Category Archives: Elise Mitchell

In The Turn

Leadership Under Pressure: How to Show Courage, Cunning and Character When It Really Matters

This is Part Two in a series based on my recent trip to India. Part One shared stories of our adventures looking for tigers and the powerful leadership lessons I learned while on safari. Now, I’d like to take you deep into the ancient palaces of the maharajas and maharanis, where we discovered secrets of royalty who walked these rooms centuries ago.

As always, I found inspiration for modern leadership – this time from the lives of these great men and women who demonstrated great courage, cunning and character in life-and-death situations. I hope you learn as much from them as I did.

The morning breeze felt good as it blew in gently from the windows where I stood. I could see through the wood-carved screens to the lake just outside the palace walls. The water sparkled in the sunshine. Shade trees dotted the water’s edge and covered the hillside beyond.

I leaned against the cool marble walls, looked around the upper room of this tower, and marveled. While the setting of the City Palace in Udaipur is breath-taking, the interiors of this majestic building are simply spectacular.

India, the world’s sixth-largest economy and the fastest-growing outside of China, has a history rich with colorful figures, dynasties and periods of turmoil as well as prosperity. As we walked the halls, I couldn’t help being swept up by the stories our guide told us of the men and women who lived in palaces like this one.

What would life have been like to lead a kingdom during that time? What secrets did these walls hold? What leadership lessons can we learn?

A Maharaja to remember

One of the most celebrated leaders was Chhatrapati Shivaji, a legendary maharaja who founded the Maratha kingdom in the 17th century and who displayed at least three important characteristics leaders need today: Courage, cunning, and character.

Shivaji’s reign is noted for many things. He was a champion of religious tolerance, the “Father of the Indian Navy,” and a supporter of women’s rights.

He was also a skilled leader in battle, demonstrating courage time and again by fighting fiercely against attackers and protecting the people who lived in his kingdom. He earned the nickname “mountain rat” because of his knowledge of the mountainous countryside and his ingenuity in triumphing over enemies in difficult terrain.

We heard several stories about Shivaji, but perhaps my favorite occurred during his struggle against a Mughal emperor named Aurangzeb. This is a conflict that waged for many years. At one point, Shivaji and his men captured several forts, and things finally came to a head. The emperor couldn’t tolerate losing more ground. So he sent a huge army to attack Shivaji and his band of men, forcing a peace treaty.

Shivaji agreed to meet with Aurangzeb in Agra, which is the home of the Taj Mahal and a major city in the state of what is known today as Rajasthan. Aurangzeb assured him he would be treated like royalty when he arrived.

A daring escape

Nothing could have been further from the truth. Shivaji and his son, who accompanied him to Agra, were at first ignored by the Mughal; then quickly placed under house arrest and threatened with execution.

Shivaji was furious when he realized he had been tricked. Their lives were in danger now – as was his entire kingdom.

While stuck in captivity, Shivaji began to think – how could he overcome this turn of events and escape? Calling upon his ingenuity, the clever leader thought of a plan and put it into motion.

Shivaji sent word to his captors that he had become ill and asked for doctors to treat him. After three days, he insisted he had been cured and ask for sweets to be distributed to doctors and needy people in the land as a way of showing his gratitude. Huge quantities of special treats were prepared and carried out from the palace grounds in large bamboo baskets.

At first, guards carefully inspected each basket before allowing it to leave. As the days wore on, however, they became lax. Shivaji knew this was his chance.

In a thrilling escape, he and his son hid in the baskets and were carried to freedom under the very noses of the guards who were supposed to be watching them!

Once outside, they disguised themselves as beggars, shaving their very recognizable beards and mustaches, exchanging their clothing, and putting ashes on their faces. They escaped through the countryside and returned to their kingdom.

Shivaji was welcomed back as a hero. Once back in power, he focused all his efforts on restoring his kingdom, instituting reforms and establishing stability in the region. He eventually was coronated as a king, and he ruled for many years until his death.

Leadership lessons

The legendary Maharaja never lived in the City Palace of Udaipur. But his story is larger than life, and I thought about it throughout our trip. I’m struck by three leadership lessons we can take from his example.

Lesson 1: Courage is a constant

While one could argue that Shivaji was a little blood-thirsty, he is not unlike many other warrior kings in history who succeeded largely through constant courage and a willingness to fight. He stood up to his enemies and refused to let them defeat him.

He also earned the respect of his soldiers by demonstrating his battle skills and fighting side-by-side with them in the trenches. As a result, they remained loyal and willingly followed him into battle.

Have you ever felt you were “under siege” as a leader, fighting for your team, your values, your point of view or a cause you passionately believed in? Whether we like it or not, such battles are simply a part of leadership.

It requires courage to rise to these occasions, especially when everything inside you wants to head for the hills. Here are a few things to remember that will help increase your courage in the heat of battle.

  •  Stand your ground – Instead of shrinking back, stand up, plant your feet and take up some space. This increases your confidence by altering your neurochemicals – increasing testosterone and decreasing cortisol. Neuroscience research has shown that when we have higher levels of testosterone, we are more persistent in the face of failure, better negotiators and more willing to take risks.

One of the most popular TED talks (more than 42 million views) features psychologist Amy Cuddy explaining why “power posing” might be useful to build courage. Her research suggests there is an increase in testosterone when we strike a confident pose. She’s not suggesting we stand defiantly when we’re leading others, although there might be times when we need a strong posture. More often, power posing is part of our preparation. “Our bodies change our minds, our minds change our behavior, and our behavior can change our outcomes,” says Cuddy.

  • Show grace under fireBrené Brown, a professor at the University of Houston, has noted that the root of the word courage is cor—the Latin word for heart. “In one of its earliest forms,” Brown writes, “the word courage meant, ‘To speak one’s mind by telling all one’s heart.’ Over time, this definition has changed, and today, we typically associate courage with heroic and brave deeds. But in my opinion, this definition fails to recognize the inner strength and level of commitment required for us to actually speak honestly and openly about who we are and about our experiences—good and bad. Speaking from our hearts is what I think of as ‘ordinary courage.’”

This type of courage allows us to own our actions rather than casting blame, to be outspoken about our beliefs, and to demonstrate confidence and poise even when we’re under extreme stress or pressure. It’s a self-confidence that comes from knowing and demonstrating our hearts.

  • Remember who you are – Too often we are consumed with the business and the busyness of our daily work. But it’s important to step back periodically and remind yourself why you’ve chosen to lead. What drives you? What are your values? What do you want your legacy to be? When you are clear about these things, it helps crystallize in your mind who you are as a leader and why you are willing to fight for things that matter to you.

Lesson 2: Cunning comes from clear thinking

Many times, it isn’t sheer force of will that carries the day. It’s how we use our wits. Like Shivaji, we may need to devise a clever way out of a pickle. So, we need to optimize our thinking skills and be prepared to use them when the pressure is on.

Here are two tips to help you think clearly when you need it most.

  • Manage your emotions – An important fact to know about your brain: Your limbic system, which regulates your emotions, and your prefrontal cortex, which controls complex thinking, both require plenty of glucose and oxygen. As a result, they cannot operate optimally at the same time. This explains why you’re thinking is often significantly impaired when you’re in a heightened emotional state, and you find yourself at a loss for words.

