#18 – Build Capability Before You Need It

This is #18 in the series, “50 Ideas Worth Fighting For.” Here’s another one that I like a lot.


Since we know that nothing lasts forever, a healthy, necessary and realistic point of view for leaders to take is that whatever is working right now will not necessarily work next year. Rationally, we understand that. Emotionally, however, we are too frequently loathe to question ourselves when things are going well as if we might jinx our good fortune. Harry Potter taught an entire world of wizards that it was not only ok to “speak his name” (Voldemort, that is) but it was actually necessary to do so to have any chance of defeating him.

What follows are the direct and specific actions I believe leaders must take if they are to be successful in building capability for the future. I have divided the list into three categories: Developmental, Strategic and Cautionary.

DEVELOPMENTAL

1. Go to therapy. Don’t walk, run. Since many leaders are narcissists and all leaders have narcissistic qualities they are more fragile than they appear to be. (Both Michael Maccoby and Manfred Kets de Vries have written extensively and powerfully on the subject.) When they are wounded by criticism and questioning of their leadership they often don’t heal very quickly and may actually go to great lengths to even the score. As you know, it can get pretty ugly. And, since everything else I am about to advocate involves building infrastructure to question the system, leaders need to build a tough and thoughtful resilience to bear it well. They need to learn not to take every new idea for improvement as an indictment of their leadership but rather as a response to an invitation to keep getting better. For that to happen, those narcissistic wounds are better worked out in the therapist’s office than in the conference room. (If you’re wondering if someone’s a narcissist you can always just ask them.)

2. Send all key leaders to therapy. For all of the reasons stated above.

3. Or at least provide them with highly skilled coaching support. A great coaching relationship can and often does feel “therapeutic” (one senior leader I worked with referred to it as “couching”). The key is to have a safe, trustworthy partner to work through the holistic challenges of work, home and health. All necessary subjects for an effective executive to discuss and work on regularly.

4. Be more human than otherwise. That is to say, thoughtfully reveal your vulnerability, things you’re working on, the challenges you face. Items #1-3 will be very helpful in equipping you to do this. When you become accessible to your team as a human being you increase your power by strengthening your connections. Those connections become the lifeline for communication. And communication is at the heart of learning how to get better.

5. Treat people like adults. Respect them enough to be transparent about what’s going on. Be clear about what you need. Expect them to do the same for you. You’re not their mom or dad. You don’t have to protect them from the truth. You do need to give them a chance to rise to the occasion. If they can’t or don’t you’ll have the information you need to support them in their own development.

STRATEGIC

6. Make every leader accountable for a meaningful annual report of what needs to change in his or her function in the coming year. There is always something to improve. ALWAYS. Building in this kind of evaluative, reflective process expands our capacity for having hard discussions and normalizes the process of doing so. And this is to be done in open dialogue with the whole team, starting with the people who are actually doing the work each day. A simple question for them: if you could change one thing that would allow you to be more effective in fulfilling your job responsibility, what would it be? (Note: if you don’t get useful answers the first time around it’s probably because they don’t trust you enough to be honest. Earn that trust by keeping at it in a sincere and authentic way. If that’s hard for you, see item #1.)

7. Determine how you will change first. No meaningful change happens until the leader decides to change. Figure out what change in your behavior will help bring about the larger change initiative and get busy. “Be the change you want to see in the world” is not an invitation but an admonition.

8. Hold Pre and Post-mortem meetings for every project. In the pre meeting ask as many people as possible what they think could go wrong. Learn to anticipate the bumps and get your team ready to respond. The post-mortem is more of a no-brainer but usually overlooked because we’re already off to the next thing. Even a couple of simple questions – again, asked of all involved – will build openness and a greater capacity for learning: What worked? What didn’t? What did you learn about yourself and our team? 

