What Zambonis and Decisions Have in Common

We are sometimes pushed by outside factors to quickly be hyper-decisive out of necessity.  In those moments, we can feel rushed, reactive, and ill-equipped.  When the pressure is not there, however, we miss opportunities to build ourselves a smooth pathway that is paved with decisions.  Small but grounded decisions can remove external uncertainties, reduce team-wide confusion, and reverse personal ambivalence.

In short, our days are full of potential decisions that will yield more ease and productivity if we simply take them on early, and then resolve them quickly, fully, and decisively.  Like a Zamboni, they get the ice ready for the big game or the important performance.

Gifting yourself with a few small decisions is an easy form of self-management.  The first step is to notice what is muddying your thinking now and what might slow down your progress tomorrow or next week.  Then commit to a decision, or guiding rule, that will eliminate some uncertainty and bring ease.

For example, an Executive Director I know wanted to cultivate more external relationships.  But it didn’t come easily.  So, to avoid having a blank slate about whom to contact each month, she decided up front on her specific stakeholder targets for the year.  Now she can select specific targets each month from her pre-identified menu of choices, removing ambivalence from the process.  Another executive eliminated a source of headaches and self-doubt by deciding that a particular program was definitively not in their lane to manage (even if they still cared). And in my own board service, I build both momentum and engagement when I decide early on whom to ask for what specific types of help. (In fact, just this morning, I got a burst of relief and saved time by deciding who was better qualified than I to handle a task I volunteered for but did not want to do, and I passed it along. It felt great!)

Early decisions can also pave the way for a whole team to have more stability, productivity, and ease. Examples include:

  • a non-negotiable decision about minimum cash reserves
  • clarified employee policies for hybrid work
  • confirming who will own a new initiative to provide role clarity
  • a group decision to give a pilot program two years to prove itself rather than wondering about continuation every quarter.

How might you gift yourself with a few seemingly small decisions this week? Envision the ease that a decision-making Zamboni might create for you and your team.

Are You Tired of Being Misunderstood? Here are 3 Fixes

Being misunderstood by others can be so frustrating! It is tempting to believe it’s all their fault, their deficiency. If only those “other people” whom we care about, work with, report to, and supervise did not misconstrue our words with their own misguided thinking. Then they could fully leverage our contributions!

The gap between how clear we think we are and how much our intentions are misunderstood can be shocking when we see it. The gap can also remain invisible if we do not bother to probe.

Recently, a client I’ll call Kira very effectively took some responsibility for being misunderstood. I was working with her executive team when she proactively acknowledged that she knew her preferred communication style was seen by some as very accommodating and not sufficiently leader-like.

Kira knew she needed to keep re-earning the trust of her colleagues, and she also knew that she couldn’t be an inauthentic version of herself. In the moment, she explained her way of getting staff buy-in. Kira assured them that she understood and prioritized the desired results, and that despite what they saw on the surface (via their own biased lenses), she was not a pushover. She was indeed influencing others in her emotionally intelligent way. In that moment, she reduced how much her peers may underestimate her leadership in the future.

When you believe you are misunderstood, it’s on you to inject more clarity into your interactions. It takes just a couple of minutes.

These simple “moves” will preempt and reduce the damage of misunderstandings – and foster better teamwork.

Before an interaction: Internally acknowledge the different lived experiences, starting positions, and priorities that others inevitably bring (their past setbacks, different functional goals, etc.). If you don’t know them already, ask around. And own up to your own overused beliefs before you trigger negative emotions in the meeting.

For example, notice whether you will have more authority, confidence, and organizational knowledge than the other person. To avoid being seen as uncollaborative, plan how you will take the time to patiently hear their views, even if you have different priorities and your own agenda. Be prepared to respect the legitimacy of their concerns even as you ask them to put them in perspective alongside other considerations. Also decide in advance what factual information you will share early, so they can ride up the learning curve.

During a meeting: Keep reading the room. Notice how folks are responding to you. If you don’t like the vibe, remember that you are always half of the chemistry. As needed, change up both what and how you communicate in situation-specific ways. There is nearly always a conversational “move” you can make in the moment that will reduce misunderstandings.

For example, if you sense folks are dismissively underestimating what you can contribute on a topic, then find moments to assert your views in new and different ways. If one comment doesn’t land well, try a very different way to influence, teach, and advance the work. Perhaps through a provocative question, a new piece of data, or a “what if” statement.

