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.

Nothing Helps a Bad Mood

like spreading it around

2020 is over. Ding dong, the witch is dead.

Don’t you wish we could flip a switch on the anxieties we felt last year as easily as we turn the page on the calendar? As I looked forward at 2021, I looked back over the last five years in our lives and saw this truth: every year has ups and downs that affect our mood at work; they just change over time. Not rocket surgery I know, but I needed the reminder.

Like leading by example, we don’t have a choice on whether our mood affects those around us and those who work for us. It does. Now I can’t guarantee a positive outlook and motivation will fill our workplaces with butterflies and rainbows, but there can be no doubt that a leader’s dour mood directly affects their employees’ morale and engagement.

I’m a strict Calvinist. In my favorite comic strip of all time, Calvin sums this up nicely: “Nothing helps a bad mood like spreading it around.”

I used to think I was a pretty positive boss to work for. Then one day a mentor called me out when he said, “Kevin, you’re just not prone to happiness, are you?” A huge part of a leader’s role is inspiring others to follow in pursuit of a vision. We make it really hard for them to be inspired if they don’t believe we are.

No, I’m not trying to resurrect the old myth about leaders having to be charismatic – there’s plenty of evidence to debunk that. But from the C-suites to the referent leaders far down in the organization, others are taking their emotional cues from us. Not a believer? Reflect for a second on a couple of the very best leaders you known: were they positive and encouraging in a way that make you want to do and be better, or did their interactions feel perfunctory and their tone and manner… like a thin veneer covering their anxiety.

Here’s a test: we all come to work at less than our best once in a while. On the rare occasion we do – regardless of whether we’re bothered by a work-related issue or something that happened outside the office – do people ask is something wrong? If not, it either means they’re used to us being in a bad mood or we’re not as approachable as we should be.

So how do we do it? How do we model a positive attitude when it feels like the world is throwing us more curveballs than we can hit? Do we just grin and bear it? Fake it ‘til we make it?

I have a better strategy for 2021. Here are a few tried and true behaviors that can improve our outlook and make us more positive leaders in (and out of) the workplace:

  • First and foremost: no complaining! Psychologists generally agree that our brains are hardwired to spend more mental energy and time on negative events than we do on good news. Complaining can easily become a habit, so we have to intentionally resist that negativity bias and if you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything at all. (Thanks, mom.)
  • Keep the vocabulary positive. Speaking of saying things, we can be honest about substandard efforts without sounding accusatory or hostile. “I think there’s a problem with this” and “I don’t think this is your best work” have a completely different impact than “You screwed this up” and “This is a piece of crap.”
  • Avoid emotional vacuum cleaners. I don’t mean the kind of emotional vacuum where it feels like nothing can fill an inner void; I mean the kind of person who can suck the joy out of a Superbowl victory parade. A common trait of good leaders is being empathetic, but that doesn’t mean we need to spend more time with Negative Nancy or Derek Downer than necessary. Maintain a positive boundary and move on.
  • Don’t lose sight of the long game. As in don’t sweat the small stuff. (Thanks again, mom.) Many of our problems at work are short-term and in the big scheme of things aren’t that big of a deal. After we deal with a problem, will it still seem like a big deal next week? Next month? Next year? The Greek philosopher Epictetus reminds us “Men are disturbed not by things, but by the view which they take of them.”
  • Finally, put your own mask on first. Like donning emergency oxygen masks on an airplane, our heads have to be in the game enough to recognize when others are struggling. If they’re showing up at work anxious and frustrated and their performance or behavior is suffering, we’re liable to take the easy way out and address only what we see. That’s especially true if not taking good enough care ourselves.

Our folks deserve our best efforts in giving them a positive workplace where they can be successful. Are we giving it to them?

It’s up to you, leaders.

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.

On Your Marks, Go!… Get Set

2021 is off and running

Kinda like Kevin Berchelmann described a business decision-making style in June’s At C-Level as “Ready, Fire, Aim!,” “On your marks, go, get set… ” is a planning style often used when preparing for the new year just after the nick of time. In past years, that style put us behind the eight ball initially, but we could recover with hard work and good leadership.

Guess what? 2021 won’t be like past years because the 2020 eight ball never stopped rolling. How we start the year depends mostly on our attitude: Is January 1, 2021 the 307th day of March 2020 (feels like that sometimes, doesn’t it?), or are there only 358 shopping days left until Christmas 2021?

Good leaders know that no new year will be like last year – or the year before that or the years before that – and are prepared to deal with the unexpected. An easy measure of that in 2020 is how our long organizations took to go from meetings around the conference room table to virtually in front of a computer screen.

If ever a year was going to start with VUCA, 2021 is it.

Here are some changes we know we’ll have to deal with, so let’s be ready for the unknown:

  • The 117th Congress will be sworn in on January 3, 2021. A new Congress means new rules that will affect our business in new ways. Are we agile enough to pivot?
  • Our competitors will develop new ways of doing business that will give them a marketplace advantage. Do we have processes in place to develop new ways of our own?
  • We’re going to have personnel turnover – some painful and some cause for celebration. Have we prepared by developing successors?

On the other hand, some things that stay the same may still take us by surprise:

  • Political strife isn’t going anywhere anytime soon.
  • We still have a global pandemic to deal with.
  • There will be economic uncertainty that will make the stock markets go up and down and affect our businesses.
  • My wife will always get her way when we have a difference of opinion (I’m a leadership consultant; we don’t have conflicts).

