Archive for leadership

Made in USA: How We Do It Matters

house-of-strawHuff and Puff and Blow that Economy Down…

What is not to like about more US manufacturing? It is important to our economy, to national security and to the individuals needing jobs and purpose. A nation should be able to build the things that it needs. A hollowed out economy that is only exporting services is not a long term play.

But a revolution is not the solution. Shaming companies to come back is also not a simple anecdote. It took us over 20 years to dismantle our manufacturing prowess. We can’t bring it back overnight. Without some planning we will build a house of straw. We will alienate our trading partners. We will bring back jobs that we can’t fill because we don’t have trained workers. We will try to use the same processes and facilities we have always used and the result will be poor quality and expensive product. We will impact our economy because our goods will be more expensive. Finally, retaliation by other countries will slow down the exporting that we do today. The right way to bring back manufacturing is to consider all of the aspects of a strong foundation and to build a house out of brick. What will that entail?

  • Focus – What kind of manufacturing is right for this country? Given our higher standard of living we will not find enough workers for low skill tasks. The best products for re-shoring can be manufactured using automation, are high value or are heavy or bulky. Those kinds of products don’t rely on low wage workers and they cost a lot to move around. If the market is here you can eliminate shipping costs by building here. We also should consider where we can bring a competitive advantage. If we have access to materials and other natural resources, design expertise or automation capability we can do a better job than the competition and build product for the US market and also successfully export. Examples of good products for US manufacturing are appliances, vehicles, expensive electronic devices, machinery, robots and construction materials. It also makes sense to build close to home when a product is difficult to build and contains a lot of intellectual property. The interaction between manufacturing and design engineering is critical during a fast ramp and doing that close to home has time to market advantage. Time is money and fast to market protects IP.
  • Infrastructure – We need better roads and power and better access to human resource. State government officials in some locations are working on this. Kentucky, South Carolina, Tennessee  and Alabama are attracting more than their fair share of new manufacturing jobs because they have favorable policies, strengthening infrastructure and active government programs aimed at attracting companies. Each state needs to craft policies to attract the kind of industry that will be beneficial to the population.
  • Prepare the Workforce – In a 60 Minutes interview Tim Cook, the Apple CEO, said that one of the reasons that Apple needs to build phones in China is that the US doesn’t have a trained manufacturing labor force. The obstacle is not so great. If we package training with job opportunity at a living wage, the workforce will be available. Apple can not afford much labor content with this model but automation is a way around that roadblock. Increased automation will generate the need for other skills that we currently lack in the US. We need more manufacturing savvy engineers. We have the best higher education system in the world and there are many excellent programs that can meet this need. Those programs train engineers for the whole world. We can harness that momentum for our own workforce through part-time, online or even full time degree or certificate programs that are sponsored by companies in need of talent. This is an investment worth making and where some profit should be directed.
  • Government Support – Of course tax reduction is what comes to mind here and perhaps President Trump’s intention to increase the tax burden on companies importing goods will help fund education or infrastructure. But there are other ways our government can have a direct impact on a continuing manufacturing renaissance.
    • Training program sponsorship or tax credits
    • Increased community college support for practical apprenticeship type programs
    • Higher education support in the form of manufacturing and technology research grants
    • State or Federally sponsored manufacturing initiatives used to focus funds and research
    • Increased vigilance for fair trade 
    • Logical and sustainable regulations that solve for both competitiveness and the environment.
  • Leadership and Vision – When I worked with Canon, I was told that Canon just did not understand our actions. HP was making decisions for our stockholders. We were trying to minimize the tax burden and they felt that taxes were a patriotic duty. Losing jobs to China was a defeat and there was much debate prior to any movement of manufacturing. They believed that they could build the product with higher quality and with more process technology and therefore it would ultimately be less expensive. Perhaps we can’t turn public international companies into patriotic entities but with more visionary leadership and more action that drives innovation and competitiveness right here in the US,  companies can find a win for US manufacturing and for stockholders. The win is there. It will take leadership to invest in factories, commit to a plan that isn’t easy to pull off in the short term and then execute with determination.

