Really big transformation? It’s happening today

Look at that

Does leading start from the inside or from the outside? Is it what I think or what I do? What about the company, the people I work with?

I am confident that if you’re the CEO of a multi-billion dollar company, it’s not too late for you. If you’re an engineer with an idea, you too could be the founder of startup. You can be more effective and there are many ways to get help with that. Maybe you’re just beginning to recognize that you could do more than you’ve done until now.

 Leading is a commitment to transformation.

It takes time, yes, and it is happening today. You can guide the course of transformation in yourself and the world around you today.

Three ways simple gratitude can change your leadership

Here comes that gift again

Gratitude isn’t easy for me. I can’t help but notice how similar the word is to “platitude.” I have thought of it as thin, perfunctory, forced. I am changing my mind. And that’s changing the way I lead. It can change the way you lead, too.

What is it? Gratitude is acknowledging that something has been given.

Even before you go on reading, what do you notice when you read that sentence? This is not a rhetorical question. Keep the question fresh in mind and notice: what’s given?

Let’s assume for a moment that some things are given: they just happen. That’s no reason to be grateful in itself. Some of those things are problems, tragedies, or idiotic annoyances.

Whatever the causes, things that just happen are happening uniquely to you. When something happens to me, everything that went before contributes. That’s why it may feel familiar.Here comes that gift again

Yet, the sheer complexity of things means that no two moments are the same. Right now, we’re handed a once-in-a-lifetime gift. You could say that complexity conspires to give it to us. I didn’t make it happen. I can be grateful for that. It wasn’t a sure thing. But here it is.

Every one of these moments carries an opportunity to do something with it. It’s fresh and different from the one before. Sure, that’s subtle. But here comes another. And if I don’t act now, I can still act. Now. Or even now.

The three ways

Practicing gratitude turns our attention to opportunities. It helps us become more aware. “Here’s a moment that I can do something with, right now.” As a leader, I have choices.

It helps is develop faith in opportunity even if we feel have few or no options. We do have options. In this moment, or the next one. As a leader, I stay hopeful. Circumstances aren’t conspiring against me. They’re just circumstances.

Gratitude can also help us be a little more forgiving when we or others let a crucial moment pass. There’s another moment coming with its opportunity inside. So as leaders, we use that awareness of opportunity to encourage folks to act now. Or now. As a leader, I build up people to ensure they use their opportunities well.

I’m learning to worry less about leading skillfully. This moment is unfolding an opportunity. Developing awareness helps me recognize the slight differences that create them. It’s not just about what I should do, and not at all about what I can do perfectly. It is a new habit – or practice – that involves recognizing that a moment is unfolding an opportunity, which is the chance to take an action that will fit it.

And if I don’t get it just right, here comes another one for me to open.

Three ways to get learning into your bones

Forty eight percent of employees say they receive no formal training. You’re thinking, “That’s not good. But taking in the big picture, it’s conceivable.” So what?

First, get pragmatic. You have a fifty-fifty chance of getting formal training at work. Ask for it. Seek it out. Find programs outside the company and ask for funding. But don’t blame the company (or any “them”) if it’s not going to happen. And don’t hold a grudge.

You can build your own curriculum. Dorie Clark has offered some great ideas for DIY professional development. Shout out to her for pointing me to the Accenture study in which the opening data point is found.

Some learning is more challenging, though. You could call it the adaptive challenge of learning. We need to change our minds, but also ourselves. Some learning has to be chewed slowly and patiently if we’re going to really digest it and use all its nutrients.

Put hindsight to work and test it with foresight

Start holding your own regular after-action review. I call it reflection-in-action. Schedule it least once a week. Look back over the week, pick its high point and low point, and take a wider view of events.

The after-action review (AAR) comes out of military training. It’s designed to provide a well-rounded picture of what happened. The first step: review without blame or prejudice. Start with you.carrying a leg

Notice that the AAR focuses on what happened in the concrete world of objects and actions. You can go one better by adding what you thought, intended, felt, experienced. Mindset drives the choices we have and the choices we make. What can you see now, or imagine might be true, that you could not see then?