Bill George at Harvard Business School writes that a leader’s answer to Volatility, Uncertainty, Complexity, and Ambiguity in business can be found in his VUCA 2.0Vision, Understanding, Courage, and Adaptability – all traits of an effective leader.

So, where do we start in 2021? With something else that will be the same: the leadership basics that haven’t changed in a few millennia.

  • First, remember that our success (and the organization’s) depends on the people who work for us being successful. We can never forget who’s work keeps the day-to-day business operating. The majority of our effort should be focused on creating an environment where they can shine.
  • Set clear expectations. The Ambiguity in VUCA often starts with us not defining success for our team. We shouldn’t expect the results we were looking for if they don’t know what success looks like.
  • We can’t effectively lead someone who doesn’t trust us. If we aren’t positive and caring, or don’t have integrity or respect for the individuals who work for us, they will never trust us.
  • We have to get better at communication. Especially now when face-to-face communication is limited, our communication style needs to include a lot more listening than ever before. The people who work for us will have ideas for improvement and innovation long before we do (they probably already have them), so ask… and then listen for understanding to what they say.
  • Leading by example isn’t an option. When things get crazy (like they have been), we can’t expect our team to stay calm and focused if we don’t. We won’t have all the answers (we never have) and shouldn’t be so hesitant to admit it. And DON’T tell people to calm down! That never, ever works; re-focus them instead.

The world as we know it today won’t be the same as the world six months from now. Never has been and never will be. For our companies, it’s important that we hone the leadership skills to deal with the VUCA we are continually thrust into. For our people, it’s imperative that we don’t neglect the leadership basics in the process.

The eight ball’s already rolling. Are you set?

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.

Assuming Makes an… Well, You Get the Picture

Who out there knows the old saw about what happens when you assume?

Great. You can put your hands down. Yes, we all thought that was funny the first time we heard it – like when we were 12 – but please stop asking people that.

If we know we make an ass out of ourselves when we assume we know what someone else is thinking or how they’re feeling or what they want, why do we keep doing it? I guess I should have put assuming on last month’s list of prohibitions for this Roarin’ Twenties.

Here’s a recent example: I was asked by our volunteer coordinator, “Kevin, we want to show our volunteers how much they mean to us. What do you think about having a big breakfast for everyone?”

I replied, “They don’t want breakfast; they want a shirt so they feel like part of the team.” Undeterred, she matter-of-factly said, “We don’t have money for shirts, but we can buy everyone breakfast.”

The coordinator incorrectly assumed (as almost always happens) that everyone would feel rewarded and appreciated by eating a free breakfast. Even after being corrected, she still assumed she was correct.

News Flash: not everyone feels rewarded by the same token of appreciation.

A month later, the executive director asked me when I thought a good time to get the volunteers together for breakfast would be.

“Ummm… on the 12th of Never?”

Okay, that’s not what I said, although I wanted to. As the self-anointed appointed spokesman for the volunteers, I explained that while breakfast was a nice gesture, what they really wanted was a shirt like everyone else so they felt like part of the team.

Not surprisingly, I heard, “Yes, but the coordinator says we don’t have the money to buy shirts, but we all think a breakfast would be nice.”

Of course a breakfast would be nice… if you served it to me in bed.

But the last thing a sane person would want to do is to drive across town in this neck of the woods with the morning rush to eat a low-quality breakfast and then drive home. Or to lunch. Or to a happy hour – okay, maybe that wouldn’t be so bad, but the drive home might be ill advised. What’s wrong with a shirt? Or a nametag, or a cubical sign, or a desk plaque… I’m not picky. But make it something that requires a little thought about what the individual or group would find meaningful.

The short points to my long story are these:

  1. If you want to express your appreciation for a job well done, genuinely express it as soon as you feel it. Not a pat on the head and a “good job” but an expression of sincere appreciation for a specific task done well or hard-won success.
  2. If you want to reward someone for exceptional performance or accomplishment – even with a small token of appreciation – do it publicly to add more meaning to making them feel like a valued member of the team. This assumes, of course, that they don’t mind being in the limelight, which leads to…
  3. If you want to give something meaningful to an employee you would hate to lose, ask him or her what that could be. A morning off maybe? A Friday afternoon off? Tickets to a sporting event? The movies? A play or ballet? Dinner for two at a fancy restaurant? The possibilities are almost endless! Just ask.

By the way, gift cards are nice, but if your employees are struggling for groceries or gas, that’s indicative of a different problem.

Other signs of assuming: “Would you mind…?” “Could you stay late to…?” “Can you come in this weekend to…?” “Did you remember to…?” “Did you fix the…” “Are you available to…?” “Do you have the information I need to…?” “Can you take care of this real quick?”  to all of which we assume the answers will be the ones we want to hear and not the reality of what’s going on inside the person’s head.

Those questions are asked so carelessly and thoughtlessly that it’s clear to the receiver that the person asking has no real idea or concern about the impact. There I go assuming again.

If any of this rings true in your organization, please put a stop to it, and if you see someone else making these kinds of morale-killing assumptions, please stop them.

After all, it makes someone look like an ass… and it’s not me.

How about it, leaders?

It’s up to you.

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