Think Strategically, Act Strategically

Think Strategically, Act Strategically

By User:Nina Silaeva (личная работа) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

By User:Nina Silaeva (личная работа) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

I was at dinner with a group of people this week and we were discussing a project that one of them was currently engaged in. It’s an extremely large effort with lots of people, several geographically distributed locations, many levels of management and some very high stakes on a successful outcome.  The discussion was centered on some creative differences that one of the geographically separated locations had with what “headquarters” wanted to see.  While differences of opinion are expected on large teams, this division had created a firestorm of emails, phone calls and meetings that were grinding progress to a halt. What was being proposed was unique and expedient, which are often good qualities, but were ultimately counter to the strategic vision of what the expected product would be. At some point an appropriate leader in the corporate chain would step in and make a decision in favor of the strategic vision; the question was, when and how high up the chain would it need to go?

This got me thinking about all the things we have to deal with every day as leaders and how we can ensure that we are being true to the organizations strategic vision. While true strategic thinking is not easy, it is often just as difficult to act strategically in support of our vision. Acting strategically means maximizing team effort on achieving our vision and minimizing effort on tasks or projects that don’t support it.  It also means that, as leaders, when we inevitably have to resolve conflict on the team, we need to do so in a way that best provides for a successful outcome of the strategic vision instead of what may be the most expedient way to end the conflict. We all make decisions every day that have an impact on achieving successful strategic outcomes; some questions we can ask ourselves to help prepare for these kinds of decisions:

  1. What are the strategic outcomes we want?
  2. How will we know if we are achieving them?
  3. Are all of our efforts directly or indirectly related to achieving the strategic outcomes?
  4. Can we stop doing the things that don’t support the strategic outcomes and refocus resources?
  5. Have the strategic outcomes been communicated to every member of the team?

I think the last question is an extremely important one. If the team understands and buys into the strategic vision, it is more likely they will adhere to it as they accomplish their tasks and provide recommendations. If they incorporate the strategy in their own problem solving, they’ll be more successful without requiring input from the leader.

The message I want to leave you with is, be true to your vision! If you believe in it, coordinate your decisions and your team’s actions to achieve it. Anything less will leave you feeling short of achieving the goal you started out with. You thought this was a great idea when you came up with it and it most likely still is. Give it the respect it deserves and make it a reality!

What is Your Personal Development Plan?

By Marine Institute (Marine Institute) [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC-BY-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

By Marine Institute (Marine Institute) [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC-BY-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Today I was writing a letter of recommendation for someone who worked for me a while back. She is moving from one career to another but many of the skills are transferrable. She is formally educated for this new position, but as I wrote the letter, I found what was most significant in my recommendation were the areas in which she had not had formal training, but in some of those intangible areas like interpersonal relationships and critical thinking. It got me thinking about how we can all develop those types of skills even if they’re not part of our formal training or education.

Most of us are familiar with a one-size-fits-all corporate training plan or development plan that the organization has put together to guide our development. It may be tailored a little bit to each individual’s position or specialty, but for the most part it’s not very personal and it usually involves going to certain training courses at certain times in your career. It also may not address your needs for development at this specific time in your career. I’d like to propose an alternative you can start today to initiate yourself on a path of personal development:

1)      Make a list of the areas you believe you are strong in your field and a list of the areas you’d like to improve your skills in. The lists don’t have to be long, just as long as there is at least one item on each list

2)      Pick one of the items on your “strong” list. Mentor your subordinates or some of your peers who may need some help in this area. Teaching others is a great way to reinforce your skills. As a bonus when you help someone else out, you give value to them and bring the whole team up!

3)      Choose one of the items on your “improvement” list that you’re really interested in to focus on for the next two weeks.

4)      Do something to learn more about your “improvement” area.  Don’t go spend a lot of money on a training course or anything like that. Find a blog, download a podcast or find a book in the library.  Spend a few hours of your free time over the next two weeks exploring this topic, take some notes, write down some short term steps and long term steps you can take to grow in this area.

5)      When the two weeks is up, evaluate what you’ve learned. Are you stronger in this area than when you started? Is it an area that has stoked an interest in you to learn more? If so, make a bigger commitment to improving that area. If you think you’d rather work on something else, give that new topic a try and re-evaluate after two weeks.

Ideally your two lists and the notes you make from your two-week explorations will grow into a personal development plan, but don’t worry about getting it written down into something formal right away.  The most important thing is just to identify a few areas you’d like to develop further and take some steps today to get there.

What are the areas you would most like to see your followers develop their skills in?

You Can Lead, But Can You Follow?

