Randy Cantrell

Randy Cantrell is the founder of Bula Network, LLC - an executive leadership advisory company helping leaders leverage the power of others through peer advantage, online peer advisory groups. Interested in joining us? Visit ThePeerAdvantage.com

I’m Not The Sharpest Knife In The Drawer, But I Am A Knife (The Power Of Curiosity) – Season 2020, Episode 28

When it comes to understanding people and situations I’ve not found anything more powerful than curiosity.

Curiosity drives understanding.

When our curiosity is low, our quest to understand is low, too.

How do we know?

We stop asking questions. Mostly because we either lack curiosity, we don’t care or we think we know enough already. Or any combination of those things.

I’ve told you before how limited my super-powers are, but I do have a few. The other day I’m having this conversation with a CEO about business. He’s telling me about his background and how he came to be where he is, both in business and life. He asks me about my background and I explain to him how I’m like so many of my generation who stumbled into things, made the most of it and it sorta worked out. I told him I wasn’t like the rare friends I had who grew up always wanting to “be” something specific. Or like those people who have many talents from which to pick. When your talents are somewhat limited life can get easier I suppose. You either soar with your strengths (as Donald O. Clifton evangelized, he of what once was “Clifton’s Strengthfinder” fame), or you don’t. The key is knowing your strength of course. Again, easier to do when there are so few of them. Harder to do when you have to pick among the many you may have.

At which point I made the remark that serves as today’s title. And he laughed. But it’s not merely a funny line. It’s completely true and we went on to discuss how asking questions is the only way to satisfy our curiosity. But also how afraid we often are to ask the questions – especially the ones that are most obvious to us at the moment.

Here’s some context for you, regarding the title.

The subject was the power of questions. And curiosity.

But the real subject was (and is) UNDERSTANDING.

Umpteen years ago I concluded that “the quality of our questions determines the quality of our business.” Whether it was a customer interaction, a vendor decision, a contract negotiation…questions seemed to be a great barometer of whether or not I was on track as a business leader. Any time I took a shortcut thinking I knew enough BEFORE asking more questions, I almost always lost. That’s why I made up my mind that after I had asked the obvious questions (those I felt were obvious), then I’d search for the not-so-obvious ones. I adopted the “Columbo Rule” of asking one more question after I felt I had exhausted all the questions.

Over the years I learned that the thing always getting my way was ME. My arrogance. My ego. My pride. That’s what would prevent me from getting the understanding I most needed to make better decisions and to behave better.

When that epiphany hit me it almost didn’t make sense. Only because of one thing – I had always embraced my naivete. I was the person unafraid of asking the stupid question. I was the person in the conversation circle when somebody would ask if you knew somebody, or if you’d seen some movie — who would say (if it were true), “No, I have no idea.” Rarely would I feign understanding. I’ve always been pretty shameless at avoiding pretense for the sake of understanding. Hence, the statement I made to the CEO which kinda-sorta serves as today’s show title: “I may not be the sharpest knife in the drawer, but at least I know I’m a knife…and not a fork.”

My being a knife is my strong desire and curiosity to understand.

Coaching executives and leaders involves me asking lots of questions. Not interrogating them, but in seeking to better understand what’s going on with them, and to figure out how they’re operating. Sometimes I’m trying to understand what they’re feeling whenever they’re frustrated. Or excited. Or feeling terrific.

When it comes to understanding people and situations I’ve not found anything more powerful than curiosity. Which is why today I’m encouraging you to embrace it more fully in your life. It can help push your life and career forward faster than anything I know because it’ll accelerate your learning, which in turn will fuel your growth.

Learning can be hard. Or it can easier. We get to decide.

We can go it alone thinking we’ll figure it out eventually. And maybe we will. But maybe we won’t. This is the slowest way to learn something.

Think about learning to play the guitar. You can sit at home with your guitar, unaided by anybody or anything, and maybe you’ll figure it out eventually, but your progress will be glacially slow.

You could sit at home alone with your phone or computer watching YouTube videos. That’ll pick up the pace enormously. Why do you think YouTube is the number one searched platform for “how to?” Because there are millions of videos that show how to do most anything you can dream of. Whenever we leverage YouTube or anything other web platforms to learn something we’re leveraging the power of others.

You could step up your game by taking some instruction – private or in a class. With another experienced guitar player sitting in front of you, giving you some structured approach to learning guitar, you’ll likely accelerate your learning even more. More evidence of the power of others.

If you decide to befriend other guitar players, especially experienced ones, you’ll find yourself being helped by people who can show you many tricks and tips to step up your learning even more.

Go it alone, asking no questions except those you ask of yourself, and it’s the slowest possible route.

Go it together with others, being intentional and purposeful in surrounding yourself with generous guitar players willing to show you the ropes and you’re now flying in a super sonic jet compared to all that alone time.

