How big is your margin?

Create margin for opportunities that you can’t predict. ~Craig Groeschel

A margin for opportunity. I moved 18 months ago. This gave me the opportunity to purge, reorganize, and rethink all of my “stuff.” I recall sharing with a friend how I had organized a closet and there was still open space. She replied with, “so you have space to put more things”? My response was, “no, so I can always have open space. Seeing open space is freeing.”

The context of Groeschel’s quote was in reference to the uncertainty of the past 18 months. He said that “a good leader plans for unforeseen challenges. A great leader plans for unexpected opportunities.” The idea of creating margin for opportunity is harder than it sounds.

Margin: think guide, not a contract.

I work with a number of clients on strategic planning who treat their plan as if it was a contract as opposed to a guide. A contract allows for little, or even no, margin. That’s likely an indication of a good contract. Strategic planning, however, should clarify an end point and provide a direction. Unforeseen challenges will occur and if you can’t keep your “contract,” you create a sense of failure and loss in direction. But if that same strategic planning is a “guide,” you now have a little elbow room for unexpected opportunities.

We cram everything full with very little room to maneuver. From our strategic plans, to business models, to personal calendars, daily routines, and yes, even our closets. We’ve left very little room for the all-important margin.

How to create margin for unexpected opportunities?

Use the power of 3.

At the beginning of each week, identify the 3 most important things you need to accomplish. Put those 3 things on your calendar in all caps. Then leave space/margin for the unexpected.

At the beginning of every day, determine 3 things you will accomplish that day, and make them realistic. For example, instead of “complete X report,” maybe a more realistic item might be “create the outline for X report.” Allow yourself to leave a little margin every day.

In the big picture (whether that’s your organization’s strategic plan, or your personal goals), sum it up into 3 bullet points? The 4 Disciplines of Execution references identifying the wildly important. And yes, they say that what is wildly important should be no more 3. Decide what’s wildly important and then leave yourself a little margin. Creating margin means intentionally leaving space for the unknown.

Making the mental shift from unforeseen challenges (i.e., a pandemic) to unexpected opportunities (i.e., a whole new way to work), is another example of being adaptive and leading with bold grace.

From Diversity to Inclusion

Diversity: the art of thinking independently together. ~Malcolm Forbes

Diversity. An Islamic Proverb states “A lot of different flowers make a bouquet.” I’ve experienced this firsthand. For some reason, I had the habit of buying a bunch of flowers (notice I said “bunch” and not “bouquet”) of all the same kind. Recently, due to the purchase of a ceramic gadget at an art fair that allows anyone to artfully arrange flowers, I started purchasing bouquets of different flowers. Interestingly, I have found myself pausing as I walk by the table to admire the assortment of colors and textures. It reminds me of “the art of being different together.”

DEI (diversity, equity, and inclusion) has become a frequent topic in blogs, podcasts, and boardrooms. It seems that while more leaders may have the desire for DEI, they struggle with how to implement the actual practice of DEI. This week I heard an example that I thought was both easy to implement and very effective.

Diversity Put Into Practice

How do you show up as an inclusive leader? Carla Harris, Vice Chairman, Managing Director & Senior Client Advisor for Morgan Stanley provides a very practical (and easily doable!) example.

Harris says to do this at least the next four times you begin a meeting with your team.

  1. Start by saying something like, “Here’s the conversation (whatever topic or challenge you need to address) we’re going to have today. I’ll get us started.”
  2. Then say something like, “I’d like you, Abby, to add on to this conversation.”
  3. “Bill, I’d like you to add on to what Abby has said.”
  4. “Shonda, I’d like you to completely blow-up this argument, play the devil’s advocate, what’s the other argument, where are the gaps.”
  5. “Damien, I’d like you to add on to what Shonda has done.”

Harris says by doing this you’ve done two key things. First, you have essentially said, “I see you” because you invited each person into the conversation, by name. Second, you have said “I hear you” because you invited them to support or refute the argument on the floor. By doing this, you have ensured that everyone is equally invested (i.e., included).

Make the Mix Work

Andres Tapia said, “Diversity is the mix. Inclusion is making the mix work.”

My ceramic gadget helped me to make the mix of flowers work (i.e., become a bouquet). Just as Harris’ practice is an example of how to move from diversity to inclusion and also make the mix work.

A leader who enables a team to “think independently together” and “make the mix work,” is leading with bold grace.

Compassion Competence?

Compassion competence is an emergent pattern of collective noticing in a generous way, collective feeling and collective acting to alleviate someone’s suffering. ~Sally Maitlis

Compassion is still kind of a new concept in the workplace. Many of us still ascribe to the “work ethic” expectation of the early industrial revolution years. Always show up for work, regardless of how you feel. I can’t count the number of times I went to work with a cold and subsequently accomplished very little other than sharing my germs with all of those around me. But that was the mentality and the culture. While I believe the pandemic may have helped us rethink that logic about our physical health, I’m not as confident that we’ve done as well with our expectations around our mental health.

Part of shifting our paradigm about mental health in the workplace is to think and act with more compassion. Fortunately, compassion competence is something that can be developed.

The basics tenets of compassion competence is simply to notice and to act. As Adam Grant said, it’s “common sense, but not common practice.” Also, note Maitlis’ definition that it’s not to fix someone but to alleviate their suffering.

As is stated frequently, in the U.S. almost half of adults (46.4 percent) will experience a mental illness during their lifetime. Greenway Therapy points out, “that number only accounts for diagnosed mental illness but not for simply needing some support to get through a bit of life muck. The human need for support is 100%.”

What does noticing and responding to others’ pain look like?