There is a path to solid manufacturing growth in the US. It isn’t a move back to the 1970’s. We won’t go back to what manufacturing looked like then but neither will the rest of the world. The new era of manufacturing will be lean and automated. It will require an educated workforce and a supportive government. We will need the willpower and the leadership at high levels in government and industry to take a stand and to chart a path to a successful win-win future where the consumer gets a good “Made in the USA” product at a competitive price.

“All human situations have their inconveniences. We feel those of the present but neither see nor feel those of the future; and hence we often make troublesome changes without amendment, and frequently for the worse.”     Benjamin Franklin

A Wolf Tone in the Workplace

cello1Is a dissonance good or bad? Does it add a richness to the output or does it detract? If you play a stringed instrument you are familiar with the “wolf“. This is an overtone produced when a note is played that matches the natural frequency of the instrument. The wolf is an oscillation that sounds like an animal noise. It is annoying for a cellist or violinist and it is often dealt with using a “wolf eliminator”. If a cello is properly proportioned it will have this problem. It seems that the very best instruments have this characteristic. Many musicians buy eliminators to dampen this noise. But some cellists choose to embrace this flaw and actually write music with the wolf in mind. Naldjorlak I is a piece that capitalizes on the wolf tone. Some cellists work around and with their cello’s wolf tone rather than putting an eliminator on the instrument for fear of dampening the richness of the other tones. Perhaps they have discovered that a little dissonance can be used to advantage.

In our workplaces we often find annoying “characters”. They find a way to stir things up and call to attention all that is wrong. Often they are different from the rest and don’t blend in with the gang. There are several ways to deal with this kind of person and each way has its consequences.

  • Kick ’em to the curb: There is no time for people problems. Teamwork is the highest priority to get the job done. If this is your situation then eliminating the annoyance will optimize the team’s output. You can try to coach and cajole but you will likely not get to a place where this “wolf” is tamed. Dissonance will persist. However, if you eliminate the problem it is likely that you will also eliminate a skill or set of experiences that created some synergy for the team.
  • Ignore and let the organization work it out: Usually the people with the annoying habits or ideas have something to bring to the table or they wouldn’t have been hired. They have deep experiences or unique skills. Perhaps they are jaded and maybe they have some quirks based on that experience but they are tolerated based on what they bring to the team. Letting the organization work it out is a typical management response. The logic is that there is more benefit than harm and everyone is a grown-up. The organization should work out their differences and move on. This response usually results in inefficiency and frustration. In the extreme the result is the loss of good people.
  • Harness the wolf and find synergy: This third alternative creates the most organizational value.  Different styles and personalities will usually bring the best results. Dissonance and disagreement will help deliver a stronger product. However, there is a technique to optimizing the result and the best organizations work to maximize teamwork while maintaining differences.
    • Teach the team about their own and other’s personalities. Techniques such as Meyers Briggs and Strength Based Leadership are often used to help a team figure out how to optimize their own strengths and quirks while working with others.
    • Allow for disagreement, but then insist on a “commit”. While at Sun I worked with a leader who used the phrase, “disagree but commit”. He was tolerant of discussion and disagreement up to a point. Once the decision was made, he insisted on commitment to the decision with no back-channel negatives.
    • Lead through the dissonance. Purposefully designing an organization that has differing views is a way to enhance results but leadership is needed to guide discussions and allow for a reasonable tension without too much delay. A leader who is self-confident and knows how to bring out the best in a group of people is hard to find but once in place this type of person will be a star.

Here’s to the crazy ones. The misfits. The rebels. The troublemakers. The round pegs in the square holes. The ones who see things differently. They’re not fond of rules. And they have no respect for the status quo. You can quote them, disagree with them, glorify or vilify them. About the only thing you can’t do is ignore them. Because they change things. They push the human race forward. And while some may see them as the crazy ones, we see genius. Because the people who are crazy enough to think they can change the world, are the ones who do.
― Rob Siltanen

Disfluence: Learning is a Mess

Image result for image of writing in finger paintsI always carry a notebook. This has been part of my work life since its inception. I’ve always known that if I write it down in my messy handwriting, I remember it better. Even when I’m told in a meeting “No need to take notes; I’ll send you the PowerPoint”, I still take notes. Sometimes I do it self-consciously since it seems I’m the only one with a pen in the room. But it helps me soak in the information. Now that I understand the concept of Cognitive Disfluence I will pull out my pen with pride. Cognitive Disfluence is a fancy way of saying that you learn more when you interact with what you are trying to learn.