Effective leaders know how to dial back their emotional responses so they can clear their heads to think. You can improve your ability to do this by practicing mindfulness, which is remaining present and aware of your thoughts and feelings instead of escaping into your mind when the going gets tough. As you learn to inhibit negative narratives in your head, you can be more objective and perceive situations realistically. Practicing meditation regularly also improves your ability to focus.

  • See things another way — You can use basic cognitive strategies such as repositioning, which is stepping back to see things from another’s perspective. If you could consult a friend or a mentor on the situation, how might they advise you? Many times, others can help us consider options we might not see for ourselves.

Lesson 3: Character defines your legacy

More than courage and cunning, your character tells the world what kind of leader you are. We read daily of leaders who stumble due to lack of judgment, ethical breaches or outright criminal activity. Even though no one is perfect and we all fall short, it’s disheartening.

We hold leaders to a higher standard and look up to them – as we should. Being in a position of power means you set vision, show the way and make important decisions, many of which impact others as well as yourself.

I was impressed to learn of Shivaji’s commitments to better the quality of life for his people. He was known for his respect and tolerance for different faiths. During a time when women were not treated particularly well, the Maharaja did not tolerate violence or harassment against women. He got in the trenches with his soldiers and fought with them.

He didn’t have to lead this way, but he chose to anyway, and he enjoyed support and stability because of the respect he earned.

  • Leaders of character consider the needs of others — Courage and cunning are part of your character, but the part that most defines your legacy as a leader is your selflessness. Leaders cannot be all about themselves; instead, they keep the interests of others as a top priority. Otherwise, no one will willingly follow them – at least not for long.

Great leaders do not abuse power or take advantage of it for their own gain. They consider the needs of others and show respect for individuals regardless of their standing in society. Their decisions and actions show what they’re made of and what’s in their heart.

Being a leader of character means knowing and living your values. Most of us are pretty good at the first part; it’s the second part that’s so hard! But living them is what really matters. It allows us to earn not just the respect of others, but, most importantly, our own.

During times of great challenge, we are drawn to people who muster a rare combination of courage, cunning and character. Shivaji seems to have brought them all. I hope his legacy inspires you to demonstrate these same qualities in your own leadership journey.

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In The Turn

A Maharaja, a Magician and a Tiger: Leadership Lessons from the Most Unexpected Places

Tiger sighting

My husband and I recently returned from a trip to India, a captivating place that is an explosion of vivid sights, sounds and smells. From the Taj Mahal and tuk-tuks (think motorized rickshaws), to saris, Bollywood and curry, there is only one India.

I had the privilege of speaking at leadership events in both New Delhi and Mumbai. Through these experiences, I gained a much fuller understanding of the economic opportunities India enjoys. I came away inspired by the accomplishments of the business leaders I met and warmed by the friendships I gained.

Travel can be a great teacher, and this trip was no exception. Yet some of the most powerful leadership lessons from this trip came in the most unexpected of places – while walking through the ancient palaces of the maharajas, meeting a 10-year-old magician in a rural village, and looking for tigers in the underbrush of the Vindhya plateau.

This is part one in a series on lessons I learned during this journey. I hope you learn as much from it as I did. Let’s start in the wild, which actually has some striking similarities to the workplace.

What tracking a tiger can teach you about leadership

Tigers are beautiful and rare creatures. The Bengal tiger is the national animal of India and can still be seen in the wild, thanks in large part to Project Tiger, a conservation program launched by the Indian government nearly 50 years ago to protect the animals from extinction.

We saw three tigers during a two-day visit to Ranthambhore National Park, a 108-square mile tiger preserve that is also home to crocodiles, leopards, peacocks and a variety of other wildlife. It was a thrilling experience to see a tiger up close – and I mean very close — in its natural habitat. On two different occasions, a tiger walked right in front of our jeep.

Tigers are the largest members of the cat family. They are predators at the top of the food chain, hunting deer, wild boar and monkeys, among many other things. Tigers are stealthy, camouflaging themselves in tall grass while they stalk prey. They are also incredibly beautiful and sleek, moving with a grace and calmness that can lull you into overlooking the danger at hand.

But spotting a tiger in the national parks is no easy task. Some visitors don’t see one until their fifth or sixth visit. Experienced guides and drivers who know the park well are your best bet, not just for their knowledge of the terrain, but because they have learned a secret that also holds many powerful leadership lessons.

Our group had hired just such experts, and we set out just before sunrise on our first safari. My husband, a friend and I rode together in one jeep; our traveling companions in another. Each vehicle was assigned a guide and a driver.

It was very chilly as we started out, and the road was bumpy and dusty. Our guide seemed quite knowledgeable and told us many interesting facts about tigers, their history and the country’s preservation program as we approached the entrance to the park.

Once we passed the guard station, we headed for the zone we had been assigned to for the morning and began our search. We drove up and down hills, passed several watering holes, and stopped to birdwatch a bit. We saw peacocks, deer, two crocodiles and a mongoose.

But no tiger.

On several occasions, our guide instructed our driver to simply stop and turn the engine off. And we just sat. The first time or two he did this, I was frustrated. I didn’t understand – why are we sitting? The other animals are beautiful, but we came to see a tiger. Shouldn’t we be driving around? Shouldn’t we try to cover more ground to increase our chances? Why would we stop and do nothing?

It didn’t take long for our guide to notice our confusion. You can drive and drive in hopes of seeing a tiger, he explained, but this obvious strategy often wastes time and energy, and it ultimately tries the patience of the team. You’re also making unnecessary noise, kicking up dust and, most importantly, racing by the very clues you need.

Your best bet, he said, is to stop, watch and listen.

Trying a different strategy

When a tiger is on the move, he told us, other animals are the first to notice and they give a call about the approaching danger. Sometimes their alarm is very noticeable, like a monkey’s shriek while it climbs frantically into the tree tops. Other warnings are subtler, such as a bird’s cry made at a slightly higher pitch, or a Sambar deer’s short quick bark twice in succession as it turns to run.

The calls can be right in front of you, or far away. If you’re not watching and listening carefully, you’ll miss them.

It sounded like a plausible reason for the sit-and-wait strategy, but, I’ll admit, it was a little hard to buy into this approach. While the minutes ticked by, I couldn’t help but think we should get moving, try to cover more ground and move into more open spaces to increase our line of sight. Do something – anything – seemed like a more productive strategy and one more in tuned with my destination instincts.

But the effectiveness of his approach was proven in dramatic fashion.  After riding around for some time, our guide instructed our driver to slow way down, and he leaned out of the jeep. On the side of the road, he spotted fresh tiger prints in the dust. Once we got close enough to them, they were unmistakable.

We followed the prints along the road until they disappeared, then drove a bit until we reached a low spot near a dried creek bed, trees thick on either side. The guide instructed our driver to turn off the engine. We sat and waited. Other jeeps and guides had gathered nearby as well. No one said a word.

