I recently engaged with an HR professional from a high-profile company, exploring the prospect of working together. I got word that the answer was no. It seemed like the perfect fit!  The disappointment lingered as I walked out of my office and wondered out loud to no one in particular, “I don’t lose – how did that happen?” Frustration set in, and I spent the next couple of days pondering ways to make it happen.  I’m assuming you are a lot like me in thinking that if I put enough time and effort into something I can influence outcomes.  It has worked for me in the past, so my brain tends to go down that neural pathway!

That same week a conversation with my coach (yes, I definitely practice what I preach) made me stop in my tracks and reflect. She astutely remarked, “Cristina, this was a blow to your ego, not your core purpose.” I grappled with the truth in her words, questioning whether it truly was a dent to my ego. I slowed down and questioned whether the desire to collaborate with that specific company stemmed from a genuine appreciation for their core purpose or merely the allure of NYC and a high-profile team. The answer was uncomfortable and one I’m not proud to admit; it was the latter. My inner achievement addict had veered me toward a path misaligned with my values.

Later, that weekend, I went to the movies, where “Killer of the Flower Moon” captivated me. Growing up in Oklahoma, witnessing the impactful work of tribes play in leading their sovereign nation stirred a deep resonance within me.  On the journey home, reflections on the call with the HR director intertwined with the tribal resilience on the big screen. It became evident—I needed to realign with the essence of why I embarked on this journey in the first place. My focus had to shift from the allure of achievement to the fundamental motivation of serving companies with compelling core purposes.

I did find out that the “no” to the work was due to the CEO being relieved of his duties and a search for a new CEO commencing. The CEO’s replacement and a temporary halt to the work was inconsequential. The roadblock was the Universe looking out for me, safeguarding me from a venture that would have kept me busy but devoid of inspiration. It was a pivotal moment of course correction, a return to rethinking my efforts and not “pushing” into areas that aren’t even aligned with what I am trying to achieve.

In a world that glorifies achievement and busyness, where the default response to “How are you?” is often “Busy,” or if you are honest and talk about what’s not going well…there isn’t a lot of time or interest to unpack it because everyone has so much on their plate as well.  I believe it’s time to question the narrative we’ve embraced. The prevailing belief that success requires relentless upstream effort, pushing against the current, and making things happen. And if you put all of the things you need to get done on a list and just barrel through them, success will come. Truth is that this significant costs to our health and well-being. What if there’s a more sustainable approach? What if we could achieve more by doing less?  What if the answer to getting more of what we want isn’t addition at all, but subtraction?

To-Do, To-Do, To-Do
As it turns out, evidence supports that if we want to ramp up our productivity and happiness, we should actually be doing less. David Rock, author of Your Brain at Work, found that we’re truly focused on our work a mere six hours per week, which starkly contrasts our collective buy-in to the 40-hour workweek. When you stop doing the things that make you feel busy but aren’t getting you results (and are draining you of energy), then you end up with more than enough time for what matters and a sense of peace and spaciousness that constant activity has kept outside your reach.

As people with full lives — kids, careers, friends, passions, logistics, and more — how can we apply the wisdom of doing less to give ourselves more time and alleviate stress without jeopardizing our results?  We need to identify what not to do. But this determination can’t be random. It must be methodical and evidence-based.

For those who are still not convinced that doing less will result in actually getting more done, consider this: it’s not about actually having less on your plate, it’s about allowing your mind to focus on one task at a time, so that you can actually complete things fully and well. From there, you can build momentum to go onto the next task. Overloading your to-do list and overwhelming your brain is not forcing you to perform faster, it’s ensuring that you’re accomplishing less than you would if you only gave yourself a few tasks per day.

Rethinking Effort: Upstream vs. Downstream
Let’s look at upstream efforts and what that means.  Upstream effort is characterized by pushing against the current, striving tirelessly, and often feeling the weight of burnout. This type of effort is commonly rewarded by society, reflecting qualities such as hard work and determination. However, despite external validation, upstream effort may not always translate into a sense of genuine progress. It can be akin to swimming against the current, where the struggle may not yield the desired outcomes or a fulfilling sense of achievement.