In 2011 a study was done at Princeton. Subjects were asked to read about complicated, fictional biologic taxonomies. One group read in the common Arial font and the second read in Comic Sans MS. The group that read in the more unusual font remembered 14% more. This study has been done in a number of ways and the results are the same. The same concept is true with numbers. If you have to graph the data yourself on a piece of paper, it will stick. If you do the math by hand and not with a calculator, you will remember it better. If you punch in someone’s cell phone number a few times into your phone, you will remember it.

Humans are meant to interact with their surroundings. Our brains are wired to forget the easy stuff and hang on to the stuff we wrestle a bit with. Knowing this can help us absorb the data and information that comes barreling at us day in and day out. Below are some ways to better grab onto what is flowing past.

  • Use the whiteboard: For those of us working in offices whiteboards are ubiquitous. Have you noticed that some people are fast to jump up and use the board and others hang back? Be one of those board doodlers. As a discussion progresses, note the key points. Write down the dates and make a timeline. Assign owners. Draw a picture of how it works or who is connected to whom. If you are the leader of the meeting feel free to hand over the pen to others to pull them in. You will find that the room is more engaged and that the concepts are remembered. You and your team will think about this meeting more than most because the team was actively engaged.
  • Take notes in meetings, during the lecture or sermon, as you read: Keep a notebook close at hand to jot down something that inspires. Draw a picture of the image that comes to mind. Even if you are doodling or writing key thoughts or names, this is enough to engage a different part of your brain and you are more likely to retain what you are hearing.
  • Graph out your expenses or revenue or miles run over time: I’m a big proponent of dashboards in business. These simplify the noisy data and give leaders key performance metrics to be sure that they haven’t lost control. But the very best way to get to this information is by graphing it yourself. Those shop floor charts where the data is added one point at a time (remember TQC?) are the best. Maybe a good combo is to look at and manipulate key pieces of information. If you see the trends going in the wrong direction dig down a level. See what the key contributors are and normalize by doing some math.
  • Write a list of things to do: Lots of us have “to do lists”. Crossing things off feels so good. But maybe the act of writing something down puts it into our heads to complete as well. We think about the task, consider how big the job is, break it down further and actually visualize the act of doing it.
  • Write stuff on sticky notes and move ’em around: A Kanban board or Scrum board is used in businesses to track, prioritize and pull through work. There are tools available to put this online and manipulate virtually but many companies and teams find that a good old fashioned white board with columns and sticky notes work the best. Why? Because you are engaged with the work. You can write on it. Add thoughts and move them around.
  • Argue from another perspective: One of the most interesting “features” of our brains is the tendency to find and stick with a simple frame of understanding. This saves us time. It helps us get through the day. We know how to drive our cars without a lot of brainpower. We can get ready in the morning without being totally awake. We have a perspective on life and we filter everything to comply with that perspective. The downside of this is that we don’t easily learn and change based on new information. We are blind to changes that can be very important in the running of our businesses or families. To shake ourselves out of this rut, try re-framing a situation by taking the other side and arguing it. It is helpful to hire or befriend people who are not going to simply feed you information that you already know or agree with.

The most successful people are ones who are exceptional learners. They digest new information, absorb new insights and aren’t afraid to look beyond their frames of reference. Many of these successful learners try crazy new things just to shake it up. Resolve to get out of your comfort zone and amp up your learning.

Learning is an experience. Everything else is just information.        Albert Einstein


Marcy Alstott is an Operations and Supply Chain Consultant with diverse product and technology expertise, multinational management credentials and extensive transformation know-how.  



