Would It Kill You to Stop Doing That?

  — It’s faster to just stop doing stupid shit

Annulla, Brooklyn creativecommons.org /licenses/by-sa/2.0/

The title above is from a book of the same name by Henry Alford, who tries to showcase the purpose and principles of this modern guide to manners — and what’s happened to them in our crazy-fast, interconnected culture. A major premise of his book is for us to know the things we should stop doing, hence the name.

And damn, is it appropriate for leadership success.

When coaching clients, there’s only a couple of ways to help them become demonstrably better at leading: Start doing things they haven’t been doing or Stop doing things they shouldn’t be doing.

In my experience, it’s infinitely easier – and a hell of a lot faster – to stop doing something than it is to learn, internalize and demonstrate a new behavior.

Why? Well, it’s likely some simple human-behavior-psychology mumbo-jumbo or such, but for me, it’s mostly just common sense. For instance:

There’s just too many of them. When your leadership scope is significant, there’s just too many of ‘em. You can stop doing something that everyone knows is a bonehead behavior, or you can ask 100-10,000 people what new change they would like to see in you and get potentially 1,000 distinct answers.

Are you ready to execute to 1,000 new behavior changes? I’m sure as hell not.

Much simpler to work at stopping the 1-2 less-than-positive behaviors we identified in our 360 survey; the results are usually consistent, and we get credit for trying, even if we don’t eliminate the behavior completely.

It ain’t baggage if you don’t carry it around.

All leaders are lugging around various pieces of baggage from our past – some real, some perceived. Some are small carry-on, under-the-seat sized; others are honkin’-big valet-carried, excess-weight, $75 checked bags.

Either way, it’s easier to jettison that baggage – knowing you won’t have to lug it anymore – than to try and make everyone forget about the baggage with new smoke and mirrors.

And finally,

It’s like kids eating their vegetables. They don’t want to, but they’ll do it — but only because they have to, and mainly just to stay out of trouble.

Convincing some leaders to do new things is equally hard. Many times, they think others will see them as “soft,” or worse, “weak.” Other times, they may feel like they’re giving in to the entitlement mentality (don’t even get me started on how ubiquitous across all generations that can be).

Then there are the test-drives – trying out new behaviors, multiple times on multiple people, all to see if it works for them.

On the other hand, simply refraining from doing something seems altogether easier, and feels more like altering others’ perceptions than changing their personal, specific behaviors.

It’s a win all around.

Finally, no “Stop It” commentary can possibly be published without mention of Bob Newhart’s famous Stop It skit from Saturday Night Live. I use it with most of my coaching clients, and I’s funny as hell. A keeper.

In changing your leadership impact now – immediately – today – focus on what you can stop doing, allowing yourself the time to add “start doing” behaviors over time.

That’s a Honkin’ Big Tail!

  — Be careful how you swing it…

A couple of years or so ago, I wrote an article about what you lose when you ascend into senior leadership (especially CXO-level). You may gain a lot – dinero, status, authority, new biz cards, etc. – but you also lose a few things. One of those things I wrote about was your ability to merely suggest.

You lose that right when you join the senior leader ranks, since your suggestions will almost always be implemented – much to your feigned shock. Your suggestions sound like, well, more than just suggestions. And even if they didn’t, it’s easy to draw a line between your suggestions and “I thought that’s what you wanted,” and making the boss happy is a small price to pay to get you out of my hair or off my ass.

Oops, did I say that last line out loud?

It’s true, though, that your suggestions sound less like spit-balling, brain-storming or thinking out loud, and more like “Here’s what you should do.” It just is – deal with it.

There’s also that big, honkin’ tail you lug around behind you.

You know what I mean.

Abrupt changes in direction from your position create massive movements, ripples, and gnashing of teeth at every level below you on that chiseled-in-sand org chart of yours. You unilaterally make what you think is a minor course correction, and that “tail” of yours causes plans to shift, objectives to be altered, directives to be rescinded, even people to be hired or fired.