Compassion competence from a policy perspective
  • Give people Fridays (or a day) off to spend time with loved ones and to recharge
  • Offer free, private counseling sessions
  • It’s okay to call in sick, and it’s okay to call in sad too
Compassion competence from a practice perspective
  • Dedicate a portion of a weekly huddle to emotional support
  • Schedule a monthly team check-in to see how people are doing (emotional acknowledgement)
  • Notice and mention another person’s emotional state. It may start with paying attention when a coworker’s responsiveness dips or an employee’s mood lags.
  • Leaders show their own vulnerability. When leaders model that it’s ok to struggle, that makes it okay for others to ask for help.
  • Create a culture where employees feel safe enough to share how they’re feeling and not be judged for it. And know that the result of doing so is actually going to result in support. Colleagues may step in and say, Hey, I got your back. Or, the boss might say, okay, let’s find another way to get this done.

Lead with bold grace and find one way to demonstrate compassion competence this week.

From Violated Expectations to Shared Expectations

An organization is stronger if it is bound by love rather than by fear. ~Herb Kelleher

I sat at a client’s dining room table. Three business partners had hired me to help develop their business plan. One of the partners had confided in me an intense frustration with the partner salary arrangement. While gathered around the dining table, in the home of one of the partners, I brought up the salary arrangement and asked how they were all feeling about it. Silence. I went around the table asking each partner if they were okay with it. Everyone said it was fine. I probed one more time, and still, nothing.

Violated Expectations

Over the years, I’ve listened to many employees tell me their real frustrations with their supervisor and/or organization. So much frustration that they were planning to leave. But, they also had no intention of actually telling anyone at their organization how they really felt.

A CFO worked at a nonprofit for decades. This CFO prided themselves on being the person who “made the tough decisions.” Those “tough decisions” were perceived as being controlling, insensitive, and rude. But, no one ever said anything, they all just let the unhelpful behavior continue.

Early in my career, an employee would literally hide when he saw me coming. I had no idea that my management style was causing him great anxiety. Until, one day a colleague (not my supervisor) called me into his office to let me know this employee was fearful of me and I was a significant source of stress. I was so grateful!    

Author Anne Lamott said, “expectations are resentments in waiting.” When those expectations are violated, conflict arises.

All of the examples I provided are illustrations of expectations being violated, which created resentment.

Shared Expectations

For reasons I’m still sorting through, we seem to hesitate to engage in dialogue that would result in shared expectations. I believe that creating shared expectations is the hard work of love, and it’s what can make every relationship (personal or professional) stronger. Bound by love rather than by fear.

I think some of the reasons we don’t create shared expectations is that we

  • assume shared expectations exist, when in reality they don’t,
  • assume it’s so obvious it doesn’t need to be stated,
  • fear that stating differences will result in conflict so we leave it unsaid,
  • fear that feelings will be hurt so we leave it unsaid,
  • don’t want to feel uncomfortable in the midst of a dialogue, or
  • are simply impatient and don’t see the value in investing time in dialogue around expectations.

Again, as Anne Lamott said, “expectations are resentments in waiting.” Those resentments can be avoided by acting with bold grace and doing the hard work of creating shared expectations.

Stop Using the Word “Normal”

Normal is nothing more than a cycle on a washing machine. ~Whoopi Goldberg

When something feels “right” to us personally, we tend to equate that perspective with “normal.” Or, when something has just been that way for a very long time, we consider that to be “normal.”

Yesterday I visited a new church. I’m very curious to see how the church, broadly speaking, embarks on this season of emerging from pandemic restrictions on the heels of a very turbulent 2020. I hope to visit a number of churches in the coming weeks. It’s my own micro research study through personal observation.

Last Sunday, it was just one word that caught my attention, and I couldn’t let it go. The pastor continued with his sermon, but my mind just ruminated on that one word – “normal.” He was reading a chapter in Nehemiah that listed one Hebrew name after another documenting how they each contributed to rebuild their city. Then amidst all of the many Hebrew names was “Benjamin.” That’s when the pastor stopped and commented how it was nice to finally have a “normal” name.

In the pastor’s defense, he was reading many names that were not part of his first language so I’m assuming it took effort and concentration. A name he could easily pronounce without thinking about it likely felt like a relief. But then I kept thinking, wouldn’t “Benjamin” actually be the “abnormal” name in the list of Hebrew names? The reason the pastor considered Benjamin “normal” was that it was personally relatable.


This got me thinking about “normal.” How easily we toss out that word and the various meanings we attach to it.

The following morning I read this headline: “Stop Using the Language of ‘Normal’ for Face-to-Face Academic Work.” Again, this idea of “normal” was being used to describe our collective recalibration following the many months of restrictions. This same article included the following statement, “…in recognition that ‘normal’ means different things for different people, let us strive to listen to what many of our colleagues are telling us…”

What’s all this have to do with leadership and bold grace? I think that as we move out of restrictions that leaders should be careful not to focus so heavily on “returning to normal.” Instead, boldly extend grace to others and create opportunity for a new chapter that might not look just like the last chapter. (That’s a boring book none of us would want to read anyway.) That leaders take this moment in time to question their assumptions about what is “normal,” and there are lots of assumptions!


Going back to my church experiment. My hypothesis is churches that try to quickly return to “normal” will be those churches that either stagnate or decline in attendance. And those that embrace both what they have learned and new skills they have honed from 2020 will grow and maybe even thrive.  I also believe the same will be true for organizations in general.  

The first step in this process is to start catching ourselves using the word “normal” and examine what assumptions we are making that caused us to use that word. Consider the words of philosopher, Michel Foucault: “There are forms of oppression and domination which become invisible – the new normal.” Let’s do better than “normal” and lead with bold grace.