How not to be drawn into that. Again.

This is a season of happy obligations. Some of us feel the happiness more, some the obligation.

I am uneasy about any advice I might give. Anticipating the holidays, I can already see that I’ve said yes to some things that I might have said no to. And last minute events come up. There are gifts to find and make. Thoughtful gifts. 

Here are two things I’ll be trying out again this holiday season. As I always say, practice builds capacity and practice takes time. The first is about intention. The second is about letting go. These are simple to say. They are not hard to understand. They are not easy to do. 

This word “intention” isn’t magic, though I’ve heard people use it as though it were. If it helps, you could think of it as a commitment. 

I’m making a commitment not to take anything away from others’ joy. When we’re stressed or find ourselves where we don’t want to be, we may unload our emotions on others. Would you steal their wallet, or even that bottle of wine the company gave them? No. My intention is not to steal their joy. If that’s the not-doing, then the doing might be to fan the flame of others’ happiness, even a little. 

Letting go is just as simple and even harder. When we face family, old friends, colleagues at this time of year, we tell a story. There’s an idea of me, of you, embedded in this story. Could I let it go? It’s worth giving some thought to this story of me and what it means. Do I tend to tell the story, “I’m doing well and succeeding.” Or, “I’m distressed by circumstances and I don’t know what to do.” Or “Everything’s fine,” when it’s not fine at all. Or maybe you don’t say much. Not telling a story is a way of communicating something, too. 

A lot of our trouble results from wanting to appear to be something – successful, independent, deep (even “mindful and soulful”), kind and loving. Some stories aim to elicit something in others. They are questions like, Do they really care? Will they do something for me? Do they really see me and hear me? 

These stories can be hard to recognize in ourselves. We live inside them. When others don’t appreciate the way we know ourselves, challenge our story, question the premise, doubt the happy ending, we may get angry, withdraw, and call on past hurts to arm us for counterattack.

Instead, we could let go. I am not what they think, nor am I what I think of myself. If you look closely, you’re not the person that you think you are either. You’re not as important as you think. You are also more important than you think. We are complex and changing all the time. So whatever you’re protecting in there, it’s already moving away. That way you want to be seen? That’s normal. Let it go. You will feel how hard you hold onto it when you try to let it go. But you can’t control others perceptions. And as a rule, people are thinking of us less than we imagine. They’re thinking about their own experience. They’re wondering whether we care about them, see them, love them.

So I’ll try to let go of some of those definitions: successful, good, energetic, kind, generous. And If I’m less of a stick in the mud because of it, then I may have helped everyone be a little happier and come and go in peace.

Attention reveals the “urge to action”

One common experience that comes from practicing attention is that we can notice the urge to action. We are used to living in patterns. Because we’ve been watching where our attention goes, we may become increasingly aware of the urges to action that activate those patterns. When I sit down to write, I usually feel the urge to snack, run errands, make phone calls, and empty the dishwasher. When I’m with clients, I am familiar with an urge to speak up and give them “better” vocabulary for the experience they’re describing. We could ask “why?” But a better question is “what?”

We could get to know this existence by asking, What is this urge that I notice? When we ask “why?” we may understand. We look to familiar sources and past experiences. That can put the question to rest: “Oh, yeah. That’s why.” But we find that we don’t behave differently.  The more I write, the more I find the Goldfish crackers disappearing from the pantry. So, what is this experience? Note that the question is not, What should I do to change this?

We can look into facets of experience using this attention we’re developing. When I feel compelled to tell clients that they should do X or Y, or I feel the urge to teach something, I try to turn attention to body, emotion, and thinking. I do the same thing when I notice my attention is elsewhere in practice. I try to open up to the experience, the what.

Want to learn more about how to practice attention and how to observe the urge to action? I’d love to talk with you.

How many times have I done this?

How many times have you done this?

Think about your job. How many times have you tried to get something done and had a similar experience of getting there? The obstacles were familiar. The questions you needed to answer? Similar. The allies and opponents. Some of them were in familiar camps, too. Or if the process was easier and you learned to bring people on board, did you feel that you’d compromised some values along the way? Did some of the satisfaction drain out of you because the cost of achievement felt higher than you’d imagined?

What if the way we go about getting what we want is an entrenched pattern? 

