Letter from John: Looking Up

Lately, I find myself looking up. A lot.

I recently had lunch with a senior executive at a large corporation who expressed exasperation with a team responsible for leading big cultural change in her organization. "I just don't understand why this team seems so overwhelmed allof the time," she said.

The team in question reported up to this executive, who frequently reviewed the team's work and made recommendations. She never failed to have recommendations, and ideas for more work...

"Look up," I suggested. She stared at me. I think she was annoyed. I continued, "I know it sounds trite, but it strikes me that the team is responding to the way it is being led. You simply aren't giving them breathing room to be great."

I went on to share that every time I was in the organization, priorities had shifted. New tactics and initiatives were constantly being introduced. The team in question -- and most of the rest of the employees -- spent much of their time reacting as they leaped from project to project. Not incidentally, it seemed that she triggered much of the ever-shifting cascade of priorities.

"People are professional boss watchers," says Jay Coffman, my old boss, friend and mentor. And too many leaders are professional people blamers -- surveying their employees and teams for evidence that things are not going well. That's not leading, no matter how well-intentioned -- that's bad management.

Too often, I see leaders who simply don't practice their leadership. That practice is as simple as standing in front of a mirror or asking team members to help replay their engagements, and provide feedback. Our team at Floricane knows that the cornerstone for effective leadership is a constant state of critical self-awareness -- and an active belief that change starts with each of us.

I say active belief, because I continue to run into leaders who nod sagely at the idea that how they show up, engage and behave is the most important part of their job at work. They nod sagely, and quickly shift the conversation to others.

Sometimes, there are good reasons to shift the conversation. The leaders I work with are stretched past capacity, as are the teams and organizations they're leading. The stakes feel higher than ever. And, so often, external issues feel more pressing, more important, than focusing internally on the development of self -- or others.

I think the core issue is simple: looking in the mirror is serious work! Looking in the mirror, or asking others how you're doing, is UNCOMFORTABLE. It requires humility, and integrity, and a willingness to change.

Self-reflection is hard stuff! Bringing your best self to your work with, and for, others demands discipline. I stumble more often than anyone I know. Some days, I can be a complete train wreck. It's helpful when I can spend a little more time checking my own performance:

  • Looking in the Mirror: Change starts with me. Before I walk into a room, I should focus on how I need show up in order to benefit the others in the room. What outcomes do I hope to create? What do others need from me? What will success look like from their perspective? How do I know this? Can I ask them before we get started?
  • Watch the Video: I know I can't be perfect in the moment, so I spend time trying to "autopsy" my meetings and conversations. How could I have engaged differently? Is there an opportunity to check in with someone else to review the tape from another perspective? Do I have an opportunity to follow up after-the-fact with new information, or better perspective?

Neither of these activities, as time-consuming as they can be, is useful if I don't care about improving myself -- or being in service to others. Because I want the people I work with to thrive and grow, and live into their best selves, I find that it is time well spent. And it is some of the hardest work I do. I know you feel the same way.