And then we heard it – the animals gave their calls. The treetops came alive as monkeys began swinging wildly from the branches and chattering loudly. Birds flew from the trees, calling out. The boss was on the move. Where exactly and moving in what direction was anyone’s guess. But we knew something big was about to happen.

My heart was in my throat. The anticipation of a sighting was absolutely thrilling.

Our guide spoke swiftly and pointed to where he wanted our jeep to be positioned. The driver threw the vehicle into reverse and quickly backed down the road to an opening in the woods. It was clear our guide was relying on his instincts and 20-plus years of experience at that critical moment to anticipate where the tiger might emerge.

And, in fact, she did, in all her glory, right beside us. I captured priceless video of her jumping effortlessly over a rock wall and sauntering into the clearing, turning around just long enough to cast a curious glance at her audience. Simply amazing.

Leadership lessons

Needless to say, we were beside ourselves with excitement and couldn’t stop talking and looking at pictures (and video) while we drove back to our camp.

It wasn’t until later in the day when the excitement had died down and I could think more deeply about the experience that the lessons came home to me. While luck and timing played a part, as is always the case, there were several reasons for our success that we can apply to our own leadership journeys.

Here are three.

Lesson #1: Recognize the warning signs

Our guide was experienced and knew the warning signs, both subtle and overt. He knew how they could help inform our process and improve our chances. If he hadn’t, we would have been like many of the vehicles we saw wandering aimlessly around the park whose guide seemed too busy with the “cover more ground” strategy.

How many times have you been unaware of — or simply ignored — warning signs that could have helped you anticipate problems? It could be something as subtle as a slight change in the attitude of a trusted teammate. Or an off-hand comment made by a colleague. It could be as overt as competing interests among colleagues that start derailing an important project. Or a top contributor deciding to leave for another job with no real apparent reason.

If you’re paying attention, these signs can alert you that something bigger is brewing. But you must learn to identify and recognize the signs, or you can run straight into trouble that is far more difficult to recover from.

Lesson #2: Know when to stop, watch and listen

Although we covered a lot of ground and looked in likely places, our guide resisted the temptation (and subtle pressure from us) to spend all our time driving around in hopes that we would simply run into a tiger. If we had used that strategy, we would have missed at least two of the tiger sightings we had.

Destination leaders often go full throttle in pursuit of their goals, and sometimes our drive pays off. Other times, we can become so single-minded in our focus that we pay little to no attention to anything or anyone around us when that’s exactly what we need to do.

Have you found yourself thinking you were too busy to have meaningful conversations? You missed a breakdown happening right in front of you because you were looking past it? You were so committed to your own strategy that you weren’t willing to stop and consider someone else’s approach that could have led to a better result? You gave in to pressure from others to deviate from a strategy that you believed would be more effective?

How much better could you lead if you tried a “stop, watch and listen” strategy every now and then? Here’s what that could look like:

Stop — Take time to think more deeply and enhance your own cognitive abilities by:

  • Practicing mindfulness every day – just five minutes using a free app on your phone like Insights Timer will increase your ability to focus and help you stay centered.
  • Scheduling some “think time” on your calendar at least once a week to dive deeper into a pressing issue or complex project you’re facing.

Watch — In meetings, practice watching others to determine their state of mind by:

  • Observing body language that could signal dissatisfaction or unrest such as minimal eye contact, being distracted, choosing a seat that is unnaturally far away.
  • Seeing how someone greets others or says good-bye as they leave the room
  • Noticing their facial expressions as they react to certain topics or comments.

Listen — In your one-on-ones, ask two or three new questions to prompt discussion on more meaningful issues and to allow you to listen more intentionally to your team. For example:

  • What’s keeping you awake at night right now?
  • If you were sitting in my seat, what’s the most important piece of advice you would give me?
  • What is one thing I can do for you?

And in phone calls with customers or clients, practice listening to gain a deeper understanding by:

  • Noticing their tone of voice to anticipate how they are feeling.
  • Jotting down critical thoughts and words they share with you to help you synthesize and understand the bigger picture.
  • Asking open-ended questions to draw out more details that could fill an information gap in your mind about a situation.

Lesson #3: Use what you learn to make better decisions

Our guide was adept at watching and listening, but he also knew how to use that information to his advantage. He gambled on where to park our jeep by watching the direction the animals were moving and relying on his instincts and experience.

You will never know exactly what to do every time. No leader does. A difficult situation arises suddenly, things begin to unfold in real time, and a decision must be made quickly. It can be scary, especially if the stakes are high.

You can improve your chances of making better decisions at critical moments, however, as you become more adept at assessing situations and applying insights. Among other things, this requires you to:

  • manage your emotions effectively when the pressure is on;
  • apply fundamental elements of critical thinking such as accuracy and relevance to devise viable solutions; and
  • have the courage to make the decision, even if you’re unsure it will work.

Making decisions at critical moments takes practice. But if you are more intentional about your overall decision-making process, you’ll find it comes easier in pressure-packed situations. And you’ll likely enjoy more satisfactory outcomes.

I hope these three leadership lessons help you lead at your best. More to come on lessons learned from maharajas, maharanis and a 10-year-old magician.

 

 

Copyright (c) 2018 Velocity Collective, LLC. All rights reserved.

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In The Turn

How to Create a Personal Board of Directors and Accelerate Your Career

The meeting was over, and I returned to my office feeling extremely satisfied with the results. Then I heard a knock on the door and looked up to see a co-worker who had come to gently set me straight.

As it turned out, what I thought had been a successful meeting regarding a major decision instead had left others confused about my thinking and concerned about what was ahead. I thought I had done a great job of communicating and inspiring, only to learn I hadn’t taken the time to provide some much-needed context. In my eagerness to drive the decision, I had left out valuable details to earn buy-in.

We’ve all had situations when our self-awareness gets lost in self-denial, Or in my case, lost in my own POV. Realistic self-assessment is incredibly difficult. We’re either too easy or too hard on ourselves, and neither is good.

  • When we’re too easy, we begin to think our way is the best and only way, and we disregard the diverse views of others. We become overly confident, take chances we shouldn’t and think we’re more effective than we really are.
  • When we’re too hard on ourselves, we question every decision. We’re more hesitant than we should be and don’t trust our instincts enough. We need too much validation, don’t feel worthy of respect and suffer from the imposter syndrome.

Either way, we are not leading at our best and those around us suffer as a result.

The biggest problem: Getting feedback

It takes hard work to strike the right balance and have a fair appraisal of ourselves so we can play to our strengths while continually striving to improve our weaknesses.

The biggest problem is we often don’t get the feedback we need to inform our self-perceptions. It’s challenging for others to tell the truth or share less than flattering observations with us, especially if we’re in a position of power. We often don’t get accurate, honest comments about how our words, actions and intentions are perceived.

One of the best ways to gain regular, meaningful feedback is to put together a personal board of directors – a team of mentors who will tell it like it is when we need to hear it most.

Wendy Davidson, the president of U.S. Specialty Channels for the Kellogg Company, introduced this idea to me several years ago, because she believes her personal board has been invaluable to her highly successful career. I couldn’t agree more.