Step It Up

Image result for international women's dayOn March 8, 1917 women in the city of St. Petersburg marched in the streets to end WWI, food shortages and the rule of czars. This International Women’s Day event was called a march for “bread and peace” and it kicked off a revolution. In 1965, March 8th was declared a national holiday in the Soviet Union, meant to recognize the heroism and selflessness of women and to celebrate the contribution made by women toward the establishment of peace and freedom. Since then the holiday has been adopted across the world and is now a day to reflect on progress made by courageous and inspiring women in all walks of life. Google’s doodle  today is a montage of the many roles and the many possibilities for women. And what wonderful possibilities there are!

This year the United Nations called for Gender Equality by 2030. At the rate we are currently going we will not achieve parity across the world until 2095. We need to step it up.

Some key targets of the 2030 UN Agenda:

  • By 2030, ensure that all girls and boys complete free, equitable and quality primary and secondary education leading to relevant and Goal-4 effective learning outcomes.
  • By 2030, ensure that all girls and boys have access to quality early childhood development, care and pre-primary education so that they are ready for primary education.
  • End all forms of discrimination against all women and girls everywhere.
  • Eliminate all forms of violence against all women and girls in the public and private spheres, including trafficking and sexual and other types of exploitation.
  • Eliminate all harmful practices, such as child, early and forced marriage and female genital mutilation.

Let’s join in to support these goals and step it up to achieve gender equality. You can pledge your support here: PLEDGE SUPPORT. You don’t need to pay anything, leave an email address, sign your name. You just have to say you will participate in change.

Let us devote solid funding, courageous advocacy and unbending political will to achieving gender equality around the world. There is no greater investment in our common future.  UN Secretary-General, Ban Ki-moon



Hire a Learner

When I was 20 years old I worked at GM as a co-op student in their tech center in Michigan. While working on the engine dynamometer, I met Bob and Hank. They were technicians of the highest caliber. Both were Cessna pilots. I tagged along a couple of times and for my birthday at the end of the summer Bob asked his instructor (he was getting an instrument rating) to give me a lesson. I couldn’t stop there and when I had my own funds a couple of years later I got my pilot’s license in California where I moved after graduation. There was nothing quite like the challenges of reading maps, mastering the radio, understanding the plane and knowing that controlling that airplane was in my hands. The learning curve was steep and worth it.

Years later I’ve mastered much that has involved starting from nothing and ending with taking control. The skill of learning something new is the most valuable arrow in my quiver. Nothing beats the adrenaline around figuring something out especially when the stakes are high. While I continue to learn even after decades in the working world, I see others in the workplace who are not so willing to jump into something new.  Often, managers and recruiters bias toward hiring those who have been there and done that. Some proven skill is necessary but not sufficient. The best employees are those who are curious, unafraid and driven to learn. When hiring, look for and ask about these things:

  • Adaptability – Ask your candidate to tell stories of transition. Dig when you hear about something that was tough to overcome. What did she or he do when placed in an unknown situation? International travel, cross-functional projects and joining companies involved in a new technology are fertile grounds for stories of adaptability.
  • Growth – An exceptional candidate will show a track record of jumping into new challenges. There is value to longevity in companies and roles but be careful when someone has only moved on when forced. A curious learner will look for ways to stretch and will not be satisfied in a stagnant job. When relating accomplishments, a learner will enthusiastically talk about the journey. Ask questions. (e.g. What challenged you in that job? What skills were mastered? How are you better prepared now because of your history? What attracts you to this job?) Answers should point to a growing set of skills and experiences and an aptitude to learn and change.
  • Emotional Intelligence (EQ)- This term was developed by Daniel Goleman in 1995. The book by the same name describes EQ as an ability to recognize one’s own and others’ emotions and to use that knowledge to guide thinking and behavior. This is closely correlated to learning agility especially as it relates to how you react to your own emotions. Fear can be an inhibitor to learning. Recognizing those butterflies in your tummy as something you’ve felt before and have worked through keeps you going forward. It is easy to let those feelings of uneasiness slow down your growth and learning.
  • Curiosity – The most valuable colleagues with whom I’ve worked have an insatiable curiosity. They aren’t stuck in their pay grade or functional slot. They reach outside of their comfort area to ask questions and to understand context. They sit at the lunch table with others in the company and learn about projects, technology, marketing launches, financial challenges. They combine their EQ with their curiosity to pull out information from others. They sincerely want to know what is going on outside of their cubicles. Hiring someone with this trait will land you a cross-functional connector. That person is worth her weight in gold.

