How to Win Well, When Winning Feels Impossible

Last week I was doing a Winning Well workshop with the United Nations, when one of the participants, “Pete,” looked at me sincerely and said, “I hear you, and all these tools sound good, and I’m going to use them.  But what do you when Winning is impossible?”

I waited for more. 

“Our mission is world peace.”

Okay, Pete has a point. 

And I’m writing this from an airplane on my way to speak to 900 healthcare workers who’s mission is to create “26 million exceptional patient experiences a year. “That’s a tall order.

If I was facing a terrifying diagnosis, or I was watching my sister die, or my baby was born four months early, it would take a hell of a lot to convince me I was having an “exceptional” patient experience.

How to Win Well When Winning Feels Impossible

“Impossible” missions can crush the soul. You dig the wells, build a school, buy back the guns, and stabilize the village, only to find the next day a revolution causes you to evacuate. 

Or despite an army of dedicated doctors and nurses all executing flawlessly together, the baby still dies.

I’m sure you have your stories too.

How do you get back up the next day and try again?

My advice to Pete and anyone else doing work that really matters is simply this.

Focus on the “well,” and the “wins” will follow.  The Win with a capital W might be impossible, but the lower case wins add up and change the world.

Be confident your work makes a difference and stand up for what matters.

Stay humble, knowing that the mission is bigger than you and your frustrations.

Identify, reinforce and celebrate the specific behaviors that lead to breakthrough results.  Discouraging times often call for a confidence burst. 

Invest in the relationships with your team. Reach out to others who can help. Recognize the impact you’re making at a human level.

If you’re working on achieving the impossible, thank you. 

Focus on the well and the wins will follow.

Frontline Festival: Leaders Share Business Communication Tips

Welcome back to the Let’s Grow Leaders Frontline Festival. This month’s festival is all about communication tips. Thanks to Joy and Tom Guthrie of Vizwerx Group for the great pic and to all our contributors! Next month’s Frontline Festival is all about having fun with your team.  Submit your ideas here!

Often when the word “communication” is brought up, we think of what we are going to say. Listening is a form of communication too, and almost everyone can listen more. This post by Mary Jo Asmus of Aspire Collaborative Services describes the times that you might need to really listen.  Follow Mary Jo.

Chip Bell of the Chip Bell Group suggests that we improve business communications by having the same business hours as Amazon.  That means always being accessible except when you physically cannot (like you are on a flight or in the middle of keynote).  Otherwise, make it super easy for your customers to reach you.  How many websites do you access that fail to provide a direct phone number but instead require you to fill out a dang form to communicate with the owner of the site?  Connection should always trump self-serving (i.e. building a database) marketing. Follow Chip.

Beth Beutler of H.O.P.E. Unlimited gives us five ways to fight communication overloadFollow Beth.

Wally Bock of Three Star Leadership suggests we read this if the thought of giving a speech makes you break out in a cold sweat or feel like you’re going to throw up.  Follow Wally.

When the Challenger Space Shuttle exploded, there was an in-depth investigation to determine the cause. One of the top three reasons cited for the accident was a breakdown in communications among the involved project workers. Michelle Cubas, CPCC, ACC, of Positive Potentials, LLC invites us to consider how communications unravel in offices and between departments when strangers are involved that did not work together like the Challenger team. Follow Michelle.

Wise men speak because they have something to say; Fools because they have to say something.
~ Plato

Eric Dingler of  sees two big mistakes in business communications and both cost nothing to fix.  He suggests to first change our email signatures.  People don’t need a hyperlink to our email address or even social media profiles–they need to go to our websites where all that information (and more!) is available. Second, keep our email inboxes at zero.  It’s bad form to not get around to replying to someone because “It got lost in your never-ending flood of emails.” Either respond, or move it to a task list, scheduling a time to deal with it.  Follow Eric.

David Dye of Trailblaze says “The single best business communication tool I can recommend is to check for understanding. Communication is a loop – there should always be a send and receive. Don’t just ask ‘Do you have questions?’ Say, ‘Let’s make sure we’re on the same page’ and listen to their version to ensure it’s the same as what you think you said.” Follow David.

Chris Edmonds of Driving Results through Culture reminds us that one of the biggest opportunities leaders have in business communications is to link projects, goals, and tasks to strategy and then communicate that strategy, refine that strategy, and help team members link their goals and tasks to that strategy. Follow Chris.

