Leaders guard against the enemy of experience.

In times of rapid change, experience could be your worst enemy.  ~Jean Paul Getty

Another year will soon be added to your years of experience on your resume. As we embark on 2018, it might be helpful to consider how you’ll use that experience to benefit your future.

More than 20 years ago I worked for an organization that was thriving, a leader in the industry. But times have changed; the industry this organization is in has changed dramatically over the past decade. Add to that a completely different economy, all their years of experience truly might be disabling them from adapting to rapid change. They are half the size they were a decade ago and struggling to stay alive. Nearly all of the current leaders have been there for more than 20 years. Have all their years of experience become their worst enemy?

Does the law of diminishing returns apply to experience? Is there a point when not just an organization’s, but a leader’s experience become more of a hindrance than an asset? Can we identify when experience slows the ability to change and adapt to a dynamic environment?

Experience can lead to a treasure trove of wisdom and insight, but it can also lead to unforeseen quicksand that stops us in our tracks and hinders our ability to see more than a few feet in front of us. Is our experience broadening our vision as if we’re looking at the world through both a telescope and a microscope or has it gradually become blinders that narrowed our vision?

How might you know the difference? You could ask a few questions.

  • When was the last time you tried a new approach to a common problem or challenge, instead of what you’ve always done?
  • When was the last time you learned to do something new?
  • When was the last time you really listened to someone just entering your field?
  • When was the last time you really listened to your customers?
  • When was the last time you really studied your competition?
  • When was the last time you asked what your business (or department) would look like if you were starting your business today?

Experience is one of those things that happens over time, gradually, and when things happen gradually we don’t always recognize the affect it has on us. We become the proverbial frog in the kettle. Is your experience creating a normalized response, or is it creating a sense of curiosity to continue to explore, ask questions, and remain nimble for whatever change comes your way?

Experience is not inherently bad! Like with many things, it depends upon how you use your experience—as a lens of curiosity or as blinders that have narrowed your perspective.

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Are most leaders assertive?

Let’s build bridges, not walls. ~Martin Luther King, Jr.

Sometimes I cover a topic so frequently that I slip into default mode and stop really thinking about what I’m saying. That’s been the case recently with the topic of assertive communication.

Like with many things, when we think about leaders who practice aggressive or passive communication we tend to think about extremes. The person who needs to yell in order to get their point across, or the person who withdraws when a conversation begins to feel even a little confrontational. There’s a lot more that falls into both categories of being aggressive or passive. Here are just a couple of quick examples.

Two signs of aggressive behavior (source: workplacebullying.org). 1) Rationalization. Justifying or defending your behavior or making excuses for acting in a particular manner. 2) Minimization. Minimizing, discounting, or failing to address someone’s legitimate concerns or feelings.

Two signs of passive behavior (source: Harvard Business Review, June 2014). 1) You didn’t share your honest view on a topic, even when asked. 2) You got upset with someone, but didn’t let them know why.

These few examples (there are many more) certainly broaden the range of what might be aggressive or passive communication.

For clarification, these are the basic definitions that I frequently use.

Aggressive: people who want to achieve their goals without any regard for the needs of other people.

Passive: this is based on conformity and compromising your own values and needs in order to avoid confrontation.

Assertive: these communicators are confident in delivering their message and work hard to create a mutually satisfying environment.

What has really caught my attention recently is the last phrase of assertive communication: work hard to create a mutually satisfying environment. How many leaders do we see today following that description? It feels like we’ve moved much farther toward winning at all cost rather than working hard to create a mutually satisfying environment, in others words, working hard to create a win-win scenario.

Maybe it’s because it really is hard work and it’s easier to either ignore the other party’s needs, or to conform to avoid confrontation. To model assertive communication, leaders need to work hard to create win-win scenarios. In the words of Martin Luther King, Jr., “Let’s build bridges, not walls.”

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4 Ways Leaders Can Make Wiser Decisions

The more decisions we’re asked to make, the less cognitive capacity we have available to assess the alternatives and make good, nuanced choices. ~Caroline Webb

We’re now knee-deep into the holiday season. But like a portion of the population, I’m still focused on the illusive time of year known as “open enrollment.” I’m part of the population who does not benefit from a group health insurance plan. I’m also at a point that I knew I would face sooner rather than later. I have a grandfathered health insurance plan, which means I have had most of the benefits similar to a group plan. However, the premiums have increased dramatically, to say the least.

I have felt as if I’ve been riding a freight train headed for the edge of a cliff and I’m trying to calculate the very last moment that I can jump off the train before it catapults off the edge of a mountain. The signal, at least for me, is that in the coming year I would be paying more for my health insurance than my housing expenses, if I choose to keep my current plan and hang on to that freight train for one more year. Or, do I make the decision to jump off, and what are my options?

I’m turning to the wisdom of Caroline Webb to help me make that decision. What she suggests in her book How to Have a Good Day is practical advice that leaders could use to make a multitude of decisions. Here are three points that I think are especially helpful.

