Give The Guy a Brake: The Power to Stop

So you’ve got everything rolling on all cylinders. The right people, all on the proverbial right bus, all moving in the right direction. Excellent. You’re a motivational leader with a strong vision, inspiring the team toward unprecedented results. This team is fired up, everyone’s with you. Fantastic? Or just about to get dangerous?

Whenever I start a new role, the first person I look for is my “brake guy.” The guy (or gal) who has a deep knowledge of the business at hand, who cares deeply about doing the right thing, and has the courage to say “stop.”

And then my plea goes something like this…

“We are starting on an incredible journey. And trust me, we are going to get the right folks on the bus, all moving in the right direction, and we are going to build momentum. It will be exciting and we’re going to go fast. We might even get folks singing along as we ride (see skipping to work). We will work hard to build an environment of empowerment and constructive dissent. And yet, when it seems just right, it’s harder to stop. You are my brake guy. I need you to be by my side and ready to pull the brake whenever I am about to drive this bus over the edge. I assure you it will happen and when it gets to that point I am counting on you. I promise I will listen.

Brake guys are invaluable. I have had some fantastic brake guys over the years. It doesn’t happen often, but every time they have used that power, they have been dead on and all I could say was thank you.

Leaders who work fast with big vision, need someone like this around them. I recognize that not every leader fits into this category. If you err on the side of caution, you might need a “push me off the cliff guy,” but that’s a subject for another time.

How Brake Guys Can Help

They…

  • remind you to pause before reacting
  • offer more data and analysis
  • hear what the team is not saying
  • provide historical context
  • remind you of the long-term implications
  • offer options you may not have considered

If you are brake guy, thank you on behalf of all of us who need you.
If you need one, find one, and listen well.

Please share: Have you ever had a brake guy?
How was he or she helpful?
Have you served in that capacity?
 

Get More Done in Less Time: Learning From Crises

When are you most productive? If you are like most people I know the answer is easy, when you really need to be. Most of us have great examples of crises and other urgent situations, where folks pull together and get more done.

And yet, at other times, lots of stuff seems to get in the way. And we look at each other with the common question, “how can I get more done?”

We Use The Time We Have

 

It’s human nature. When we have time,, we use it.

Most projects take at least the time allotted. Most conference calls finish just-in-time. When is the last time you saw a BAU project expedited–because it was possible?

We know this as Parkinson’s law, work expands to fill the time allotted. Nothing is expedited when things are moving along as planned, because it doesn’t need to be.

What Can We Learn from a Crises?

One the other hand, in a time of crises, the time allotted is zero, so everything is expedited. There is something urgent that must be fixed. Suddenly, the normal protocols disappear and work happens fast.

There’s a lot to be learned about execution from a crises. At times of natural disasters, blackouts, and other unthinkable crises, teams pull together and execute in ways they never thought possible. Creative solutions emerge from seemingly nowhere, “impossible” deadlines are exceeded, and competitors collaborate for the greater good, Organizations and teams execute with an efficiency they never thought possible.

Why? What good can we learn from these undesired times?

Here’s a list of what I’ve seen first hand over the years, and observed and followed in other people’s fantastic stories of execution in a time of crises.

How They Get More Done

  • Everyone becomes energized around a common mission
  • Decisions normally made by committee, are made on the fly
  • People work extraordinary hours, and feel enlivened by their contribution
  • IT and other complex projects that normally require substantial planning are expedited and done in Herculean time frames
  • Communication becomes paramount: people talk frequently
  • Decision makers roll-up their sleeves to help, and the experts rise to positions of power
  • Standard protocols soften, and people support one another
  • Companies collaborate for the greater good
  • No one touches Powerpoint until the post-mortem
  • …???

Of course, we can’t live on an adrenaline rush all the time. And, fast decisions can also have downsides. On the other hand

 

The Secret to Effective Time Management: A Story to Win By

Time management techniques typically involve identifying priorities and scheduling well. There is also power in building in unscheduled time, leaving white space on the calendar for reflection and spontaneous magic.

Adding some white space into your time management strategy can lead to better strategy, creative breakthroughs, and a more poised approach.

And so, I offer a story of time management, great mentoring, and leveraging the white space.