While upstream effort might be externally praised, it can come at a cost. The relentless pursuit of goals without considering the broader context may lead to burnout, decreased well-being, and a lack of fulfillment. Working against the current can also result in inefficiencies, as the energy expended may not yield proportional results. Moreover, a singular focus on upstream effort may cause individuals to overlook the importance of the journey and personal well-being.

Conversely, downstream effort involves rowing with the current, adopting a more fluid approach to goals, and placing emphasis on the journey rather than solely on the destination. Working downstream entails maintaining a loose grip on objectives, allowing oneself to be guided by the natural flow of circumstances. The key to downstream effort is finding a balance between exerting effort and embracing a state of ease. This approach often leads to a more sustainable and fulfilling work experience.

Working downstream means aligning one’s efforts with the natural flow of circumstances. It involves being attuned to the environment and adapting to the rhythm of the situation. When working downstream, individuals may experience a sense of flow—a state of complete immersion and focus where tasks are performed effortlessly. This flow state is associated with heightened creativity, productivity, and overall job satisfaction.

Reflection Exercise
So, let’s put these two concepts together – focusing on things that really matter and spending the majority of our time in downstream efforts.  There is a surprisingly simple exercise to decide what activities on their to-do list need the most focus.  Here’s how it works:

Step 1: This is a big one!  Be very clear on what your core purpose and your core values are.  Not just “where” you are going, but also “how” you will behave along the way.  Once you have this established, it will make every other decision easier.  This one will take you some time and if you get stuck, reach out to a trusted person such as a mentor or coach.  You have to nail this one.

Step 2: Now, take a piece of paper and draw a line down the middle, lengthwise.

Step 3: Decide on an area of your life or work where you’d like to have better results and less
stress. For example, perhaps you want to expand into an area that you know you can add value.  I spoke to a client about this exact topic with a woman who had put her hand up in her organization to put together a robust onboarding program.  She did an outstanding job and the whole team was so appreciative – and she was playing to her strengths and working in “flow”.

Step 4: On the left-hand side, list the tasks or activities you do in that area of your work or life. Say you want to be an expert in a certain area and thought leader…you might list attending conferences, pitching organizations for speaking opportunities, writing new articles, reading and researching, and so on.

Step 5: On the right-hand side, make a list of your biggest “wins” in that area, like a speaking gig, a presentation you really nailed at work, or a pitch that was accepted at a major publication. This can often be a difficult step for some people. We have not been culturally conditioned to celebrate ourselves, so often, peoplewill draw a blank when listing their “wins.” Any result you’ve gotten (either one time or repeatedly) that was positive can go on this list.

Step 6: Draw a line connecting each of your biggest wins to the activity or task that was most responsible for that result. Reading and researching, for instance, were essential to getting your pitch accepted for publication, so connect these two together.

Step 7: Circle all the activities and tasks on the left side of your paper that have been responsible for your big wins. Look at what’s left. Whatever isn’t circled is something that you need to either stop doing completely, significantly minimize, or delegate if it absolutely must be done. For instance, if you discover that traveling for conferences once a month isn’t directly contributing to any wins, it’s time to set that aside or at least cut back.

Step 8:  Focus.  If you are being authentic in your path, working downstream and focusing your energy on one thing at a time, you will make strides.  This is a tough one because there are so many distractions and “have tos” in our life that can overtake us.  Stay the course.

Achieving More by Doing Less
The main point is not to stop trying but to stop trying so hard at things that don’t matter. By focusing efforts on personally meaningful goals, trying becomes effortless, and success feels internally satisfying. The paradigm shift towards downstream effort offers leaders a powerful framework for sustainable success. This might seem counterintuitive, but the call to action is clear: examine your inner achievement addict, question motivations, and choose pursuits that are true and authentic. Health, well-being, and authenticity outweigh external validations. When these values are prioritized, you get clear on what you want, you focus on one path, and you work in flow, individuals can truly achieve more by doing less.