Like me, the thing that’ll get in your way is pride and ego. Embarrassed to let the experienced guitar player know that you have no clue what you’re doing…you’ll rob yourself of the power of others. Your lack of humility will ruin your curiosity to understand how to play the guitar.

Apply that logic to anything you’d like to learn – or anything you’d like to learn how to do better!

It works with people, too.

My naivete often helped clients see things from a vantage point they hadn’t previously considered. It’s common for me to hear a client say, “I haven’t considered that it might be that way” or words that express how they’ve only been viewing something from a single point of view.

Which way is right? Which way is wrong?

Don’t think of it in such binary terms. Think of it more in shades of gray and not so black and white.

Maybe it’s less about right or wrong and more about which is better. Or maybe it’s about which is more accurate. Which is more clear.

What if I entered your life during your worst, darkest days? What if I observed your life during this time period and concluded that what I’m seeing is the totality of who and what you are? Would I be accurate?

No. Of course not.

Our worst isn’t a fair sample of who or what we are. It’s the far extreme of what likely does NOT represent who and what we truly are.

Just because you’ve read one chapter of my life doesn’t mean you know my whole story. You need more context. In order to figure out the context, you need what?

Curiosity. Enough curiosity that you want to learn more so you can figure out the whole story. Or at least more of the story so you feel you’ve got a more full context.

If it’s unfair for others to judge you based only on your worst, then why do you think it’s fair for you to do that with them?

Because judgment is easy. Just like making assumptions.

The hard, but fun part is learning more. Asking questions so you can make sure you understand is thrilling if you make it the habit of your life.

Have you ever gotten something wrong? Thought you knew what was happening…only to discover that what you thought was happening wasn’t happening at all? Thought you knew somebody only to find out you had them pegged all wrong?

Not a good feeling. It’s an awful feeling.

Contrast that with the feeling you get when you took the time to figure out what we really going on. Feels good, doesn’t it? Of course, it always feels good to get it right.

Commit yourself to being a knife. A sharper knife. Embrace deeper curiosity in your quest to figure it out. Embrace it as you work to figure anything and everything out. You don’t have to be the sharpest knife in the drawer. You just have to make sure you’re a knife.

Be well. Do good. Grow great!

If It’s Worth Doing, It’s Worth Doing It Well – Season 2020, Episode 27

Business folks know the old maxim, “If you don’t have time to do it right, then when will you have time to do it over?”

Experience has proven how true it is. Still, it’s often harder to figure out how to do it right the first time. Sometimes we don’t know how to do it right. Maybe because we lack information. Maybe because we don’t see things clearly. Maybe because we lack what we need. There are many reasons why our efforts to get it right fail.

Recently, I’ve encountered a number of situations where organizations are challenged by their own agendas. For example, there’s a gated community operated by a property owners’ association which is a private, tax-exempt property owners association headed by a general manager, hired by a board of directors who are tasked with serving the needs of the citizens. Well, some years ago the board voted to outsource the management of the gates resulting in security concerns for many citizens. It seems the outsourcing company used nominally trained and compensated employees to man the gates, resulting in a haphazard strictness the citizens of the community wanted. Without a vested interest in the situation, I engaged in a conversation some time back about it with a person who is very vested in it. During that conversation, I made a statement that serves as today’s show title. “If it’s worth doing, it’s worth doing it well.”

I don’t care if the community is gated or not, but if it’s going to gated, I asked my conversation buddy, “then isn’t it worth doing well?” Else, why do it at all? Ditch the whole notion of gates if you don’t want to do it well.

Given enough time it can become blindingly obvious where the canary in the coal mine may be. That is…the thing that seems to indicate where problems reside. If the canary in the coal mine is dying, then the oxygen supply is dangerously low, or non-existent. Keep your eye on the canary and you can improve your odds of staying safe – at least so far as having enough air to breathe is concerned. We can do the same thing with our organizations, teams, and groups. It can be a gated community, a city government, a corporation, a civic group, or a marketing team.

Thousands of podcast episodes are released daily. Who knows how many books are published daily? Or how many articles are posted? And then there’s video content. More hours than any human could possibly watch in a single lifetime. We’re busy reading, watching, and listening to something new. Lifelong learning is an attribute of high achievers…but it’s also an attribute of bored, curious or slothful folks, too. Sometimes we all can find our way into any of those categories. It’s why there’s great truth in the statement, “After all is said and done, more is said than done.”

Doing stuff is hard. Doing it well seems even harder.

Perhaps the most famous quote of Southwest Airlines founder Herb Kelleher is…

“We have a strategic plan — it’s called doing things.”

Herb omitted one other important point. Southwest Airlines has historically been committed to doing things well. Not everybody is.