By Tony Hisgett from Birmingham, UK (Follow Mum  Uploaded by Magnus Manske) [CC-BY-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

By Tony Hisgett from Birmingham, UK (Follow Mum Uploaded by Magnus Manske) [CC-BY-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

There I was, about to walk into the boss’s office and close the door. He had just made it very clear the outcome he wanted the team to achieve today. The problem was that he had a severe misperception of the roadblocks being placed in front of the team by an outside organization. The outcome was possible, but the approach wasn’t going to work.  The project lead tried to explain it in the meeting, but the boss was convinced of his approach. I was his deputy; I couldn’t let him fail because he didn’t understand the whole situation. I figured I might be coming out of this conversation looking for a new job, but I knocked, walked in and closed the door. It was actually a civil and insightful conversation, which I mainly attribute to this particular boss being one of the best leaders I’ve ever known, and though it was challenging, I was able to convince him of what he was missing and got our team going in the right direction. It also cemented the trust between us and our professional relationship for years after.

As I’ve mentioned before, unless you are fortunate enough to be the guy at the top, even as leaders we all have a boss that we have to report to.  This means that as leaders, we also need to be good followers. This can get tricky sometimes.

There is more to be a good follower than just taking orders and getting the job done.

A good follower will anticipate what the boss is looking for. He will understand the boss’s vision and intent and try to act the way the boss would want it done without having to bother the boss with the trivial details. This means as a follower, you need to have a solid understanding of the boss’s vision and intent as well as the authorities that he has delegated down to you.  See the post “What Keeps Your Boss Up at Night” for more.

Just as important as taking direction from the boss with a smile, is being straight with the boss. There are going to be times you have to tell him things that he isn’t going to want to hear. You may have heard of the “one challenge” rule.  It’s pretty simple, when the boss makes a decision you disagree with, you take one opportunity to try to convince him otherwise and if he sticks with his decision you go execute it and say nothing more about it. I sort of disregarded that in the situation above, but it was a pretty dire situation and I played the technicality that I wasn’t the one who initially challenged him.

I know that challenging the boss is not an easy thing to do. It’s okay if it takes a few minutes (or hours, or days) to get your courage up to do it. Try not to wait until it’s too late for a positive outcome to still occur. I’m a big believer in the saying “Bad news doesn’t get better with age!” so try not to leave your boss with no options because too much time has elapsed.

To be fair, after that conversation described above, there were several times I felt the need to do the same thing with my bosses.  Sometimes I’ve been successful at convincing them, other times I’ve left with the same orders as before looking for a way to make it work.

You owe it to your boss to be straight with him. Your efforts may not always be received in the spirit of honesty and trust that you intend. Just shake it off and keep being an excellent follower. The folks you lead will follow the example you set for them!

What other aspects of followership do you consider important? Comment below!

Don’t Lose Your Balance!

By Mbiama (Own work) [CC-BY-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

By Mbiama (Own work) [CC-BY-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

This summer I did something for the first time since I became an adult in the working world; I took an actual, no kidding, real vacation.  It didn’t hit me until I was 40 feet under the surface of the Pacific Ocean that I was on “vacation”. Before this summer every leisure trip I’ve ever taken had been associated with a work trip, or was in conjunction with seeing family or friends for an occasion or holiday. Never had I taken a trip solely for the purpose of enjoying myself!  As I floated weightlessly in the cold California water I realized that for far too long my work-life balance had been way off.

It was an odd time for self-reflection, but I decided to go with it. Looking back I had become one of those guys who spent way too much time at work. I tried to be the first one in every morning and often was the last one out every night. I used to take pride in the fact that I wouldn’t have taken all my days of leave each year. I guess it made me feel like I was dedicated to the job. It made me realize there are many times where we as leaders emphasize work-life balance to our people, but often through our own example set an expectation of imbalance.

Regardless of what you say to your team or how often you emphasize balance to them, they will take their cues from your actions:

If you’re in the office until 10:30 every night they will believe you expect the same of them.

If you go back to your desk to make a few calls during the office party, they’ll all feel they should get back to work.

If you send an email from home at 2:30 in the morning, they will wonder if you wanted them to be awake to answer it.

If you cut your vacation short to come back to take care of an issue, they’ll believe you expect the same of them and it will be clear to them that you don’t trust them in your absence.

I’m not saying there aren’t times where the team needs to pull an all-nighter or that as the boss you may need to put some extra time in. Just remember your team will be following your lead and it’s important to be conscious of how your actions are perceived even if you have the best intentions.

The best thing you can do as a leader is to make sure your words and actions match. If you need the team to sacrifice some personal time to get the job done, just say so and hold them to it.  If you want them to achieve a successful work-life balance to keep them refreshed, energized and at the top of their game, you need to tell them that and set a clear example of balance in your own life.

The good news for me was that I finally recognized the imbalance in my life and I got a valuable opportunity to think about some ways I could improve as a leader. I promised myself I would definitely not wait too long to take another vacation!

How do you maintain your own work-life balance?