Benefits of a personal board of directors

Consider some of the countless ways a personal board can advance your career. They can:

  • Offer practical advice about how to tackle new opportunities to increase your chances of getting key decisions right the first time
  • Serve as an informal coach who can provide wisdom about challenging situations or interactions with others
  • Share subject-matter expertise to expand your understanding on a specific topic
  • Point you toward resources and tools that will further your development and learning Introduce you to people to help expand your network
  • Hold you accountable for changing an attitude or behavior impacting your professional performance
  • Offer diverse points of view and different life experiences to challenge your thinking and broaden your view of the world
  • Provide “big picture” perspective about your career as you consider job opportunities or career moves

How to form your board

The concept of a personal board of directors isn’t new, and most leaders I know see it as a great idea. But many never give the time and energy it takes to form and take advantage of such a board. So, how do you actually pull it off? It’s not as hard as it seems, but it does require a bit of thinking and planning. I’ve mapped out a simple process with these three steps to establishing a personal board of directors:

1. Assess your biggest needs

Start by listing of your five biggest challenges/needs — things that are potentially holding you back in your career or impacting your work/life balance. Some examples:

  • Unfamiliar with practical financial principles that impact my strategic thinking abilities
  • Not managing my emotions effectively under pressure
  • Not enough knowledge of front-line operations
  • Working too late in the evenings on a regular basis
  • Feeling confused and overwhelmed by complex decisions

If it helps, turn these challenges into simple “goal statements,” such as:

  • Develop a working knowledge of the most useful financial principles for my role
  • Keep my cool more often when I am facing deadlines

2. Identify prospects

Once you have a better sense of your needs, think about who could help you most. Consider asking people who:

  • Are in a position you aspire to have someday
  • Come from another company in your industry (that you don’t compete with)
  • Come from an entirely different industry
  • Are experts in an area you need to learn more about
  • Can feed your spirit and encourage you to invest in yourself
  • Are willing to be brutally honest to help, not hurt
  • Will always have your best interests at heart

List each prospect’s name, organization, area of expertise, and which one or more of your five goals can they help you with. Make sure you have current contact information for each prospect.

Make as long a list as you like, but an ideal personal board has 3-5 members. You’ll need more prospects since everyone may not be able to help.

3. Make the ask

Once you have your list, take some time to write a short script or a few bullet points to guide your conversation so you can articulate your thinking clearly and succinctly when you call each prospect.

For example, you’ll want to explain why you are forming a personal board of directors, what is involved if someone agrees to join and how each person could help you with one or more of your five opportunities for growth.

Here’s an example of what you could say and why you need to say it:

  • I’ve been evaluating my career, identifying my strengths and my opportunities for growth. I’ve set some specific goals for myself that I believe will further my career. (establishes that you have done your homework)
  • I greatly admire what you have accomplished, particularly ___________ (name something related to one or more of your five areas for growth). This expertise and your career success would be invaluable to me. (explains why you are asking them)
  • I have decided to form a personal board of directors and would love to have you as a part of this team of super mentors for me. (clarifies your plan of action)
  • What that simply means is I would like to connect with you once every few months to ask for your advice or seek your expertise when I know it could make a big impact on me. I would like to treat you to lunch or dinner, or we could arrange to meet by phone/video call, too – whatever is easier for you. (tells them how much time would be involved on their end)
  • I would like your help as I continue on my developmental journey. Would you be willing to be on my personal board of directors? (makes the ask)

Start with your top prospects and work your way through your list, ensuring that you create a board with diverse strengths and expertise. Make notes of the feedback you receive to help shape how you bring your board to life and what their preferences might be for how you engage with them. Even prospects who cannot take the time to join your board now will likely have some advice for you.

TIP: Don’t fear ‘the ask’

One piece of advice Wendy shared with me is not to be afraid to ask. Many times, we worry that asking for help is a burden to others. Wendy reminded me that looking to others for advice can be a compliment. You’re saying, “You have something that I can learn from, and I’d like you to be a part of my career moving forward.”

Next steps

A few suggestions on next steps:

  • Once you have secured the agreement of and feedback from your board members, send them a thank-you email or hand-written note.
  • Look ahead on your schedule to identify times you can connect with them in person or by phone/video. Make a note to reach out to them several weeks in advance so they can make time to meet.
  • Prepare for each meeting so you can give them an overview of what’s going on in your career. If you have a specific request, let them know the topic in advance so they can think about how to help.
  • Always send a thank-you note any time your board members help you. Let them know the result and the impact they have made.

If you want to take a deeper dive on this topic – to hear the full story about how and why Wendy created her board, and how she used this throughout her career – read Chapter 3 in my book, Leading Through the Turn.

I am proud to say Wendy is on my personal board of directors, and I am on hers. Her impact on my leadership journey has been profound, and it is an honor to help her whenever I can. Imagine how your personal board of directors will impact the trajectory of your career. Don’t be afraid to ask!

 

 

 

Copyright (c) 2018 Velocity Collective, LLC. All rights reserved.

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In The Turn

Innovation that Works: Jump-starting New Ideas in your Business this New Year

One of the things I hear leaders talking about more and more these days is innovation. Good thing, because it’s must-have stuff in today’s rapidly evolving business environment. If you’re not innovating, you risk falling behind.

Innovation keeps you in the game. And while we all boldly claim we buy into that thinking, in the back of our minds we’re asking ourselves: “How in the world can we get it done?” Starting new things sounds exciting, but it also sounds daunting and pricey. Yet it doesn’t have to be either.

As you set goals and make resolutions this new year, I’d like you to think about ways you can make innovation happen in your business. Here are a few practical ways we’ve tried to stay at least a half-step ahead of the changes in our business, and how we have tried to empower our team to be more innovative.

First, let’s get past the many excuses we don’t innovate:

  • Time and money – It seems like it takes too much of both.
  • Insular thinking – Am I only talking to those who think like I do?
  • Arrogance – I tell myself I already know what’s best and don’t need to try new things.
  • Commitment to the past – We’re pretty happy with things just like they are, (and, truth be told, I’m not willing to make change that’s needed to move ahead).
  • Fear of failing – What if I try and fail?…

Innovation can seem complex and risky. But at its core it’s quite simple: Innovation is about turning ideas into money. And when it’s done well it definitely pays.

Coming up with ideas is easy. The hard part is figuring out which ones to bring to life. Practical innovation is the key. You must take smart risk when you innovate to increase your chances of success. How?

Innovation mindset

Start by getting your mind right about innovation. Recognize it starts at the top –with you. I know it’s my job as a leader to think about what’s possible, not what is. When I get too pulled into the business, I can’t see over the next horizon.

To be more innovative, you must change some of the ways you think today. Don’t succumb to confirmation bias, which is reading and listening to things that simply affirm what you’re currently doing. Some of the best ideas come from stimulation we have in other parts of our lives, so spend time doing other things beyond work. For me, that’s running, riding a motorcycle, photography – really creative activities that free my mind from concerns and open my thinking to possibilities.