Let’s start with whatever decision has already been made. We can second-guess it 8 ways to Sunday, but we’ll save that discussion for another time. Right now, I’d like you to think about a decision that’s been made – like the decision to have a gated community. Right, wrong or indifferent…who cares? The decision is made, “We’re going to have a gated community.”

Now, armed with that decision our next question is, “How will we manage that?”

Nobody is going to pipe up and say, “Poorly. Let’s do it poorly.” But it happens. We want to consider why and figure out how we might find a remedy.

I’m a fan of the NHL. The Stanley Cup Playoffs are exciting. We never experience it this time of year, but during this pandemic, all of us are experiencing messed up calendars. Unless a game goes into overtime, NHL games consist of three 20-minute periods. That’s 60 minutes of actual playing time for regulation play. Right now teams are playing to enter the conference championship. Teams are competing to stay alive in best of 7 series. Well, every game decides a winner and a loser. Every series will result in a winner or loser. The winners jump for joy and celebrate feeling as good as they’ve ever felt. The losers sulk off the ice in disgrace, regretful of their lost opportunities and squandered chances. Seems to me that doing it well has an exponentially higher pay off than doing it poorly. But both teams invested the same time to play the game. It’s likely both teams invested similar time preparing, too. For one, it’s the best feeling in the world. For the other, it’s the worst.

Are both teams equally committed? Maybe. Maybe not. But it begins there. That’s where it begins with you and your situation. The commitment to do it – whatever it is – well. To execute it just as well as you possibly can. To devote yourself and whatever resources are necessary to do it well.

So let’s go back to the gate management being outsourced. The decision was made by the board for two reasons. One, to save money. There’s your first clue that doing it well wasn’t the priority. Two, to offload the burden to somebody else. The bottom line is the board was more willing to write a check hoping it’d be a smaller check while simultaneously avoiding the hassles of managing the gates themselves.

Let me give you some context. You’ve got a board of directors comprised of five property owners. They’ve got a general manager (CEO) in place earning a strong 6-figure salary with a long list of perks. There’s a budget for staff to help the CEO perform the work. As you might imagine, the bulk of the budget is spent on staff compensation. The place was established many years ago as a gated community. So that decision was made at the very beginning.

How well do you suppose leadership is doing when they can’t seem to do the gate management well?

Turns out the place has been plagued for years with incompetence, budget overruns, and general chaos and discontentment. They’ve devoted years of work in a losing effort that might have been avoided if they’d make up their minds that they were going to do things well. Gates or no gates? Who cares? They can and did decide. But they neglected to decide they’d do it well. Well enough to be world-class at it.

I can’t tell you why. They may not even be able to tell you. But the results have been devastating. Lost money. Unhappy residents. Lower security. Lawsuits. It’s been a major fiasco that might have been avoided.

Let’s get back to you and a decision that’s already been made. What “gate” decision has been made by your organization, team, or group? How well are you doing with that decision?

Go back and revisit what’s been done so far. Face the reality of how committed you are to do it well. And let’s define well with terms like remarkable, dazzling, and spectacular. What do you suppose gate management for the community would look like if the board was fully committed to making management of the gates remarkable, dazzling, and spectacular? I’m supposing that a CEO earning around $300K with a fully compensated staff and five board members could figure out a way to get that done! Of course, I could be wrong. 😉

I’m betting whatever decision you’re thinking of right now in your organization has the same potential for remarkable, dazzling, and spectacular.

It all begins with a commitment to do it well. Yes, there must be the necessary talent and skill. There must be necessary resources. But those don’t matter if we fail to commit ourselves fully to doing it well. And if we commit to doing it well, then we’ll figure out the missing ingredients.

As we begin this new month of September, let’s take a look at decisions we’ve already made – decisions that aren’t going as well as we’d like, or as well as we know they could. Let’s look in the mirror as we wonder WHY. Then, let’s take the time to answer the question, “Why isn’t this being done well?” Better yet, “How can we fix this? How can we turn this around and make the results remarkable, dazzling, and spectacular?”

We all have a canary or multiple canaries that indicate how well we’re executing decisions. The gated community’s canary are the gates themselves. What are yours? If they’re not being done well, then your life as an organization, team, or group is at risk.

Let’s get busy fixing what ails us. Today.

And if we don’t want to do it well, then may I suggest that we forego doing it at all. That’s why I made this comment regarding the gates. “If you guys don’t want to commit to managing the gates well – in a remarkably well way – that’s fine. Then ditch the idea of having gated community. Tear the gates down and open this place up. Why waste time and energy doing a poor job?”

Why indeed?

Be well. Do good. Grow great.

The Questions That Make All The Difference In Your Leadership (and your life) – Season 2020, Episode 26

Today’s show is about two areas where we exercise our point of view and four questions that can make all the difference in our lives and our leadership.