9. Expect leaders to coach their teams and teach them how to do so. Here’s a fine job description for a key leader: spend time everyday understanding the business and how all the pieces fit together (educate your team about same); critically consider what’s working and what’s not in your function and engage your team in frequent dialogue about same; make plans for improvement by seeking as much perspective as possible; assign responsibilities to follow through on plans; provide coaching support and resources to ensure success; recognize and celebrate publicly and tangibly. This is a talking, engaging, coaching, critical thinking, relationship job. It is not a protect, defend, isolate, manipulate, scheme and otherwise preserve hierarchical hegemony job.

CAUTIONARY

10. Don’t pretend to do any of the above. Up to now, I’ve offered suggestions on what to “do.” Here’s my first and only “don’t do.” Any inauthentic attempt at any of the above will be sniffed out immediately and seen for the manipulative tactic that it is. You gotta mean it or don’t even bother. Good people will leave and you will be surrounded by scared people all too willing to tell you that you’re great and that what “we’re doing” is just right and will certainly last forever.

Until it doesn’t and you end up in therapy anyway.


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#11 – There is no “There”

This is #11 in the series, “50 Ideas Worth Fighting For”


There is no “there.” There is only next.

In the domain of human development and learning, arrival is a myth.

Awareness and action are the currency of the realm.

It’s a currency that cannot buy completion or entitlement to a finish line. It can only buy the ability and the opportunity to keep moving forward.


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#10 – “Development” is a Verb

This is #10 in the series, “50 Ideas Worth Fighting For.”


Development is an action.

Like any effective action it requires insight and planning (reflection) to precede it but, at its core, development is about forward movement and progress. This is not to convey an image of “leaps and bounds” but of an active progression of small steps, the accumulation of which lead to new insights and behaviors which you can name as “developmental progress.”

I do not believe in the distinction between “personal” and “professional” development. Development is always holistic. What occurs in one element of your life occurs in all of the others as well.

The good news about that is that the actions one takes in any area of life will ripple across those perceived boundary lines and have impact on a much larger scale.

Development requires a commitment to remain in conversation with the primary themes that are yours to know and own and to gain more and greater understanding about those themes throughout your life.

This is action with no discernible end point which is why, needless to say, it can be very difficult to keep moving forward. These moments or periods of regression make a lot of sense. Past reactions and behaviors are known and comfortable. Establishing new reactions and behaviors can be exhausting and when you’ve had enough, you backslide into the comfort of the old.

At the very least, a regression serves as a reminder that you have moved forward, if not yet to a sustainable level, enough to indicate that it is possible to do so! And this is where remembering that development is a verb is so important. Unless you have given it away, you always retain your agency to act in your own best interest. You always get to choose to take the next step.

Small actions are still actions. And the right small actions, over time, have the potential to lead to compelling change.


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#4 – Know Your Strengths

Between now and March 22, I am happy to share “50 Ideas Worth Fighting For.”


What are you doing when you are at your best?

What are you doing when you feel the most accomplished, competent and confident? What are you doing when you feel energized, when time flies by, when your work is not work but a natural extension of yourself?

As you answer these questions, you are describing your strengths.

And your ability to do so – with clarity and conviction – is the best chance you have to make sure you get to use them as much as possible.

We are shy about our strengths. There is a common cultural conditioning to be experts at naming our deficiencies and novices at naming our gifts. This is a huge mistake, a massive cultural gap that will only narrow when you and I decide that it’s not just ok but necessary to name, to own, and to live out the very best of who we are.

We too often defer to others – especially authority figures, especially bosses – to tell us what we should be good at. Some know better than to do this but most do not. And so, it’s our responsibility to define them first so that we can be our own best advocates for doing more fulfilling work and living more fulfilling lives. It’s our responsibility to make it clear so that we can teach others how to work with us for mutual and sustainable success.

If after reading this you are scratching your head, wondering what your strengths are, go ask a few trusted colleagues and friends. Go ask them for examples of when you are at your best. Ask them to describe your strengths. And then listen, really listen, and trust what you hear.

The sooner you do so, the sooner you’ll give up on the temptation to fit the square peg of yourself into the round hole of that “great” opportunity. The sooner you do so, the sooner you’ll discover the consolation of awareness that leads to insight, and the insight that leads to action.