Leaders listen to feedback from all sources

“Whatever it is that’s happening in your life, that goes into the voice. And it becomes your instrument.”
– Cassandra Wilson

When we operate from the neck up at work, we’re missing a lot of data. In a meeting recently, I noticed that I was hunching. It was a good meeting. I didn’t notice my posture right away. But I began to wonder why I might be tight or anxious. What was muscle memory telling me and what did hunching express? It may reflect a story, a dimly remembered experience, a pattern of expectations and assumptions, a thought. It definitely carries some meaning. It confirms the principle that our experience is stored in the body as reactions and states.

When Cassandra Wilson says, “Whatever is happening in your life, that goes into the voice,” she’s stating a fact. Experience shapes us. But she’s also describing a purposeful practice she engages in: I shape experience. She goes on to say, “I’m just singing my life.” This is a great goal, rather than to have found at last that our lives have sung us.

Imagine the impression people were getting of me. My face is telling one story: I’m alert, interested, and comfortable. My posture says I’m anxious. Objectively, I didn’t have a care. But enough familiar conditions came together and I hunched. It’s the effect of some cause. It’s worth saying again: our habitual reactions are coded into physical responses and stored in the body. I didn’t think about hunching, I did it.zlata_contortionist_8

A lot of leadership advice might focus on managing anxiety and leadership presence. For straightforward impression management, that may do the trick. But developing tactics may be solving a problem we only partly recognize. My aim as a coach is to help people recognize the settings in which our response is a habit and a different one is needed. The more we notice the clues, the more options we have. They’re the key to real, intrinsic change. And for most of us, the discovery alone is liberating. It takes a lot of energy to maintain habits like the one I’ve been describing.

It also takes a lot of energy to manage them when they take over. Think of times when you’ve been exhausted by what seemed like little real effort. It may be that the effort lay in some version of controlling yourself while the body was seized by low-level fight, flight, or freeze reactions. Think of what you could do with that energy if you weren’t investing it in reactions that don’t serve your purpose.

Instead of breaking habits, pay attention to them

It’s been about 21 days since you started new year’s habits. How’s it going? Still tough? Me too.

First, research shows that there is no basis for the much repeated 21-day transformation period. It may take you longer to establish new habits. Some people needed nearly 250 days. Of course, picking up socks is easier than changing lifelong eating habits that contribute to high cholesterol. The average number of days to change a habit was 66. Cut yourself some slack if you’re not there yet. Don’t give up either.

Habits are forgotten patterns
Habits are patterns we no longer notice

It’s easy to talk about the habits that frustrate our efforts and seem set against us. I should exercise more. I should definitely sit at my desk less. But what about all the habits that I don’t notice? They’re the strongest. We think of them as part of who we are. In fact, we don’t think of them.

For example, I noticed that when someone compliments me, I deflect it and compliment them. It’s a small thing, but I could accept their generosity. My habit is has something to do with being uncomfortable with the compliment. Sure, it’s polite to return the favor, but it may look insincere. It may be insincere. I’m still thinking about what I’ve noticed and what it means. But I notice that it’s a habit that takes me over in certain situations.

The research also shows that changing the environment is crucial to changing habits. Environment not only facilitates the habit, it activates it. What we miss is that we are part of the environment. Our bodies become accustomed to experiencing the habit. Sitting down to my computer with a cup of coffee in the morning seems trivial, but I miss it if I have to go without it for a few days. I notice it’s absence on my thinking and my mood. I have tried to start my day other ways, but body and mind resist it. My body feels the comfort and reassurance of the habit. And for now, at least, this habit still serves my purposes.

To determine whether to change a habit, first notice the habit. Here are some ideas for noticing:

  • Disrupt a pattern. See what you like and dislike about it: take a different way to work, put your phone away at a moment when you’re likely to check it, turn off the car radio, have breakfast in another chair or room, start meetings differently.
  • Who’s that guy (gal)? Review any meeting or family meal. What did you do? What did you think? What did you feel? Is that usual for you?
  • Ask three people you trust about that thing you do or say: They already know your habits. You could ask, “If you were going to tell someone how to recognize, what would you say? ‘He’s the guy who typically_______?'”

The more you notice habits, the more you notice them. And that’s the foundation of considering how well they serve your goals and the people around you.

See The New York Times article that includes key research findings on habits here.

Executive coaching is about situational awareness

Where are you now and what does it mean? That’s the simplest way to describe situational awareness. What’s going on around me that might be relevant: what’s changing, who’s in and out, are things getting better or worse, what was the impact of the last change? You’ve got it.