At Steople we believe that leaders bring the weather, both sunshine and storms. In fact, a client I was recently coaching inadvertently brought the rain clouds to the office every time she walked in the room. Janet was an experienced manager, but new to her company. She came in eager to make a positive impression and quickly identified inefficiencies in her department.  She created a plan, and to ensure that it was implemented according to her vision, she spent several hours sitting with each of her employees, showing them how to work more efficiently.

It didn’t take long before she noticed a low pressure in the office atmosphere and stormy attitudes around every corner.Janet had good intentions but failed to consider how her actions could affect the drive and engagement of her employees. Dr. David Rock, founder of the NeuroLeadership Institute, created a model describing five social motivators that affect an employee’s perception of how psychologically safe they are in their workplace.

Status, Certainty, Autonomy, Relatedness, and Fairness are the characteristics that make up the SCARF model and when employees feel satisfied their needs are being met in each of these areas, dopamine is released and the part of the brain that recognizes rewards is activated. When employees find themselves in workplace situations that threaten their sense of security in these areas, they tend to retreat in an effort to find shelter from the storm.

Simply put, when we are in a mental state of security we tend to operate from the fontal cortex or the “thinking” part of our brain. When we are threatened, our reactions are dictated by the limbic system where our flight, fight, or freeze tendencies take over.

Janet and I talked about the SCARF model in relationship to her department, her employees, and her behavior. Janet took some time for self-reflection and considered which of the motivators were most important to her and how they might be different for her employees. She also had to step back and consider how her behavior might have threatened the psychological safety of her employees.

  1. Status – Janet decided that while it wasn’t her intention, her actions did not empower her team and could have threatened people’s need to be seen as valuable contributors.  Epidemiologist Michael Marmot’s research suggests that “status is the most significant determinant of human longevity and health, even when controlling for education and income.”  Long story short- everyone wants to feel important and by sweeping in and “solving” the problems without consulting others, several of the team members felt unimportant, devalued, and a diminished sense of self.
  1. Certainty – If the last few years have taught us anything, it is that the work environment is inherently volatile, complex, and full of ambiguity. Janet questioned how the immediate changes she implemented could have affected the security and stability team members felt over their own futures on the team and in the environment.
  1. Autonomy –Again,  Janet’s intention was good, but when she stepped back from the situation, she questioned whether some people might have felt micromanaged by her presence as she individually walked people through her vision of how the processes should work rather then getting their buy-in and trusting their technical competence.
  1. Relatedness –When we don’t know someone well enough to understand their motivations, our tendency as human beings is to assume negative intent. Janet asked herself, “Did I do enough in my individual interactions to build a sense of relatedness and rapport to ensure that people understand my intentions in facilitating rapid change?”
  1. Fairness – The perception that an event has been unfair, Rock writes, generates a strong response in the brain stirring hostility and undermining trust. According to his research, “People who perceive others as unfair don’t feel empathy for the pain of others.” What may feel fair to one person, may not feel fair to another person. Without asking Janet wasn’t sure, but she did begin to see how people could have perceived the changes, the timing, or the methods of implementation as unfair.

Using the SCARF model as a guide for self reflection, Janet was able to recognize and deliberately shape future interactions to provide a safe harbor in which her employees were able to relax, thrive, and do their best work.

If you are looking for opportunities to grow your leader’s skills or to create a psychologically safe work environment for your team, reach out. At Steople we equip your leaders to avoid stormy conditions and bring smooth-sailing weather.

As the leader walks into the room, people were greeting him with handshakes and smiles. You could feel his amazing presence the second he walked into the room. Everyone was anticipating what he was going to discuss. As I glanced around the room, I noted the dynamics of the different pairs and people on the team. Everyone was very cordial as they spoke together.

The ornate conference room was set up meticulously for the 24-member team. They were meeting together for the first time since several new individuals were hired. Team members started to arrive, and I could hear people greeting each other and mentioning their excitement that the whole team will be at the retreat. Mostly, they were excited to hear from their leader about their progress and looking forward to working together into the future.