Live as if you were to die tomorrow. Learn as if you were to live forever.

Mahatma Gandhi

The Gordian Knot of Start-ups

gordian+knotThe Legend: The Phrygians needed a king. An oracle decreed that the next man to enter the city driving an ox-cart should become their king. A farmer named Gordias shows up on an ox-cart and got the job. Out of gratitude, Gordias’ son Midas dedicated the ox-cart to Zeus and tied it to a post with an intricate knot. An oracle again prophesied that the one to untie the knot would become king of Asia. Alex showed up and attempted to untie the Gordian knot. When he could not untie it, he sliced it in half with his sword. Apparently that was good enough and Alexander the Great went on to rule Asia.

The Gordian Knot of Start-ups: Every start-up faces at least one unsolvable problem. Every leadership team worth its start-up salt knows that these problems, no matter how insurmountable they seem, have solutions if approached with the right mindset and attitude. Sometimes the solution is to slice the problem in half. In any case the approach needs to include out of the box thinking and acting.

Roadblocks seems inevitable in a new company. These can come in the form of schedule slips, cost overages, performance issues, customer delays and more. With a start-up company there is little room for error and the problems can feel insurmountable. This is the test of leadership. While there is no simple approach, here are some ways to slice through your Gordian Knot.

  • Redefine the problem: See the situation with deep clarity and really understand the limitations presented to you. In some cases a solution or work-around will come up with a calm and studied approach. The key to this work is to not panic and react but to let the problem unfold. Gather the facts. Clarify the obvious alternatives. Dig deeper. This added perception is very valuable and often is overlooked in our haste to resolve. For example, if there is a slip in the schedule due to a delay in supply perhaps there is a way to substitute in another part or delay the addition of that part to the end of the manufacturing process. Maybe a partial ship of the late supply would keep the project on track.
  • Trade-off: Often times you can have it all but not at the same time. If a project is in jeopardy due to functionality or cost perhaps there is a way to trade-off one for the other. Can you spend on a component or transportation mode that puts you back on schedule? Or, can you push a piece of functionality out in time and keep on track with the release? Prioritize and then respond with a trade-off that keeps your values and company goals on track.
  • Lead with confidence: Often an optimistic approach is just what is needed to blast through obstacles. This starts at the top. Even if there are what appear to be insurmountable problems, a great leader will dig deep and project confidence in the outcome. This shouldn’t be an arrogant or dictatorial response but one that reaches into past history and reflects on similar times and good outcomes. There is a time for realism but as you approach a big issue the first approach should be positive and should engender optimism about the future.
  • Lead with humility: Humility isn’t a sign of weakness. Knowing what you know and what you don’t know is a sign of inner strength. If you are open to the ideas of others and realize that the collective wisdom of peers and subordinates often results in a better answer, you will often find a path through what appears to be an impossible situation. If you have hired well and there are people in the organization who are not like you, there is a good chance that their perspective will be different and could help with a solution.
  • Redefine success: There is a point where a problem requires a new definition of success. Alexander the Great decided the successful “untangling” of the knot was a slice with his sword. His success wasn’t what others expected but it was success none the less. In a start-up company this is often called a “pivot”. When the product being developed simply can not get you where you need to go it is time to redefine the company’s success. Perhaps the change will drive a new design or a new market approach or even a new product family altogether. But success can be redefined and the right kind of leadership can rally the troops to this newly defined battle.

Gordian’s story drives us to think about the impossible problem. It should also drive us to think about creative, out of the box solutions and the idea that bold problem solving defines leaders.

“Sometimes I’ve believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast.” Lewis Carroll

Nurturing Momentum

quote on beginningAs I started college I was told by friends and family that great things would begin to happen. I was ready to embrace the new experience.  I left for Indiana in August during allergy season with a cast on my right arm. I sneezed and sweated through the first few weeks of classes and those classes were harder than expected. It was a terrible start. I lacked momentum as my college career began.