What about your situation? Yes, the objective parts, but also you, in your mind and thoughts, and among your most important goals?

  • Are the unproductive meetings I have with the team a problem, or a symptom of a problem?
  • Is it possible that my assumptions about what’s right and best are holding me back?
  • Does my sense of accomplishment make me confident or complacent?
  • Am I using problem-solving approaches that aren’t sophisticated enough for our complex problems?

In the world of people, places, and things, situational awareness can be difficult to achieve. But it can be learned. How much more challenging is it to assess your situation in terms of assumptions, beliefs, biases, hopes, and dynamics with other people? Many people struggle through on their own. And many make real progress.

What is now ≠ What is possible

But some make the mistake of thinking that their limits are insurmountable obstacles. They’ve tried to get better or do things differently, only to learn the same lessons again. This can be especially hard for leaders and managers. Performing – getting better – is important to their careers. It’s also important to satisfaction that we all take from work.Climbing obstacle

If leaders can be honest, they’ll also admit that leading or managing well is important to the way they think of themselves. Obstacles that they can’t vault raise obvious questions: How can I fix this? But the hard question is, “If I can’t meet this leadership challenge, who am I now?”

Develop situational awareness faster

Leadership situational awareness can also be learned. If change – planned or otherwise – has made performance in a new situation critical, choosing an executive coach can help you see a wider perspective, interpret it’s meaning (and threats and opportunities), and experiment with targeted, meaningful action.

You may already have wise support among colleagues. But if not, the process can save the time of trial and error. You’ll learn a few things you might not have thought of. It can also help you make more of the lessons to be learned from new behavior. The coach you choose should be equipped with methods to raise your awareness and help you plan to take action using those new approaches.

The first question is still “Where am I now?” Armed with new insight, leaders can investigate “What does it mean?” which is the first step deeper into awareness of their situation.



Executive coaching is about effectiveness

What’s going to make you more effective? Learning, planning, process, new ideas? The efforts that matter are the ones that fit you: your work, your colleagues, your company, the market you’re in. You don’t want to be more effective in the abstract. You want to be more effective in a unique situation: yours. Coaching can address learning, planning, process, new ideas and more.  But unlike other ways to get them, it’s tailored to the context that matters: yours.

And we want to be effective when it’s most difficult. When the situation is complex, ambiguous, when the stakes are high, that’s when we really need to be at our best. And that is also when we recognize our limits. If the next challenge is a new kind of problem, the familiar solutions may invite more problems.

It can be challenging to recognize that we don’t know. It may raise questions in our minds about our ability for the role. That challenge, and the inner question about whether we are able to meet it, is almost universally normal. However, we only tend to hear about leaders’ doubts and fears when they are part of their success story much later. They are part of every story. That’s why leadership coaching is never really remedial.

Welcome to new territory

One of the ideas conspiring against us is “leadership.”  We may have already outgrown the Terra-Incognitalessons we took from role models. The ideas that helped us get here may not be sturdy enough for today’s challenges. And there’s a possibility that the leaders we admire are exercising capabilities we can’t see. Let’s face it. All leadership approaches have limits.

If you have a sense that you need to be more effective and can’t quite imagine how, you don’t need to be fixed. You’re in new territory. You haven’t been here before. You are in a position to discover a frontier and reshape what “leadership” means to you. Sure, it may call for learning and change. But you’ve been doing that along the road that led you to this meaningful new vantage point. And you’ve had plenty of help. In my experience, people who learn to ask for help are more effective and more satisfied than the so-called heroes who go it alone.

Invest in the unknown future

Effectiveness and meaning

How willing would you be to make an investment that offered modest initial returns and also triggered significant losses?  What if I told you that if you make that investment, in time you could seize opportunity that multiplied your gains by 10 or 100 times?

Self-awareness is that leadership investment.  Without it, leaders – really, anyone – is asking for trouble.  Everyone has biases and blind spots.  We are incomplete.  most-beautiful-shadow-pictures25

Initially, candid feedback stings. But it pays meaningful short term returns.  It becomes possible to see and start to fix the things that get in others’ way.  But when we get serious about knowing ourselves, we start to see what our clever minds conceal from us.  We’re…,well, bad.