The leader proceeded to kick-off the meeting with a brief story about himself – how he grew up and how he got started in the business many years ago. He had a PowerPoint deck prepared with numbers and statistics to back up his story.  However, the very inspiring moment came when he started to articulate his past, present, and future vision for this team and the organization. He then told the story of how this team consisted of only 3 people jotting down ideas of how to expand on his very ambitious long-term goal in the industry. He took his idea and consistently prodded the stakeholders to invest in his idea and him. It took several years for the stakeholders to finally buy in, but he was relentless.  The stakeholders finally accepted his challenge, and the team of 3 grew to the 24 individuals in the room.

One of the activities of the day was to share journey lines. They each discussed 8-10 life events made up of personal and professional events that have now shaped them into who they are today. You could feel the excitement around the room as the leader discussed his own life events. The theme was that of tenacity and perseverance. He set the tone for the rest of the team as they illustrated and spoke of their own journey lines. This was the “past” portion of the meeting.

He then proceeded to talk about the journey line of the business.  He honored the past, spoke of the challenges they have endured along the way, and shared what it took to become the strong business they are today. Lastly, he shared his own vision and articulated what he sees for the future of the work and his team. He discussed how every single person fit into the bigger picture, what they needed to accomplish, and why the work is important. Looking around the room, I saw people taking notes and listening in awe to this leader’s words.  It was inspiring.

The day progressed with some strategic milestone benchmarks and ended with an exercise of how the team is expected to collaborate and break down silos in order to achieve this ambitious goal that had been laid at their feet. A month later, and the update following the retreat is amazing. The 24 individuals have reported improved collaboration and productivity in addition to reaching one of their benchmarks goals within one month after meeting. It’s incredible!  Everyone knows the vision and why they do what they do. It is clearly engraved into their own vision of how they need to work together to achieve this common goal. They walked in cordial to each other and walked out as if they were old friends.

Remember, leaders bring the weather! Clearly articulating the vision and core purpose of the team enables everyone to understand their role and provides guidelines of expected behavior to achieve the larger goal. This leader started his team on their individual and collective journeys.  By sharing his own story, they were able to follow the signs he had clearly posted along the way that allowed them to gain alignment and ensure a clear path forward.

What is your story? Steople consultants are ready to begin the work of articulating your vision through storytelling. Will you accept the challenge?

As I sat in the passenger seat of Debbie’s car, she gave me a tour of the beloved Ft. Worth children’s hospital she had worked at for the past 43 years.  She spoke with love and respect about what she had helped build over that time.  She reminisced about the two small buildings they had started in all those years ago and pointed to the numerous blue-topped roofs and sprawling grounds they decorated with adorable, welcoming-to-children topiary landscaping.  We saw the Ronald McDonald House and the staff childcare center, as well as the numerous areas for reflection and relaxation for those suffering a physical setback.  She talked about how the pandemic trauma of the last two years had impacted the culture they had built and even threatened to crumble it.

Regardless, as we pulled into the parking garage, she greeted the parking attendant warmly and asked how he was feeling, saying to me, that he had just recovered from surgery.  As we strolled the brightly colored hallways, Debbie chatted and hugged her way across the campus.  She would quickly point out those individuals who had been with the hospital for decades and were so dedicated to the cause of helping children heal that they wouldn’t think of leaving until retirement.  During this tour, I fell in love with this new hospital client of ours and told Debbie how inspired I was to be a part of their purpose on this planet.

The whole experience was remarkable and seeing so many long-term employees reminded me of another group I had worked with the week before who had recently been acquired by one of my clients.  During our joint company strategic planning session, we were discussing the “talent war,” and we all listened intently as two of the owners of the acquired company talked about the team that became family over the years.  They had started at the age of 16 working in the lumber business and were set to retire from that same company in the next 5 or so years.  They talked about others in the business who grew up together, got through school, enjoyed fishing trips as a team, went to one another’s weddings, and celebrated when they had children. We are talking retention of 31…28…19 years, which are unbelievable numbers in today’s world.