First off, you should know I don’t fancy myself as a thought leader. I abhor that title, especially when people ascribe it to themselves. Even on my About page I say I often struggle to lead my own thoughts so I don’t really want the burden of trying to lead yours. However, I do very much want to help you figure out how you can learn, grow and improve your life and leadership. That’s always the objective. So let’s see if we can accomplish that today. Let’s see if we can do that every day!

How we see the world and our place in it – these are important for every person because they determine our choices and actions. Convictions. Character. Beliefs. Thoughts. Feelings. Those are all wrapped up in how we see the world and our place in it. But those don’t specifically speak to the two areas where we exercise our point of view.

The main ingredient for today’s podcast is our self-awareness. All of us prefer to think our self-awareness is spot on. We may tend to overestimate how accurately we see ourselves. We think we’re always right, even though we may be wrong. Why would any of us intentionally hold a wrong thought or belief or feeling? Well, it’s not because we know it’s wrong. It’s because we incorrectly believe we’re correct.

Self-awareness can also influence how we see others. We don’t often view others without thinking about how we’re impacted by our feelings or thoughts about them. That’s why all those gaps in our knowledge about others get filled in with assumptions. Our assumptions likely have more to do with us than we’d like to admit. Our assumptions can lean toward being more wrong than right as we craft stories that fit with what we most want to think is true.

The first viewpoint isn’t measured in rightness or wrongness. It’s like somebody asking you, “What’s your favorite flavor of milkshake?” You say, “Chocolate.” They say, “Well, that’s not right!” You like what you like. We prefer what we prefer. It’s our viewpoint and it has no accuracy component. It only hinges on whether or not we’re telling the truth. I suppose somebody could gift you a vanilla shake and ask, “Is vanilla your favorite?” – to which you might politely answer, “Yes. Thank you.” But really, chocolate is your favorite.

We like what we like. We prefer what we prefer. It’s neither right nor wrong. It’s our view of the world. It’s our view of ourselves.

There is at least one area where this can be problematic. In my coaching sessions, it’s common for people to have self-limiting beliefs or viewpoints. A person may aspire to a higher position of leadership in an organization, but they struggle to see themselves as worthy of such an opportunity. Having never been in such a spot they wrongly think their inexperience at having held such a position before disqualifies them, never stopping to realize that everybody in that top spot had a first! These viewpoints aren’t preferences though. And rather than judging it as right or wrong, I prefer to judge it differently.

I’m fond of questions to help us gain clarity. Experience has taught me there’s a big challenge to questions though. That is, taking the time and effort to answer them. It’s particularly noticeable whenever we’re considering worst-case-scenarios. “What’s the worst thing that can happen?” We all ask it. Fewer take the time to answer it truthfully.

But today I’ve got four questions which are really just different aspects of the same question.

Is it constructive?

Is it destructive?

Is it helpful?

Is it unhelpful?

Ask those questions with regard to your favorite milkshake flavor and you can’t answer them. It simply doesn’t matter or make a difference. Our favorite flavor preference is neither constructive or destructive. It’s neither helpful or unhelpful. It just is.

I prefer to work one-on-one with clients or in very small groups. I have friends who have no desire for such work. They’d rather stand in front of a roomful of people and make a presentation. Or they’d prefer to be asked to deliver a speech.

I prefer to podcast, even though I enjoy writing. But I’ve never written a book. I have buddies who have written multiple books. They love writing the book and being published. It clearly doesn’t matter that much to me, else I’d have done it. Or I’d be doing it.

These viewpoints are important because they fuel our choices, but they’re above judgment because they’re uniquely our own. Anybody who wants to judge them does so at their own peril of foolishness. 😉

These viewpoints or preferences are important to our lives so we can lean into what fuels us, without subjecting ourselves to the urge to be somebody or something we’re not. Perhaps too many of us live wishing we were something we’re not.

The second viewpoint involves our view of others. Let’s keep those four questions in mind because they can serve us to make all the difference. Positive differences.

I can lack knowledge or insights, but still, make some assumptions about you. I may choose to think you’re a jerk.

Let’s apply our questions to that assumption. It’s reasonable to conclude that if I make that assumption without sufficient evidence, then it’s destructive and unhelpful.

We’re not made better by thinking somebody is a jerk. But it could be that I’m fearful you may be a jerk even though you’ve done nothing to prove it. Maybe I hope to protect myself from some falsely perceived threat you pose. Maybe I misread your body language or facial expression or tone. So I think the worst, but it doesn’t serve either one of us. Especially if I’m wrong.

This viewpoint is one where the power of others can help us immensely.

