The Next Wave in Leadership Development: Habits

As a leader, what role do you take in your own leadership development?

If 2020 taught us anything, it was the importance of seeing the big picture without losing sight of the small details. This requires a tremendous skill in balancing priorities, energy, and focus. And while most great leaders can take pride in their ability to multi-task under stress, this year has really tested their abilities.

Leaders are called on again and again to shift their attention from one priority to another. They must consistently and consciously choose (and judge) that which is deserving of their attention. They must ignore impertinent distractions.

Developing the right leadership skills and habits is critical to personal and organizational success.

The Importance of Habits

Consider this: 80% of our results stems from only 20% of our efforts, according to Joseph M. Juran. In the context of our productivity and efficiency, this means that only about 20% of our activities actually provide the results we are looking for, professionally and personally.                      

To devote more time and energy to our most important activities we need to be able to recognize and say “no” to the people, places, and things that distract us from achieving our goals. This isn’t always easy, especially when we really like our distractions, or worse, our distractions become bad habits.

Disrupting the habits that are counter-productive is important, but it doesn’t eliminate them. Unless a new routine takes its place, the pattern will continue automatically. Fortunately, we’ve come to a new level of understanding about habits, and we’re learning and practicing new techniques to improve them.

The Importance of Focus and Concentration

In ConZentrate: Get Focused and Pay Attention–When Life Is Filled With Pressures, Distractions, and Multiple Priorities (St. Martin’s Press 2000), Sam Horn identifies essential keys to concentration that are helpful reminders:

  • Develop your ability to be single-minded.  This requires making choices as to priorities and scheduling.
  • Put your interest(s) in action. Engross yourself in an activity to a state of flow.
  • Discipline your thoughts. Focus on what is needed, and say “no” to outside distractions.
  • Begin again, and again, and again. Persist in spite of distraction, opposition, discouragement, and counterinfluences.

An important key to focus and concentration is to recognize when on auto-pilot, or taking action out of habit.

When Distractions Become Habits

To be sure, some behaviors make for good habits. This includes the behaviors you stopped doing, especially when distractions become habits. In today’s business world, this can make a big difference in your success.

In his recent book, Tiny Habits: The Small Changes that Change Everything (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt 2020) behavior scientist BJ Fogg, PhD, illustrates how behavior happens when motivation, ability, and prompt converge at the same moment. Fogg illustrates this in the Fogg Behavior Model, whereby motivation is your desire to do the behavior. Ability is your capacity to do the behavior. Prompt is your cue to do the behavior.

A Simple Model to Create New Habits

To create a new habit, work through the model, or formula:  

Motivation+Ability+Prompt=Behavior

  • Is there a prompt for the desired behavior?
  • Is there ability to complete the desired behavior?
  • Is there motivation to complete the desired behavior?

As any great leader or manager can attest, all of these questions need to be answered as it relates to the individual completing the behavior.

The process of habits includes neurological cravings for the pleasure-inducing neurotransmitter dopamine, which motivate us to take action. However, motivation alone is not enough to help us change our behavior and create a habit.

Motivation: Motivation is complex, often made up of competing or conflicting motives: opposing drives related to the same behavior. Therefore, we must outsmart motivation by focusing on behaviors: something you or your employees can do right now or at any given moment.

Ability: Understanding and strengthening our skills and abilities is critical to success. To make a behavior easier to do—to increase ability—successful leaders improve skills, get the tools and resources needed to complete the behavior, and/or make the behavior tiny with a small step toward the desired behavior.

Prompts: Prompts are the “invisible drivers of our lives,” according to Fogg, and can be simplified into three categories:

  1. Person (reptilian brain; internal cues)
  2. Context (environmental; external cues)
  3. Action: a behavior you already do (an anchor) that can remind you to complete a new action until it becomes a habit. For example, after I (anchor), I will (new habit.)

The Habits that Transform Your Leadership

As a leader, which of your habits yield the greatest productivity and efficiency for you and your organization?

Identify the 20 percent of your efforts that bring you 80 percent of your results. If you need help with this, consider working with a qualified executive coach. Then, identify three important behaviors you can turn into habits.

Identify Transforming Habits

  1. Clarify your aspiration (or desired outcome).
  2. Explore specific behavior options without censoring yourself. Consider those you might do once, those that would become a habit, and even habits you would stop.
  3. Match with specific behaviors. Identify your “golden behaviors:” those that are effective (impact), desirable (motivation), and doable (ability).
  4. Start tiny.
  5. Find a good prompt (anchor).
  6. Celebrate successes: emotions create habits. Positive emotions trigger that feel good reward of dopamine, so celebrate immediately: give yourself a pat on the back, a high-five in the mirror, bust a dance move, congratulate yourself, whatever works for you.
  7. Troubleshoot, iterate, and expand.

Questions for Leaders

Here are some things to discuss if you’re working with a coach:

  • What are you paying attention to?
  • What are your biggest distractions?
  • What three habits would bring you quality results?

What do you think? What new habits will transform your leadership? I’d love to hear from you.

Expectation Management

What are your plans to bring in the new year? Will you celebrate?

Maybe this is the year to try a new custom from a different culture. For example, in many Latin cultures it is customary to eat 12 grapes at midnight for good luck in the coming 12 months. Some carry an empty suitcase around the block in hopes of a travel-filled new year. Others hang an onion on the door as a symbol of rebirth; a chance to start anew.

Of course, hope, optimism, and positivity are important. They help us set and achieve goals, another common tradition for the new year. However, optimism can be dangerous when planning and forecasting. Realism is key when making decisions, committing large sums of money, and setting certain expectations.

Research has found that almost everyone who has a propensity to be optimistic in their world view tends to have greater success, better health, and longer life. However, beliefs and expectations must be based on achievable reality. You see, expectations have a profound effect on our energy, drive, and happiness.

In the recent Harvard Business Review article, “How to Lead When Your Team is Exhausted,” Dr. Merete Wedell-Wedellsborg writes:

“It feels like the whole world is tired. Even though the vaccine shines a light at the end of the tunnel, the home stretch will be long and perhaps take a greater toll on our professional and personal lives than we expect it to.”

This is an ominous warning, and an opportunity for expectation management.

Expectation Variables

There are two variables to consider in the management of our expectations: our expectations of other, and our expectations of self.

What was the last expectation you set for someone else?  Chances are, it was the completion of a task which was clearly understood. Or was it?

Many of our expectations are often implicit; we don’t actually verbalize or negotiate our expected outcome. This sets us up for resentment. Instead, we need to manage our expectations with clear communication.

What about your personal expectations? Did you achieve the goals you set for yourself this year? Why, or why not? How do you feel about that?

Our perception of our experiences is critical to the way we pursue our goals and achieve success. At the end of the day, our happiness level can be measured by the number of expectations that were met. That’s why setting conscious, realistic goals and expectations is so important.

Unrealistic Expectations

The adage, “hope for the best, expect the worst,” might seem like a way to protect us from disappointment, but the truth is, it doesn’t.

Researchers have found that:

  • If we expect to get xand succeed, there’s a slight rise in dopamine.
  • When we expect to get x and get 2x, there’s a greater rise.
  • But, if we expect to get x and get .9x, then we experience a much greater drop.

The real solution is to be adaptive, rapidly flexible, and understand what is in your control.

For example, we have certain expectations about the rollout of the new vaccine and a return to “normal.” But, the truth of the matter is that for many of us, when we will receive it is yet to be seen. And, in order to reach true global herd immunity, 70% of the world must be vaccinated. While we can encourage others to get vaccinated when they are eligible, we have no real control over these variables.

Realistic Expectations

A more realistic expectation is that we may need to continue our habits of wearing a face mask, frequent and proper hand-washing, and even social distancing for quite some time. We can remain flexible, adaptive, and maintain these habits through-out the next year.

When we have doubts, or when we fall into the gap of unrealistic expectations, we can focus on the Serenity Prayer:

“Grant me the serenity to accept the things I can not change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.” – Reinhold Niebuhr

Remember: things are. People are. You are. What you expect of them—and yourself—makes all the difference in your personal level of happiness. You can’t change people, things, or event. You can, however, adjust your expectations.

Strategies to Exceed Expectations

Having accurate expectations gives you peace of mind. It can also propel you to take on more challenges, and achieve greater goals.

Consider this: what was your last experience with something, or someone, exceeding expectations?

Chances are, you clearly recall the feelings you had. When expectations are exceeded, we actually experience a hit of dopamine, making us feel good.