That’s some big tail.

Back in the days when we could travel… <sigh>, people wearing backpacks on their backs while navigating airplane aisles would irritate the crap out of me. Like a protruding shell on a turtle’s back, these ignoramuses would whip around to talk to someone or eyeball an open overhead bin, oblivious to the carnage being caused by that rip-stop nylon bulge affixed just above their butt.

That suitcase-sized lump on their back acted just like that senior leader tail I mention above. Ignorant of the impact to others, whipping around that tail can cause damage far greater than just a pissed off couple of passengers in first class.

And don’t think for a minute that, as long as you don’t change course quickly, the tail is harmless. Just having that tail causes consternation. A couple of real-world examples:

You want to go visit the office in Dubuque. Your regional VP calls the office ahead of you, tells them you’re coming, and to “get the place cleaned up.”

That honklin’ big tail of yours…

You stroll down the hall, feeling generous since there’s a hole in your schedule, deciding now would be a good time to have a little personal chat with another senior leader. You poke your head in, ask if she’s got a minute, and 30 minutes later you leave, content that you’ve nurtured the relationship and shown that you care.

In reality, you just cost her 30 minutes she’ll never get back and was probably planning on using for something meaningful.

But your damned honkin’ big tail got in the way.

I don’t tell you these things so you’ll intentionally avoid making priority shifts, course corrections or plan changes. I don’t do it so you won’t go to Dubuque or take some time to chat with another senior leader about softball schedules and their secret stash of Blanton’s.

Just realize, there’s this honkin’ big tail behind you, and take the swath it makes into account when you do these things. Understand that, try as you might, that thing is going to swing wide in your wake, and create some turbulence no matter how much you wish it to be different.

Be aware, acknowledge the impact, and be prepared for (and demand) lots of inputs from those affected.

Both before and after swinging that thing.

Sort of a “Tail Mitigation Initiative.” TMI for short.

And after thinking about the backpack bozos on United, maybe I don’t really miss traveling after all…

Client Covidians, circa 2020

As the consultant, I’m supposed to offer advice, coaching and counsel to my clients. They pay me to bring a concentrated expertise and specific judgment that likely don’t exist in their organization.

But there goes another year-end, and I have to say I learned a ton from my clients this past year. Some of it completely useless and won’t be shared here (you know who you are); other morsels of wisdom have been found to be surprisingly valuable, and I thought I’d share those tidbits with you today.

2020 Lessons Learned from my Clients – the Top 10:

  1. With no proven experts, all inputs matter. I don’t care who you are, how much you’ve learned since March or how others are fawning over your apparently newfound wisdom. No one knew shit about a pandemic when this started. No one had a roadmap for dealing with all the drama, the virus, the social distancing, masks and so on. So, since no one knew anything, we took input from everyone. Admittedly, some input turned out to be snake oil. But the fact we asked and listened to everyone – from college kids to CEOs, and everyone was on a fairly level playing field — we muddled through it.
  2. We need to get better at setting clear results-based expectations. C’mon, admit it. Most executives inexperienced with wholesale work from home were afraid. Not of required work not getting done – we had decent measures for most of the really important stuff. No, we were afraid that some employees may actually be sitting at home NOT working during work hours. Even if they were getting the job done. Ask 100 execs if they are “activity” people or “results” people. 100/100 will claim to be results-focused, all the while wondering whether Jim is working or actually watching All My Children (is that still on?).

    I’ve got a cutting-edge idea… set clear expectations for results, identify some general parameters (say, a meeting Wednesday at 10:00), then hold people accountable for results.

    C’mon, just take a couple of Xanax; you can do it!