You can’t know what others thought or felt. But you can develop a hypothesis about what they were trying to achieve and why. Here’s where foresight helps. Set up a test of your hypothesis. Ask questions. Or plan to try a different approach in a similar situation. This is a test, so stay open to new data.

Bundle the learning with peers

You are not alone. Whatever you find challenging, others are struggling over it now. Others need to know what you want to learn.

Find some friends or people you trust. Decide on a a method for a small group peer coaching. (Here’s one good example from Marshall Goldsmith.) Start meeting regularly. For a small investment, you could even hire a coach to teach you a peer coaching method. In a couple of hours you will know the process and have seen how it works.

The kind of learning that gets into our bones will make us (very) uncomfortable from time to time. You want to work with peers who will both support you and keep you honest. If you don’t find a dream team immediately, don’t give up.

Get expert help but share the cost

I know that people get great value out of working with a coach individually, but you might say I have a bias. If you can enlist a few people with similar challenges and intentions, hire a coach for the group. It’s more economical and you’ll still get some individual attention. The big benefit in group coaching is that you don’t need to run the meeting. You can focus on the slow and steady digesting of learning and change. The coach will be responsible for focus, facilitation, and creating a productive discussion for learning.

What have you done to digest deep learning or big change and get it into your bones?

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.



Tip 2: Transforming difficult conversations

When we get into difficult conversations, one of us is suddenly uncomfortable. In fact, we feel threatened. To begin to change difficult conversations into threshold conversations, recognize and respond differently to the freaking out that ensues.Freaking out is normal

In toddlers, we expect pouting and silence, anger, tantrums. In grown ups, the toddler’s emotions still seize us. But they (usually) show up differently. You can probably recall when you were surprised by a difficult conversation. The jolt of adrenaline you felt proves that you were a little freaked out.

Tip 2: Accept that grown-ups freak out, too

This threat grabs us viscerally. You already know that’s the fight or flight response, courtesy the amygdala. In the 21st century, the real question isn’t, “What might kill me?” Instead we need to know, “What does this mean to me?” It’s the identity conversation (Difficult Conversations, Stone, Patton, Heen) that’s an unspoken part of every difficult conversation. “We conduct an internal debate,” the authors write, “over whether this means we are competent or incompetent, a good person or bad, worthy of love or unlovable. What impact might it have on our self-image and self-esteem, our future and our well being.” The sense of threat is subtler than the risk to life. It’s a risk to my life as I understand it, which is the oxygen I breathe. The risk is real. We are about to lose something.

We’re about to lose our sense of ourselves. Difficult conversations jump us in the alley and rough us up. So, you can expect a reaction.  Fortunately, research is emerging to can help us understand the subtleties of the threat we experience (and subject others to).  David Rock has identified five threats to our self understanding that trigger threat response or brain activity that mimics physical pain.






In future posts, I’ll suggest some tactics to help minimize the reactions when you threaten these five conceptions of self in others, and ways to step back from the grip of emotion yourself.

Register now image

Entrepreneurs: Controllable thoughts are key to resiliency

Entrepreneurs:  The data say they are great at starting companies that fail.  That takes resilience.  For those who love the thrill , there are few other ways to work that are as satisfying.  If they are not already resilient, entrepreneurs do well do bulk up on it. Thanks to Eleanor Chin, who recently talked to WEST members, I have some recommendations for leaders who would be resilient.

What it is and what it does

Resilience is the ability to grow and thrive in the face of challenges and to come back from adversity.

Resilience makes it possible to step back from the situation with a growing degree of equanimity.  I use equanimity to mean acceptance of a realistic view of my responsibility in the success and failure.  It includes an equally realistic view of forces beyond my control.  Some of the things outside any one person’s control are people, circumstance, big-picture dynamics like the economy and markets, and large scale systems like public policy and infrastructure.

The chopstick fly-catch

If you remember your Karate Kid, the student no longer needed the teacher when he could snatch the fly out of the air. Sure, it’s a cliche.  But one path to greater resilience, Daniel-san, is grasping thoughts out of thin air.  It’s how you can take control of them and create a different outcome.