We can harness the power of this physiological response to manage our expectations, and, if we combine it with a few key strategies, exceed our own personal goals.

6 Key Strategies

  • Adopt an optimistic mindset, and expect progress, not perfection.
  • Be specific. Outline what you must do on a daily basis to realize your desired results.
  • Create contingencies. Predetermine when and where you’ll take action to avoid the traps of distractions and other competing commitments. The best tactic is “if/then” planning: If X happens, I will do Y.
  • Determine how you’ll evaluate progress.
  • Exercise your grit. Grit is the willingness to commit to long-term goals and endure in spite of difficulties.
  • Fuel your willpower muscle. Rest helps you recover quickly and remain positive. Reinforce your willpower muscle by completing small tasks.

When facing disappointments, you may be tempted to dwell on unmet expectations, and even use them as an excuse to lower your expectations. But this will prevent you from reaching your goal. Instead, take control of negative emotions. Recognize the emotion, and allow yourself to experience it. Then, shift your focus to what you can control.

We have goals and we have excuses, some of which are true and valid. This is the hard part. It’s always helpful to work with an executive coach who can help you navigate your blind spots and develop greater self-awareness. Be sure to give yourself a pat on the back for being courageous enough to turn weaknesses into opportunities for growth.

Also recognize that putting your best foot forward means you’ll occasionally step in some mud. It’s up to you to decide which is more perilous: the risk of disappointment or the prospect of never reaching your potential.

The Need for Kind Leaders

Is your organization led by kind leaders?

This year has been like no other. Most leaders and managers are eager to put it behind them. Yet, we’re not out of the woods. A culture of kindness will make it easier.

Researchers have found that kindness is associated with better and stronger physical and mental health; relationships, teams, and communities; life satisfaction, and even economics. According to researcher and psychologist Dacher Keltner, PhD, “The science of human emotion, kindness and goodness are not to be taken lightly, they are actually good for our bodies and minds.”

Unfortunately, uncertainty, increased stress, and frustration have challenged and tested many organizational cultures: the way we collectively perceive, think, and feel at work. Add to that tribalism, polarity, and over exposure to vitriol, and incivility is easily sparked. Organizational culture is damaged, and left unchecked over prolonged periods, altered.

The Importance of Kind Leaders

Over the past two decades, thousands of employees have been polled about their treatment at work. According to research referenced in the recent Harvard Business Review article, 98% report experiencing uncivil behavior, often prompted by thoughtlessness, rather than malice. Common forms include:

  • Interrupting others
  • Discussing other employees
  • Acting in a condescending manner; belittling someone and/or their contributions
  • Arriving late; responding late (or not at all)
  • Ignoring others
  • Negative eye contact—giving the side eye, dirty looks, rolling eyes, or staring
  • Yelling, shouting, and/or verbally assaulting others (insults, harassment)

While subtle forms (and microaggressions) are often easier to overlook, they erode engagement, morale, and ultimately, organizational culture. Managers, and leaders, must intervene, not in kind, but in kindness. Being kind can boost oxytocin, dopamine, and serotonin, a neurotransmitter that helps regulate mood. In turn, our outlook, creativity, efficiency, and productivity improve.

The Leadership Skill of Kindness

Kindness is an interpersonal skill that requires a certain amount of strength and courage. Even though sympathy and caring for others is instinctual, consideration, empathy, and compassion are often required to lead and support others with kindness.

Kind managers understand that there is no kindness in allowing problematic behavior to continue. They have the difficult conversations with their employees to prevent ongoing failure. They work to improve the lives of others. How? First, they cultivate feelings of kindness.

Put Kindness on Your Radar

To be sure, it’s easy to focus on the negative. But when we intentionally look for acts of kindness, our bodies are rewarded in a very positive way.

Research from 88 studies involving over 25,000 participants found that those who witness an act of kindness—from cooperative action to comforting someone in distress—increase their own kindness at work.

When people witness others being praised for their kindness, motivation to act kindly also increases. However, the more time that passes after bearing witness to a kindness, the less inspired people feel.

If you’re not already, keep a journal. Make a note about acts of kindness at work. It could be a simple list with name, place, date, and action; a folder of emails; a collection screen shots; whatever works for you. Also consider the social conditions that prevent kindness at work.

Practice Self-Kindness

First, recognize the hard stuff. Here are two important questions to consider:

  • In what ways has life become more challenging?
  • What is the current state of your social ties?

Think of times when you felt a strong connection with someone—a meaningful conversation; a shared success or loss—and journal about the experience.

Then, recognize ways life has gotten a bit better. Have you been able to spend more time with family? Have you explored or developed different interests? What about greater understanding of different perspectives, beliefs, or opinions?

Reinforce your self-worth. Honor who you are, and act with authenticity. Exercise your power to choose, especially when it comes to attitude.

Finally, tackle the hard stuff. Prioritize ways you can strengthen your social ties.

Establish friendships at work. Clear boundaries and a willingness to make difficult decisions are necessary. This requires emotional courage and specific skills to avoid the formation (or reputation) of an exclusive clique. Wise leaders and managers practice mindful kindness.

Practice Mindful Kindness

There are two components of mindful kindness:

  • Consideration and action regarding the social conditions, practices, and policies that prevent employees from finding the good in human nature.
  • Random acts of kindness conducted in mindful ways that are sensitive, inclusive, and equitable.

Both of these components focus on treating everyone with mutual care and respect:

  • Practice honesty with consideration. Brutal feedback is not kind. Be clear, direct, and compassionate.
  • Show you care with unconditional acceptance. While you might not like or accept certain behavior, separate the action from the person.
  • Step through fear to do what is right, right now. Be courageous, and practice justice and compassion for all.
  • Welcome others into your circle. Extend kindness to everyone; grow your circle of friends.

Even the smallest acts of mindful kindness can go a long way, especially under the microscopic gaze of others. While the biochemical boost is powerful, research has found it only lasts three to four minutes. That’s why it’s so important to make kindness an ongoing daily practice.

Expanding Kindness to Community

A new analysis of studies reveals that witnessing goodness inspires us to be kind. When we see or hear about people acting kindly or helpful, we are inspired to do the same. Even the smallest gesture can have a meaningful ripple and go a long way.

In Working Knowledge, published by Harvard Business School, researcher, professor, and author Boris Groysberg and journalist Susan Seligson identified seven simple phrases we can use to communicate kindness.

Words of Kindness to Use Everyday

  • “I hear you.”
  • “Are you okay?”
  • “What can we/I do to help?”
  • “How are you managing these days?”
  • “I’m here for you.”
  • “I know you’re doing the best you can.”
  • “Thank you.”

Incorporating these phrases into our daily conversations expand kind communities. They help to satisfy our need for love and belonging, and create unity.

Daily Kindness Practices

Kindness in community sustains our capacity to thrive. When given freely, it moves beyond our immediate circle (family, co-workers, organization) to our greater community, through:

  • Service: reach out to those around you.
  • Responsibility: take positive action wherever you are.
  • Integrity: do the right thing.
  • Tolerance: Honor the strength in diversity.

Tara Cousineau, PhD, author of The Kindness Cure (New Harbinger Publications, 2018), writes that “how we learn from our past and envision our future depend on how we choose to live in the present moment.” When kindness is our north star, compassion, generosity, and forgiveness become natural, and spread exponentially.

Strengthen Your Workplace Teams

As a leader, what is your strategy to strengthen your workplace teams?

The way we live and work has changed tremendously over the past nine months. In many organizations, this shift occurred in a matter of weeks, if not days. As leaders offered greater flexibility, employees quickly adapted to new demands and learned and improved their skills.

Organizations that have proven to be most resilient moved to or expanded their online capacities and reconfigured their supply chain and delivery options. Simultaneously, they improved their diversity, equity, and inclusion outcomes. Their ability to respond quickly has ensured continuity, and in some cases, increased productivity.

But we’re not out of the woods. All leaders and employees will need to continue to strengthen their organization. As McKinsey & Company reported in October 2020, “corporate stress is now at the same point as it was in the 2009 trough, arriving in only months versus two years.”

Employees will look to their leaders to help them adapt, and while some are well-prepared with knowledge, experience, and a leadership style that inspires others to achieve real solutions, many lack what it takes to overcome the challenges ahead. Why?

Sustainability In Times of Crisis

Traditionally, in times of crisis organizations have relied on a conservative, by-the-book leadership style, and as McKinsey writes, three specific attributes of resilience: margin improvement, revenue growth, and optionality (retained additional optional investment opportunities).