Others can provide insights that can help us better understand and come face-to-face with our inaccurate assessments and viewpoints. I may foolishly think that my conclusion “you’re a jerk” is equal to my preferences, but it’s not. I could argue, “Yes it is. I prefer vanilla shakes and I prefer people who don’t act like he acts. He’s a jerk.” But I may have determined you’re a jerk based on something very slight and potentially very inaccurate. We do it all the time. We ask somebody a question and they provide us a one-word answer. We instantly think, “I don’t like him. He’s a jerk.”

Consider road rage. Somebody cuts you off in traffic. You’re steamed. You may flip them off. You may speed up to tailgate them. But you’re instantly thinking the worst of them. You assume they think they’re more important than you. That their time is more valuable than yours. Apply those four questions.

Such a thought isn’t constructive or helpful. It riles you up. Elevates your blood-pressure. It might even ruin your morning or your entire day. Meanwhile, the person who cut you off is on their merry way oblivious of any of that. You’re in essence doing yourself far more harm than that driver ever could.

But it’s your viewpoint. It’s how you’re choosing to see this event. And the other person.

What if they were racing to a family emergency? Would that alter your viewpoint? Yes. Instantly. But that’s not our default viewpoint. We don’t instantly think, “Poor guy. He’s got some sort of emergency.” And you know why we don’t tend to think like that? Because we don’t want to give that person some consideration they may not be worthy of. That’s called “grace,” and we’d rather not give grace to others.

Here’s the interesting thing to me. I will commonly ask folks, “Do you want or need grace from anybody?” Nobody ever says, “No.” Instantly we can think of all sorts of people from whom we want or need grace. Undeserved consideration. Perhaps undeserved forgiveness. Some people confess to craving it. Then why don’t we have a greater willingness to extend it? Good question. I have no solid answers other than to face the reality that it’s difficult. Doable, but difficult.

This is where we can help each other.

The power of others doesn’t serve us when it comes to whether or not you agree with me in loving Cajun food. You might think, “How can you eat that?” I may respond, “I love it.” Put me in a room of people whose aim is to convert me into a hater of Cajun food and it won’t matter. It’s neither helpful nor hurtful, constructive or destructive. And unless I surrender to peer pressure, it won’t work. Hint: it won’t work. I love Cajun food too much. 😀

When it comes to my assumptions about you or anybody else…or my assumptions about a problem or opportunity…or my assumptions about a situation or circumstance, I may not be seeing it accurately at all. Now the stakes are much higher. I can be hurting myself, others, and my organization. I may be hurting my life and the lives of others. All because I’m not seeing it correctly. Or seeing it in a way that is helpful.

I’ve asked that question for years, especially to people prone to see life from the bleakest viewpoint. The only answer anybody has offered is, “You’ll be disappointed.” To which I say, “You’re going to be disappointed anyway. Besides, you can often find higher success through increased optimism.

But let’s get back to leveraging these questions to help our leadership and our lives.

How are either of us harmed if I choose to think you’re a nice guy – not a jerk?

You might surprise me at some future point and prove yourself to be a jerk. Okay, then what? Then I make a new decision whether or not I want to be around you.

Or you don’t surprise me and turn out to be a really nice guy. Then what? Then I make a decision to stick with my original decision and we develop a nice relationship.

Let’s apply this second viewpoint to something other than our assumptions about people. You may choose to believe that people who are achieving greater financial success have some special gift or skill. You, on the other hand, are just unlucky. It’s a viewpoint lots of people have. Is it accurate? They’re convinced it is. So it has become their reality.

The downside is obvious. They’re stuck in victim-thinking. They’re destined to remain in the unlucky life cycle. But what if other people – people they trusted and people who have only their best interest at heart – could help them see it differently?

What if others could show them their thoughts, beliefs, feelings, and actions are vastly different from successful people? What if others could help them see how they may be sabotaging their own success because they’re choosing to see their situations so negatively?

Mark Cuban once lived in a house that he shared with a bunch of other guys. Sleeping on the floor. Eating pizza and living the way a bunch of guys who can’t afford much lived.

Today he’s worth multiple billions of dollars.

Somewhere along the way – likely many different points along the way – Mark had to adjust how he saw things. Today, he has no trouble seeing himself as a billionaire because HE IS A BILLIONAIRE. But it wasn’t always so.

Mark Knopfler is one of my favorite guitarists, but you do realize there was a time when he couldn’t even chord a guitar, right? Today we see and hear the performances of a lifelong musician. We don’t see the countless days when he wondered if he’d ever be good enough to play in front of people. Somewhere along the way, he changed his viewpoint. His thinking changed as he learned, grew, and improved.

Meanwhile, somewhere there’s a person driven to become a billionaire, but they have no earthly idea how. They may lack the talent, knowledge or skill to even get started. Are they deluded? Maybe. Not just anybody can become a billionaire.