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#3 – Know Your Values

Between now and March 22, I am happy to share “50 Ideas Worth Fighting For.”


Our values guide our decision-making. Clear values make it possible for us to assess any significant question (Should I move there? Take that job? Work with/for those people? Build a stronger relationship with this person? Fight for this idea? Spend my money on this initiative, project or idea?) and make a decision that resonates as true and appropriate to who we are and what we stand for. It’s the feeling of clarity, especially with the big decisions, that allows us to get to sleep at night once we’ve made them.

Your values, whether you understand them explicitly or not, are always at work. One simple way to find this out is to do a monthly review of your calendar and your bank statements. Undoubtedly, you will see a pattern of time and money spent that reflects your value system.

For example, if you notice a lot of time spent at the gym and a regular investment in workout gear, chances are you value fitness or health or wellness, however you choose to name it.

If you love to exercise but notice that you only ever do it with your friends and family, chances are that in addition to valuing fitness you also value relationships or community or an active social life, again however you choose to name it.

So, let’s run a little further with this idea that you are a person who, above all else, values your health and your relationships. Along comes an opportunity to advance within your company. This new role brings an expanded and exciting set of responsibilities, along with the requirement that you travel four days a week, three weeks out of every month.

Knowing your values of health and relationships does not mean that you would refuse the new work opportunity outright but it would help you to evaluate it in a more thoughtful and comprehensive way. You might take it as a challenge to get creative with your exercise and eating habits on the road. You might also invest more energy in coming up with new connection opportunities with friends and family both while you’re on the road and off it.

You might also decide that the new opportunity will satisfy another one of your values, let’s call it achievement, and that for the next six months you are going to allow that value to supersede the others, while keeping an eye on what happens to your health and relationships. You might decide, of course, not to take the job because achievement has never been as important to you as health and relationships. 

Whatever you decide, the point is that you know how to think about this decision, both critically and emotionally. You can do so because you have taken the time to conduct a values inventory, to identify, define and rank your values in a way that makes them readily available as perhaps the most important tool in your life management toolbox.

It takes courage to name and live your values. Doing so means that in addition to saying “yes” to a handful of core beliefs, you must also say “no” to many others. This can feel isolating, especially when others choose values that are not the same as your own. But over time it is nothing less than energizing and powerful to live a life that is guided by what matters most to you.

To me, this is the path to mature and lasting happiness.


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The Consolation of Completion

I am a master of getting things done. Sometimes, it’s even stuff that has to do with my  growth, learning and development as a human being.

I am a master of knocking out the dishes, wiping the counters clean, spinning over to the couch to fold the laundry. I am a master of getting that laundry distributed and put away. I am a master at mowing, edging and weed pulling. I am a master at unpacking my bag after a trip, dirty clothes in the basket, clean clothes hung up or put away.

I am a master at doing all of the things that have a clear beginning, middle and end.

Checking those things off my list feels fantastic. It fills me with feelings of pride and the clear knowledge of having made a contribution to my household and family.

Every single one of those things is important. And every single one of those things is a convenient hiding place from the real work of becoming the better version of myself that I aspire to be.

That work cannot be charted on a task list but only on the pages of a much bigger book, messy scribbles writing a messy story, one that keeps inviting me back to make a bigger mess and to trust that the mess, the incompleteness is, in fact, the evidence of becoming.

Everything else is consolation.


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This is it

Every day – and I mean every day – I spend some time thinking about and feeling the emotions related to the following:

  1. Some event or person in my past that hurt me or that I perceive as having hurt me.
  2. Concern/anxiety about the future. Will there be enough? Will I be able to provide? Will I have the courage to do what I most want? Et cetera, ad nauseam.
  3. What I am doing right now that excites and energizes me, the contribution I am making, the purpose I am living into, the possibility I am fulfilling, the lives I am changing, starting with my own.

A good day is one in which numbers one and two are kept to a minimum and number three ascends with vigor. A bad day is when I let the past and/or the future determine the quality of the present. And, more importantly, my presence.