But the divisions and polarization that exist today require a vision, strategy, and the social/emotional intelligence to engage all employees and improve workers’ job satisfaction.

According to a September 2020 report by McKinsey, “Because of the connection between happiness at work and overall life satisfaction, improving employee happiness could make a material difference to the world’s 2.1 billion workers. It could also boost profitability and enhance organizational health.”

The Importance of Job Satisfaction Today

According to McKinsey, “When it comes to employee happiness, bosses and supervisors play a bigger role than one might guess.” The relationship between employee and management is the top factor in the employee’s job satisfaction. Furthermore, their research finds that second only to an employee’s own mental health, the relationship with their boss is the “the most determinant of employee’s overall life satisfaction.”

Unfortunately, research also reveals that many people find their boss to be far from ideal. And to be sure, they’ve got a lot on their plate during this time. But for those who describe a very bad/quite bad relationship with their boss, they also reported substantially lower job satisfaction.

When employees are asked, “What would improve your relationship with your boss?” most want their boss to:

  • Listen better
  • Communicate clearly and with transparency
  • Offer encouragement (rather than doubt)
  • Engage with humor
  • Show courage/vulnerability
  • Demonstrate empathy and compassion
  • Be decisive
  • Take responsibility
  • Act humbly
  • Share authority

Unite Your Team  

A manager’s first step to unite a team is to assess and arrest dysfunctional behaviors and patterns. Dysfunction can take the form of selfishness, arrogance, bullying, manipulation, callousness and/or control. Savvy managers are careful not to overlook their star player’s transgressions.

Sure, they may achieve spectacular results, but when they are disrespectful and harsh with others, they create enemies. Those who bend the rules and push the limits of ethics and relationships actually promote destructiveness. This is a recipe for a toxic team.

Toxic Team Prevention

To prevent team toxicity, try this treatment:

  • Set an expectation that change is possible. Set realistic goals.
  • Model personal accountability.
  • Establish codes of conduct that discourage the use of negative language.
  • Offer training, coaching, and performance reviews weighted for positive leadership and emotional/social intelligence.
  • Recognize small wins.
  • Establish an early detection and intervention process for dysfunctional patterns of behavior.
  • Set expectations, goals, and rewards for collaborative efforts.

Change is possible, but it requires a shift in assumptions and engagement. 

Ubuntu at Work

In times of uncertainty, people search for refuge, and often, a group identity. Groups allow us to connect and share in a meaningful, positive purpose. Great leaders understand this, and foster the conditions essential for group effectiveness:

  • Trust among members
  • A sense of group identity
  • A sense of group efficacy

Some of our greatest leaders have embraced Ubuntu to foster trust, unify those they lead, and achieve great efficacy. At its core, Ubuntu is the acknowledgement of our connection to others, our need for community, and our mutual caring for all.

Bill Taylor, cofounder of Fast Company, once shared a quote in from Archbishop Desmond Tutu in a Harvard Business Reviewarticle that captures the philosophy of Ubuntu:

“A person with Ubuntu is open and available to others, affirming of others, does not feel threatened that others are able and good, for he or she has a proper self-assurance that comes from knowing that he or she belongs in a greater whole and is diminished when others are humiliated or diminished…”

Leaders who practice these principles in attitude and action, and support those they lead to do the same, can foster a strong team and a clear path forward.

Narcissism at Work

Of all personality types, narcissists run the greatest risk of isolating themselves, especially during moments of success. Because of their independence and aggressiveness, they are constantly looking out for enemies and sometimes become paranoid when stressed.

As a narcissist becomes increasingly self-assured, they act more spontaneously. They feel free of constraints, and ideas flow. A narcissist believes that they’re invincible, which further inspires enthusiasm from their admirer’s and feeds into feelings of grandiosity and overconfidence.

But the adoration narcissists crave can have a corrosive effect. As their personalities expand, they tune out cautionary words and advice.

Motivate a Correction

Not all narcissistic employees, however, are so entrapped by their personalities that they can’t be open to change and willing to learn. Here are a few tips for leaders and managers.

  • Share the principles of Ubuntu or a similar philosophy with all members of your team. Privately talk to your narcissistic employee about narcissism, and the patterns of behavior you are seeing. Document your discussions, and follow-up as indicated. Hold every member of your team accountable for their actions.
  • Assign a trusted mentor. Many narcissists can develop a close relationship with one person, who can act as an anchor and keep them grounded. But this person must be knowledgeable and sensitive enough to manage the relationship (and not be manipulated.) Narcissistic employees rarely trust other insights and views of reality.
  • Offer counseling or executive coaching. Narcissistic employees who become self-reflective are likely to be more open, likable, and better team players. If they can be persuaded to undergo counseling or coaching, they can work through their rage, alienation, and grandiosity. They can keep their strengths and diminish their weaknesses to overcome vital character flaws.

A Legacy that Endures

As a leader, how will your legacy measure up?

Your leadership legacy matters. It motivates people in the way they think and behave, today, and in the future. A lasting legacy sets a course: it adds value, creates positive meaning, and empowers others to carry on—with or without you.

Thousands of entrepreneurs have taken early retirement over the last year, many without a clear succession plan. Some of the vacancies have been temporarily filled by former employees or next-generation relatives, while others remain open.

History reveals it is not uncommon for crisis to create or accelerate significant changes at the top. During the 2008-2009 financial crisis, more than 2,000 CEOs of publicly-traded companies were replaced, according to Challenger, Gray & Christmas.

Legacies at Risk

Based on the succession planning research of Yo-Jud Cheng , Boris Groysberg and Paul Healy, Harvard Business Review (May 2020):

  • 63% of private companies do not have a CEO succession contingency plan in place
  • 69% of companies with less than $50 million in annual revenues lack a plan
  • The need for a succession plan is often more acute in small firms, especially start-ups

According to the researchers, 45% of all the U.S. companies they surveyed do not have a contingency plan for CEO succession, and 46% do not have an effective plan process for CEO succession. The industries most at risk include Health care (61% without a CEO succession contingency plan), Media (61%) IT and telecom (59%), and Consumer staples (53%).

Creating a lasting legacy is no easy feat. Those who succeed develop other executives: they understand what it takes for a successful leader to develop the capabilities to take a complex organization into the future, even in times of uncertainty.

The Makings of a Great Legacy

Your leadership legacy is how people remember you. It’s what they think and feel about you when you leave the room—today, and tomorrow. A great legacy is comprised of five elements:

  • Vision: a leadership vision is a testimony to the leader’s core values and sets the tone for direction and company operations. Leaders who are able to address issues conceptually, think strategically and creatively, and translate complex concepts into reality create a legacy vision.
  • Self-awareness: leaders who are self-aware are sensitive to their blind spots and bias. Great leaders are curious and able to gain new skills and knowledge to address challenges.
  • Relationships: leaders who have the desire and ability to understand others—not just what they say, but the meaning and feelings behind the words—enhance relationships, creativity, and collaboration. When we feel connected to others, especially in a work environment, we experience greater security, are more willing to share confidences, feel encouraged to take risks, and can support one another freely.
  • Perseverance: with the right knowledge (wisdom) and attitude (emotional resilience, realistic optimism, commitment and celebration of small wins), great leaders persevere to achieve positive results.
  • Leadership pipeline: great leaders take responsibility for building their organization’s leadership pipeline. They hold themselves accountable in the process of growing leaders, and recognize and support their developmental needs.

To be sure, employees, managers, and leaders are facing pressure and challenges like never before seen in our lifetime. They must maintain a steady balance between big-picture, long-term thinking with daily demands and problem solving. Building a strong leadership pipeline is important, but it often falls into the category of non-urgent.

Succession Planning in Large Organizations

In larger organizations, a lasting leadership legacy is funneled by line, department, or operating managers. After all, they are in prime position to identify potential, recognize developmental needs, and mentor emerging leaders. They encourage rising stars to take on new responsibilities, even if it means moving onto other lines, departments, or business units.

These front-line managers also support senior executives in defining and creating a diverse, equitable, and inclusive leadership development system for the entire company.  They identify challenges, issues, and practical solutions, passing on important knowledge and information.

Succession Planning in Small Businesses

In small business, a lasting leadership legacy is one of the biggest challenges.

According to a recent article in the Harvard Business Review (May 2020), “The Key to Successful Succession Planning for Family Businesses,” most family firms fail to remain a family business past the second generation. For those that do, gaining support of non-family employees for the next generation of leadership is a key challenge. However, research indicates that family successors are often preferred, as long as they support the existing culture and are well-equipped for leadership.