As I start 2014 there are plenty of encouraging messages being blasted out from all media sources telling me to be positive and embrace the new year. But I don’t want to fall for that again. Simply claiming momentum won’t make it so. Getting through the holidays takes a lot of energy. The end of this stressful time typically brings some welcome rest. And now somehow I am supposed to launch energetically into a new year. As Newton’s first law of physics points out, an object at rest will stay at rest unless an outside force acts upon it! Business and life demand our energy. It helps to be passionate but it can not be forced. You can not force momentum….but you can nurture it.

As 2014 begins I plan to nurture the momentum that I need to propel myself forward. There are three key elements to this plan. They have worked for me before so I expect good results.

  1. Open up to new things – Take one day at a time and watch for opportunities to create momentum. Trying new things can reveal new abilities and interests. As the new year begins there will be chances to engage in physical and mental activities that will take you out of your comfort zone. Surprise yourself.
  2. Learn constantly – Don’t think that graduation from formal education is the end. There are so many new things to learn. Read, watch, listen. Get your creative juices flowing.
  3. Try, Try again – Failure is not a problem. Not trying is the problem. If January starts out slowly or if there are stumbles as you begin, February is not far behind. Pick up and start again.

My college start was not smooth but I did nurture my own momentum to send me successfully through a great college experience. I did it by applying these same ideas. I took risk and signed up for things I had not done before. I got involved in student government, a sorority and several academic societies. I never lived in my home town again. Instead, I chose to take a summer job in Michigan working for GM.  I embraced physics which was my first academic challenge. Eventually it became my favorite class. I didn’t give up in the face of disappointment. I didn’t always get the grade or the job or the boy or the position I went for at the time, but I continued to go for what I wanted and was propelled forward to a broader future than I could ever have imagined.

In 2014 I resolve to keep an open mind to what is around the corner. While I don’t feel the momentum yet, I am certain that I will be swept up in it as the year gets going. And I will do my best to nurture that momentum myself. Join me!

Most of the important things in the world have been accomplished by people who have kept on trying when there seemed to be no help at all.”Dale Carnegie

Let The Game Come To You

BBpicJust be patient. Let the game come to you. Don’t rush. Be quick, but don’t hurry.  “Earl the Pearl” Monroe

Earl Monroe played basketball for the New York Knicks in the 70’s. Monroe was not especially fast nor was he a high jumper, but he had spin moves, hesitation dribbles and fake shots that threw off his opponents. He played the game with finesse. He let the game come to him. The advice in his quote is the most helpful given to me over my career. I’m not a basketball player nor am I even a very well-informed spectator. But I understand the idea of timing and of patience when it comes to winning a game. And the applicability to business and perhaps to life in general is many fold.

  • White Space:  Be slow to speak. Allow others to move first and talk first when gathering information or making a decision. Take the information in before making a call. Most people have an issue with silence. Don’t be one of those people. Listen for the white space.
  • Fools Rush In:  Gather the facts and don’t be fast to judge. Expressing an opinion is fine but take care not to take a strong stand too early from which you can’t back down. I’ve often changed my mind about something after hearing all sides and letting the other point of view sink in.
  • Collect Puzzle Pieces:  Puzzle solving and basketball? I am mixing my metaphors, but there is one similarity. The game and the puzzle unfolds. At the beginning, it isn’t clear what the picture is, but soon the pieces fall into place. The right strategy becomes clear in time. Sometimes the strategy or technique used needs to change to react to incoming information. In business, be willing to change your plans with new information.
  • Be Quick But Don’t Hurry:  Fast action is better than no action. I’ve said that in previous posts. But thoughtful action trumps all. Move forward with a reasonable amount of knowledge, a willingness to adapt and an awareness of your surroundings.
  • Believe In Your Own Ability:  If you don’t understand it all to start with, believe that it will become clearer over time. Believe that you can learn what you need to learn. Don’t be afraid of ambiguity. Go forward trusting your ability to understand…eventually. You’ve done that before and you can do it again.
  • If You Don’t Like the Weather, Wait An Hour: That is what they say in the Sierras. The weather changes frequently so just wait if you don’t like the status quo. That is true with bosses, the economy, policies and most situations. Be patient with the current set of circumstances and it is likely that things will shift in your direction.
  • Don’t strive: Don’t struggle and fight. Don’t waste energy. This doesn’t imply that hard work isn’t important. Work diligently and keep progressing toward your goal but give yourself a break and stop the worrying and fussing. I have learned this the hard way too many times. Let the game come to you.