So how is this possible and do we have any chance of recreating this in today’s job market?  Some will say “No way, today’s workforce isn’t nearly as loyal, and it is not realistic.”  But is that true?  Or can we at least aim to be a significant part of an employee’s work history?  I believe we can.

Develop a Great Retention Initiative
Many employers are no doubt wishing that the Great Resignation, where employees have been quitting their jobs in record numbers since the Spring of 2021, would suddenly become a very different trend: the Great Retention. But research suggests that many workers remain confident about their prospects in the current hiring market, in fact, 41% of respondents are currently looking or plan to look for a new role in the next six months.  This means employers must still be vigilant about the risk of top performers walking out the door.

This, in my opinion, is the number one issue, outside of finding talent, for companies today.  Every single coaching or consulting conversation I have includes the current challenges with talent.  And it’s not getting better anytime soon.  We have to look at those companies who are doing it well, come up with creative strategies, and listen to what our most-valued employees are telling us. Based on research and my own anecdotal evidence there are 8 areas that I believe you need to focus on as a leader to retain your talent.  I hope these resonate with you and inspire you to work on at least one of these:

1. Create and Support an Inclusive “Family” Culture
Having a “sticky” culture where people take care of one another and truly care is crucial.  Through the years that is one common thread in companies I have seen be successful in keeping their employees long-term…they are one another’s work family and it would be unthinkable to leave that family.  Now with that kind of vulnerability, you must make sure there are good boundaries in place so there is no “family dysfunction”, but essentially these teams support one another through the good times and the bad.

2. Find Each Team Member’s Motivation ‘Lever’
“Money” is not the reason people stay in a job.  It can be demotivating if they are paid unfairly but thinking about throwing money at an employee who is thinking of leaving is the wrong strategy. Every person has his or her levers of engagement and motivation: Fun. Authority. Development. Responsibility. Autonomy. Respect. Recognition. Challenge. Variety. Figure out what each individual needs, then figure out how to best work towards it. Meeting those individuals where they are is one of the best things you can do as a leader.

3. Emphasize Shared Non-Negotiable Core Values
From the beginning, recruit people whose values align with yours and the company. This builds a positive atmosphere and culture, which resonates with people and keeps them on board. Consult with your people, find out what they care about, and build collaborative solutions that inspire their loyalty and commitment. People like to feel included, and valued and that their contribution makes a difference.  The great thing about this is that if there is a value mismatch the team will pick it up instantly and advocate to keep the shared values on track.

4. Rally Everyone Behind an Emotionally Driven Purpose
Most employees want to feel part of something bigger and to be proud of it. In addition to rewards and positive feedback, leaders can inspire others by consistently and regularly communicating a clear purpose that people connect with emotionally. It is easy to get mired in the day-to-day details; step back and connect those details to a broader vision. This means embedding it in your everyday work not just from a “marketing” perspective (posted on your website), but in daily conversations as evidence of working towards that incredibly important purpose beyond making money.

5. Change Old-School Thinking Against Flexibility and Track Results Instead
In 2022, people value flexibility more than ever. If someone is in a role that can be effectively carried out through flexible work, then offer this. Not only is this hugely rewarding for employees, but it also gives them a sense of comfort, knowing that you trust them to carry out their role effectively and manage their own time.  And don’t automatically assume the younger generation will take advantage of it.  Depending on what stage of life and career people are in will determine how much or how little structure or time in the office they will need or want.  Track results, not “butts in chairs”.

6. Get Everyone Directly Involved in The Company
Money is the result of successful work and not a sustainable source of motivation. Other important forms of compensation include having fun, working on something great, recognizing and appreciating colleagues, and the feeling of having achieved something challenging. Coming from this mindset, rather than just exchanging their time for money, the culture should encourage an “owners’ mindset” in the employees.  The employees can then be a part of building something inspiring that they can be incredibly proud of.