  • Notice when your automatic system is talking. If you’re saying to yourself something like, “It’s obviously…” “Everyone agrees.” “There’s only one real option.” then your automatic system may be making the decision as opposed to thoughtful consideration.
  • Adopt a cross-check routine. Any one of these questions could become your cross-check. “What would be another way of seeing this?” “If you had to raise a concern, what would you say?” “What would be another option, and what do its advantages tell me?” “If this goes horribly wrong, what will have caused that?”
  • Resolve dilemmas with great ease. Ask “What could I do?” rather than “What should I do?”

Putting into practice the tools of strategic planning – post-it notes – I’ll answer these questions with as many options that come to mind and post them up on the wall. Then I’ll cluster common themes, step back, and see what feels like the best option.

Then I’ll heed Webb’s fourth suggestion.

  • Watch out for system fatigue. If you feel impatient, distracted, or clumsy, take a mindful pause.

After sleeping on it, talking with a number of friends who are in a similar situation, and revisiting the options with a clear head, then I’ll make a decision.

Health insurance is my current dilemma, as a leader, you may have your own dilemma or list of decisions as you close out 2017 and look to 2018. Maybe Webb’s insights can help you, as well, make some wise decisions that are good, nuanced choices.

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A Leader’s Thanksgiving

Spiritual attentiveness is less a matter of concentration than contemplation. It is releasing distractions, preoccupations, and prejudgments and being available for absorption. ~David G. Benner

Thanksgiving—a day that we might look forward to, or not. I once heard that Thanksgiving eve is one of the most popular nights for people to seek out a local bar. The reason it’s so popular, to take the edge off before facing family members they may see only once a year.

Quoting an article in U.S. News, “The reality of Thanksgiving for some Americans is rife with family tension, arguments, sorrow and loss. Others face the stress of hosting, or the dread of being asked questions about their lives that they are not ready to answer.”

The point I want to make here is not to get everyone depressed before the Thanksgiving holiday. Instead, I want to encourage leaders to take a few moments to pause and consider David Benner’s quote to “release distractions, preoccupations, and prejudgments and be available for absorption.”

I recently used a TED Talk, 10 Rules to Have a Great Conversation, by NPR host Celeste Headlee when teaching about effective communication. Three of the rules I think will be especially relevant as we all gather on Thanksgiving.

  • Don’t pontificate – assume you have something learn.
  • Don’t equate your experience with theirs. Maybe it’s been a tough year, or a great year. Either way, let them have their experience.
  • LISTEN. Celeste says this is the most important of all 10 rules, and the most difficult.

Celeste closes out her brief talk on how to have a great conversation by repeating the statement, “be prepared to be amazed.”

If we can release distractions and prejudgments and make ourselves available for absorption, then we’re much more likely to be amazed. A leader’s Thanksgiving can be one of encouragement, of hopefulness, of being available for absorption.

One final quote about listening that really caught my attention. Alan Alda said, “Listening is being able to be changed by the other person.” Wow, that’s really listening and being available.

Leaders, this week let’s be thankful, let’s be attentive to others, let’s listen, and let’s be prepared to be amazed as we gather together.

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INVEST don’t SPEND your leadership development budget!

Leadership and learning are indispensable to each other. ~John F. Kennedy      Change is the end result of all true learning. ~Leo Buscaglia

Every now and then I feel the need to get on my soapbox, and this is one of those times. Several years ago I was engaged by a client to do a series of leadership development trainings. When I came to do the final training, I did a quick “pop quiz” on the first training which was several months prior. What did I learn? That they hadn’t learned (i.e., retained) much of anything!

When I did the first training I was told that it was the highest rated (satisfaction scores) training they had offered. So we all patted ourselves on the back and probably shared numerous high-fives. But did it stick, not really. So the investment quickly became just another expense.

But there is a better way!

I’ve often believed that one-shot training workshops provide short-term inspiration, but not a great deal of long-term improvement (i.e., change). DDI (Development Dimensions International) together with HR.com and the Institute for Human Resources conducted a study of 300 HR managers. DDI’s Richard Wellins, Ph.D, said “The study points out the best training incorporates learning journeys of multiple events that tie together over time.”

If you need more proof, Dartmouth’s Sean H. K. Kang reported in his extensive research on learning: “Evidence indicates that spacing can enhance meaningful learning that generalizes to new situations.” In other words, learning that is strategically spaced out over time enhances our ability to actually apply the content to problem solving and new contexts. Isn’t that the ultimate outcome of learning, to be able to apply it in real situations?

Unfortunately, the default for training and learning in organizations has become more about checking something off a to-do list so we can say that training was offered. And less about investing in real learning.

Now, fast-forward a few years. I’m in the midst of an opportunity to make a difference. I’m facilitating training, spaced out over time, and I’m repeating a common theme/thread throughout the entire year process. I’m already seeing more meaningful learning.

With many things today, we can have instant gratification. We can text a friend and get an instant reply, we can order something and have it delivered within hours or even minutes, the answer to nearly any question is at our fingertips if we have an Internet connection. However, this same expectation of instant gratification is unrealistic for real learning. Learning takes time, repetition, and practice.

Even if you don’t manage a training budget but want to enhance your own abilities; invest in learning. Find an opportunity that will take you on a learning journey of repetition and practice over time.

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