After a conversation: If you have the slightest hunch that your intentions were misunderstood, check back and reinforce your intentions with a follow-up message that suits the person and situation. Respectfully compensate for anything you may have conveyed poorly. This is not “too little, too late”– it is mature follow-up.

For example, if you sense that you were too detail-focused or too big picture for someone’s preference, balance things out later. Offer a short follow-up conversation focused at their preferred level of detail, where they do their best thinking. If you show your openness, they may give you the benefit of the doubt next time you try to influence them. (In fact, I had to do some damage control today, after my clumsy email to a client was inadvertently seen as disrespectful…. I simply apologized and explained my intention.)

Two bonus tips:

If you’re just having a bad day and are extra tired, impatient, or emotional: Just say so. Apologize for not being able to fully control your mood and reactions, so it’s not personal.

If you really, really just cannot get along with someone and have an engrained pattern of distrust and misunderstanding, enlist allies to help you be better understood by them.

The Priceless Value of a Single “No”

Good news! We all have a renewable resource at our disposal that we should use more often. It is the invaluable response of “No”.  

I just helped a client I’ll call Ella prepare to say a very big No: She terminated a client engagement where she was the contractor. It was a difficult decision to make and an uncomfortable one to communicate. And it was absolutely the right decision.  

In her celebratory email to me, Ella said:  

I feel like a weight was lifted! I was too attached to my sense of self as someone who always powers through difficulties. But the work I know I do well had gotten too hard to do. After terminating the contract, my chronic stress was immediately replaced by renewed energy. I already have new opportunities to say “Yes” to. When you free yourself up, the universe responds!  

Here’s how Ella got to her decision: She first tried to clarify project success factors and roles several times and made creative adjustments to her approach. She determined that her expertise and value were being blocked, she saw red flags she could not address from her role. Compensating for the behaviors and skill gaps of others was taking up unbudgeted time. So she carefully prepared and delivered an explanation of her decision to the client’s top leadership. They understood and respected it.  

The much smaller “No’s” we can say week to week similarly yield benefits in terms of stress relief, focus, and productivity. This, in turn, enhances our reliability, confidence, health, and career satisfaction. You’ve likely experienced these benefits when you have resisted doing low value work favors, requested more realistic timelines, or told your manager your full plate needs reprioritizing. Note that you have the ability to do all this without ever actually uttering the word “No” if you personally find it too uncollaborative.  

We (tribal humans) don’t like to disappoint others, which is wonderful…. up to a point. Given our limited time and energy, there is great value in being selective, catching ourselves and understanding the consequences of our everyday impulsive – perhaps habitual – Yes’s. My clients have shared many wonderful a-ha moments, brave conversations, and happy outcomes, when they claim their agency and judiciously use the power of No.  

The word No and all of its equivalents help us thrive personally and professionally. They embody our power of choice. On the flip side, the high stakes of reactive Yes’s include possible burn out, reputational risk, relationships, and even illness.  

Where might a version of No best serve you and the greater good?  

To find my own opportunities, I try to pause before I respond to a request. The next steps are to:  

  • Get a broad, clear perspective on the situation, as objectively as possible
  • Compare the full implications of any version of Yes to a version of No
  • If warranted, craft a No message that concisely includes key information, my thought process (without over personalizing), my values, and respectful empathy for the other person
  • Stand by the decision with self-trust and get the backup support needed
I would love to hear about your most valuable “No’s” and their outcomes!

Warning: This Dangerous Thought Causes Harm

A “NO OUTLET” street sign near my house inspired this column, while I was walking my dog.

Whenever I believe that I have no choices in a tricky situation, I viscerally feel my confidence slip away. I also lose access to my mental resourcefulness and my connection with others. Can you recall being in the grip of that choiceless feeling?

I’ve helped many professionals find their way out of the helpless grip and develop their own mind/body muscles to overcome “No Outlet” thinking. It can be a Do-It-Yourself project too.

For example, a manager I’ll call Kyle disliked his job and his controlling manager, as well as his limited ability to make a difference. Although discouraged, he was not in a situation to seek a new job in the short term. By reviewing his assumptions and behaviors with a discerning eye, Kyle found numerous ways to reduce his frustration and increase his motivation and impact. He realized (via experimentation) that he could be better informed and connected by proactively sharing information with and learning more from colleagues without undermining his manager. Kyle also discovered he could reduce his boss’ detail-oriented bottlenecking by presenting information that better fit his boss’ preferences. Lastly, he found new sources of fulfillment by informally mentoring young hires and opting into a task force assignment.