Another way to change how you think is by inviting people who bring unique perspectives and backgrounds to the conversation. Better leaders try to see things from a broad point of view. I love this quote by F. Scott Fitzgerald, “The mark of a superior intellect is to hold two conflicting thoughts and not be paralyzed.” It reminds me not to be afraid of seeking out different ideas but be willing to live in the tension and roll up my sleeves to sort through them and find a way forward.

You can also simply look to other industries for inspiration. A lot of innovation isn’t radically new thinking; it’s taking things from other industries and applying them where you are. This is the “wisdom of objective thinkers,” who can help you see things in a new way.

Innovation process

Next, think about how you innovate. You don’t have to know what the innovation will be, you just have to know how to get to an idea. It will help you and your team to have a process of some kind to follow. A few suggestions:

Start by asking “How might we?…” questions. While I’m a big fan of leading through asking rather than always telling, I particularly like this one. Warren Berger developed this simple but powerful approach for creative problem-solving. You can open your mind to possibilities by starting the conversation in this way. The “how” part assumes there are solutions out there, and it gives creative confidence to the group – yes, we can find an answer. “Might” says we can put ideas out there that might/might not work, but either is okay when we are in brainstorming mode. And of course the “we” is that we are going to figure it out together.

A common design model used by innovators across many industries is the Double Diamond, developed by the Design Council. There are four steps — Discover, define, develop, deliver. The process can loop back around again to lead continuous improvement. The hardest part? Getting your team to “turn the corner” — to stop brainstorming and start refining and deciding on the final product.

An important step in the design process is experimentation. Or basically running a “test and learn” model, which are simply parallel pilots of your most viable options. This approach is far better than the funnel model, where you have 100 ideas that you narrow down to 1, but then after spending time and money on it, you find out it doesn’t really work. Better to have multiple initiatives under way simultaneously, culling those that are not working and leaning in to those getting traction. A guiding belief at IDEO is “Enlightened trial and error outperforms the planning of flawless intellects.” Couldn’t agree more.

You can also establish a “labs” initiative in-house, or work closely with a local accelerator or start-up incubator to get access to entrepreneurs who are creating new things or who can help you drive new ideas forward. Join their board, volunteer as a mentor for young entrepreneurs. THIS IS KEY – engage with others who are thinking about and trying new things. If it’s particularly promising, you can acquire the company as well as the talent.

Finally, start out with small innovation projects that have a chance to pay off early — small scale, quick payback projects. Get the early wins. They will help build the confidence, change the culture and over time create a larger and longer-lasting impact.

Challenge your team to think not just about starting up new products and services, but innovating the way you do business, too. Ask some questions:

  • How is our billing process – user-friendly and clear, or cumbersome and confusing?
  • Are we good at communicating regularly with our clients and in the way they want to be connected to us?
  • Is our organizational structure serving us well, or we need a different model?

These can be incredibly powerful innovations that could pay off faster and better than adding a new product offering.

Good luck, and here’s to 2018 being the year you make practical innovation pay off!

 

 

 

Copyright (c) 2018 Velocity Collective, LLC. All rights reserved.

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In The Turn

How to Stay Cool Under Pressure

Staying cool under pressure can be one of the tougher parts of leadership. Every day brings a constant flow of conflict, irritations, demands and uncertainty – plus the occasional cultural scoundrel who drives you crazy.

Some people are naturally less stressed by those challenges, but most of us can only take it so long before we feel like we’re going to explode.

What’s the secret to managing your emotional responses so you can lead with a cool head and a calm heart?

Neuroscience and behavioral research offer some useful insights and practical strategies for emotional regulation. I’ve picked three of my favorites to share with you here. You can use these techniques in common pressure-packed situations to help you keep your cool and think more clearly when you need it most.

 

SELF-AWARENESS

But first, it all starts with self-awareness. This is a fundamental leadership skill. Self-awareness is the ability to recognize and understand your own moods, emotions and motivations, as well as their impact on others.

Strong self-awareness leads to greater emotional regulation and self-control, which makes a lot of sense. Until you can step back and see what’s going on in your mind, you’ll never effectively lead yourself, let alone other people.

Neuroscience research over the past 10-15 years has produced some compelling data that shows how much control we actually have over our thoughts, feelings and reactions. We’re not hostages to our emotions; we get to decide.

 

HOW YOUR BRAIN WORKS

It’s also helpful to have a basic understanding of how your brain works so you can see how to manage yourself better. Two key areas of the brain are involved in emotional regulation:

  • Your prefrontal cortex, which is where your higher-level thinking, decision-making and understanding occurs; and
  • Your limbic system, which constantly scans the environment to identify threats (lions, tornados and angry colleagues) and rewards (money, chocolate cake and love). Emotions are automatic responses to threats and rewards.

Interestingly, when your limbic system kicks in, it drains resources such as glucose and oxygen from other parts of your brain, making it much more difficult to think clearly when you are in an emotionally charged state. You might be ready to fight or flight, but not think!

Your ability to control your emotions is central to your effectiveness as a leader. So, here are three of my favorite strategies for staying cool under pressure.

 

CENTERING

Think of this as standing at the center of yourself and being fully aware and in control of what you are thinking and feeling. Mindfulness is closely related. Neuroscience research shows that people who are more centered enjoy greater thinking capacity and less emotional reactivity in times of stress.

And a compelling study by Bain found centeredness to be the most important attribute of inspirational leaders. You must be able to center yourself before you can use your leadership strengths effectively.

  • Situation: Someone has disregarded your input in an important conversation. You feel disrespected.
  • Application: Stop, take a deep breath and get grounded (sit or stand in a solid and settled position). Tell yourself you recognize how you are feeling and you want to control your reaction so it’s effective, not emotional. Once you can think more clearly, determine the right strategy for resolving the situation, such as bringing your input forward in another way and speaking privately with the individual about his or her behavior.

NAMING

This is a basic cognitive strategy that simply involves putting your feelings into words. When a situation triggers you, calling out your emotion(s) actually minimizes your limbic system response. On the other hand, trying to hide what you’re feeling escalates your physical response, making it harder to think.

  • Situation: You’ve just learned an important project has gone off the rails, and you know the consequences of it failing are great.
  • Application: Calm yourself by saying what you’re feeling: “I’m frustrated” (or angry, confused, worried, etc.). If you can’t say it out loud, write it down, but get it out of your head. Once your limbic system is dampened, you can think more clearly and put a plan in place to pull the project out of the ditch and get it back on track.

 

REFRAMING

When you can reinterpret a situation to see the benefits that could come from it, you exercise one of the most powerful cognitive strategies. Victor Frankl is a noted author, psychiatrist and Holocaust survivor. During World War II, his survival often depended on his ability to think about his situation in a very different manner. Later in life, he wrote, Man’s Search for Meaning, which includes a powerful principle built on reframing. He instructs readers to find a redemptive perspective on suffering and challenge, which is often based on our beliefs and recognizing that good can come as a result of bad experiences.

  • Situation: Your budget has just been slashed for next year, but you’re still expected to deliver the same or better results.
  • Application: After centering yourself and naming your emotions, sit down with a clear head and start thinking about the opportunities you and your team have for reinventing how you work. Could you restructure the team? Change the workflow? Meet with the team to brainstorm new ideas, products or services to test? Unexpected pressure can push you to reach new levels of performance, efficiency and innovation. Ahh, so there are actually many benefits from your budget getting cut. Who would have thought?!