Preparation, transparency, and accountability are critical for success. When prospective employees understand any foreseen limits in their opportunities for advancement, they won’t feel blind-sided when family members are appointed in leadership positions. Plus, next generation family members who work side-by-side with non-family members can benefit from their experience through training and mentoring. This also allows the next generation family members to demonstrate their competence and accountability.

Develop Your Future Leaders

Great leaders are very mindful and intentional about leadership development. They understand that while financial results define where a company has been, leadership is a key indicator of a company’s future.

The quality of leadership—at every level—has a huge impact on everyday operations, and it determines every employee’s level of engagement. That’s why the best leaders invest in their own development. They:

  • Practice self-awareness. Understand your impact, limits, and challenge yourself to grow.
  • Balance here/now with there/future. Know what got you here. Be fully present.
  • Put people first. Practice compassion and encourage and equip others to succeed.
  • Listen more than they speak. Practice humility: seek to understand, rather than to be understood.

Great leaders also invest in the development of future leaders. They understand how managers grow. You see, they know that training alone is not the key to development; it is job experiences, coupled with coaching, feedback, and mentoring.

Build a Legacy Model

Here is a simple five-step model you can adapt for your organization, regardless of size:

  • Review your methods (and criteria) to identify leadership talent.
  • Identify pathways to leadership: sequences of responsibilities that build capabilities and meet daily operational needs.
  • Recognize each future leader in ways that highlights their strengths, personality, and contributions.
  • Track and assess results, provide feedback and coaching, and when necessary, adjust for changes.
  • Provide future leaders with opportunities to build relationships. When applicable, introduce future leaders to board members.

Line/department/business unit managers should be an integral part of the process. Clear assignment, roles, and responsibilities are key to success. However, it’s not unusual for managers to feel uneasy with the emotional and personal involvement effective talent development requires. Being a good coach or mentor requires knowing and discussing people’s talents and potential in ways that may seem intrusive. A qualified coach can help.

Great leaders exist in every generation. It’s just a matter of finding—and keeping—them. Preparation is the key to filling the leadership pipeline and creating a legacy that endures.

Leading Through Mistakes

Business leaders today are not exempt from making mistakes. While we like to believe their judgment is getting better, certain behaviors make them vulnerable to err, such as mindset failures,  delusions, mismanagement, and patterns of unsuccessful (or poor) behavior. Our wishful thinking, denial, and other forms of avoidance often prevent us from seeing their errors—or the mistakes we make.

We live in a celebrity culture where leaders, and especially CEOs, are expected to be perfect examples. They are held up as icons. We don’t like to admit they have flaws, or that the traits that make them special can also lead to failure.

To be sure, we crave heroic leaders who we can look up to and derive a sense of safety and security. We can’t do this when we see their flaws, so we contribute to the heroic myth and enable the leader to plunge full steam ahead, right or wrong. We must abandon this hero-worship.

There is a fine line between right and wrong, and like all humans, leaders are capable of swinging back and forth. They can be great leaders and fallible human beings. When great leaders make a mistake, when they realize they were wrong, they take appropriate action.

So why don’t some leaders admit when they have made a mistake?

Fear of Mistakes

Fear of mistakes remains a common challenge for leaders today. This fear fuels our drive to avoid losing face, at all costs. But the truth is, admission of error does less to harm our credibility than ongoing denial.

According to social psychologist Adam Fetterman, “When we do see someone admit that they are wrong, the wrongness admitter is seen as more communal, more friendly.” When someone promptly admits to being wrong, people do not think they are less competent.

Studies also reveal that some people are more willing to publicly acknowledge that their prior belief or attitude was inaccurate. The researchers called this a willingness to admit wrongness, or WAW. In three studies, they created scenarios to measure WAW, and found a correlation with agreeableness, honesty/humility, and openness to experience.

What is a Meaningful Mistake?

At its core, being wrong requires acceptance that our understanding may be limited, out-of-date, or simply fallible. This requires intellectual humility. According to social and personality psychologist Mark Leary, “Intellectual humility is simply the recognition that the things you believe in might in fact be wrong.”

In today’s complex world, this is not always easy. Even great leaders can fall into any of the five common blind spot categories:

  • Experience
  • Personality
  • Values
  • Strategy
  • Conflict

Great leaders recognize and acknowledge that they have cognitive blind spots. They also carefully examine and choose their convictions. When they identify errors, mistakes, or new understanding, they promptly admit it.

Meaningful Mistakes in Organizations

The practice of making meaningful mistakes can be mastered as a corporate culture. This requires support from leadership: proper mindset and models. In Being Wrong: Adventures in the Margin of Error (HarperCollins 2010), author Kathryn Schulz describes two models of wrongness:

  • Pessimistic model: errors are dangerous, humiliating, distasteful, and un-fun. 
  • Optimistic model: errors are a surprise of bafflement, fascination, excitement, hilarity, and delight. 

With the second model, innovation is more likely to occur. This culture is highly agile, adaptable, and productive.

Leadership and Meaningful Mistakes

No one is immune from making a mistake. But, we can avoid making matters worse by taking appropriate action.

To be sure, mistakes vary in degree, but when we make an insensitive comment, send a message without having all the facts or consider how it will be received, or berate a subordinate (or colleague) publicly, we must promptly acknowledge our mistake and make amends. It’s time for a good apology.

Bad v. Good Apology

A bad apology justifies or explains away our error. It paints a picture of why we did what we did or why we should be forgiven. Of course, trying to explain our actions is natural. But a bad apology rationalizes our error, even for the leader mistake.

A good apology has four elements:

  • Focuses on the other person(s) and how they have been affected by your mistake.
  • Takes responsibility. It acknowledges an error and remorse.
  • Makes amends. It addresses what can, is, and will be done to correct the mistake.
  • Builds trust. It communicates what you will do differently in the future.

Meaningful mistakes require reflection, without obsession. A qualified coach can help you break the cycle of rumination and get back on track with productive self-reflection.

Employees and Meaningful Mistakes

When we feel responsible for an organization, and we’re confronted with the consequences of a mistake of an employee, we are quick to react with judgment and condemnation.

Peter Bregman, author of Leading with Emotional Courage (Wiley 2018), suggests that when you confront an employee with a past-focused question, such as, “What were you thinking?” they become defensive, and the mistake is reinforced. Instead, great leaders ask questions that focus on the future. Future focused questions have numerous benefits:

  • Allows the employee to acknowledge the mistake as well as the lesson learned.
  • Allows the leader to guide the employee to identify any other potential flaws in their pattern of thinking.
  • Builds trust: in the employee’s and leader’s competence.

Manage Your Response

While this sounds simple, we first need to learn how to manage our own emotional reactions when the employee makes a mistake. Bregman offers a few keys:

  • When you experience an emotion, pause with curiosity. Take a breath.
  • Ask yourself: “What is my desired outcome?” “What would I like my next action (communication) to achieve?” Be honest with yourself.
  • Determine the actions (verbal or otherwise) that will most likely help you achieve your desired outcome. Often, what you’ll find is a conversation about the future, not the past.
  • Ask your employee what they plan to do in the future in similar scenarios.

Of course, these actions require a willingness to tolerate all feelings. Bregman calls this “emotional courage.” And with practice, you can strengthen yours.

Lead Your Organization through Meaningful Mistakes

Great leaders model how to make ethical, wise decisions for all their employees. Part of the problem is our human tendency to blame. We perceive and react to errors, mistakes, and failure inappropriately. We either avoid blame or assign it. Or, we overact with self-criticism.

According to psychologist Saul Rosenzweig, we experience frustration and anger—often the triggers of the blame game—based on our personality categories:

  • Extrapunitive: Prone to unfairly blame others
  • Impunitive: Denies that failure has occurred or one’s own role in it
  • Intropunitive: Judges self too harshly and imagines failures where none exist

These personalities influence a corporate culture. Extrapunitive responses are common in the business world—you don’t have to look far to see it. To be sure, some mistakes are blameworthy. But to build organizational resilience and bounce back from a mistake, you want to use your energy in more productive ways.

  • Listen and communicate. Never assume you have all the information until you ask probing questions.
  • Reflect on both the situation and the people. We’re good at picking up patterns and making assumptions. Remember, however, that each situation is unique and has context.
  • Think before you act. You don’t have to respond immediately or impulsively.
  • Search for a lesson. Look for nuance and context. Create and test hypotheses about why the failure occurred to prevent it from happening again.
  • Make amends. Acknowledge responsibility for wrong doing, and take action to redress that wrong.