When seemingly faced with a stubborn obstacle, professionals at any level can brainstorm alternative responses. Trust that something useful will emerge if you lighten your mental grip on the assumptions and beliefs that seem to constrain your options. This can involve:

  • a reframed diagnosis of the dilemma
  • a wildly unrealistic “what if” idea that then reveals more manageable tactics
  • choosing to walk away briefly, to clear your head and emotions
  • deciding to intentionally do nothing in the short term, while watching and learning

I try to let my own frustration serve as fuel in the search for feasible next steps even when I initially feel helpless and stuck. My favorite kinds of next steps are small, experimental, and sometimes in an unobvious direction from the stated goal. What are your favorite hacks to get unstuck – I’d love to hear them!

Remember to Bring Your Curiosity Wherever You Go

Humor me while I do some self-coaching here.
I am self-aware enough to know that I place a high value on being productive and helpful. These two tendencies often serve others well. But… when I don’t keep an eye on them, I can impatiently draw conclusions, fix problems, advise others, and move into action. In short, my bias for progress can shut down my curiosity and squeeze out valuable space for the curiosity and ideas of others. I’ve learned how to stay open and curious in my coaching and facilitation work, where neutral exploration and learning are fundamental. This column is about sustaining that stance in other situations.


Specifically, I’ve been involved in strategic planning efforts with four very different nonprofits recently – advising, collaborating, consulting, and jointly crafting plans with diverse teams. Whether the organization’s mission is performing arts, community transformation, educational equity or international public health, the payoff for staying curious (the “ROC” or Return on Curiosity) has been tremendous! And I want to be sure to remember that.

Across these projects, I’ve worked to infuse my contributions with “extra” curiosity, despite my usual bias toward action. I know I can do even better, but I am intentionally asking more open questions that tap into the wisdom of more stakeholders. Then, I listen. And then the magic happens… Not only are the outputs high quality and enduring, but the group efforts have been more enjoyable and inclusive. I believe this extra dose of curiosity is partially responsible.

Here are a few “reminders to self” so that I sustain a high number of questions in my daily conversational diet. I hope they are useful to you, as well:
  • Agenda-free questions are a healthy antidote to blind spots and rigid or rushed thinking.
  • One well-placed, simple question, followed by silence, can be an empowering invitation to others to lead and teach, contributing to a more inclusive work environment.
  • People gravitate to curious people, because they are not locked into their own preconceived perspectives and stay calm when confronted with differing views.
  • Asking clarifying questions lessens self-induced stress, since learning is more fun than worrying.
There are so many benefits of authentic curiosity. What others have you experienced?

Are You a “T-shaped” Leader?

I often help top leaders figure out what capabilities to cultivate in themselves and their senior managers. I’ve also guided several strategic planning efforts recently. Both situations raised the same tension: Balancing big picture, strategic thinking with a focus on functional and tactical effectiveness. Mastering this combination of breadth and depth was coined “T-shaped” management many years ago, and the varying definitions still offer sound advice. Here, I’d like to focus on the beneficial ripple effect of T-shaped leadership.
The leaders I work with know that a focus on cross-functional, longterm strategy provides an invaluable road map and positions their organizations to thrive over time. They also know that operational demands call for subject experts who can craft responsive tactical solutions that keep staff productive in every lane of their operation. Covering both fronts – broad strategic thinking and operational responsiveness – and keeping them in sync, can feel nearly impossible. But T-shaped leaders have developed this capacity: they can shift between holding a organization-wide, collaborative perspective on the one hand, and selectively doing deep dives into particularly complex functional problems.
T-shaped thinkers are often the MVPs on leadership teams and eventually run them. In fact, a common compliment I hear in 360 reviews about especially admired leaders is that they can move fluidly and effectively between the complex, cross-functional big picture and narrow depth as an operational expert. You can recruit for and develop this T-shaped capacity, which includes the judgment to know when to go deep versus broad and also the emotional intelligence to engage others collaboratively when you do reach broadly across teams.
Here is what T-shaped leaders look like in action:
  • They periodically dip into execution – intentionally and briefly – to inject operational conversations with strategy touch points when stakes are high. They answer critical “why” questions and share information from diverse sources, whether they are asked or not, to provide strategic insight. They then come back “up” and redirect their attention and coordination efforts across all departments, resisting the temptation to handle work they should delegate.
  • They also help rising managers strengthen their own “T thinking”. These leaders invite direct reports to step up and into strategic discussions, effectively encouraging expansive, exploratory thinking beyond specific job responsibilities. They ask questions, as well as answer them, exposing functional experts to organization-wide priorities and trade-offs with a longer time horizon. This type of influencing and coaching is especially useful when they have a new manager on board, when strategy has changed, when functional interdependencies are high stakes, when they need to anticipate an evolving landscape, and when grooming someone for a promotion.
I challenge you to increase your value as a leader by cultivating T-shaped thinking and collaboration in those around you at all levels. This Yes/And balancing act of breadth and depth can help you delegate, supervise, and coach with more ease. It’s one of the best ways to build your organization’s leadership pipeline.