7. Recognize Your Team Member’s Humanity
The most meaningful way to recognize employees amidst all the difficulties we are facing in the current challenging business and social environment is to first and foremost recognize their humanity. Know the individuals on your team and recognize each employee’s unique challenges as the year unfolds.  Command and control are out.  Prioritize time, space, and opportunity for them to thrive and reach their goals by guiding their growth and investing in them. Compassion is one of the most overlooked leadership traits to leverage, especially after a couple of tough years.

8. Share What Each Employees Role in Your Vision for The Future Is
Inspire people to want to work with you and each other by sharing your vision and their role in it. You might be working your way through current challenges, but your eyes are on the future. Tell them about three indicators informing your vision for the future and why those give you confidence. Assure your people that they are building the foundation for a future in which all of them play a part. Be honest, specific, visionary, and hopeful.  People love making a difference and being a part of something big.

The list above is near and dear to my own heart.  The two that were highlighted by the clients I was working with the last two weeks were knowing one another on a personal level and ensuring people understood how relevant their contribution was to the success of the organization.  This aligns nicely with Patrick Lencioni’s work on employee engagement.  I would hope that you might look at the above list and rank yourself from 1 to 5 on each.  Then ask yourself which one you might need to work on from now till the end of the year.  If you are diligent in working on it, it will pay off…I promise!  If you need more resources, please let us know, and, as always, best wishes in your leadership journey!

  • “I just want to go to one meeting and not have to talk about Covid…it’s overwhelming.” – Physician
  • “I’ve been never worked so hard and have so little to show for it.” – Consultant
  • “I am spending the majority of my day trying to track who is or is not at work and who is or is not sick.” – HR Professional
  • “Before COVID I would get home around 6 and be able to enjoy my family.  Now I am not traveling and working alone in my home office until 9:00 at night…it’s exhausting.”  – Sales Professional
  • “I’m quitting – I have had to tell over 100 families their loved ones passed away.” – Nurse

These are all statements made to me just in the last week.  We are all feeling it!  The last nine months have definitely been challenging for each and every one of us. Here at Steople what we have witnessed with our clients has been work from home orders, downsizing, compassion fatigue (especially in healthcare), agonizing decisions, and working much longer hours.  But on the other side of this difficult time in history, there are many lessons!  Across the board, I feel we have all learned to adapt in the moment, become more creative in our problem solving, and gotten very comfortable with ambiguity.  But how can we put all of this to work for us in 2021?

Post-COVID Review
Many of you probably already utilize post-project reviews on your own team.  Why not implement something similar at this time of year…a post-pandemic review for 2020 (realizing it is far from over)?  Being able to look back and discuss as a team what could have gone better might be time well-spent.  Here are some helpful tips to facilitate the conversation:

  • Ask for openness – Emphasize the importance of being open and honest in your assessment, and make sure that people aren’t in any way punished for being open.
  • Be objective – Describe what has happened in objective terms, and then focus on improvements.
  • Document success – Document practices and procedures that led to successes, and make recommendations for applying them to future issues.
  • Look with hindsight – Pay attention to the “unknowns” (now known!) that may have increased implementation risks. Develop a way of looking out for these for future difficult events.
  • Be future-focused – Remember, the purpose is to focus on the future, not to assign blame for what happened in the past. This is not the time to focus on any one person or team.
  • Look at both positives and negatives – Identify positive as well as negative lessons.

Today I’m going to lay out what I see as some of the top “silver lining” leadership lessons that I have learned that will stay with me for years to come. As I document these I am going to get a little help from some of our most respected leadership thought leaders.

Give Grace to Others
A client is late to a Zoom meeting, the restaurant didn’t get your lunch order right, a direct report missed an important detail in a presentation, and your 16-year-old forgot to set his morning alarm.  Hmmm…in these situations it is tough to hold the assumption of positive intent.  Brené Brown writes that asking leaders to assume others are doing the best they can move them from “pushing and grinding on the same issues” to the more difficult task of:

  • teaching their team,
  • reassessing their skill gaps,
  • reassigning them,
  • or letting them go.

“It’s a commitment to stop respecting and evaluating people based solely on what we think they should accomplish, and start respecting them for who they are, and holding them accountable for what they’re actually doing,” she says.