When we look back at situations, we wonder why we did that.  Often it was counter-productive.  Maybe we’re ashamed. Why yell when I could have asked a question?  Why fire someone when I knew that the problem was more complicated?  That reaction can be traced backward to the event.  Take a look at the illustration below.

What Albert Ellis has shown is that if you identify the thought triggered by the activating event (his term), it’s also possible to address that thought with others that can dramatically affect the emotion that it produces.  And since emotion often evokes the bodily fight-or-flight response, it’s a way of breaking the grip of bodily survival response that, be honest, don’t serve us at work.ABC from BIG IDEA

To come back from adversity, we need to have some distance from the thoughts that automatically trigger unbalanced judgments about ourselves.  It can be tough to do in the heat of the moment.  It takes practice.  But when it begins to change reactions, it is also making you more resilient: less likely to be knocked off your feet by those reactions and more likely to get back up when you are.

If you’re working with coach, she can help you apply this method to day-to-day “activating events.”  If you’re not already working with a coach, I’d be glad to introduce you to the practice.

In the meantime, here’s a worksheet to help you think it through:  ABC worksheet

Be your own change leader: Boston Discover Meetup, Mar. 27


The difficulty of leading change in an organization comes from the change that takes place within.  That’s why two colleagues and I get together every month for a Meetup that’s all about tuning the instrument for change: you.

Boston Discover Meetup
Click to join the Meetup!

Because we are all busy, stressed, and over-committed, it makes sense to say, “I’ll think about change when I can breathe again.” And who are we kidding?  Sometimes that’s the best any of us can do.  But we believe that you could be missing the most important information about the change you want to make.  There’s crucial data in the little picture.  It’s staring back at you from something that happened this week.

With a little attention, reflection and the sense we make of it can power your change initiative.  You know the one:  It’s the vision you have of a future you as a remarkable start up co-founder or big company senior leader, or expert and guru, or workplace humanizer, social transformer, good father, mother, spouse, friend, or citizen.

Know a little to have a big impact

Boston Discover Meetup is a conversation.  It uses discussion and a methods of reflecting on experience that we’ve learned over the years.  It started because we wanted to recognize that reflection is important and under-appreciated.  We have  become a little community committed to helping each other have a bigger impact on the world.

We set aside an hour or so to catch our breaths, collect and make sense of meaningful moments from the recent past, and see ourselves more clearly.  We believe this frees us to be the change agent we want to be.  It’s a “course” in the sense that we’re learning, but ourselves and our experience are the text.  We’re not teachers, though.  We’re learners, too.
Greater Boston Discover

Is this Meetup for you?  The best way to find out is to give it a try.  But you might find it helpful if any of these statements resonate with you:

  • When it comes to generating creative solutions, I may be using the same old ideas.
  • I can see that I need to broaden my network and work with people unlike me (in my company, my industry), but I don’t know where to begin.
  • There’s nothing really wrong with my job or my life, but I’d like to feel the kind of zest I used to.  I wonder where it went?
  • I am feeling sort of stuck.  I have a goal that I’m blocked from achieving.  I want to get off the dime, but I don’t move.
  • I’m doing everything I can to bounce back from a setback.

Here’s a one-pager (pdf) that you can share with friends.  Boston Discover Meetup – Thursday March 27, 6:00 p.m. 

And here’s an introduction to the  Boston Discover Meetup founders (pdf).



Leadership Lessons: Quotes


So your first management role was as CEO.  Any early speed bumps in leading people?

One classic mistake I made was that I assumed everyone was as driven as I was and had the same standards.  I made a lot of hiring mistakes, because at the beginning you assume so much about about someone and you tend to assume that they’re just like you.

What’s your favorite part about being a CEO [or insert your leadership role here]?

You’re constantly learning about yourself and learning about people and learning about life, really.  Every single day, you’re put to the test.

Lisa Falzone, CEO of Revel Systems

From Corner Office column, Adam Bryant in The New York Times


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.