Somewhere there’s a person playing the guitar hoping to make it big, but they’re not that good. Convinced if they could just get to Nashville, they’d become a major success. Are they deluded? Maybe. Nashville is filled with wannabe stars who lack the talent, skills, or hustle to make it big.

Somewhere there’s a leader facing a new challenge. They’re not sure what to do, but they have some ideas based on assumptions they’re making. Are they deluded? Maybe.

The power of others helps us avoid being deluded. Others can help us see things more clearly so we can figure it out. Others can help us make sure we can move forward and stop being stuck with thinking things that simply aren’t true. Or things that may not be true. Others can help us get unstuck from thinking things that may be holding us back.

Is it constructive?

Is it destructive?

Is it helpful?

Is it unhelpful?

Asking and answering these questions can assist us in thinking more clearly, seeing things more accurately, and mostly, in making wise choices that will serve us and others. And that’s what leadership is all about…making a positive difference!

Be well. Do good. Grow great!

Triage & Post-Mortem Your Actions – Season 2020, Episode 25

Robert woke up around 5:30 in the morning, more tired than when he went to bed. Back in mid-March, his company was outpacing their projections so significantly his team was wondering how they had failed to more accurately project revenues and profits. At the time, back in the fall of 2019, Robert’s team was skittish about being too aggressive with their 12% revenue increase projections. As the end of Q1 approached – along with the pandemic – sales were almost 20% higher. Like most teams experiencing grand success, they just accepted it and were thankful.

By March 18, 2020 life began to change. Dramatically.

Robert’s banker made sure the company got all the federal funds possible. Thankfully, they qualified for a significant loan, which was easily converted to a forgivable “grant” as Robert used almost all the money to keep staff on the payroll. At the time, Robert was hopeful the money would be enough to help him ride out the pandemic storm. But it wasn’t.

During those days he assembled his leadership team on Zoom calls trying to wrestle to the ground strategies that would help them hang on. In the span of about 90 days they went from feeling stupid because they had so grossly under-estimated sales projections…now, here they were talking about how to manage cash flow so they could just survive. Robert admitted, “Somedays, it was just too much of a swing. My mind couldn’t seem to handle it.”

The employees have been prominent in Robert’s mind. He’s got talent that has been with him for years. Some that’s quite specialized. All of it, to hear him, are loyal. It was crushing for Robert to even entertain conversations about how impossible it was going to be to keep the payroll fully intact. Harder still when he had to personally inform people that the company could no longer retain them. For Robert, it was especially painful to do such a thing by way of a video call rather than in person. “That’s as bad it gets,” said Robert. “You lose people who have done great work for a long time and you can’t even show them the respect to do it in person.”

Like many, Robert experienced death by a thousand cuts as he tried every day to figure out ways to avoid the inevitable. At every step he and his leadership team – who were all the first to forego pay so they could try to hang onto as many employees as possible – were pre-thinking every possible scenario and he’ll tell how they were “second-guessing every single thing we do.”

Triage is mostly a medical term. It refers to the assignment of degrees of urgency to wounds or illnesses to decide the order of treatment of a large number of patients or casualties. I’ve used it for years to refer to a management team’s assessment of the present circumstances in order to decide the priorities. It’s the ability of leadership to accurately figure out what course of action should happen next!

Robert and his team were putting in the hard work to triage their situation. But this was and is an unparalleled time. There’s no precedent upon which to draw. Robert’s vast experience seemed inadequate.

Like most business owners Robert made some personal decisions early on. Each based on how he personally felt he had to react. He remained true to himself by erring on the side of gratitude toward his staff. That’s why he decided to stave off parting ways with people as long as possible. Meanwhile, I know other owners who operated quite differently. Being true to themselves, some had little to no compunction about parting ways with anybody. I’m not judging it. Some owners view their staff as invaluable to the success of the enterprise. Others view them as more disposable. Robert held the former viewpoint.

This is important because we love to think that every decision is purely logical, reasonable and hopefully accurate because of that logic and reason. But we’re humans. We have feelings. Emotions. Thoughts. Life isn’t so simple or easy.

Part of triaging decisions and actions is figuring out what you can live with. Decisions aren’t perfect. Or made with perfect information.

Robert is the kind of leader who couldn’t live well with himself – meaning, he would be unfazed or unbothered – if he made a decision without thinking of the welfare of his staff.

Others might be able to look past any individuals and do what they think best serves their operation. They’re able to live with themselves believing their first responsibility is to take care of the company. They’re able to distinguish between “the company” and the people who work there.

I’m not judging the choices made in today’s show, but I am mindful that as leaders and managers we’re driven to make choices we can live with, even if the choice is hard.

If everything is important, then nothing is important.

We must prioritize actions and decisions. Triage is the critical part of figuring that out. What is the most important thing right now? What’s critical right now – the thing that is most urgent?