Make Amends

In Moral Repair (Cambridge University Press 2012),  Margaret Urban Walker describes making amends as taking reparative action, but only action that issues from an acceptance of responsibility for wrong doing, and that embodies the will to set right something for which amends are owed.

This is not unlike some of the steps in recovery programs, such as Alcoholics Anonymous. Translated loosely, for organizations it might sound like:

  • We searched for who and how our organization has harmed, and we would like to do what we can to correct our mistake.
  • We accept full responsibility for our mistakes, and we will do what we can to correct this mistake.
  • We will continue to monitor our attitudes and actions, and when we are wrong, we will promptly admit it.

Making amends builds resilience, for individuals, and organizations. Leaders who can admit to their mistakes can make them meaningful. They can masterfully lead through mistakes.

Diversity, Equity and Inclusion: Because Better is Better

How does your organization approach diversity, equity, and inclusion?

While many leaders believe they have taken adequate steps to correct or avoid inequalities in the workplace with policies, promotion, and training, all too often we hear about employees who experience some form of exclusion or inequity, including lack of promotion, outright harassment, and even worse.

Being excluded at work is not fun. Even in times when most people are working remotely, being left out can intensify a sense of alienation, which impacts our happiness and performance. This is even more critical for small businesses: according to a 2019 survey, 52% of small businesses report labor quality as their biggest challenge.

Imagine, then, the impact when co-workers and leaders ignore an ongoing problem.

What if the exclusion(s) were due to your ethnicity, gender, or sexual orientation? How do you address diversity, equity and inclusion problems in your organization?

Social psychologist and researcher Robert Livingston, author of The Conversation: How Seeking and Speaking the Truth About Racism Can Radically Transform Individuals and Organizations, (Random House 2021) writes in the September-October 2020 issue of Harvard Business Review that the real challenge is not figuring out what to do, it’s our willingness. We’re able, but unwilling. Perhaps it’s a bit of both.

Trickle-Up Diversity

The concept that diversity will trickle up to the C-level suites is fundamentally flawed.

According to research conducted between September and November 2019 by Mercer, Caucasians fill 64% of entry level positions and 85% of top executive positions, demonstrating a promotion and equity gap. “The representation of people of color (both men and women) decreases incrementally as career levels rise.” Let’s Get Real About Equality (2020, p 22.)

Without equity and inclusion, diversity falls short. According to new research published by Columbia Business School, people need a sense of belonging. Given today’s challenges with an ongoing pandemic, and a polarizing political climate, is this even possible?

The biggest obstacle to hope and change is cynicism and apathy. Don’t let that happen in your organization. We can do better, and better is better.

We need to become aware of the problems, analyze the root-cause(s), practice empathy, and sometimes, make hard choices to the point of sacrifice. But in the long run, when we invest our time and effort in real strategies that work, the return on investment is worth it.

Increase Accountability and Transparency

We are making some progress when it comes to diversity, equity and inclusion.

As Harvard University psychologists Tessa E.S. Charlesworth and Mahzarin R. Banaji found in their research and published in What Works, “New data from nearly 6 million respondents shows that implicit (and explicit) attitudes/beliefs about minority groups can and do improve over the long-term (sexuality, race, skin tone, and gender roles).” They found that over a 10-year period, a widespread change occurred across most demographic groups.

What’s going on in your organization? Track your diversity and increase accountability and transparency with these steps:

  • Complete a SWOT analysis:
    • Collect data over time, including personnel transitions , discrimination complaints and outcomes, and employee surveys:
      • Create a template of questions to be answered anonymously; offer a range of answer choices, as well as an opportunity for a comment.
      • Ensure the survey reaches all employees and that they have adequate instructions and time to complete it.
      • Tabulate the results to establish your baseline.
      • Periodically, re-survey all employees with the same questions.
    • Analyze trends.
      • Compare your data over time, and compare it to other organizations.
      • Where are you seeing improvement in recruitment, hiring, promotion, pay, and retention?
      • Where do you need to improve?
  • Create goals. This is a critical step in the process: it lays the foundation for accountability and transparency.
    • Share your anonymous results with all employees.
    • Celebrate trends as they improve.
    • Establish SMART goals for areas needing improvement.
    • Educate all employees on how their attitudes and actions contribute to results, especially matters regarding inclusion.

Uncover Hidden Hiring Bias

While human bias can change over time, employee surveys often reveal slow progress, especially when it comes to promotion and equity. Here are a few suggestions that work in any organization, regardless of size:

  • Post the position in a broad range of forums, networks, or organizations, including those that work with the under-represented.
  • Don’t discriminate by asking for classification-specific applicants or referrals, rather, include a mission statement and/or diversity statement in your post.
  • Create a diverse interviewer panel, a consistent set of interview questions, and scoring criteria relevant to an accurate job description and essential qualifications.
  • Ask every applicant for their definition of diversity. As a follow-up, ask how they have promoted diversity, equity, and inclusion through their previous work experiences.
  • Document your recruiting, hiring, and promotion process. Retain notes from interviews or decisions on promotions.

If you haven’t already, identify a diversity officer or diversity task force to create hiring and promotion plans, and to review outcomes and disparities. Look to your managers, at all levels, as potential participants in the task force.

What You Need to Know about Hiring Technology

Hiring technology must be carefully designed in order to avoid pitfalls and achieve fair hiring: absent of disparate treatment and disparate impact. In assessing technology, look for:

  • Data that demonstrates fairness throughout all demographics
  • Candidate assessments and selections that are relevant to job requirements
  • Disparate impact testing prior to deployment
  • Ability to conceal demographic indicators from decision makers to enable objective human assessment
  • Tools that mitigate the risk of human bias in decision making
  • Tools that audit for disparate impact

Two important notes: beware of small samplings or group sizes in data sets, and review algorithms. This is critical to demonstrate fairness, objectivity, and relevancy, especially in terms of predicting outcomes and success.

Share your employment composition data and processes with all stakeholders. This includes the criteria for hiring, promotion, salary, bias/discrimination complaints, and how it compares to other businesses in your segment and geography.

Create Safe Reporting Alternatives

According to the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, over 39,000 retaliation-based discrimination charges were filed in 2019. Unfortunately, many of our complaint systems are not working.

In What Works, researchers Frank Dobbin and Alexandra Kalev report that formal grievance procedures actually slow progress in diversity, equity, and inclusion of minority men and women in management. Instead, organizations and leaders can offer alternatives, including:

  • A neutral party to receive confidential complaints, such as an ombudsperson. Their role is to listen and provide guidance to resolve issues. Developing a pool of well trained and skilled ombudpersons can improve potential conflict of interest risk.
  • An external, third party mediator. Their role is to listen and advise. Mediators are commonly available through an employee assistance program.
  • A dispute resolution department, either internal or external. Their role is to represent—or arbitrate for—both parties in mediation on a variety of issues. However, when there is a power difference between parties, or when termination is the remedy, complaints may go unresolved in a satisfactory manner.
  • A transformative dispute resolution model designed to change the workplace. At its core, this model is designed to change the workplace by improving self-awareness, skills, and accountability through training, and sometimes, in policies and processes.

Of course, equity and inclusion ultimately depend on leadership attitudes. When leaders perceive complaints as threats, they miss the opportunity to gain valuable insights. By balancing speed with quality in finding solutions, they gain insights. 

Balance Speed with Proven Strategies

Leaders can create a culture of equality and inclusivity with best practices and proven methods that can be quickly and successfully implemented with little or no customization and at low cost.

  • Diagnostics: Assess the local context. Your diagnostics should include research on your own business, as well as the local, or relevant, geographic demographics and statistics, including pay scales. This is important for equality comparisons and goal setting.
  • Engage influencers:  Invite willing and able actors, especially managers, in the design process. Ask your managers to conduct reality checks: how does this impact current systems, processes, and ways of doing business?
  • Create your model of change: Take local context into account and identify a target of change. Understand the experiences of specific groups of underrepresented minorities, that one-size-does-not-fit-all, and that minority voices are not heard until they reach 30% critical mass.
  • Build momentum: Begin with the most engaged departments, teams, or individuals. Incorporate bystander training to equip and empower everyone. Celebrate accomplishments as progress is made.