Find Joy in Missing Out
The pandemic has forced us to curb so many of our regular activities.  I’ve always said Mother Nature sometimes can stop us dead in our tracks and clear our calendars. Nothing could be truer in the past several months.  We must establish a new mindset.  One key strategy Adam Grant advocates are practicing gratitude. “I know many people are feeling FOMO, the fear of missing out, right now on all the things that could be happening in their lives,” Grant says. “But there’s also such a thing as JOMO: the joy of missing out.”  His gratitude list, for example, includes wearing sweatpants to work, skipping his commute, and having fewer awkward interactions with strangers.  Mine include having quiet time to work on much-needed projects, focusing on healthy eating habits, and more time with my 16-year-old son.

Realize The Importance of Human Contact
One of the most difficult parts of 2020 for those of us who are “high touch” people have been no handshakes, hugs, or expressions due to being behind a mask.  Paul Zak, the author of The Moral Molecule, argues, “We touch to initiate and sustain cooperation.” He conducted a “neuroeconomics” study from which he argues that hugs or handshakes are likely to cause the release of the neurochemical oxytocin, which increases the chances that a person will treat you “like family,” even if you just met.  He states there are even economic benefits to physical touch, probably because “touch signals safety and trust; it soothes.” Basic warm touch calms cardiovascular stress. It activates the body’s vagus nerve, which is intimately involved with our compassionate response.” NBA teams whose players touch each other more, for example, win more games.

Understand Ambiguity is Here to Stay
Looking at an organizational chart, you will see boxes and lines. Boxes are what the individual job is and the lines are the reporting relations. Although most of a leader’s work might fall within their job description, the meaningful activities that will advance an organization never truly fall into any specific “box,” but surf in between them in the white space.  My observations of the past few months are very clear. The leaders who had the most comfort with the ambiguity of the white space and were able to bring a team of teams to work together as one have been able to achieve a tremendous and impactful amount of work in ways that heavily exceeded normal productivity – especially in the midst of chaos.

To emphasize this point, in his new book, Simon Sinek advocates that as leaders get beyond the normal day-to-day elasticity that running a business demands, playing the “infinite game” requires existential flexibility. What exactly is existential flexibility?  Simon Sinek describes it as, “The capacity to initiate an extreme disruption to a business model or strategic course in order to more effectively advance a Just Cause.” In other words, it’s a big-time offensive maneuver and not to be confused with the defensive adjustments companies make when facing changing client needs or market conditions.

Double Down on Discipline
When the pandemic kicked in mid-March I began to research what companies not only survived, but thrived during the economic downturn of 2007/2008. In a previous blog, I mentioned that one of the strategies they utilized was being disciplined and consistent.  In “Great by Choice,” Jim Collins recounts several stories of outrageous behavior by former Southwest Airlines CEO Herb Kelleher, including resolving a trade slogan dispute with another company by arm wrestling the firm’s CEO in an arena in front of hundreds of employees. He did this not for the sake of weirdness, but because by “behaving with outlandish consistency,” he was animating a culture designed to be high-spirited and fun-loving. His point was that ultra-successful CEOs exhibited a fanatical level of self-discipline, doing “whatever it takes to create a great outcome, no matter how difficult.”

So before you start to disperse for your holiday celebrations, sit down with your team and pose these three questions to them documenting as you go:

Reflecting back on how our team performed in 2020…

  • What do we need to start doing?
  • What do we need to keep doing?
  • What do we need to stop doing?

My guess is you will find some “golden nugget” responses that you will be able to leverage as we roll into 2021.  Have a great rest of the week and finish this crazy, unpredictable year strong!

Every year our team attends an annual conference joined by our friends and colleagues from across the country and even around the world!  This year the conference was in Philadelphia and we got to do some awesome activities like running up the Rocky steps, seeing the Liberty Bell, and having a Philly Cheese steak at Pat’s.  However, the real reason we are there is to learn about the gold-standard practices in our field and the scientific research that backs up the work we are doing.   There was some amazing speakers and I thought I would share just a few of the many gems of wisdom that might be relevant to your own daily leadership practice.