Take a Conversational Risk: Put Aside Your Agenda  

I love the spark that ignites in a client during our conversations when they discover their own solution to a challenge. You don’t have to be an executive coach to gift such sparks to others. And this month is a great time to do so!
The continuing physical separation imposed by the pandemic has folks especially eager to be seen and heard. This is completely reasonable. Personal growth and well-being depend on a sense of self that is connected to and acknowledged by others. a simple way to generate that feeling is to give a colleague the floor and openly see what sparks emerge from wherever they take the conversation. When is the last time you carved out time to do this, with a generous dose of patience and curiosity? With any luck and a bit of karma, you may soon be on the receiving end of such gifts.
You need not sacrifice organizational goals or performance to tee up an occasional agenda-free meeting. People can address their own challenging questions much more often than you might think, if given an inviting space to do so. They may even address your priorities, if you give them the open space.
For example… In a recent coaching session, my client described worrisome misunderstandings that jeopardized the trust between her staff and the board of her nonprofit. Her discouragement was palpable. Instead of offering my own diagnosis and problem-solving, I asked more questions and kept listening. Then, I saw her sparks, as she zeroed in on the smart choices she was already making. She left our call excited to build on her progress with renewed confidence and fresh tactics. I doubt she would have reached the same point cognitively or psychologically without feeling so fully heard and validated by a neutral ally.
When we think we know where someone wants to go, it’s tempting to help them get there with the benefit of our own brilliant ideas. But that can diminish their progress. Professional growth and performance thrive more sustainably and satisfyingly when they involve more inside-out exploration, and less outside-in intervention from others.  So, try letting someone stay in the conversational driver’s seat longer, accepting their chosen thought path without judgment or an agenda.
Coach and podcaster Andrew Warner says that “People prefer to be heard rather than helped.” Here’s my twist on that adage: People prefer to be heard before they are helped.

The Dangerous Slippery Slope of Blame

2021 has been an especially trying year for all. Along with the exhaustion, I’ve noticed a general uptick in blaming. (I am referring to misplaced, short-sighted and exaggerated blame – not reasonably expressed responses to wrongdoing.)
How about you? Has the stress and fatigue of 2020-21 challenges led you to blame colleagues for undesired outcomes more than you used to? Have you inadvertently relinquished your agency, or gotten lazy when diagnosing problems?
I recently watched a strong attachment to “blamey” beliefs build up so much in one work relationship that it destroyed the capacity for constructive recovery from disagreement. Even some of the most capable, grounded leaders I know — who generally maintain their sense of responsibility for past actions and agency over future ones – are tempted to blame a bit more often these days. This likely happens because blame demands less patience and energy than constructive alternatives.
I describe unchecked blame as a “slippery slope” because it is one dimensional, rigid, and emotionally unintelligent; it does not allow space for a course correction. I once wrote a column about trust as a “super poweravailable to all of us to enhance performance. Blame is the antithesis of trust. When we promote a “blamey” explanation for a problem, we erode trust, thereby closing the door on our best tools for problem-solving: teamwork, learning, personal accountability, and experimentation.
This slippery slope can play out even when our blamey beliefs are not explicitly communicated. And when blame is verbally directed at us, as you may have experienced, we start to shut down on the receiving end as well, closing off our best assets.
Recall your own recent work-related frustrations. What is your impact on the size and damage of the wake that follows a misunderstanding, mistake or bad luck? How well do you resist the temptation to use blame for convenience and personal protection?
When I find myself on that slippery slope, I try (with uneven results) to sharpen my thinking. First, I look for additional contributing factors to a frustrating situation, beyond the intentions and actions of my potential “blame-ee”. I sometimes seek a second opinion. Then I take stock of my own role – past, present, and future – to get myself back in constructive partner mode. Resisting the blame game is not the easiest path in the short run, but the long-term payoff in terms of teamwork and resilience is absolutely worth it! Unmanaged blame, in contrast, will continually erode trust and performance – organizationally, inter-personally and individually.