Not evil or corrupt, in most cases. But we are something that we wish we weren’t.  And because we don’t want to be “that guy,” we resist knowing it.  Call it shadow if you want to.  From my experience, when we discover it, it stinks.  Of course: it’s been buried and festering.

When you learn that you compulsively avoid conflict or use anger as a club, for example, you’re only confirming what others know.  Except that now you can own it instead of it owning you.  It begins to move from “who I am” to “how I am,” which is the first step toward taking some control over it.

There are situations in which “being bad” isn’t very bad.  But for most of modern life and work, leaders need to know what’s hidden from their view.  It has the potential to take over in moments of anxiety and stress.  And those moments are certain to come.  Really knowing and being prepared for how we ambush ourselves is a way toward freedom to lead.



Delegation: It may not be what you think

Even for experienced leaders, delegation presents fresh challenges throughout their careers.  When you want something done and other person becomes responsible for doing it, a sophisticated exchange is taking place.  It’s easy not to notice the elements of potential success.

I asked  a colleague to develop some materials for a training program.  She’d studied the topic in graduate school, so I was confident she had the knowledge (and probably textbooks).  I wanted to open the minds of people attending the program.  My colleague wanted to be sure she didn’t screw it up.  What I got was less than I expected.  By a lot.  And that was my fault.  I had assumed that delegation was getting someone else to do what I would do.  That’s one of the things that delegation is not.  No merit badges for delegation

Delegation is the act of turning work over to someone else.  It’s that simple.  But there are some important things that delegation is not.

  • Delegation is not work distribution or task assignment).  If you are training or coaching someone to take over a task, you may be augmenting their job or role.  If you expect them to continue to do the work or carry out the responsibility, you may have delegated it at the outset, but you have made it their job when your intention is for them to keep the responsibility.
  • Delegation is not transferring low-level responsibilities to less experienced team members.  In one company, this was called “delegating down.”  No one wanted to be on the receiving end.  This is a case of moving work to the person for whom it is best suited.  That work shouldn’t have been on your desk in the first place.  But we all know, there’s plenty of work that others could do but which can be hard to let go of.
  • Delegation is not stepping away from the work that you delegate.  Maybe you’ve seen a rapper drop his mike and walk off stage.  That’s not you.  In fact, one of the challenges is deciding how and when to remain involved.  More on that to come.
  • Delegation is not an evaluative exercise for the person you’re delegating to.  The underlying assumption is that we, managers, believe that the person is capable.  We expect that they need to develop, round out, get opportunity to demonstrate capability.  Your job is to make the person more capable, bolster needed skills.  Little is gained when we dare the person to fail.

What makes delegation so challenging is that turning work over to another person carries layers of assumptions and expectations that are never discussed.

Over the next few weeks, you’ll be introduced to delegation in greater detail.  It’s:

  1. Developing people
  2. Transmitting responsibility
  3. Transmitting choice
  4. Communicating vision  and values

Next month, my colleague Kande McDonald and I will be hosting a webinar on delegation.  We’ll look beyond the four purposes of delegation above. We’ll give you some ways to investigate what’s under the hood that’s powering your delegation efforts, and a method for tuning them up. Watch for more on that in coming days.

Friday: Where did the week go?

Okay, it’s Friday.  You made it through the week again.  Time to make sense of what happened.

Some of the lessons of the week are obvious.  But leaders who are in it for the long haul reflect, not just about what they should do more of or less of.  They’re practicing the wide-angle view.  We learn the same lesson more than once because we interpret what happened the same way.  The wide-angle view is a habit of noticing more than we saw the last time we looked.

The wide angle view

Simple reflection demands a little time, attention, and a willingness not to judge too harshly.  It can be hard to pay attention to things we wish we hadn’t said, done, thought, and felt.  But that’s where a lot of important information lies.

Think about a moment you were very bored this week.  What was keeping you from getting engaged?  When did you get angry?  What was at risk?  I’d be glad to go on suggesting emotions and thoughts for you to consider.

But this is your reflection.  Welcome to Friday.

Try these questions out as you review and plan for next week:

What did I do that I’m proud of?

  • What work?
  • What thinking?
  • What interactions?

When was I not the kind of person I really want to be?

  • Too hard?
  • Too soft?
  • Disengaged?
  • Emotionally wrought up?

Instead of asking, “Why?” consider, “What did I need that I was trying to get out of that situation?”

How has a wider view changed my interpretation of what happened?