Replaying the difficulties of the past – especially by casting oneself as a victim of circumstance – as if doing so will yield a different outcome, only robs you of the opportunity to create something new in the present.

Anxiously anticipating the future – especially through some story about insufficiency or inadequacy – when all you can control is your own behavior, your own choices, is energy lost to fear of the unknown.

There is nothing you can do to change the past. There is nothing you can do to predict the future.

What you can do is decide in this moment, at this place and with these people, that you will become as clear as possible about these things:

  1. Who you are.
  2. Where you are going.
  3. The next step you will take.
  4. And, how much you are willing to love and serve the person in front of you right now.

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The Delight of Solitude

“Solitude is painful when one is young but delightful when one is more mature”
— Albert Einstein


For years now I’ve been contemplating why it is that I am increasingly comfortable with and even possessive of my time alone. It’s unknown territory for me, a long way from where I started.

Between the ages of 18 and 35, I could fairly be described as an “insecure extrovert.” I didn’t want to be around other people, I needed it in an unhealthy way.

I didn’t know how to be alone and it made me restless, anxious and uncertain when I had to be. Since this was still the pre-Smartphone era I didn’t have an easy form of escapism to dull the pain. I just had to feel it. And I hated it.

Other people served as a distraction from the unresolved questions in my heart and mind and the difficult feelings that accompanied them. In many cases I used other people to escape those feelings leading to unhealthy and short-lived relationships. It was a pattern broken by marriage but not resolved by it. In fact, had I not sought help in reconciling my inner life I’m sure my marriage would have suffered great damage, becoming an even more painful casualty.

Doing the work on myself not only made me a better friend, colleague, husband and father but it gave me the peace of mind and heart to be better with and to myself. That made it easier to be with myself and allowed me to transform from an “insecure extrovert” to a thoughtful and even loving one.

This is possible now because the time I spend in solitude refreshes me and heals me. It equips me to be more positive with and more generous to those I care about, instead of requiring them to feed my insatiable insecurity.

Increased comfort with solitude as we age makes sense because our experience of life is simplified. We’ve found our place and way in the world and the comfort of that leads to a quiet sense of security within the known certainties of change.

In my personal experience that increased comfort is also the equity earned from an investment in reconciliation; binding old wounds and enlarging my heart.

That’s something to be thankful for, today and every day.


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A Development Exercise for Your Weekend Enjoyment

Respond to this statement five times: “I am the kind of leader who…”

Then, respond to this statement three times: “Right now, my team is…”

Finally, respond to this statement just once: “The most important thing I can learn next is…”

Once you’ve completed your responses, decide which item about your team is most important to address right now and which item from your leadership attributes should be employed to address it.

For example, if I decide that “Right now, my team is struggling in their transition to a new process” is what needs to be focused on and I also have written down that “I am the kind of leader who invests a lot of time and energy coaching my team” I have just identified the beginnings of my approach to addressing this need.

Ideally, once you have your responses in place you will talk them over with someone. This helps you flesh out your thinking and test drive the “why” of your ideas.

(Optionally, you can replace “leader” with father, mother, friend, colleague or any other role of importance to you right now.)

I hope this is helpful. Please let me know what you think.


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A Brief Q&A

Q: How do you build a motivated team?
A: Hire people who are already motivated.

Q: How do you build an energized and creative accounting firm?
A: Hire energized and creative accountants.

Q: How do you create a dynamic and responsive customer service team?
A: Hire dynamic and responsive customer service professionals.


Recruiting and hiring is everything. There are no examples I know of where the wrong people ended up creating the best thing.

Yes, there are times when you can’t hire the level of experience you want. But you can always train for competence. What you can’t do is motivate someone who doesn’t want to be motivated or expect people to be energized, creative, responsive and dynamic when they have demonstrated none of those qualities in their interview.

I believe in development as much as anyone. And I have learned first-hand that investing in development is a decision to play a long game. If you don’t start with the right ingredients you will be waiting forever.

And you don’t have that kind of time.


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