Are You Too Comfortable?

Man Relaxing In Easy Chair - Retro Clipart IllustrationUnder the category of “Everything I Need to Know, I Learn from My Clients”: one of them said a remarkable thing last week. We were talking about a new, high pressure, high visibility job he is settling into and the fact that his To Do list far exceeds the realities of the time/space continuum. As we brainstormed what he could let go, reprioritize, or delegate, he kept balking. Then—complete silence.
He took a deep breath in and said, “I was talking to a good friend who recently became CEO of his company. He told me he was struggling with the fact that regardless of what he was ‘supposed’ to be doing, the things he does naturally are the things he loves doing and is comfortable doing. I think that’s exactly what’s going on with me.”
Well, he certainly made my job easy.
When you step into a senior leadership role, the task list is never, ever done. The only way to keep from drowning is to stay focused only on the things that really matter. And the things that matter most are often things that are new to you and, therefore, uncomfortable. You will automatically engage in the behaviors and activities that are easy and relaxing unless you stop, breathe, pay very close attention, and choose to do the stuff that really needs doing—and that isn’t going to be easy or relaxing.
So what happened with the client, you might be wondering. He continued to self coach. He decided that his homework would be to look at everything he was supposed to be doing, delegate the things someone else could do, and focus on the things only he could do.
Feeling overwhelmed? Too much to do? Ask yourself: Am I defaulting to doing the easy stuff that can wait (or be delegated) instead of staying focused on what really matters, even if it is harder.

The E-Myth Revisited

As a fledgling coach with a private practice, back in the day when if you said you were a coach the inevitable question was “oh, what sport?” a book that made an earth shaking difference was the E-Myth Revisited by Michael Gerber.  If you are in business, thinking of starting a business or have a friend or loved one who is suffering in a business, this book is a must.  There are several brilliant ideas in this book including:

  1. If you have started a business, you are either a technician (that’s what I was as a coach, so is your friend who loved to knit and started a knitting shop), a manager (the guy who understands the processes and systems that a business must have to succeed – people who buy franchises are usually managers) or a visionary (the person who sees a gap in the market place – Don Fisher started The Gap because he couldn’t find a pair of jeans, Steve Jobs wanted computers to be friendly).  You might have a little of the other two but you are primarily one of these and if you are going to succeed you need to partner with others who have the other two or find a way to grow yourself enough to get the other two covered.  It is stunningly simple and true.  The crazy thing is that as I have moved out of the small business world into the corporate world, I find that the same holds true for leaders inside organizations who need to be “intrapraneurs”.
  2. As a business owner, you need to find a way to spend as much time working on your business as you spend working in your business.  Obvious?  Maybe, but in 1995 I didn’t know it.  Again, totally applicable to people in organizations.
  3. Anything that works in the business must be systemized and if possible automated.  You have to do this so if you get the flu and can’t make it in,  the whole house of cards doesn’t fall down.  You also have to do it so you can grow.  It was the compelling evidence for how important this is that made me start my own coaching company with coaches using my system to coach the audience I had mastered.  And finally, I have used this maxim again and again as a manager in a much larger machine and it has served me well.

Michael Gerber has many other books out and has an institute and all that, but for sheer straightforward simplicity for people who maybe don’t think of themselves as “business” people, this book is a bible.

Going With the Flow

Flow : The Psychology of Optimal Experience  by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi  (pronounced mee-high  chick-sent-mee-high, my friend David Rock told me that, and he is important because he wrote one of my top books The Brain at Work) is another book that stopped me in my tracks.  Published in 1990, my copy is old, much dog eared and underlined.  The author is more recently widely known as a pioneer in the Positive Psychology arena, and his early work outlined in Flow was required reading for coaches because it was solid research about what makes people feel good.  Absent real problems like psychological damage, war or pestilence, people were coming to coaches with the objective of optimizing their existence and more specifically, their time at work.  Csikszentmihalyi says that in his studies, when people reflected on their most positive experiences they seemed to share one if not all of these characteristics:

  1. “ the experience usually occurs when we confront tasks we have a chance of completing.”
  2. we must be able to concentrate on what we are doing.”
  3. The task has “clear goals and
  4. Provide immediate feedback
  5. There is deep but effortless involvement that shuts out the noise of everyday life
  6. We are able to exercise a sense of control over our actions
  7. Self consciousness disappears, but sense of self emerges more strongly after the experience is over
  8. The sense of time passing is altered; minutes can seem like hours, or hours can feel like minutes.” (Harper, 1991, pg. 49)

Csikszentmihalyi’s theory was that to achieve flow we needed to maintain the balance between the level of challenge of the activity, and our skill level – if the challenge is too low, we become bored, if it is too high we become overly anxious.  Each individual needs to monitor their own challenge level to keep it optimal to stay engaged. 