 

There are many other techniques, and I’ll dig into more in another post. In the meantime, see if these three could help you stay cool under pressure so you can lead yourself and others more powerfully.

Please email me – elise@elisemitchell.com – with your strategies and success stories on staying cool. I would love to hear them. I promise to reply and will share some of them in another post if you’re willing.

P.S. Remember, you’re not a hostage to your emotions. You get to decide!

 

 

 

Copyright (c) 2017 Velocity Collective, LLC. All rights reserved.

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In The Turn

Five Ways to Lead a Team to Breakthrough Performance

A high-performing team is a thing of beauty. When a team functions well, it’s like the engine of a finely tuned motorcycle – operating with maximum efficiency, speed and, more often than not, crossing the finish line before everyone else.

Taking a team to that level requires special leadership – someone with patience, grit, and the ability to ensure each part works with all the others so the engine can fire on all cylinders. That type of leader is a catalyst – someone who enables others to perform together in a way they never could on their own.

What’s the secret?

Based on my experiences and the lessons I’ve learned from mentors and colleagues, here are five things you can do to help your team achieve breakthrough performance:

Find a common purpose

A common purpose, something that’s often overlooked when developing high-performing teams, results from the development of a set of shared team norms. These are the principles by which a team agrees to treat one another.

Your team members may have a set of individual values, but they need to define them as a group. Don’t dictate these values. Let it be an employee-led process that involves everyone in the decision-making.

It’s not hard to do this. Start the process by asking your team: what values does this group absolutely need to function at its best? Come up with a list of five to seven words. Invite small groups to work together to unpack the facets of each word.

Here’s an example from one of our values at Mitchell – trust:

Trust

– Honest, transparent, forthcoming

– Reliable, dependable: we do what we say we’ll do

– Treating others as you would like to be treated

As a next step, have each group share their thoughts with the overall team for feedback. Finally, create a final list of values and definitions with the entire team. These shared values can help drive a positive organizational culture and allow your team to rally around a common purpose.

Embrace selflessness

Legendary UCLA basketball coach John Wooden once said, “The main ingredient of stardom is the rest of the team.” Great teams are in it for each other, not just for their individual success. You see this in sports all the time. Great teams typically have great players, and the superstars often are called on to make key plays at key times. But they win championships by playing together.

You can have a very talented team member. But how does that individual complement the whole team? And how does he or she provide the assist and create the environment where every player performs to their fullest potential? Most importantly, how are you modeling a selfless, team-first attitude?

Discover diversity

I’ve spent much of my career looking for ways to champion the value of women in the workplace. But team diversity isn’t just about hiring more women – or more people of color, or more of any one thing. It’s about inclusion and discovering the value of different experiences, different insights, different backgrounds, and different skills.

One mark of high-performance leadership is knowing how to invite and manage lively, diverse discussions. You have to know when to listen and when to end the debate and make decisions. You have to know how to share credit. And you have to know when and how to hold people accountable. Developing these skills allows you to assemble and lead the best team for whatever challenge your organization will face – and their diverse thinking will get you there faster.

Fill your gaps

A motorcycle consists of hundreds of parts, and each needs to perform its role to make the ride successful. Similarly, the best teams are ones that have individuals who complement, not duplicate, each other.

That’s why it’s so important to hire for your team’s weaknesses. You want people who can shore up the functions that you or other team members don’t really love or have the expertise to handle well. Take an inventory of the strengths of your current team. What gaps in knowledge, skill, perspective or capability do you have? What type of team member could you add the next time you have a hiring opportunity?

Listen to sincere feedback

Really listening to and empowering others will help you build a high-performance team. It will also help you mold better leaders for the organization and gets better business results. Too many leaders still want to tell their team what to do and how to do it. That command-and-control style of leadership breeds bureaucracy and slowness, and it discourages innovation and entrepreneurial thinking.

The disruptive nature of business and the changing attitudes and expectations of the workforce have combined to make this style of leadership virtually obsolete. The world rewards adaptive leaders who assess challenges quickly and engage teams to manage through change together in real time.

As you think about your team, you no doubt see great strengths, as well as opportunities for growth and improvement. Fine-tuning your leadership will help you sharpen those strengths, build on those opportunities, and experience break-through performance that gets you and your team over the finish line.

 

 

 

Copyright (c) 2017 Velocity Collective, LLC. All rights reserved.

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In The Turn

Why Do You Lead? 4 Things to Remind Yourself When the Going Gets Tough

Leaders often carry a heavy weight. While leadership has its rewards, the reality of the role can hit you pretty hard at times.

I’m sure there have been many nights you’ve laid in bed, wide awake, trying to think through an issue that was so complex, you weren’t sure any answer would be sufficient. Or you were so worn down from resolving conflicts, you couldn’t find the strength to put out yet another fire. Or you were missing so many family activities because of work, your children were surprised when you showed up at all.

That’s when the doubts creep in. You start to wonder: Is this worth it? Do the rewards of leadership outweigh the burdens?

We all face dark times as leaders. I can think of several crossroads in my career when I thought I just couldn’t do this anymore. Yet as I reflected upon the things that mattered most to me – such as having an opportunity to impact others, or building a company that was a force for good — I knew in my heart I was still in the game and wanted to try again to lead at my best.

What motivates you?

What about you? Why are you on the journey of leadership? I encourage you to think about this question beyond the traditional rewards of success, such as money, power and fame. These are well-deserved rewards for your hard work. But they don’t last, they don’t completely satisfy, and taken to an extreme, they can fundamentally change you into a person you don’t want to become. Answering the question in a different way will get you thinking at another level, about those things that have deeper meaning to you and are intrinsically motivating. This is more along the lines of having a clear sense of purpose for your leadership.

Having a purpose that is both aspirational by design and more meaningful than these other rewards can not only help you push through the tough times, it can lift you to heights you never dreamed possible.

But in the throes of challenge and change, it helps to simply remind yourself why leadership matters.

Why leadership matters

If you’re going through some tough times right now, take a look at these four reasons many leaders choose to lead. Hopefully some will inspire you and spur your thinking about “Why I Lead.”

