Monday, August 29, 2011

Learn to do two things at once

A number of years ago, I was working for a seasoned leader at Coca-Cola, and a group of us young, relatively inexperienced, managers were all trying to perform well and impress the “big boss.” It was in the context of a staff meeting, one day, that the pressure of the business started to get the best of all of us. We were driving results, expanding the business into new customers and markets, while at the same time working to re-engineer our entire “go to market” approach. It felt to all of us that we were trying to do too much at once, that old adage of” fixing the engines while flying the plane“just didn’t feel very good. In a moment of exasperation, one of my peers (though we all were feeling the same pressure), blurted out “Enough is enough - if we can do only ONE thing, what is that ONE thing that you want us to do???” Without pausing for a breath, our boss calmly commented, “Well, if you can only do ONE thing, then learn to do TWO things at once.”

It almost seemed to not make sense –the ONE thing to do was to learn to do TWO things at once? We all sat there silent and a bit dumbfounded, and instead of blowing up at all of us, our boss shared a few well-chosen kernels of wisdom. First and foremost, he felt that business wasn’t going to get easier and less complex, if anything it was trending to do the opposite. The demands, challenges AND opportunities would certainly multiply, not decline over the years to come. (Indeed, truer words had never been said!) Secondly, now this was before Blackberries/Smartphones/PDAs, he felt that technology was not only accelerating the business around us, but it was also accelerating HOW we did business at that moment. So, the tempo of the work and the amount of communications (voice mails and emails at that time and well before texts, blogs, tweets, facebook, linkedin, etc.) were increasing rapidly. Finally, he shared that the expectations of performance were not only rising every year, driven by the ever increasing demands of a large publically traded company, but the annual “increase of expectations” (think slope of a curve) was steepening. What was a great performance last year would probably be viewed as only acceptable in the next year. To say the least, we were all a bit freaked out at the time, but I remember to this day that moment of epiphany, realizing that accelerating performance and increasing capabilities were both required activities at all times!

I share this story today, because once again, I am faced with this same type of situation. In a very busy work environment, where we are accelerating the business, I am pushing myself and others to not only be focused on driving results of the week, month or quarter, but to be passionate about stepping back to work on the necessary capabilities to improve those results in the future. Capabilities don’t get built on their own! You have to work on it just the same way that you had to work at learning Micro Economics, Calculus, Cost Accounting, or any tough subject from your past.

This year, I have found it helpful to formalize the effort by scheduling a capabilities work session, forcing myself to take my mind off the short term business challenges and to work on the capability needs of our future. My encouragement to you is to use whatever approach works, but insure that you are not tempted to think that focusing on only ONE thing at a time is a good idea. Since that staff meeting more than fifteen years ago, the business world is not simpler, slower, less complicated, less challenging, nor less filled with opportunities. We need to be great at doing two things at once, so we can start working on doing THREE at once!

Monday, August 15, 2011

Optimism… a priority for leadership and life!

You have to admit that over the past few weeks it has been hard to be “optimistic” in the face of the wild and often depressing headlines. Whether we’re facing the wild gyrations of the world’s capital markets, the inane politically motivated debates in Washington, the desperate famine conditions in Somalia, or the riots in Brixton, there seems very little to be “optimistic“ about! In the midst of these realities, it has struck me that now more than ever, we need to take a moment to discuss the importance of maintaining “Optimism” as a priority for leadership and life.

When I use the word “optimism”, I want to refresh ourselves on the dictionary definition:

” Hopefulness and confidence about the future or successful outcome of something”

This is not some “Pollyannaish”, pie-in-the-sky, naïve view of the world. There are three key words in the definition, hopefulness / confidence / future, that are at the center of my thinking and in how I believe we can all apply “optimism” to our daily realities in our work and our lives.

Optimism in the face of challenges

It is often when facing challenges that we understandably are the least optimistic. How many times have you thought, “How can I/we handle this?” when facing a challenge at work. Similarly, when facing issues in our personal lives, so often the road ahead appears unclear at best. It’s in these moments that I want to encourage a quick “optimism exercise.” Take a moment and recall/write down a list of the challenges/barriers/problems that you, or your business, or your family, have faced over the past few years. Once that list is compiled, add the actions and outcomes, aligned to each “challenge/issue”, that actually occurred. I am often surprised how the major issues of the past seem so handle able and achievable in hindsight. That same truth applies to the challenges of today. If we approach our challenges of today with focus, energy, capability, and optimism, they will likely be overcome as were the challenges of the past.

Optimism in the face of opportunities

In a slightly different light than the example above, there are times that the breadth of opportunities or options in a circumstance can be debilitating rather than energizing. Whether faced by a thriving and growing business, a child with numerous education options, a parent who has their health AND adequate retirement savings, or many other situations, it is important to start with perspective. It’s a blessing, an honor and a treat to have options and opportunities. Do not let this dynamic slow you down, be optimistic about your options. Rather than trying to make “the perfect” decision/choice, focus on making a good/great choice, and I am confident that those good/great choices will amplify your opportunities in the future. Take advantage of opportunities, they are often rare and fleeting moments. Be optimistic as you use these opportunity moments to maximize the potential of a “future or successful outcome of something.”

Optimism in the face of others

While the discussions above may seem straightforward enough, I want to add another element. How many times have you been faced with an issue/problem and rather than easily having a quiet moment to gather your thoughts privately, you are surrounded by the worried eyes of your team, your department, your company, or your family. All of those eyes looking to you to gauge your reaction. If you freak out, it will certainly have an impact, possibly starting a brushfire of panic. It’s in those moments that I remind myself of “PBR” (Pause, Breath, and Reconnect: see earlier essay of same name). If possible slow down the situation and “work the problem.” I often find it helpful to deploy the team to clarify the issue and build options in moments like this. That historic phrase, “Idle hands are the devils workshop,” is good to remember. Keep your team/company/family busy as you work to clarify the situation and begin making a game plan for the required actions ahead.

Optimism for the future

If you’re honest with yourself, what do you hope for the future? What do you aspire the future to be for your kids, your team, or your company? I think most of us want the future to be bright for those we care about. I think most of us want our businesses to thrive after we move on to other challenges. Especially today in the midst of such acrimonious debate about our country’s finances, it seems that the political parties have so little common ground. But is that actually true? It may be naïve to think that regardless of party, the individual congress men and women want to leave this county better for their children or grandchildren. We all have in common the truth that our walk on this earth is amazingly short and we’ve been given a chance to have an impact, let’s do that with an optimistic eye to the future.

In closing I want to quote former Secretary of State Colin Powell, “Perpetual optimism is a force multiplier.” This idea that optimism can and will enhance the impact and success of an organization rings deeply true to me. The idea of “perpetual optimism”, the concept that an optimistic outlook and approach is not episodic, but continual or uninterrupted, is powerful and challenging. The question isn’t whether we will face challenges/issues/problems/setbacks in our work or our lives; we will! The opportunity for all of us it to face these moments with an eye to an “optimistic” approach, always working to have our approach be guided by the facts of the moment AND the possibilities that lie ahead.