  3. Flexibility is most important. See #2 above. Assuming no deadline to the contrary, what do you care if something gets done at 3:00 in the afternoon or 3:00 in the morning? Desired results in a quality fashion – that’s all that matters. We’ve learned that flexibility with employees is critical… and simply human. If it matters to them and doesn’t impact you, learn to say yes. It’s easy once you get the hang of it.
  4. People need people. We are social beings, and that’s never been made as true as during this apocalypse. We lost the ability to easily go face-to-face and had zoom thrust upon us. Suck it up. It’s the new “new.” We’ve had to figure out how to maintain those social needs without physical proximity. We’re texting people in our organizations who prior to the birth of the Maskasaurus didn’t even have our cell number. We have video happy hours (mine are outside, and involve cigars), and even video dinners. People need people, but we ain’t in Kansas anymore, Toto.
  5. Connections can come in many flavors. Some are meetings, which slightly resemble old meetings (by the way, if your ‘new’ meetings on video are identical to your ‘old’ meetings in person, you’re doing it wrong), some are simply direct contacts. Either way, we take ‘em where we can get ‘em.
  6. Leadership must be visible. Never as true than it is today. Be it video, face-to-face, slack, text or smoke signals, leadership has never needed to be as visible as it is today. Folks need to know that we understand their challenges, that we’re here for them when needed, and frankly, that we give a shit about what they’re going through. You can still be out front while sitting in front of a webcam.
  7. Facts beat assumptions – ASK. This isn’t new, but it certainly has become painfully obvious. Not everyone reacts the same to crisis. Not everyone needs the same support while working from home. Not everyone has a good webcam, coffee before 8:00am, or makeup before 8:30. See #3 about flexibility, then get good at asking. Don’t assume you know what someone needs without a conversation, since, in all likelihood, you’re gonna guess wrong.

    Ask.

  8. Empathy rocks. To coin a trite phrase likely coined by some trite consultant, “Nobody cares how much you know until they know how much you care.” Empathy is a muscle – exercise it, you’ll get good at it. Or at least better. We need folks to perform, even with the world seemingly coming to an end. And since we still need them, it’s pretty fair that they still need us. Meeting them where they are – understanding that their burdens, though different from yours, are just as heavy – goes a long way to making things flow. Besides, humans care about humans (ignore the politicians).
  9. Pivot – think Jiu Jitsu, not MMA. Resilience is overrated. Wait a minute, hear me out… Resilience as commonly defined is our ability to overcome or recover from obstacles. In other words, to take whatever life dishes out, then move on without having a breakdown of sorts. Change that thinking a bit. Our best clients have learned to take the momentum from change and adversity, embrace it, then pivot that energy to a well-thought new direction.
    Not just a reactive mode of “you hit, I bleed,” but more like, “you throw a punch, I deflect it and make you fall on your ass.” See? Different.
  10. The world stops for nothing. This shouldn’t have been such a learning opportunity, but it was. Remember when Covid first hit? Most thought, “oh well, we’ll hunker down, it’ll pass, and we’ll move on. ”Yeah, HAHAHA! Riiiight…It’s still here. We had to find ways to continue our course, or as one client said, “We need to return to the business of running our business.”

Just a list of 10 of the most significant lessons I learned from my clients in 2020. Some of them, it seems, are pretty sharp.

Shhh, don’t tell ‘em I said that.

Simplicity: Thy Name is Decision Making

        — Keep it simple, stupid.

Okay, okay. I’m not calling anyone stupid, per se.

I just want us all to remember that usually the simplest course is the best course to take. Certainly it is usually the quickest and most efficient, and it prevents slow-downs in decision making that irritate our staffs and cost us in lost opportunity.

Occam’s Razor is the word child of a Franciscan Friar, William of Occam (does that make me Kevin of Spring or Kevin of Berchelmann?) Paraphrased, he said that all things being equal, the simplest solution tends to be the best. Fewer assumptions, fewer hypotheticals, fewer “meteor strike” what-ifs?

Yes, we do need a model for decision making. Something replicable, that can withstand pressures. Some form of consistent methodology to determine criteria or theories for making decisions. Why not choose the simplest? After all, it is the decision and the execution that hold real complexity. Must we also make the act of deciding complicated as well?

I think not. In fact, hell no is a better response.