Earl Monroe was also a business man. After playing basketball he went on to manage entertainers, open a restaurant, license his name with an NBA candy company and start a venture capital fund. Apparently, “The Pearl” is still letting the game come to him.

Patience is the companion of wisdom.   Saint Augustine

Purposeful Detachment

Kid on bikeWhen my son was four years old my husband put him on a bicycle. He was a tall kid with two older siblings. Thus, he was confident that he could ride a two-wheeler. David jumped on that bike and took off like a shot. “Look Dad, I’m riding by myself!”.  Within seconds my husband cried out frantically for him to stop. David turned his head around to see what Dad was yelling about…and ran into a parked car.

The helmet was on. He wasn’t hurt and it didn’t deter him from getting back on the bike. David mastered the bike but this also could have been a learning experience for us parents. Give instructions and then let the kid control his own destiny. But we weren’t ready to learn that at the time. Actually we are only now starting to get the hang of it and the kids are no longer living at home. We are slow learners in the parenting department.

As managers in the corporate world we have a similar tendency to over control our employees. We know better. We’ve done the job. We know the pitfalls. It is tempting to coach from the sidelines with sage advice and direction. The consequences of over control are similar to what happened to David. Listening and depending on someone else to call the shots distracts our employees from the task at hand and keeps them from developing their own skills. Failure, as long as it is recoverable, is an effective way to learn.

There is also good reason to purposefully detach from our own work. In my experience as work intensifies, my focus and time commitment goes up and to the right. I don’t take time away because there is just too much to do. Working hard and getting the tasks done is what fuels me. I am a list-maker and I get my kicks crossing off the items as I go. When I’m in the middle of learning something hard, ramping up on a new job or tackling a supply chain crisis I have to do an unnatural act to get the job done well. I have to step away. What I’ve learned over time is that my brain needs a break to clear the registers and to go through a virus check. The reboot doesn’t take days and sometimes can be done in minutes. But, when I come back to the task I stumble less, am more efficient and actually, I think I’m smarter.

Purposefully detaching from employees or from one’s own toxic type A behavior is a skill that can be practiced and perfected. Here are some of my practical ideas:

  • Wait 5 seconds – Before responding to an employee with a problem let seconds tick by. You will be surprised how long 5 seconds actually is. Often the employee will start to solve his or her own problem. Often you will stop yourself from giving the answer.
  • Ask questions – Instead of making declarative statements about a problem, (e.g. That will require a meeting. Call Joe. Reject that ECO.) ask a question (e.g. What is the best way to get input on that? What do you suggest? What are our options?)
  • Ask for a summary write-up – This creates a coaching moment. If the employee sends you a problem with no solutions, you can coach them on what you would like to see. Typically employees will have ideas that they are anxious to share. It is now your job to honor their ideas with a positive response.
  • Take a walk – If you are working with an employee and need give the person some space to talk through a solution, take a walk together. There is less hierarchy as you walk side by side. There is no opportunity for simple dismissal. You can breathe more deeply and can look at the trees or birds or traffic depending on where you are. That momentary distraction can prevent a quick, dismissive answer. Walking is a good tool to keep perspective on your own work as well. Even if the walk is to the coffee maker, it is a way to pull back.
  • Take time to broaden your view – When I first landed an executive level position, a wise mentor of mine told me that the best thing I could do for the organization was to pace myself and to get away. He said that I should take vacation days; I should read; I should network. What I brought to the table at that level was perspective and vision. Yes, I managed a function. But I also needed to be a leader. If my contribution was simply task oriented, then I wasn’t working at the executive level.
  • Embrace serendipity – Serendipity is defined as “the faculty of making desirable discoveries by accident”. This is all about living with your eyes open at all times. It is about finding ways to connect the dots in the world around you. In some ways this is the opposite of detaching but ironically this discovery of the connections allows you to release the grip on the immediate crisis. It creates perspective.