David Grossman of The Grossman Group David says that asking questions and listening are critical. Before you can understand a business problem or achieve a goal, you have to understand what the situation is., and questions are the best way to come at a problem. Follow David.

We have two ears and one mouth so that we can listen twice as much as we speak.
~ Epictetus

John Hunter of Curious Cat Management Improvement advises that making communication explicit creates a process that is less likely to result in problems that stem from communication failures. Follow John.

Lisa Kohn from Thoughtful Leaders Blog encourages us to do our best to learn and understand the needs and perspectives of the person we’re communicating with, and be very clear what your intentions are for the communication, because misunderstanding happen to everyone. Follow Lisa.

Jon Mertz of Thin Difference  reminds us that organizational leaders must communicate with teams by embracing the teacher-professor mindset. It’s a truly effective way to embrace, engage, and activate the next generation.  Follow Jon  

Shelley Row of Shelley Row Associates encourages us not to be THAT person–the one who sends flaming emails. Follow Shelley

The most important thing in communication is hearing what isn’t said.
~ Peter Drucker

Writer Riya Sander observes that from power dynamics to scheduling to competition for promotions and perks, there is a certain amount of conflict that is difficult to avoid in the modern workplace. She feels leadership development is about becoming a great group leader who gets the best work from a group of stars by using coaching skills to encourage an atmosphere of collective problem-solving and cooperative achievement.  Follow Riya

William Steiner of Executive Coaching Concepts  gives three communication tips: Listen well and listen 80% of the time, asking clarifying questions; find time to meet others in person to really build a relationship; surprise and delight others with a handwritten thank you note. Follow William.

Linda Fisher Thornton of Leading in Context suggests that we talk about what matters: things people find difficult to deal with, tough questions and areas where leadership needs to improve.  Follow Linda.

Bad human communication leaves us less room to grow.
~ Rowan Williams

Reminder: Next month’s Frontline Festival is all about having fun with your team.  Submit your ideas here!


Internal Internships- A Winning Well Best Practice

Have you ever been an intern? Have you ever hired an intern? 

There are many reasons to hire an intern. Sure some see it as a short-cut to cheap labor or to appease HR. 

But if you’ve ever been part of a great internship program–on either side of the desk– you know that it can be a fantastic job preview–an extensive 2-way interview process. It’s an opportunity to try before you buy.

Internships give interns the opportunity to ask:

  • Does this work align with my passion and purpose?
  • Are these my people? 
  • Can I see myself doing this every day?

Of course, employers are asking similar questions:

  • Does this kid have potential?
  • What unique contributions would they bring to our company?
  • Do they fit in?

Watching my MBA students in the great internship dance is fascinating. You can learn a lot about workplace culture and how to attract and retain millennial talent over a “How’s your internship going?” cup of coffee. (Even more over a beer.)

This observation is why I was so intrigued when I bumped into this best practice while I was doing some Winning Well consulting. 

The senior leadership team had sent me to this location to understand what was going so right and to help them spread it to their other locations. The list of Winning Well best practices was healthy, but this one struck me most.  And it’s going in our next book.

The Power of Internal Internships

The strong culture was keeping people there, but there was also a bit of stagnation. Employees were getting comfortable in their roles and afraid a lateral move would impact their performance rating or earning potential if they were not successful.

So the manager built an Internal Internship program. Employees could raise their hand to intern in another role for two weeks. They would receive some training, shadow, take on some tasks, and finally “try on” the job. No commitment. No risk. No guarantees. 

If after two weeks, everyone loves it, they are encouraged to apply for the next open position.  If they tried it and hated it, at least they knew without a lot of sunk costs or time on either end.

Benefits of Internal Internship

  • Exponentially more discussion around career pathing, even for those who didn’t decide to intern.
  • Frank career path conversations: “No, you cannot do an internship with that attendance record. Let’s get that cleaned up first.”
  • A broader understanding of the big picture. “Oh, that’s why they do it that way.”
  • Increased collaboration across departments, with more folks having walked a mile in the other guy’s shoes.
  • Improved morale and retention. More people seeing a future–not just a job, but a career.

When I asked the manager about the ROI, she was all in. The value of getting the right people in the right seats, performing well, far surpassed the additional time and effort her team spent on the program.