Some of our decisions may not be that important, but their time component makes them urgent. If your delivery truck gets a flat tire, that’s urgent. It needs to be taken care of quickly. It may or may not be a make-or-break decision, but there’s no reason to procrastinate on fixing it so you can move on. Such choices won’t require much thought – either in triage or post-mortem.

If a supplier contacts you that a vital shipment is delayed 2 weeks you’ve got both urgency and importance. It’s scramble the jets time! Options may be limited. Or non-existent. But decisions and actions must be taken to find some solution that can at least minimize the damage. Hopefully, an alternative can be found quickly to remedy the situation, even if it robs you of planned profits.

Daily decisions vary wildly in their urgency and importance. Some have quick, easy solutions. Others are more laborious. It’s those laborious decisions and actions that likely are worthy of post-motem (reviewing what you could have done to improve that situation now that you’re looking at it in the rearview mirror). All the decisions and actions require triage. Flat tires are easy to triage. Delayed critical shipments are, too. Most of the time we’re not challenged with a multitude of urgent, critical decisions simultaneously. That’s when triage gets harder.

One of the biggest challenges of post-mortem is our imaginations. We sometimes like to think that if we would have made a different decision, then things would have worked out better. Or, we can imagine them working out worse. Glass half full versus glass half empty.

Truth is, we’ll never know because we only know the outcome of the actions we took. But history is valuable. So are patterns.

Robert has a history of putting his people upfront. He also has a history of loyal, hardworking employees. Turnover in Robert’s company is almost unheard of. That’s not an accident. It’s the way Robert leads. And manages. Is that worthwhile? It is to him.

Meanwhile, another owner has a history of putting the company first. He’s the sole stockholder. In essence, he’s putting himself first. He has every right to do that. He’ll tell you that he’s poured his life into the company and his welfare – and his family’s – are the paramount thing to him. That’s his history. That’s his philosophy. That’s his pattern.  Is that worthwhile? It is to him.

There may be nuances that stop working for both men though. As they examine how they approach making decisions and taking actions, each man might see themselves in view of their history and patterns and decide something may work better. Maybe not. But if they don’t look at closely, they’ll never know.

Robert will admit that there have been times when he was too patient with people who simply couldn’t or wouldn’t do the work. But he’ll also tell you he hates the confrontation required to hold people as accountable as he should. When he looks closely at his habits of triage and post-mortem he realizes that he relies heavily – “too heavily,” he says – on finding just the right people. The right people who thrive in his environment. The right people who have the kind of loyalty he has. But when he doesn’t, he’s frustrated and unsure of how to best handle it. By looking at his decision-making process and his behaviors, Robert has learned he manages and leads in a single way. It works for some – even most. But he looks back and expresses regret for a few “very talented people who simply couldn’t find a fit here.”

Meanwhile, his counterpart who operates with a dramatically different philosophy is facing a different challenge as he looks at his history and patterns. Like Robert, he only knows what he knows. When asked, “Are you often frustrated with your people?” he jumps to answer. “Constantly! I am always disappointed.”

Turns out neither owner is behaving in ways that fully work for them. Turns out they’re both vexed a bit by their history and patterns. It’s a first step toward greater awareness that life can be different – better! That just because some things were urgent and important before doesn’t mean they are today. That just because you made one choice yesterday, it doesn’t mean you’re unable to make a different choice tomorrow.

Learning is about growth and improvement. It only happens when we commit ourselves to deeper scrutiny – the scrutiny of self-examination.

Be well. Do good. Grow great!

Humility Is The Path Forward – Season 2020, Episode 24

Admittedly, humility is a trite topic when we’re talking about leadership. It gets lots of lip service, but less practice. Humility sounds wonderful as a characteristic, but many people disbelieve it has real power. And real power is largely what folks clamor to obtain. Those who have it can be desperate to hang onto it.

Making decisions. That’s the name of the game. We want power, control, and authority. We want to make the decision and issue orders. There’s no place for humility when that’s the objective. So we may think.

Let me tell you what prompted today’s show.

Before the pandemic shut us all down I was engaged with a number of groups about making a leadership presentation. They had similar desires – growing and developing leadership that could propel them forward. Each group had so-called leaders, but each group felt leadership was largely ineffective.

At the heart of the conversations about how I might be able to help them was culture, a term I insisted we talk about it. Specifically, I wanted to hear their own description of the culture – the environment, the feelings, the opinions of the group members.

Here are some of the words and phrases used to describe the cultures. Keep in mind, this is how THEY described themselves – their own culture.

“Participation is sparse.”

“Some are always chasing the spotlight for attention and power.”

“Most of us don’t speak up. Ever.”

“We’re told our opinions matters, but nobody listens so most of the time we just keep quiet.”

“We’re told what to do. Nobody ever asks us anything.”