I’ve been advised that the best thing I can do for my kids is to not control them. Contrary to a mother’s instincts, my “20 something” kiddos are ok now without my advice, however wonderful and sage it is. The act of stepping back takes practice as a parent and as a manager. Purposefully detaching is a way to free our employees and our loved ones to discover their full potential.

In racing, they say that your car goes where your eyes go.  The driver who cannot tear his eyes away from the wall as he spins out of control will meet that wall; the driver who looks down the track as he feels his tires break free will regain control of his vehicle.”
Garth Stein, The Art of Racing in the Rain

Learning from Crisis Leadership

tornadoMonday, May 20th started out as a normal day for people in Moore, Oklahoma, a community of about 56,000 people about 10 miles south of Oklahoma City. By late afternoon the world had turned into rubble and ruin for many in this town. Rescuers worked through the night to pull people out from under destroyed homes, businesses and schools. 29 people died including 9 children. Clean up will take months. Recovery will take years.

Immediately after the tornado passed, the local police, firefighters and EMTs took action. Within hours, the Oklahoma National Guard arrived at the scene with fully rehearsed rescue teams. They had the tools, skills and communication processes in place to call in more help. The additional help was triggered based on what they saw when they got there. By nightfall the Red Cross had shelters set up. The nearby medical facilities were ready for an emergency and all hands showed up to help the wounded. Now, neighbors are showing up to cook, find pets, deliver gloves and generally serve. The town is mobilized.

What kind of leadership is required to get a community through a crisis like this? What can we, as students of leadership, observe and thus learn and apply in our areas of influence?

  • Act quickly – There is no time to hesitate when a crisis occurs. Decisive action is important in triage. Even in a business context this remains true. Get moving on the critical issues of life, safety, continuity, sustenance. Know where your staff is. Get the facts. Gather your resources. Assess the damages. Send out the first responders. If the problem is with a supplier, fly there. If the issue is in your own manufacturing plant, visit and evaluate. If the problem is with a new product launch, get to where the action is and gather the information at the source.
  • Ask for help – There is no virtue in going it alone. If the problem is really a crisis, call in others. Get suppliers, partners and other functional groups involved in solving the problems. Tell the boss.
  • Communicate regularly – Perhaps the information will not be precise. Perhaps you will have to revise after more is known. But getting information out to those impacted will serve two purposes. First, you will calm those impacted. You and your team know what is happening and action is being taken. Second, you will get everyone on the same page. When should updates be expected? Who is doing what?  What are the near term instructions?
  • Create structure – Put together a war room with a steering team. Put people in charge of different parts of the problem. Ask for a cadence of information flow. Meet regularly.
  • Be visible – If you are running a local team, be there. If you are running a global team, be there virtually by calling into team meetings or even creating video updates. Be accessible. Talk with the team casually to understand mood and to get facts from all levels. Your ears are the most important tools you have during a crisis. Listen.
  • Be a servant leader – Pick up the symbolic shovel. Contribute at multiple levels even if just a little. Your job is to show others that you are in the situation with them. If you are seen as above it all, the team will not hit its full potential.
  • Have a plan prepared beforehand – Of course, this is wise. But many companies, families, small businesses are not thinking about the possibilities of a game changing emergency. Thinking through an action plan before the crisis can save crucial minutes when something happens. Put the plan in writing. Practice with a staged crisis situation. Involve your immediate organization and those throughout your value chain. Business Continuity Plans can make all the difference when a crisis occurs in your company or supply chain.

News of the tornado in Oklahoma struck a nerve for me. There is no way to predict when a crisis will occur in communities and similarly, there is no way to predict crisis in business or supply chains. The only certainty is that crisis of some sort will show up in the future. Be ready and be a leader when it happens.

In  preparing for battle I have always found that plans are useless, but planning is  indispensable.

Dwight  D. Eisenhower