc.)

Let’s face it, having this leadership mindset can be tough for many people (which is why there are many more managers than leaders). Change can be threatening, especially when it calls into question activities or functions your team may handle. It raises fears that you may have to disrupt your well-oiled machine, learn new ways of doing your work, or may even eliminate some roles or responsibilities for you group. Adopting this leadership mindset means you have to be more concerned about the organization’s performance than the comfort of your own team.

Although I think the distinctions between leadership and management often get blown out of proportion, I do believe there are a few key behaviors that distinguish someone as a leader versus a manager. Chief among them is proactively initiating change to make your organization better. In this regard, are you being a leader or a manager?

Fire an Employee or Give Him Another Chance? Consider These 9 Factors

You're FiredAny leader who has let an employee go knows how excruciating it can be to make that decision. It’s one of the most difficult decisions a leader must make. Given the gravity of the decision, it’s not surprising that most leaders put it off to the bitter end. We like to hold out hope that with a little more discussion, time, or effort the employee can turn things around.

Sometimes our hope isn’t based in reality. It’s based in our desire of what we hope will happen, says Dr. Henry Cloud in his book Necessary Endings. Cloud points out leaders need to have objective reasons to hold out hope that the future performance of an employee is going to be better than the past. No matter how many times the employee says “I’ll do better next time,” or “I’m sorry,” or “I am committed this time,” hard evidence is needed to suggest something will change in his performance. Cloud encourages leaders to have a “reason to believe” an employee can or will improve and he offers the nine objective reasons listed below. I found them extremely helpful and think you will too:

  1. Verifiable Involvement in a Proven Change Process – If the employee is willing to commit to coaching, mentoring, or some other proven process that could help change his behavior, then there is reason to hope his performance has a chance of improving. Many times all it takes is an objective third-party to help a poor performer see what he can’t see for himself.
  2. Additional Structure – By and large, Cloud says, people don’t change without some sort of structure. It’s hard to rewrite old patterns in our brain and we need a detailed structure to help us create new brain patterns. What new structure would you put in place to ensure the employee’s behavior or performance changes?
  3. Monitoring Systems – You know the old saying: “What gets measured gets managed.” To have objective hope that someone is going to improve, it’s necessary to have a monitoring system in place to evaluate their progress over time.
  4. New Experiences and Skills – Sometimes a person’s performance is suffering because he lacks the skills necessary to succeed in the role. The leader needs to determine if the employee is capable of learning the new skills, and if so, give the employee the chance to improve. If the employee has been given all the training necessary and still isn’t performing, then it would be foolish to expect more is going to help.
  5. Self-sustaining Motivation – In case you haven’t yet learned, you really can’t motivate anyone. You can work to create an environment where a person’s motivation can flourish, but at the end of the day, the person has to be self-motivated. Cloud suggests leaders look at how much they have to drive the process. If you’re doing all the work to get the employee to improve and he’s just along for the ride, then it’s clear who has the problem. It’s not the employee; it’s you.
  6. Admission of Need – When you address performance problems with the employee, does he recognize and admit the need for improvement, or is there always an excuse or someone to blame? It’s virtually impossible to help someone improve his performance if he doesn’t recognize the need.
  7. The Presence of Support – It’s essential that a person is given support during a change process. A person who is committed to working on improving his performance would benefit from being surrounded by other high performers who model the behavior the struggling employee is desiring to achieve.
  8. Skilled Help – For there to be real hope for the future, Cloud points out there must be someone in the circle of help who knows what he is doing. Coaching, mentoring, or peer-to-peer help can be great, but the people providing the help need to be qualified and have a solid track record of success.
  9. Some Success – Change takes time and leaders need to have patience while the employee works to improve his performance. But there also has to be movement forward. The leader needs to see the employee making positive strides in the right direction. Only the leader can determine the right amount of time to give a person to show signs of success, but there should be some sort of definitive timeline to the development plan.

It’s hard for leaders to give up hope an employee can improve. But if our hope isn’t based on the reality of the employee’s performance, we end up doing ourselves and the employee a disservice by not addressing the truth. These nine factors provide an objective way for leaders to decide whether they need to let a poor performer go or if there is hope for improvement.

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