Embedding a Culture of Innovation

The former Vice President of Innovation & Creativity at The Walt Disney Company, Duncan Wardle spent his 25-year career at Disney developing some of their most innovative ideas and strategies. Ideas that would forever change the way the company expands its impact, trains its employees, and solves problems creatively.  Duncan Wardle and his team were tasked with leading the creative process for Lucas Films, Pixar, Marvel, Disney Imagineering, Disney Parks and ESPN. He currently serves as CEO of id8, a top innovation consulting firm.

The ability to think creatively is the one core human truth that will remain relevant in the coming era of 5G and artificial intelligence. Duncan believes everyone has the power to be creative. Even though the world may be doing its best to inhibit our creative expression, our childhood creativity does not dissipate — it just lies dormant, waiting to be brought back to life.  So how can you encourage creativity on your team?

  • Our imaginations start to be hindered around age 6.  Having an energizer in meetings to get people to switch to the creative side of their brain can pay dividends to innovation.
  • No idea is bad, it’s just bad timing.  Have a way that you can document ideas that come up in discussions so they don’t get lost.
  • Children automatically think expansively, and adults automatically think in a reductionist way.  We automatically shoot things down.  Find a way to open your mind up and ask questions instead of automatically saying “Yeah, but…”
  • Some of the brightest artists and thought leaders get their best ideas when they sleep.  As soon as you wake up jot down what you dreamed about and any solutions that came to you overnight.
  • The biggest barrier to creativity is being too busy.  Take one day a month that is unscheduled and you will be shocked at how many amazing ideas and possible  strategic initiatives you can come up with.



Psychological Safety on Teams

Eduardo Salas, Ph.D. is one of the world’s leading experts in the use of simulation training and optimizing learning and development on teams.  He has studied these areas extensively in a variety of fields, including aviation, health care, and during a 15-year stint in the US Navy.

How can we begin to “crack the code” on building high performing teams?  Having an understanding from Eduardo, who has studied some of the best teams on the planet, was enlightening.  Turns out one of the most important factors in creating effective teams is establishing a sense of psychological safety.

Psychological Safety is “a sense of confidence that the team will not embarrass, reject, or punish someone for asking for feedback, asking questions, requesting help, and speaking up.” You can promote this on your team by admitting mistakes, remaining open to dissenting views, not tolerating a teammate saying disparaging things about other teammates and creating time for good ideological debate.

The question to ask yourself about your team is simple…in what ways are we boosting psychological safety and in what ways are we draining it?



Fascinating Entrepreneurial Traits

Rodney Lowman, PhD, is Distinguished Professor Emeritus at the CSPP/Organizational Psychology, Alliant International U., San Diego and President of Lowman & Richardson/Consulting Psychologists. He does research in career choice and change, professional ethics, and occupational mental health.

One of my favorite presenters at this conference and one I have come to rely on for his counsel, Rodney, is a wealth of research and statistics. During his presentation I learned a few things about the personality of an entrepreneur.  We know entrepreneurs are creative in nature, but they not all cut from same cloth!  There are, however, certain things we know about them that are well-grounded in research.

  • They usually don’t like being managed.
  • They are very risk-tolerant and don’t fear failure.
  • They have an uncanny ability of pattern recognition – they see things that other people miss and before other people figure it out.
  • In order to have the ability to execute an idea they may need to partner up with experts.
  • Many entrepreneurial companies outgrow the founder due to either the founder’s inability to lead effectively or the organization needing to establish stability and reduce risk.

The questions to ask yourself as an entrepreneur, is are you leveraging your ability at pattern recognition?  Are you collaborating enough with experts to ensure you are executing on your ideas?  Are you the best person to lead the team?


As always, growth is at the core of what we are about.  What opportunities are you taking to continue to build your leadership IQ?  I encourage you to to invest in yourself and continue to build those leadership capabilities as you work towards becoming the leader you were meant to be.