What's Really Killing Morale and Employee Engagement

Janice shared:

I’d had enough: the gossip; the veterans scaring the new hires; more and more people doing just enough to get by… And I was frustrated because we’d done so much to foster employee engagement.

I changed out some toxic leaders. We revamped our coaching program to focus on the positive. I’m here every Saturday right along with them. I bring bagels. The day I forgot the bagels, I bought lunch. We have fun incentive programs and have really positive approach to coaching.

I was intrigued. The call center I’d been called in to do consulting work for was doing so much right. And yet they had brought me in, “because there’s always room for improvement.” Yes, another sign that they are Winning Well. They had terrific margins, unheard of low turnover, and everyone was smiling.  

Apparently, it wasn’t always that way.

I asked about the tipping point.

One Saturday, I just couldn’t take it any more. So I transferred the phones to another center, and had everyone pull their chairs to the center of the office. I expressed my frustration– and then said, “Please, please help me. What is the source of our morale problem?”

I was shocked by the answer. 

They didn’t want more fun, incentives or even time off the phones.

It all came down to one thing.

They wanted us to take a hard stand on the slackers. Those coming in late. Putting customers on hold for an extra breather. Absence. 

Side note– Apparently there was almost unanimous agreement that this was the issue, while three people remained silent– you guessed it– the slackers.

So I pulled reports and dug into the patterns of every rep. 

Note: She then pulled out binder-clipped half-inch stack of paper– which was a computer print out of one rep’s tardy logins (all one or two minutes), but there must have been hundreds of occurrences.

Which of course begs the question– why should I sign in on time, if no one does anything to those who don’t?

Then I met with every rep and showed them the impact they were having on our morale problem. If they were consistently on time and doing the right things, I thanked them and apologized for not paying closer attention. If they were part of the problem, I asked for their commitment on specific behaviors to improve.

Morale soared.

Letting slackers slide may seem like a short-cut to being likable. But such “Pleaser” behaviors crush the spirit of those making the biggest impact on your team.  

Where do you need to hold people more accountable?

Winning Well Bootcamp

The Powerful Organizational Trust Elixer

It was my second time up a 14er mountain in Colorado. Oxygen was at a premium as I joined my Winning Well partner, David Dye, as he led this mission of mostly first timers up Mt. Democrat. As the self-designated trip photographer, I’d taken some decent shots along the way, including the in-the-dark-before-picture that everyone was counting the dark  So you can image how frustrated I was when I realized that I’d left my camera on the trail  (and all the shots from this trip and the adventure before) somewhere at the midpoint rest stop. Apparently, I’d accidentally exchanged a decent camera and all the memories it included, for a granola bar. David could sense my concern, and looked at me sincerely. “I’m not worried. No one steals a camera… even a left one… on a 14er. There’s an unspoken code.” My inclination was to immediately scramble back down to begin the search. How was he so sure an ad-hoc village of strangers would comply with this “unspoken code?” Another young  hiker overheard our conversation. “I agree. And I’m in. What kind of camera did you lose and where? Text me your number, and I’ll look for it on the way down (we were still on the way up). If I find it I’ll meet you in Denver.”

And So We Continued

Apparently, sometimes the best answer is to trust the culture. As we reached the crest of the mountain I heard the excitement coming from a group of happy hikers who spotted some of my friends who were about 20 yards behind me. “We looked through all the pictures, and clearly you were on the way up, not down, otherwise there would be victory pics. We’ve been watching for your crew the whole way and finally started to see people we recognized.”

What Would It Feel Like To Work in A Truly High-Trust Culture?

When we fear loss, it’s easy to scramble to the next plateau of self-protection. We wonder, why would they help me? Why would they go there? Is there anything here for them to gain? What if we started a new conversation in our teams and organizations? Start where you are. Ask your team.

What would it look like if we had a truly high trust culture?

When I ask teams I work with, this is some of what comes up:

  • When you make a mistake, you know someone will have your back
  • We know everyone’s putting in their very best effort
  • No one wants to steal your stuff or take credit for your work
  • Folks will go the extra mile to help you
  • Good behaviors are rewarded
  • We care about one another as human beings

I’m not sure how the unspoken code on the Colorado 14ers started, but I do know what keeps it going. Hikers know that “people like us” have each other’s backs and don’t steal people’s stuff. How do “people like us” act in your organization. What’s the unspoken code? What do you want it to be? It’s worth the conversation.