Time Management Lessons From a White Space Sherpa

I had just started my “dream job” straight out of graduate school. Eager to be successful, I got in before the boss, and stayed late to get more done. I had my shiny new Franklin Planner (back in the days of binders and systems), and I proudly scheduled every hour with meaningful activity. I was proud of my time management system and approach to success.

One night, my boss came by my cube (I was secretly glad that he saw me there so late). He just said, “come to my office and bring your planner.”

He took my planner and arbitrarily started crossing out meetings.

I was shocked.

“You need white space. You are not going to be successful without it.”

I argued, “but you can’t cross out THOSE meetings.”

“Fine,” He replied. “Move what you want around, but I want you to come back to me with a calendar that has white space built into every day. Oh, and while you are at it, pick which days you are going to get out of here on time to spend time with your family.”

I did.

When I met with him next, we brainstormed the possibilities for productive things to do in the white space on my calendar. Including “stare at the walls” to get great ideas. He then got on the phone and started calling Vice Presidents.

“I have this promising young leader who you haven’t yet met. She just had some meetings unexpectedly cancelled and is going to be in your neck of the woods next week (news to me). I wonder if she could stop by and get to know you.”

Brilliant.

“See, that’s what you can do with white space,” he smiled.

The truth is, with more “free time” I was actually more productive because I had time to think. Our results were fantastic that year, and his networking strategy built a strong foundation to begin my career.

I believe in white space.

The Danger of Free Time

Today it’s even harder to master the white space game. Even if we manage to carve out unscheduled time as part of our time management strategy, the push and lure of communication from email, text and instant messages, and all the social media can suck us in to less productive activity.

Chris Brogan shared his own struggles with white space in his fantastic newsletter, along with tips for a strategy to address. He encourages us to identify our “go-to triggers” for filling down time (twitter, email, twitter, facebook, twitter), and instead create a more deliberate approach.

His approach to avoiding triggers, and using white space effectively:

Let’s make three lists:

1.) Someday
2.) The Bigger Story
3.) Now

Onto “Someday,” place everything you haven’t touched and that really doesn’t relate to anything in the short-term (because if it did, you’d have completed it already).

Onto, The Bigger Story, list what your REAL big goals are, and what your focus should be.

He then provides more detail on how to manage these lists and effectively use your downtime in your time management strategy.

So, it’s a two-fold mission. First, find and preserve the white space. And next, know which “someday” and “bigger story” goals you want to pursue in that time.

Long Distance Leadership: Can Distance Drive Engagement and Results?

I was intrigued by the recent article by Scott Edinger in HBR Blog Network, Why Remote Workers are More Engaged. He shares research that shows that remote workers are more engaged, and rate their leadership more highly. His article sparked a flurry of comments and debate, including questions of limited sample size and statistical significance. Despite the skeptics, I have not been able to get this conversation out of my brain. Why, Because my experience is that long distance leadership can be very engaging and achieve fantastic results.

I have been working in long distance leadership situations for almost 2 decades. I have led many highly dispersed teams. For most of my career I have not worked in the same state as my boss. Although Edinger’s research spoke to those working at home (I have also lead folks in that situation, and have worked from home at certain points in my career), I think the debate raises important conversation for any leader not working side-by-side with their teams on a daily basis.

In fact, in my current role, I am leading my most remote team ever. I am leading a team dispersed across the country in over 20 states and every time zone. It’s tricky. I spend much time on airplanes, and I am never “there” as much as I would like. And, I would argue this is one of my most engaged teams ever. They are on fire with results, are passionate about the work, and care deeply about one another.

And so, I offer my opinion on the “are remote workers more engaged” debate. No statistics. Just lots of personal experience and a track record of making long distance leadership work.