The Key to Inclusion

Diversity and inclusion are not the same. While companies can mandate diversity, leaders have to cultivate inclusion. This begins with a genuine interest in, and for, other individuals.

People instinctively yearn for inclusion; belonging is a part of our hierarchical needs to achieve our potential and peak performance. Our sense of belonging is relative to our sense of security and safety. Leaders who support diversity, equality, and inclusion provide a safe and equitable work environment.

Great leaders get to know individuals. They learn about their unique strengths, experiences, and needs. The best leaders demonstrate their understanding and care by recognizing individuals with respect.

Managers play a key role in this. As Michael Slepian writes for Harvard Business Review (August 2020), “Managers should not only signal that a social identity is valued, but also that the individual is valued, as a person, not just on the basis of the social group they represent.”

Most individuals don’t want to be asked to speak on behalf of their social group; they don’t want to be singled out in this manner. Instead, get to know the individual, and ask them to share their thoughts based on their strengths and unique experiences. People want their social group to be included and their individual self to belong. 

A Shift to Self-Employment

Is self-employment right for you? Is now the best time to start your own business?

Questions like these are common right now. And the answer is: definitely, maybe.

Regardless of the type of business, self-employment isn’t for everyone. It requires passion, know how, and opportunity. It requires strategy and great timing. And it takes resources.

To be sure, there are many pros and cons to consider:

  • With unemployment claims at 30MM in the U.S. and unemployment dropping to 10.2% (16.5% factoring in part-time employees), there is still a lot of volatility in the market.
  • In the months of March and April the US economy lost more than 21MM jobs, and in May, June, and July, regained 9.3MM (about half of jobs lost). While this upward trend is good news, the question remains, what happens next? A lot depends on three things:
  • The virus: While scientists are making great progress toward a vaccine, the number of new cases continues to grow.
  • Consumer confidence and behavior: Some experts speculate that many people used the $1200 US stimulus check to pay-down debt, rather than stimulate the economy with new purchases.
  • The government’s response: At the time of this writing, the U.S. government has not reached a consensus on a second stimulus bill. Of course, this is really only a piece of the puzzle in response to a global pandemic.
  • For the unemployed, with no indication of a work return date, now is a great time to explore possibilities.
  • According to the National Bureau of Economic Research, when people have a greater amount of time to find the right position (with the security of un-employment benefits to sustain them), they find a better fitting job. Sometimes, this means creating a job perfectly suited for them, while solving a problem for their clients.

Many leaders, executives, and managers secretly wish that they were self-employed. When they examine past career choices, future opportunities, and the reality that time is finite, they open the window to options and opportunities.

Are You Ready for Self-Employment?

Ask yourself:

  • What steps must I take to transition to entrepreneurship?
  • Can I give myself permission to succeed, or fail?
  • How does fear keep me in a reactive stance, constrained by outmoded routines?
  • Am I content to live partially, or am I ready and willing to explore new ways of thinking and feeling?
  • Can I gather the energy needed to realize my unlived potential?
  • How can I take one small step?

The shift to self-employment can be the most rewarding accomplishment and pathway to success there ever was. But, ask anyone who has ventured out on their own, and they’ll tell you tales of blood, sweat, and tears shed. If you’ve got a novel, great idea, it won’t take long before others are nipping on your heels. It’s important to start right: start smart.

Hone Your Value Proposition

Begin with a value-proposition: a simple, memorable statement about what you do, and why you do it. Your value proposition describes the functional and emotional benefits of your company and brand. Functional benefits are linked to specific product features, while emotional benefits refer to positive feelings that customers experience when using your products and services.

For example, the functional benefit of a gardening tool could be the efficient removal of lawn weeds, but the emotional benefit could be its ease of use by people with knee ailments. Value propositions are not necessarily about offering the cheapest products. They are about convincing customers that they are getting value for their money.

A value proposition can be created in four steps:

Step 1: Know your customer

Your customer is a business person with quite a large house, who likes the "meditative feeling" of cutting his own lawn, but gets bored by the job when it takes too long.  He’s looking for a good quality of cut, for the job to be done quickly and enjoyably.

Step 2: Know your product or idea

The product is a ride-on mower with a 25 horsepower (powerful) engine and 45 inch (wide) cutting blades.

Step 3: Know your competitors

The mower goes faster and cuts wider than the competition.

Step 4: Distill the customer-oriented proposition

"Our mower cuts your grass in 50% of the time of ‘big brand’ mowers in its class. And it leaves the lawn looking beautiful too!"

Craft Your Business Positioning Statement

Your business positioning statement flows from your value propositions. It should describe why customers should use one product over another.

For example, a small bakery’s positioning statement could be its multigrain breads and custom-designed cakes that appeal to customers who are looking for flavorful and creative products that are different from the standard mass-produced items at big-box grocery stores. Correct positioning could determine market-share gains and profitability. In this case, the bakery is trying to position its products in the market segment that includes customers who want high-quality, high-priced goods. If it tries to compete solely on price, it may not survive because bigger companies can use their buying power to drive down input costs.

Positioning statements focus on the most relevant benefit and points of competitive differentiation that are meaningful to the persona:

  • Audience (persona type/niche market)
  • Product
  • Category
  • Differentiator
  • Key customer benefit
  • Think "Why?" and answer the customer’s question of WIFM

Be prepared to modify your positioning statements to respond to changes in the business environment. 

Memorize Your Personal Positioning Statement

Your personal positioning statement flows from your value propositions and business positioning statement. It describes why customers should choose you over someone else.

For example, your personal positioning statement could include how you have helped other clients and appeal to prospects who are looking for similar results (or have similar problems).  Based on your niche market values, personal positioning statements focus on the most relevant benefit of working with you versus your competitors.

Try this basic template, and fill in the blanks:

For ____________________ (your audience/niche market/persona type),

I am the ____________________ (your specialty or category of service)

with the unique combination of ________________ (your differentiator)

that can help you ____________________ (key customer benefit/the “why”/WIFM answer).

These tools also help to keep your vision alive. They are reminders of what you do, and why you do it. Most importantly, they prepare you to answer the question: “what do you do?”

Unleash Your Inner Entrepreneur

Leaders and executives often make great entrepreneurs. After all, many have grown through the ranks in an organization, and understand what it takes to succeed in business:

  • Facilitator
  • Teacher
  • Pragmatist
  • Motivator
  • Visionary
  • Mystic (magnetism)

As an entrepreneur, you’ll move through the ranks. Knowing which aren’t a good fit—and knowing what you don’t know—allows you to focus your time, energy, and attention on areas where you excel.

Generally speaking, your passion will stem from your knowledge or experience with the technical aspects of your business: the first three ranks. Successful entrepreneurship requires a solid understanding of logistics, including resources, supply chains, and production, as well as marketing, finance, and everything in between.

As you take on more responsibility (and grow your business), the role of facilitator, teacher, and pragmatist can be taught to others, delegated, or hired out. Your role will shift to motivator as you encourage others in their performance.

As a visionary, you’ll share your ideas, identify possibilities and opportunities, and make connections others may miss. Even without a team yet in place, you’ll be called on to communicate your vision and inspire action from others: creditors, investors, and clients. This requires social intelligence, charisma, and magnetism; it requires the mastery of mystic.

The Mastery of Mystique

Mystique is a transformational, rather than transactional, quality. It affects our internal—not external—state. The charismatic entrepreneur changes the way we feel about ourselves, our values and our beliefs. Our behavior and performance are therefore influenced on a deeper level.

Consider your formative life experiences. It’s not about what happened to you, but how you responded. For example, if something traumatic raised your self-awareness; if it caused you to question, reflect, gain insight and ignite your passion, share this with others.

In challenging times, charismatic entrepreneurs can unite a group and inspire focus, more so than any other force.

Serendipity, Self-Employment and Success

Self-employment isn’t for everyone. It requires passion, know how, and opportunity. It requires strategy and great timing. And it takes grit. Successful entrepreneurs use their grit to:

  • Anticipate that obstacles are inevitable and find a way around them.
  • Develop their abilities by finding solutions to setbacks.
  • Build willpower by using it like a muscle—anticipating when they’re vulnerable, avoiding temptations, and preparing contingency plans and coping strategies.

Successful entrepreneurs focus on what they will do, rather than what they won’t do—a tactic that fosters positive energy. They know success depends on adapting to challenges and persisting, even when they’re ready to wave the white flag. And, they are open to opportunities in surprising places.