In its truest form, decision-making is, well, simple. Identify a problem (something that needs deciding), determine that problem’s cause (since we don’t want to simply create the need for more decisions), develop possible solutions (potential decisions), then use some analysis method to determine risks, possible problems, and likely outcomes.

Then, decide.

The simplest explanation is often the best. Not always, but usually any methodology that leads us to faster, yet equally educated decision making is a good thing. Truth be told, our role as senior leaders is much more about making decisions than critically evaluating them beforehand.

Generally speaking, providing we have surrounded ourselves with solid people (there’s that “talent management” thing again), our decision making role is regularly reduced to choosing the most satisfactory options for those already intent on making an outcome successful regardless.

Given that, keep the process simple, eliminate undue assumptions and knock off the incessant ‘what-ifs’ that beleaguer those unwilling to act. After all, that’s not us, is it?

Think. Reduce. Decide.

After all, when you hear hoof beats… think horses, not zebras.

Fast is Good, Faster is Better!

            — Pick a lane, add speed

We need speed. Not the breakneck, uncontrolled, sitting-your-ass-on-a-rocket kind of speed, but the speed necessary to move quickly and smartly. Given consistent data and input, faster is almost always better than slower.

We’ve been stressed, haven’t we? New craziness pops up almost daily, certainly monthly. We feel justified in being somewhat overwhelmed, and at times that feeling can slow us down – or even grind us to a halt.

That’s not helpful, and we shouldn’t do it. We aren’t forced into it, we have options. Here are some suggestions when the pace of change feels like The Enterprise in a Federation wormhole…

  1. Play the cards you’re dealt. Yeah, I know, sometimes they suck. We’d like a different hand, some new cards. Suck it up, buttercup; they are what they are. It is what it is. Que sera, sera. Deal with it. Or my favorite, “be that as it may…”

In other words, take what you have, figure out how to make it work, then violently execute. Sometimes you’ve got to work with what you’ve got and take what you can. This is one of those times.

  1. Pick a lane. Add speed. This one sometimes gets a bad rap. There are those out there (they walk among us) who will tell you to slow down, move methodically, deliberately. Slowly. I say bullshit. Pick a lane, add speed. With consistent data and insights, speed trumps stalling. 100% of the time.

Some fast decisions hit the bullseye – great! Others act as tracer rounds so we can keep firing, each time getting closer and closer to our intended target/result. A tracer round you can see is a small win – take it, move on to the next. Quickly.

The faster you decide, the faster you can act. The faster the action, the more responsive you can be to change, both planned and “not-so-much.”

  1. Practice Predictive Resiliency. This is a new one, so if you haven’t been on the edge of your seat up to now (and you should’ve been), you’ll need to pay attention to this.

Resiliency is great. It’s a wonderful characteristic to have, but by nature it’s passive. Take a change or unexpected force, absorb it, then bounce back, no worse for wear, ready to meet that next change with some more springy emotions. That’s resiliency, and we’ve preached it for years. This is not that. Well, it’s a little of that, with a twist.

Predictive Resiliency is seeing the change coming, like the light of an out-of-control freight train, deciding what would work better for you that that, then pivoting with the train’s momentum, using it like a flywheel to accelerate in a better direction. Taking unplanned change and making it proactive by pivoting.

Sound crazy? It’s not. An example: Uber faced a near-fatal challenge in California, where the state passed a law making their thousands of contract drivers into employees overnight.

Never mind where you stand on the issue; Uber had a choice: accept the change and spring back gently, changing their business model entirely for a single state, or pivot hard – taking the momentum and public attention the issue was receiving and forcing a voter referendum. No passive resiliency here… it was Predictive Resiliency, pivoting from the passive into a “proactive reaction,” not an oxymoron in this case. It paid off for Uber.

There are myriad examples of taking anticipated change, seeing a more successful direction to go instead of the proposed change, then pivoting hard to execute. Try it sometime. You’ll like it.

And remember: Be Brazen. Grace and accountability can coexist.

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