How to Help Your Organization Exit the Pandemic

A nonprofit executive director recently said to me: “I know how I want to be leading now [post-peak crisis] and what’s good for the organization, but I’m not sure how to get there or how others will respond…. We have a strong team, so it shouldn’t be this hard!”
We’re extremely eager to put the pandemic behind us, with all the ways it has damaged our lives and organizations. I notice in my clients and myself that unease and tough questions come up around entering a “new normal”: How much have people’s priorities changed, which processes should never be rebooted, what new emotions now prevail across my team, and can we sustain the resilience and mutual trust to navigate more surprises?
A strong sense of striving permeates such questions. Yet, what I’ve learned from research-based mindfulness teachings (like those of Jon Kabat-Zinn), is that the best way to proceed from any current situation to a more desired state, no matter how strong the desire, is to first patiently accept our present circumstances without judgment (deep breaths recommended!).
Even when things are time-sensitive, if we cannot intentionally sit with what is, with an open mind, then we greatly diminish our own capacities. In contrast, if we can strive less, we can ….
  • notice the good stuff within and around us (relationships, agility, innovations…)
  • accurately assess the emotional state of affairs so that our actions don’t misfire
  • retain our power of choice and see options beyond the obvious or quickest path.
Re-emerging from the pandemic’s peak is not the chaotic emergency of spring 2020, where effort and adrenaline skyrocketed. Yet this phase offers plenty of perils. I’ve already seen some of the costly fallout in client organizations in terms of lost management talent, new kinds of turf battles, and new flavors of burnout.
So… my friendly reminder for the one-of-a-kind summer/fall of 2021 is to dial back the pressure a bit on pushing yourself and your team to a new stability. Attempts to clarify, coordinate and move too quickly will yield a fragile, if not false, sense of security and staff support. An experimental, mindful approach of notice-try-accept-learn-adjust-learn will generate better approaches and leave fewer casualties than will bold directives that misread these uncharted waters and jeopardize trusted relationships.
For a slightly deeper understanding of mindfulness (in lay person’s terms), watch Jon Kabat-Zinn’s talk on the 9 attitudes of mindfulness: Beginner’s mind, Non-judging, Acceptance, Letting go, Trust, Patience, Non-striving, Gratitude and Generosity.

Three Things to (Re)Learn from Wise Young Managers

I recently wrapped up the annual AlumniCorps Emerging Leaders program I lead for rising nonprofit managers. Over eight months, the cohort members learn about their own leadership and discover what is most important. Today I feature some of the culminating lessons they shared, along with my own elaboration.

Don’t Wait to Ask… for what will help you.

“I am not particularly good at or comfortable asking for help…. I learned I need to be more consistent in asking for my needs. Many times I wait for the right moment, and of course that right moment never comes.”  We do not like to ask for help that could be very useful – whether it is guidance, information, other viewpoints, or more resources. Yet asking for what we need gets more work done well by more people, amplifying our impact.  Instead of viewing questions as a sign of weakness view them as invitations to help advance toward a goal.

Don’t Wait to Give… what you have that can help others.

“Even highly motivated, competent leaders need guidance [from others sometimes…] I need to take ownership of my own expertise when appropriate.”  We can generously but selectively deploy our knowledge to help and influence others, even when they do not ask for it.  We just need to get the “how” right, and then be ok when our input is not always embraced.  As a different form of giving, an Emerging Leader noted, “My project has given me a lot of power and trust within the organization that I am now actively sharing with others…I hope to continue to practice this [as I have increasing power] – and relinquish power to make space for others.”

Don’t Wait to Get… involved in ways that scale your value.

“Building allies and talking to folks on my leadership team facilitated the strategy being received well by the broader team… I should continue to push myself to share my ideas and workshop them with others.” When we speak a bit more boldly and insert ourselves in useful ways, we can find more connections, vet more ideas, and stretch our roles. Even “insertions” that are not successful, if done with care, can cultivate joint learning and collaboration.

I challenge you to invent your own specific ways to proactively ask for, give and get more value.  Taken together, these three types of “moves” embody a nice balance of confidence, conviction, and humility.