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.

A New Year, But No “New Normal”: A Call for More Resilience

We continue to navigate the trifecta of a growing pandemic, frightening societal unrest, and economic uncertainty. Everyday life remains destabilized, even for those of us fortunate to be healthy and working, and especially for those more personally threatened. Without our familiar levels of human connection — and the associated psychological, emotional and physical benefits, it is hard to be resilient just when resilience is most needed!

I am so grateful lately to the friends, colleagues and acquaintances whose small gestures have boosted my mood and outlook. It’s been a welcome surprise to see just how little it takes. Apparently, boosting others’ resilience is quite easy.

At pre-pandemic levels of interaction, we could express ourselves more fully, pick up affirming cues, and get a better read on colleagues. Our natural thirst for connection could be satiated. These days, I see folks (including me) visibly responding more than ever to the smallest gestures of connection – such as an appreciative comment or affirming email. The bits of validation from others nudge us back to being our more confident, hopeful and agile selves. Just as we appreciate that first sip of water when we are extremely thirsty more than we enjoy the tenth sip, there is a huge return these days on simple gestures of positive connection, because there is so much negative around us.

Since I feel the benefits myself, I am trying to be more intentional about “gifting” others with extra validation. It is easy to give authentic “resilience boosts.” My favorites include giving an extra thank-you to someone for their effort or courage, explicitly validating their concern, praising a capability, showing empathy for a specific challenge, truly entrusting someone, reminding them of a past success, or sharing a laugh.

The bonus effect: When I see my impact on one person at a time, I feel less powerless about circumstances, and therefore…. more resilient for my own next challenge.

Ready, set, go…. Give out some boosts. Everyday.

Let me know how it goes.

What I Learned from My Mother

I lost my exceptional mother, at 87 years old, on October 9th. My grieving will continue for a long time. But thankfully, it is accompanied by the positive inspiration of her legacy, some of which relates to my work as a leadership coach.

In this season of gratitude, connection and renewal – which is what Thanksgiving is about—I sought out some simple, humanistic guidance to share. I easily found it, as I recently read the scores of condolence letters from my mother’s enormous, eclectic network. She had too much humility to ever consider herself a leader, so I am only now discovering the full power of her positive influence as I read the letters. So many people felt changed by my mother, internalizing the values that she so enthusiastically and unwaveringly lived out.

Here is my take-away:

If I want to take stock of my leadership influence on others – individually, collectively, in an organization, and for societal benefit – I must ask myself this question:

Are there people who try to have a greater positive impact on the lives of others because of the influence of my values, intentions and actions?

How about you? When we can say yes, then we are well positioned for the many other ways great leaders have impact. If people are internally driven to be better versions of themselves from the inside out, because of what they absorb from us, regardless of our level or role, then we are leading for positive, lasting impact. That quality of leadership builds sustained momentum for the many other capabilities needed in ourselves and our colleagues.

Maya Angelou said “people will remember how you made them feel” [whether you are leading or not].  Here is the corollary I leave you with: People will remember how a leader made them better human beings.

 HAPPY THANKSGIVING!

Don’t Sweat the Big Stuff (continuously)

The best-selling book Don’t Sweat the Small Stuff (Carlson, 1997) offered advice for living life with less stress by letting go of less important things. That remains excellent advice. But I find I need different guidance now, to help me navigate current realities, which involve disturbing, consequential “very big stuff” far beyond my control. I’m talking about mountains and boulders… in addition to the usual stones and pebbles that I navigate along my life’s path.

I’ve spent too many hours sweating the big stuff — worrying about the next wave of damage by enormous boulders, namely society’s cross-cutting racial injustice and our public health crisis. That worrying usually leaves me with a sense of helplessness. [Note: Getting educated about societal problems is important, but this article is not about that.]

In order to stay productive on a task that is personally or professionally important to me, I now need to do some “hyper-focusing”.  I need to resolutely pivot 180 degrees away from the “big stuff” as if I am wearing mental and emotional blinders. This can be extremely hard to do! For example, this week, we all learned that the heroic “conscience of congress” and civil liberties champion Rep. John Lewis died. This is extremely consequential, sad news for our nation.  And… I have time-sensitive client work to do.

Much research points to the value of being mindful and staying present in the moment — being truly present, while keeping at bay the frustrations of the past and the worries of the future. Mindful presence, we have learned, is key to accessing our best cognitive selves, sustaining our best physiologically and psychologically grounded selves, and finding our most empathetic selves. This is life-long work that we restart everyday that has gotten harder lately.

So, I’m trying to complement that work by doubling down on task focus. Specifically, I am defining each important task extra narrowly, with extra self-compassion, and with thick boundaries around it.

Here are the tactics I am trying:

  • break a task down into smaller tasks, so that I can declare small victories more often and with less elapsed time (before some of my attention inevitably drifts back to the big boulders)
  • get into the physical “doing” (such as writing) even when my high quality “thinking” is less accessible, so that I create some tangible momentum for myself – even if it necessitates rework
  • intermingle different types of tasks more organically, depending upon the mental energy it will take to block out the looming big stuff and get the task done – e.g., if I cannot draft a document, I’ll prep dinner (and do unstructured thinking while chopping)
  • add and prioritize small personal tasks that would otherwise be on the back burner, if they can yield a psychological boost to my sense of purpose and impact. I may check on a sick friend or do a favor for family before I draft that memo. (I can still personally move rocks in valuable ways, even though I cannot move boulders alone!)
  • lastly, to complement this intensified, narrow focus for my own work and personal life, I separately carve out substantial time – again with intention and focus — to expand my understanding and my own role around the societal boulders that greatly need collective action

How about you? Even as you know there are very problematic mountains and boulders around that will continue to distract you, could you fuel your best, empowered self if you set up smaller, discrete goals that generate numerous “wins” to celebrate each day?

This. Is. Exhausting.

Many leaders and managers I know, especially at nonprofits, are working harder than ever during this pandemic. Their challenges are extremely volatile, unprecedented, and high stakes – creating extra personal strain. As I zoom out from what I’m seeing, reading and experiencing, I see a few patterns that differentiate the most resilient professionals from others.
The professionals who are functioning most effectively, in personally sustainable ways, use a combination of three approaches.  Each approach involves both an inner mindset and an outwardly visible behavior that they seem to practice with intention.  I invite you to try to soak up some of this role modeling.
  • The leaders who remain energized acknowledge the small wins even though they are outweighed by much larger uncontrollable setbacks.  They have recalibrated what “good enough” and “enough” can mean for the foreseeable future.  With compassion for themselves and others, they acknowledge each job well done and the small victories of a productive day even when they fall short of desired outcomes.
  • The most productive and positive leaders also generally accept the uncertainty of their environment. Employing tremendous self-awareness, they don’t waste energy resisting and resenting how much predictability and control they have lost.  Instead, they focus on today’s challenge with the best forward-looking information and resources that they have.  They can do this because they trust that they and their teams will navigate the next surprise, and the next, and the next – even though they do not know how or when.
  • The professionals who don’t let exhaustion beat them down also incorporate high quality human connection into every day.  This is not about the frequency of virtual team meetings.  It is about building in personal connections that used to be more serendipitous. They plan 1 on 1 calls, videos or walks that are meaningful because they generate a bond, or humor, or shared learning, or extra empathy. By assuring themselves a steady diet of meaningful connection, resilient leaders don’t let their physical isolation breed emotional isolation. Their connectedness in turn fuels their resourcefulness and sense of possibility.
I am looking for more practices that can keep each of us calmer, stronger and contented as our new normal evolves.  Please share your own tips.