Successful entrepreneurs see what others don’t; they notice the un-noticed, and expect the unexpected. Those who are successfully self-employed turn these noticed, unexpected observations into opportunities. Some call it serendipity.

As Christian Busch, PhD, writes in The Serendipity Mindset (Riverhead Books, 2020), “[Serendipity] demands a conscious effort to prompt and leverage those moments when apparently unconnected ideas or events come together in front of you to form a new pattern.” To put it simply, they connect the dots.

According to Busch, there are three types of serendipity: Archimedes, Post-it, and Thunderbolt.

  • Archimedes Serendipity: When a solution to a known problem comes from an unexpected place. This type of serendipity is common for natural entrepreneurs.
  • Post-it Serendipity: When a solution to a known problem is stumbled upon by exploring a different and/or unrecognized problem.
  • Thunderbolt Serendipity: When a solution to an unknown problem presents itself.

Why Is This Important?

As successful entrepreneurs will tell you, no matter how strong your passion or know-how, success depends on your openness to opportunity, and how well you have trained yourself to recognize opportunities around you. You see, serendipitous entrepreneurs connect the dots between the small things and life’s bigger problems. 

Busch writes, “Learn to spot serendipity.” Recognize opportunities in things, places, and with others. Connect the dots and recognize patterns.

One of the biggest hurdles in this process is confidence, or lack thereof. Sometimes, our need for perfectionism (and fear of failure) holds us back. But when we accept that failure is better than no attempt, we can let go of limitations, and open to a world of possibilities.

Some successful entrepreneurs intuitively cultivate serendipity. They are open to the unexpected, able to proactively lead during times of uncertainty, and understand what is within their control. Others work to cultivate a serendipitous attitude. What about you?

A Call for Interdependence

Today’s business leaders face incredible pressure to anticipate, adapt, and produce. Unfortunately, ongoing uncertainty and increasing demands cause many to fall into the trap of over-management. And it’s not uncommon: when a system crumbles and a new one is not yet fixed in place, we get a lot of chaos and confusion.

Figuring out what’s next is not easy for business and organizational leaders. What are the questions they need to be asking in order to find clarity? How do they find a new vision, when there is ongoing uncertainty about any return to former norms?

What leaders need is a balance of independence and interdependence. They need to focus on economics and management issues, as well as how they respond to social, technological, cultural, political, environmental, and religious issues. Childcare, education, and working remotely have a tremendous impact on how they do business. Meeting after meeting leaves workers with very little time to actually do the work and complete assignments as agreed.

We need to rethink our previous assumptions about how we do business, and where we are going. What we have known about the past and assumed about the present is no longer sufficient to prepare for the future. Effective leadership requires a balance of interdependence and independence.

Interdependence versus Independence

Is your attitude about individualism based on your social class?

According to research published in 2017 by the Harvard Business Review, yes. But, it may also be shaped by your geography.

Colin Woodward, author of American Nations (Penguin Group, 2011), writes that our attitudes about interdependence and independence stem from eleven distinct regional cultures in North America.

Today, most business organizations elevate independence as the corporate culture ideal. Certainly, workplaces that support self-assertion, individual expression, and new ways of thinking/being are to be applauded, but what happens when this is valued greater than collaboration, or worse, greater than the common good?

Consider this: in Descent of Man, Darwin proposed that we humans succeeded because of our empathy and compassion. He wrote, “Those communities which included the greatest number of the most sympathetic members would flourish best, and rear the greatest number of offspring.”

While there is a place for independence in every organization, effective interdependence will sustain an organization and allow it to thrive.

Toward Better Interdependence

In the November-December 2019 issue of Harvard Business Review behavioral scientist, professor, and author Francesco Gino pointed to three attitudes for effective interdependence:

  1. Respect for contributions from others
  2. Openness to experiment with ideas from others
  3. Sensitivity and self-awareness of personal actions that affect others, as well as impacts toward goals and objectives.

These three attitudes allow for true collaboration and forward progress, the hallmarks of innovation. However, in business, support is almost always highly conditional:

  • "I’ll support you as long as I know where this idea is going."
  • "I’ll support you as long as success is guaranteed."
  • "I’ll support you as long as there’s something in it for me."

And yet it’s only when we trust enough to allow something to unfold that surprising innovations happen. The goal for leaders is to manage ego, model a growth mindset, and foster trust.

It Begins with Attitude

  1. Manage ego and model effective listening:
    • Practice active listening.
    • Become comfortable with silence.
    • Be curious, without judgment.

  2. Express empathy and curiosity. Right now, expressing empathy can be more challenging for leaders: Studies have found that in an attempt to manage their own stress and anxiety, people will cognitively turn off empathy and compassion when they feel like they can’t help someone.
  3. Practice constructive feedback:
    • Ensure expectations were effectively communicated. (If not, own it.)
    • Engage in a dialog that points out what worked, and what needs improvement.
    • Discuss feedback on feedback; acknowledge natural human tendencies to resist or avoid feedback.

Better Team Interdependence Doesn’t Just Happen

If your team has transitioned to remote work and management (and/or leadership) believes that more interdependence and management is required, but team members believe otherwise, tension will be common. Employees push back when asked to attend meetings, participate in decision making, and do work. They often complain of micro-management.

Conversely, if your team members believe they need to be more interdependent, and management or other team members do not, complaints of lack of support and help are common. Either way, better management is required.

Team Interdependence: One Size Does Not Fit All

Sociologist and organizational theorist James D. Thompson identified three types of interdependence many teams use today: pooled, sequential, and reciprocal. Because team members may be operating from different (and or limited) experiences with each type of interdependence, their expectations may vary.

For example, let’s say your business is to make widgets. You offer standard widgets, as well as customized widgets. Your business is made up of production teams to reach standard widget goals and deliver quality custom widgets.

  • Level 1 interdependence pools standardized independent actions into a team effort. Each person creates a standard widget. This is referred to as pooled interdependence.
  • Level 2 interdependence requires a known sequence of standardized and modified actions into a team effort. Each person completes a portion of the process to produce a widget; an assembly line. This is referred to as sequential interdependence.
  • Level 3 interdependence is based on known and unknown sequences of known and unknown standardized and modified actions into a team effort. This is referred to as reciprocal interdependence.

The level of interdependence is also referred to as the degree of interdependence, and determines the type of management, or amount of coordination, needed.

Shift Your Management for Success

Higher degrees of interdependence reflect greater complexity, and require different types, or degrees, of management:

  • Level 1 management: When all team members are trained on and adhere to standardized processes and actions, standardization management, including reporting and communications, is efficient.
  • Level 2 management: Planning management is required for sequential interdependence. This allows managers to coordinate goals with the actions needed, including process analysis, for successful outcome. Team members may be asked to provide additional information and shift actions as needed.
  • Level 3 management: When any team member introduces new information that affects the reciprocal independence, increased communication, changes, and coordination are required. This calls for mutual adjustment management.

Great leaders help their team members understand and move through different levels of interdependence. They shift their management and coordination relative to the degree of complexity for improved productivity and efficiency. If your team members are complaining about the amount of meetings (or a lack of information), examine your level of management. It may require adjustment.

Coaching Team Interdependence and Peak Performance in a Virtual World

Coaching team interdependence and peak performance in a virtual world has its advantages. It allows you to plan, reflect, prepare, implement, and follow-up your discussions. But it’s not without its challenges. Avoid the risk of meeting burnout with these tips and best practices:

  • Explore what and why. Before you begin the conversation, explore your own expectations and attitudes about the employee. What is the expected outcome of their efforts? If there is a gap, review your communications. Perhaps there was a misunderstanding, extenuating circumstances, or, your employee is privy to information that is not on your radar. Open the conversation with an attitude of curiosity, rather than judgment.
  • Segue in to exploration of their goals: business and personal. Ask about the challenges and obstacles they are facing. Right now, most workers are doing their best to manage increased pressure and stress, and many are hesitant to share this. In some cases, it may be childcare or eldercare. Alternatively, it could be they lack the energy and creativity they found in their previous work environment.
  • Collaborate on next steps. For example, if there was a misunderstanding, identify an effective communication process that works for both of you. This could be something as simple and specific as not interrupting during a virtual meeting, or conversely, asking for clarification. If skill was the issue, identify an effective training process, including mentoring and/or online learning. For those who miss the office environment, explore how employees might be able to connect virtually for water-cooler hangouts. The key is to not jump to solutions, rather, coach them to find insights and solutions they will implement.
  • Follow-up as agreed. Be as specific as possible in your feedback, and link behavior to outcome. Whenever possible, use the 3:1 ratio: for every negative critique, share three positive observations. To reinforce lessons learned, ask how it will help them achieve their own goals. Use open questions to encourage self-discovery, and avoid micromanaging. And remember: level 3 management is reciprocal management. Your feedback should be a dialog, where you are open to ways in which you can improve, as a leader, manager, and interdependent team player.