“Decisions come down without any discussion.”

“You can’t have a conversation because it feels like people have their mind made up.”

Sound’s inviting, huh?

Sadly, it describes too many groups and teams. Long ago I figured out that leadership challenges largely stem from how people view authority. And how badly some seek authority.

In my coaching practice, I’m blessed because I always – 100% of the time – am commissioned to work with high achievers and performers. I don’t do remedial work. Nothing wrong with it, it’s just not my calling. By the time I was 25 I learned I wasn’t a zero to 60 guy, but instead was a 60 to 240 guy. That is, I’m innately focused on taking an existing performance and finding paths forward to even higher performance. It was true in the businesses I operated and it’s been true in the teams I’ve assembled, and now in the people I coach. For me, the biggest question is, “How much better can it be?

I say that because it’s rare for me to encounter a client with a poor view of authority. My clients all lean very heavily into recognizing their responsibility and are very intent on upping their game. Along the way, we almost always engage in conversations about lessons learned from the bad bosses they had along the way. Invariably we have a discussion about authority and why some people see it as decision-making rather than service. It’s at the heart of many leadership challenges because too many bosses lack the humility to lead.

My focus on leadership humility centers on curiosity, compassion, and understanding. These are the path forward for all leaders, even those who are already high achievers and high performers. We can all improve our abilities in these 3 areas.

The reason I focus on this triad of traits is because humility fosters these and lack of humility erodes them. The real focal point of humility? Others. When it’s not about others it’s about us, but not in a selfish way. It’s about our willingness to question ourselves. It’s about our commitment to our own learning, growth and improvement so we can help others do the same.

Permit a made up story to illustrate.

The entire team is assembled in the room. There is no boss present, only peers. This is a meeting to discuss an opportunity. A challenge. Take your pick. The purpose of the meeting is to have the first discussion about it. These people are present to provide their insights on the matter. Each of them has a perspective that could be valuable to the overall clarity.

As the meeting begins one person, the self-appointed leader of the group, takes command of the meeting. He begins by stating his views on the matter as well as his suggestions on what should be done. When he winds down he asks if anybody else has anything to offer. He’s instantly shut down more than half the group who simply want to leave and be done with this meeting. Most are silently frustrated by his obvious quest to be in charge. But some brave soul pipes up and tactfully states a few opposing viewpoints. Mr. “I’m In Charge” immediately discounts these opposing views, attempting to point out why they’re not the best course. Or, as is quite often the case, Mr. “I’m In Charge” ignores the comments altogether and then asks, “Anybody else?” It’s as though the first person never uttered a word. This teaches the rest of the group that there’s little point in speaking up because you’re not going to be heard anyway.

This happens in group meetings held in person or virtually all over the globe. It happens when no boss is present or when the boss is present. Most people go along to get along. And all along the way people are dying inside, along with their brilliant insights, ideas and suggestions. All because somebody driven by their own desire to be in charge lacks humility.

No curiosity about what others are thinking or feeling.

No compassion for anybody but themselves.

No desire to understand.

But I’ve found it begins with no urge, willingness, or commitment to questioning themselves. No desire or willingness to get better because they’re already the smartest person present. How can you improve when you’re already the best? 😀

That’s the great thing about high performers. They don’t have to convinced. They already believe in the power of questioning themselves – and in having others question them. They already know the power of the collective inside whatever room they’re in is infinitely wiser than they are alone. High achievers are committed to finding ways to better leverage the power of others. That’s why these are the people I serve!

But let’s end with some potential bits of help, some tips that might provide a path forward even for those who are bent like Mr. “I’m In Charge.”

  1. Don’t be the first to express your viewpoint. Hold your peace. Resist telling others what you think or how you feel. Respect others by first respecting yourself. Enough to keep quiet.
  2. Ask others what they think or how they feel. Solicit the insight from others with the aim of learning and understanding.
  3. Try to have compassion and understanding for where they’re coming from, even if (and especially if) it opposes how you think. You don’t have to agree in order to embrace curiosity, compassion, and understanding.
  4. Solicit the quietest people in the room. They’re often the more thoughtful, deliberate people. They could be the shyest, too. No matter, lead the way to make sure more folks are involved.

Humility is the path forward for YOU and everybody else. Nobody loses. It makes you more approachable. Safer. It fosters more insights from others. There just isn’t any downside to it.

Fools think it’s the way of cowards or low achievers. They think bravado and insistence is the path to authority. They incorrectly see leadership as authority, but they’re not the same. People make up their own minds on who they’ll follow. Or who will influence them. Somebody imposes a boss on us. It doesn’t make them leader. Leadership’s power is first over one’s own pride and ego, and next, over one’s ability to influence others because they know their best interest is the primary consideration.

Be well. Do good. Grow great!

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