  • It’s a calling Many leaders feel called to their role, that they are in a certain place at a certain time in their life when they can make a meaningful contribution. I have often felt I was drawn to the business world not just through my natural curiosity and interest in business, but also because I wanted the opportunity to lead using my values and my faith to guide me. I wanted to find a different way to lead that was more rewarding and effective than leading by fear or stepping on others to get where I wanted to go. Do you feel called? And if so, to do what?
  • You are a catalyst As a leader, you are in often in a position to create opportunities for others because of the knowledge, contacts, and wisdom you have gained. You can make a decision to hire someone and give him or her an opportunity that could change the course of their career. You can choose to thoughtfully and intentionally coach someone who is under your wing, investing in their professional development and helping them grow as a leader. You can put in a good word for someone or make an introduction that would give them a professional relationship they might not otherwise gain on their own.How can you be a catalyst for someone else? What can you offer to do for someone deserving of an opportunity you can provide?
  • You get to build new things When you are driven by a goal or a mission that compels you, you can go through almost anything. Building something new can be that kind of motivator, and sometimes we need to remind ourselves of its importance.One of the most rewarding responsibilities of leadership is mobilizing a team and leveraging resources to build new things. Products, services, programs, companies – many of the things you have the opportunity to create can bring real value to others. Customers have a new solution that makes their life better because of your ability to bring something to market. Employees have a meaningful job and a workplace because of a company you helped build from scratch. Your community is a nicer place to live and work because of a non-profit initiative you helped bring to life.What are you building? Can you see the value of it? What can you do to remind yourself and your team of how their daily work is making a difference for others?
  • You can be the change Leadership affords one of the greatest opportunities to have impact in the world — on people, companies, causes and society. As a leader you will find yourself in unexpected situations where you can make a difference, if you have the courage and conviction to do so.You will have opportunities to take a stand for something right when no one else will. You will have the choice to make tough decisions with heart and empathy for others, living up to honorable and worthy principles such as fairness, respect and kindness.It’s a privilege to lead. The question is what will you do with the platform you have? How can you shape the future and be the change you want to see?

There are many other motivations you might be thinking about. Write down your ideas and continue to reflect upon them. Create your own list of “Why I Lead” (see bonus exercise below.) Use this as an encouragement during tough times and most importantly, to help you stay on your leadership journey, no matter where the road leads from here. The best is yet to come.

BONUS Exercise: “Why I Lead”

Clarifying your purpose involves many things, such as identifying your passions, your talents, your values and considering other forces at work in your life. But you can get one step closer to knowing your purpose by defining what motivates you most.

If you’re ready to think more deeply about what motivates you to lead, I’ve got a brief exercise for you.

  1. Review the list above “why leadership matters” to consider some common reasons people choose to lead beyond the traditional rewards of money, power and fame.
  2. As you read through the list, write down whatever thoughts come to mind. Perhaps one or more of the reasons will resonate with you or spur some thinking of your own.
  3. Keep your notes in a safe and readily accessible place such as Evernote, your phone or a journal.
  4. Reflect upon your ideas, then set them aside. Come back to them in a few days and refine your thinking further until you have come up with your own list: “Why I Lead.”
  5. Use this list as an encouragement during tough times and to guide your thinking about your next leadership opportunity. Feel free to update the list over time as your motivations will change.

 

 

Copyright (c) 2017 Velocity Collective, LLC. All rights reserved.

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In The Turn

The Authentic Leader’s Toolkit: 5 Ways to Cultivate Greater Authenticity in Your Daily Leadership

Do you know someone at work who comes across as a fake?  One of the worst mistakes you can make as a leader is trying to be something you’re not. Any positive results are almost certainly short-lived. And when it’s carried to an extreme, you can become a destination leader who is focused on someone else’s destination.

Authentic leadership is a powerful – and increasingly more common – style of leadership built on the idea of being who you are, and then striving to become the best you can be.

But how do you bring your best – and whole – self to work?  Let’s take a closer look at what makes someone an authentic leader and how you can cultivate greater authenticity in your daily leadership style.

 

Qualities of Authentic Leaders

When you think about what makes an authentic leader, what qualities come to mind?

Transparency, Great listening skills, Self-awareness, perhaps?

Authentic leadership can be defined in many ways, and it is a style of leadership that has been studied for a number of years. It was first introduced in the 1960s as management theorists were thinking about what makes an authentic company. Then in the early 2000s, Bill George, former CEO of Medtronic, wrote two books on the subject: Authentic Leadership and Discover Your True North.

In his first book Authentic Leadership, Bill George defined the concept as leaders who had the ability to incorporate certain characteristics into their leadership style:

  • Purpose– Authentic leaders have a deep sense of purpose for their leadership, they really search to understand their focus and what they can uniquely contribute
  • Values – They are true to their core values, they know what they believe in and live up to that consistently in all they say and do
  • Head/heart– Authentic leaders lead with their hearts as well as their heads, they are willing to show some emotion and empathy
  • Relational – They invest in others over time, they are loyal and patient with people, and they strive to do what is right and best for others not just for themselves
  • Self-disciplined, focused on getting results– Authentic leaders work hard and help others stay focused on the most important goals that must be accomplished

As you look at George’s list, how does it sound to you?  I like it, but I also wondered: Does this mean every authentic leader has to be the same?

 

Be Yourself

No, definitely not. That would be the opposite of what being “authentic” means. There are all kinds of leaders, each person has their own style and voice. So we can each strive to attain these qualities George outlines, but we don’t have to exhibit them in the same way.

For example, you may be very passionate and demonstrative in sharing your purpose while others will show this through dedication and hard work.

We all have many different values as leaders. Or we may have a unique sense of purpose for our leadership that is unlike other leaders. That’s good, and again, really illustrates that we can – and should— bring our uniqueness into our leadership.

What can you do to be a more authentic leader?

 

Authentic Leadership Toolkit

Interestingly, George’s second book True North, considered this question of whether there is a cookie-cutter mold for authentic leadership. He and his team interviewed 125 leaders between the ages of 23 and 93 to find out how they were becoming authentic leaders.

While many of them were very different, there were some similar things they did to be uniquely themselves.

Based on their study findings and a few of my own thoughts on authentic leadership, here are a few tools and tips on how you can bring your most authentic self forward in your leadership journey.

 

  1. What’s your story?

You can use your own unique life experiences to inform your style. Your childhood or perhaps a defining event that has shaped who you are today. What if you were applying for a promotion at work and I asked you to tell me about something that happened to you that helped define who you are today – what would you tell me?

It’s important to have a way to share your life story and to have clarity yourself about who you are today because of it.

 

  1. Define your values

Use your personal values to guide your actions and decisions. Have you ever written down your values?  Most people have four or five words that really capture what they believe in.

I encourage you to go through that process if you haven’t already. Find some think time to reflect on this over the next several days, if you can, and jot down a few words.

When you put all the words together, does that capture the essence of what means the most to you?  I think you’ll find this to be a really powerful experience to help define your authenticity as a leader.

 

  1. Listen to your inner voice

It’s critical that you learn to listen for and to your own voice rather just the opinions of others to guide your leadership path. Authentic leaders have a strong internal drive and clarity that can be louder than the voice of others.

I have a friend who was being marginalized at work due to a merger; she decided to do something about it. She became board chair of a major non-profit with some high-profile aspects of it. She also applied for and was accepted into a fellowship program that gave her exposure to other community and business leaders.

These things helped change how she felt about herself and helped her take back her future, regain some control over her own development as a leader. Eventually, this move led her to a very prestigious job as a CFO in a prominent organization.

 

  1. Keep both feet on the ground

Leaders who lose touch with reality and stop listening to honest feedback from others struggle to remain authentic. Instead, you should rely on your trusted advisors, family and friends to help you stay grounded. Let them help you maintain a sense of humility.

They can also help you find some balance between your personal and professional life. Sometimes you lean into family, sometimes into work. Each will let you know when they need you. We should give each other permission to respond in order to keep both parts of our life nurtured and growing.