Why Long Distance Leadership Works

  • Every interaction counts, people plan more for the time they have
  • Both the leader and the team make extra effort to show up strong
  • Teams and team members gain more confidence in self-direction
  • Teams feel more encouraged to take risks
  • It’s easier to be creative when no one is looking over your shoulder
  • When teams are together they work hard to create relationships, and are deliberate about maintaining them across distances
  • Absence makes the heart grow fonder– remote teams call on one another when needed, and have quality interaction
  • They make better use of tools and technology
  • They listen more closely because they are not distracted with the daily noise

Behaviors that Support Long Distance Leadership

  • Select a fantastic team, carefully with a track record of self-direction
  • Have a dramatic vision and crystal-clear goals
  • Communicate that vision and goals loudly in every medium you have available
  • Celebrate success loudly and frequently
  • Show up face to face, more than is practical
  • Be deliberate in helping the team to know you as a human being– distance can be scary, it helps if the team can see you as a real person
  • Be silly and fun remote teams need to laugh and know it is okay to have fun
  • Have a scheduled check-in pattern so no one gets left out
  • Get really good at situational leadership– understand who needs what and give it to them
  • Admit mistakes, it helps to encourage risk-taking and creativity

Are you a Long Distance Leader? Please share your comments. What have you found works best in managing remote teams?

I am delighted to be included in Dan McCarthy’s Leadership Carnival. I have enjoyed reading some fantastic posts included here from some insightful leadership bloggers. I encourage you to check it out.

My writing on Leader Athletes was also included John Bossong’s Top 10 Leadership and Sales Link Roundup. Another great collection of leadership posts worth checking out.

To all those on this wonderful leadership journey of reflecting, reading, writing, and collaborating.

Namaste.

If you enjoy reading my posts, I would love to have you as an email subscriber. I also encourage you to join the conversation with your comments.
 

 

Everybody into the Pool: Influencing from the Inside

In almost any large organization, there are the folks doing the work that touches customers, and there are the supporting players influencing vital work to make that easier. Except when they don’t. Or, it’s perceived that way.

Today, as we stop the music, I am in a supporting role. Not long ago, I was leading a large line organization. Prior to that staff role, prior to that, line.

I have been talking to everyone I can find about what makes a great influencing player. My favorite metaphor, “get into the pool”.

“I am trying to run a tight synchronized swimming team here. You can’t shout direction from the pool deck. Get in the water. Feel the music first. See how it feels under the water. Try holding your breath while kicking hard. And then, once we are all equally exhausted, I am all ears.”

I love this one, because growing up, I actually was a competitive synchronized swimmer, and yup, my coaches got into the pool all the time.

The other main ideas:

Deeply understand my business

Support my vision and goals

Tell me the truth

Ask what you can do to help

Share what you can

Provide best practices

Lend your expertise

Offer tangible tools

Help me see the future

Ask me lots of questions

Don’t have checklist

How to Pick the Right Big Goal

Want more success and fun for your team? Try picking one BIG goal.

When looking to make a difference for the business, I always look for the “one big goal” that we can accomplish that will really make an impact. As Covey would say, what is your most “Wildly Important Goal”?  What will be dramatically different (better) after our team is done with it? What needs to be transformed?

Of course, organizations are complex and it’s impossible to have a singular focus. However, I have found that planning for one BIG success, along with one or two other related goals, creates a clear path that is easy to follow. You will know if you have accomplished this if years later, people are still talking about the contribution that team made.

4 Ways to Grow Your Goal

Pick the Right BIG Goal

  • What does the business need most?
  • What are others struggling to accomplish?
  • What do people think can’t be done?
  • What is this team best positioned to do?
  • Are you passionately personally committed to this?

Gain Alignment

  • Do your boss and other key stakeholders see this as vital (even if they don’t think it is doable)
  • Are at least a few strong and energetic people on your team aligned (I have found in real turnaround situations, it usually takes some time to get everyone there)
  • Develop a zealous engagement and communication plan
  • Reinforce the vision non-stop (I have been accused of being a “maniac” about the vision)
  • Create imagery to align with the goal (use it to tie everything together)

Engage the Team

  • Involve everyone in the planning and execution
  • Involve them more
  • Break the problem down into manageable pieces, celebrate every milestone
  • Celebrate the big contributors, have them teach others
  • Learn from your skeptics, that bring them in to help
  • Celebrate the skeptic turnaround stories
  • Communicate constantly on the subject

Recognize Every Little Win

  • Create a rally cry, celebrate every contribution and link it to the bigger picture
  • Pay attention to what is working everywhere you go
  • Make success easy to notice, celebrate loudly and everywhere
  • Stay the course

In a complicated world we must do many things well. We must be “AND” leaders. I have also found that it is much more fun to also pick the home run in advance and leave nothing on the field when playing toward that goal.