This rang so true for me, and it was extremely useful in work with clients who were clearly bored, but judging themselves for it, thinking they had perfectly jobs and should be happy.  Not so!  To stay in Flow, it is critical to constantly be raising the bar.  This is not totally true for everyone all the time, but for some people, some of the time, the model is extremely useful.

For more information on Flow

Habits Make All the Difference

The promise was books that rocked my coaching practice that are off the beaten path. OK, so maybe this one isn’t that original, and I must have stumbled on  The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People  by Steven Covey in Barnes and Noble because I can’t remember who recommended it.   But I have to say that from the day I read this book, I changed some habits that utterly altered the trajectory of my life.  I don’t think it is a coincidence that when I started doing what  Covey said (and let’s be clear, not everything, just a few things made a huge difference) my business took off, my household became more orderly and calm and my quality of life shot up.  I developed a reputation for being freakishly productive.  I feel that almost every other “self-help” book that came after this one simply fleshed out some of the good ideas that were here in the first place.  

In the section called Put First Things First, the 4 box quadrant probably made the biggest impact on me.  The idea is that we all can put every single thing we do into one of the four quadrants. 

  Urgent Not Urgent
Important QUADRANT I
crises, pressing problems, deadline-driven projects
QUADRANT II
prevention, Principle Centered  activities, relationship building, recognizing and leveraging new opportunities, planning the future, recreation
Not important QUADRANT III
interruptions, some calls, some mail, some reports, some meetings, popular activities
QUADRANT IV
trivia, busy work, some mail, some  phone calls time wasters, pleasant activities

The ones who spend the bulk of their time doing things in the “important” quadrants are simply going to have a much higher life satisfaction quotient.   This very concrete model gave me the courage to say no to things that did not fall into the Quadrants I or II.  Today, I let people assume I am extremely busy (everybody does) and if pressed I will admit that I am no busier than anyone else, just extremely focused on what is most important to me and ferociously choosy about what I focus on.  Don’t tell anyone.

Learn to Love Chaos

The second book in my series on books that knocked my socks off and made an appreciable impact on my coaching practice:  Leadership and The New Science

In the early 90’s I was having lunch with a friend and mentor Alex Caillet and I asked him what one book would make the biggest difference for me and he recommended Meg Wheatley’s Leadership and The New Science.  One of the things I had noticed working with clients is that they were desperate for answers.  The right answers.  Of course, as a coach, it was not my job to be the truth dispenser with all of the right answers.  But I did feel an obligation to help clients articulate a set of internal values that they could use to make decisions no matter what the situation.  But I was still at a loss for a set of Universal Laws that were consistent, were not beholden to any particular world view or religious law.  I kept coming back to quantum physics – there had been a recent splash in the news about complexity theory and I had been noodling on how to apply those laws to regular life and work for my clients.  Well – Meg beat me to it, and what an amazing job she did.  Her breakthrough book made a huge impact on me and in the business world at the time, but as happens with many great books, it has fallen out of circulation.  I say, it is time to bring it back.  Some of the earth shaking concepts:

  • Order will naturally emerge out of chaos.  You have to be patient and order will come naturally from within.  Good leaders accept occasional chaos as a revitalizing and renewing step.
  • Relationships are the only things that matter- it is critical to develop a diversity of relationships.
  • Information is the organizing force in the universe; it is the life blood of any system.  If it is not flowing freely, the system will not self organize properly.
  • Vision is an invisible field and it is the leader’s job to hold this field.

Is that all?  Isn’t that enough?  Going back to re-read this book to create this blog post, it has once again rocked my world. 

Click here for a terrific, oldie but goodie interview with Meg Wheatley

PS I think it is important to give credit to whomever introduces us to great books.  The person who introduced me to the Angeles Arrien book mentioned in the previous post is an old, dear friend Belle Linda Halpern, founding partner of The Ariel Group.

What Neuroscience Can Teach Leaders – 7

Many people have an intuitive sense about how sensitive people are to their own and others’ status.  Some are oblivious. BUT…it is critical that you be mindful of your people’s status.  People need to know where they stand, and will respond well when treated appropriately in terms of their status (Rock) (Zinc et al). 

People who feel that their status has not been fully recognized will also feel a damaging sense of unfairness which  will negatively impact how they feel about their work environment far beyond what might seem rational (Tabibnia).  When people act like lunatics, before you judge them,  check first to see if someones’ place in the hierarchy has been threatened.  Don’t upset the cupcakes, unless you mean to.