Confrontations that Create a Win-Win-Win

What has been your experience with confrontations? When did you last initiate one?

Confronting someone for their behavior today is no easy feat, especially when emotions are easily triggered and opinions vary. When expectations are left unmet—including protocol infractions, civil disobedience, illegal behavior and everything in between—frustration, lack of accountability, and broken relationships become the norm. But those who foster positive confrontations can create win-win-win solutions.

If you’re like many of the people I speak with, you likely avoid confrontations. And I don’t blame you: we don’t want to make matters worse. But, when we say nothing, we perpetuate the problem (and in some cases, become co-conspirators.)

What if we could make a positive difference?

Most of us are not highly skilled in win-win-win confrontation. We feel stuck between a rock and a hard place. Instead, we can learn and practice positive confrontations: address the issue in a way that supports the wellbeing of self, others, and the relationship between the two.

Calculating Risks and Rewards in Confrontations

Conflicts can range from disappointments (i.e. someone not meeting our expectations) to micro aggressions, to outright dangerous and/or illegal behavior. And yet, we are often hesitant to say anything. Why is that?

Our willingness to speak up changes based on what’s at stake.  In general, most of our daily conflicts boil down to:

  • Priority or value differences
  • Behavior or communication style differences
  • Inequality (or perceived inequality)

In Crucial Accountability (McGraw-Hill Education, 2013), authors Kerry Patterson, Joseph Grenny, Ron McMillan and Al Switzler share their 30+ years study on confrontations.  When they asked people why they remained (or became) silent in the presence of an injustice or violation of a social norm, the majority of responses were a version of, “it’s not worth it.” The perception was, they wouldn’t, or couldn’t, make a difference.

But here’s the thing: when a positive example of a successful confrontation is witnessed, people speak up.

According to the authors, “Provide individuals who have been disappointed or poorly treated with something to say and a way to say it that leads to the result they want, and their mental math changes. Better yet, their behavior changes. People now believe it’s in their best interest to step up to violated promises, broken commitments, and bad behavior. And they do.”

Avoid the Blame Game

One of the biggest obstacles in confronting someone is the blame game.

Consider the observation made by comedian George Carlin: anyone driving slower than you is an idiot, and anyone driving faster than you is a maniac. It usually includes the question: “What is the matter with them?!”

When we ask ourselves, “What would lead a rational, reasonable, and reliable person to do that?” we move from a stance of blame to inquiry. We create a safer space for an actual exchange of ideas: the foundation for positive confrontations. When people feel safe, you can talk about almost anything.

People feel safe when they believe that:

  • They are respected as human beings; there is or could be mutual respect for the other
  • There is regard for their goals; there is or could be mutual purpose

Even in situations when you don’t know the other person, you send a message about your level of respect and regard. Positive confrontations require that you set the right tone from the offset. To pro-actively avoid or counter defensiveness, include the use of contrasting statements.

Let’s say, for example, you encounter someone at work who is not wearing a face mask, even though it is a company policy.

Lead the conversation with a contrast, such as: “I don’t want you to think that I am criticizing you, your work, or your judgment. I just want to talk about our company policy regarding face masks, and how we can best support it.” Then, you can state the policy, why it is important to you, and close with a sincere question, such as, “What do you think?”  

Listen to their response, and re-state or re-phrase what you heard them say (in positive terms and language), and ask them to commit to following company policy. Acknowledging their perspective (their thoughts, experience, feelings, and understanding) can go a long way toward mutual support, commitment, and adherence to policy.

Positive Accountability

Positive accountability is the conversation that takes place after someone has made a commitment, and failed to keep it. Like positive confrontations, they often start with the question, “Why?” They become positive accountability confrontations when both parties are able and willing to comply to a solution, and the relationship is strengthened.

Patterson, Grenny, McMillan, and Switzler outlined a three-step process to address bad behavior, un-kept promises, or broken commitments that resulted in unmet expectations: CPR.

  1. Content: identify the action or event that took place (the here and now).
    1. Unbundle the problem. Identify all the elements.
    2. Identify what is bothering you the most.
    3. Be concise: communicate the issue in one (simple) sentence. It could be as simple as, “When you X, I feel Y, therefore Z.”
      For example:  “When you don’t wear a mask, I feel scared for your health and mine, therefore I would like you to wear a mask in this shared space.”

  2. Pattern: when the action or event recurs, address the pattern over time.
    1. Point out the number of times this event took place, what you had agreed to, and how the repeated actions/events affect predictability, respect, and trust.  This is different than pointing out the action or event.  It requires honesty, and respect.
    2. For example:  “It is my understanding that we agreed you would wear a mask in this public space, and this is the second time I have seen you not wearing one. I am concerned that I can’t count on you to keep your word.”
  3. Relationship: how this affects your relationship.
    1. Explore the intentions and consequences with compassionate curiosity (for you, them, and others).
    2. Share your understanding (about the content or pattern), and how you feel about the other person.
    3. Share your objectives: what you want to happen in the future for you, them, and your relationship.
    4. For example: “We agreed you would wear a mask in this public space, and this is the third time I have seen you not wearing one. This pattern is putting a strain on our relationship, and I am concerned about that. I want us to be able to trust each other, and to act with mutual respect.”

Be Aware of Your Stories

It’s easy to become hooked by our emotions, especially when the stakes are higher. That’s why it’s so important to be aware of the stories we tell ourselves before, during, and after a confrontation.

When we tell ourselves that the other person (or organization) is the villain, we often end-up telling ourselves we are the victim, and we engage our amygdala: that reptilian brain responsible for fight, flight, or freeze.

But when we recognize and address our own fears, we are better prepared for a more neutral, compassionate, curious conversation that yields a win-win-win. Curiosity is a key component that helps us find common ground.

Confrontation Best Practices for People Pleasers

Confrontation and holding others accountable is not always easy (or end with the best results!) But if you want to grow personally and professionally, you need to be willing to engage in conflict.

  • Stay in the moment. If you find yourself focusing on, or getting caught in emotions, breathe. Label the emotion: there is fear; there is anxiety; there is anger. If you need to, take a break. Pause the conversation, provide a neutral reason (I’m sorry to interrupt you, but I need to take a quick break; can I get you anything?) Resume the conversation as promised.
  • Listen more than you talk. The majority of your speaking time may be best spent asking questions to gain better understanding. Get out of the way so you can hear what’s important. Pay attention to cues. Notice body language, and what is not being said.
  • Anticipate you will have a positive outcome. There is a big difference between being liked, and being respected. Conflict is an opportunity to repair and strengthen valuable relationships. It also helps you identify malignant relationships, and when absolutely necessary, remove yourself from the relationship with minimal damage.

Confrontation in a Virtual World

Even as we become more accustomed to virtual meetings, we still need to overcome the actual and perceived distance. Here are a few tips to prepare for your positive confrontation and accountability discussions:

  • Create a sense of co-presence: the ability to feel as though you can interact effectively with another person. Know your technology capabilities and limits. Use video, and keep your environment free from distraction.
  • Practice eye contact. While it may feel awkward at first, practice gazing into the camera when speaking, and alternate the camera and view of the other person when they are speaking.
  • Be specific. As Art Markman, PhD, wrote in “How to Have Difficult Conversations Virtually,” Harvard Business Review (July 2019), “the more distant you are, the more abstractly you are likely to think about them.” Positive confrontations in a virtual world require specific feedback, not abstraction. Use the CPR method to outline your discussion, specific examples, and keep you on track. When initiating the invitation to meet, use a contrasting statement to set the tone. Review what you agreed to, and establish next steps.

Follow-Up Best Practices

After a confrontation, you may be inclined to avoid that situation or person again. But positive confrontations that create a win-win-win rely on pro-active follow-up that strengthen the relationship. 

  • Acknowledge the positive confrontation. Today, this will most likely be in the form of an email. Send a thank-you note: for their time, engagement, and honesty. Summarize the conversation and individual and collective goals. If appropriate, reiterate your agreement and next steps.
  • Reach out to build the relationship. Send an email, text, or call on an unrelated matter. This reinforces the message that you care about them, and your relationship.