 

  1. Live a full life

You also need to find time for you – to have a hobby or personal interest, to find a way to maintain your physical, mental and spiritual health. Engaging in the things you love allows you to stay in touch with your true self. Finding joy in our personal passions is essential if you’re going to make it all the way on this leadership journey without burning out.

 

Becoming an authentic leader may require a change on your part, plus some time and effort. But having a learner’s mindset is the key. When you’re willing to learn as you go, you will continue to grow and become the best you can be.

 

 

 

Copyright (c) 2017 Velocity Collective, LLC. All rights reserved.

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In The Turn

From Unproven to Unprecedented: How to Get Buy-in For Something That’s Never Been Done Before

 

Doing something new and different sounds exciting. But it’s almost never easy. In fact, it can be downright lonely as you work to convince the world of the beauty and wonder of your great idea.

It’s always harder than it seems in real life. Whether you’re launching a startup or creating a new approach to a persistent problem, it takes more than a passionate speech to get buy-in from influential champions for your cause. If it’s new, it’s unproven. And risky. And no matter how much you believe in it, your passion will only take you so far.

So, how can you win over customers, influencers and decision-makers for something that’s never been done?

I had the privilege of building a company from scratch, so I’m very familiar with the inevitable challenges of launching something new. And my good friend Lauren Wesley Wilson founded ColorComm, a business community for women of color in the communications industry. So, we sat down recently to talk about what it takes to go from unproven to unprecedented success.

Here are 6 takeaways from that conversation you can apply to your own launching pad.

1. Meet an unmet need – This is one of the best places to start when thinking up new concepts, so look for the opportunity to position your idea in this way. Show how your solution delivers something unique, or how you can do it better, faster or cheaper than an existing solution. Lauren saw that women of color lacked opportunities in the communications industry. While supporting women in business isn’t new, focusing on women of color is. Lauren developed a vision for ColorComm, shared it with others and generated a lot of interest for meeting an unmet need.

2. Adapt and evolve – Very rarely does a successful idea look the same from launch to maturity. Most go through numerous revisions and adaptations, responding to market dynamics and customer feedback. We certainly have pushed – and still push – Mitchell Communications to evolve to serve our clients’ ever-changing needs. You have to, or you’ll get left behind. Once she had ColorComm up and going, Lauren learned the importance of listening to her supporters to find ways to improve the organization. “At the beginning, I was focused on realizing my vision,” said Lauren. “But over time, as I listened to others, I heard them bring new ideas forward. For example, they wanted resources and a community to help them when they faced challenges in their careers.”

Lauren used that feedback to develop new services for members that led to more business opportunities, advanced programming, and a talent initiative.

3. Earn trust – Overcoming the skepticism of others is one of the biggest obstacles when launching something new. Demonstrating your credibility and reliability is particularly difficult if people don’t know you or haven’t worked with you. They’re taking a chance on you, not just your product.

David Maister, author of The Trusted Advisor, created the trust equation as a powerful way to illustrate what it takes to earn trust:

Source: trustedadvisor.com

Each of these factors is critical to earning trust, but reliability can be particularly important if you don’t have a long track record. If that’s the case, start with a smaller ask that has a quicker payback and then deliver an early win.

In the early stages of launching her big idea, Lauren said she focused on showing others they could count on her, that she could do the work, and that she had staying power and determination.

“Many new organizations are not sustainable,” said Lauren. “People wonder if you’ll be around next year. You have to show some results as quickly as possible to give them confidence to invest in you for the long-run.”

4. Move with speed – In the early stages of a project, move quickly to seize opportunity, especially when the competition is stiff. This requires you to be available, responsive and accessible.

In the early years of Mitchell Communications, we often turned projects at breakneck speed – sometimes overnight, if needed. This was a competitive advantage because our competition, while more established, was too big and too slow.

Lauren said that type of agility also helped her build an effective team, earn sponsorship support and recruit top executives for her board.

5. Deal with “no” – There are those who simply won’t share your confidence in your idea, and that can be hard to take. That’s why founders and innovators must be resilient and thick skinned.

“You’re not going to appeal to everyone,” said Lauren. “Accept that fact from the beginning, and instead concentrate your efforts on searching for your audience. It can be scary to champion an untested idea, but you have to put yourself out there.”

If you are authentic and your passion shines through, the naysayers won’t get you down and your confidence will spread. “This will win others over,” Lauren said, “and trickle down to your team.”

6. Take smart risk – It’s tough to know when and how to take risk when starting something new. So much is on the line. Lauren’s experience shows you must consider several things:

  • Your intuition – Follow your gut. There are times you will just know it is the right thing to do.
  • Balance your emotions with reasoning – There are times you will want something so badly. But some of the most important factors — like timing, audience, resources – aren’t there yet. In that case, you must be patient and wait for a better opportunity.
  • Don’t be afraid to fail – Fear of failure is one of the biggest reasons people don’t take risk. But you can’t fixate on it. Lauren learned to think of failure as a catalyst for growth. “If we fail, how can we recover quickly, learn from our mistakes and never make them again. We’re hurting ourselves and our organization if we don’t learn. That’s just how you grow.”

BONUS

What’s the best piece of advice a mentor ever gave you?

Focus. Don’t get caught up in distractions or try too hard to prove yourself. Concentrate on doing what is most important. You know what you need to do. Do it. — Lauren Wesley Wilson

 

 

Copyright (c) 2017 Velocity Collective, LLC. All rights reserved.

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In The Turn

6 Ways to Own the Room and Project Confidence as a Speaker

You look around and see all eyes are on you. Your heart is beating quickly. You’re having trouble catching your breath. The sense of fear and dread is overwhelming.

Although it feels like you’re facing judge and jury, it’s really just your turn to present at a meeting. For many people, though, that’s just as bad – if not worse.

Public speaking is one of the least liked and most feared leadership responsibilities. Few of us come by it naturally; most have to work hard at becoming competent and confident in front of a room.

But how you speak publicly matters. According to Sylvia Ann Hewlett, author of the book “Executive Presence: This Missing Link Between Merit and Success,” exuding confidence and demonstrating gravitas when you speak are critical components of your executive presence. Presence alone won’t get you promoted, but its absence will impede your career momentum and trajectory.

What’s at stake

How would you rate yourself as a speaker? Are you at your best front-and-center, or do you feel like you’re going to be sick by the time you step to the microphone?

Near the top of most leaders’ wish lists is a desire to own the room when they speak. We want to be our best because the stakes are often high when we are front and center:

  • Others form perceptions of us – Is she smart? Can I trust him? Is this someone I admire and respect? Business decisions are made — Performing well in that moment can determine important things, such as whether or not you get your team’s much-anticipated plans for a new project approved.
  • Business decisions are made – Performing well in that moment can determine important things, such as whether or not you get your team’s much-anticipated plans for a new project approved.
  • We want to avoid embarrassment – A very common fear in the business world is public failure. We don’t want to embarrass ourselves in front of others. This is particularly true when we are presenting to those whose opinion matters most, which is often our peers and supervisors.
  • Career-making moments happen – Your boss may simply decide you’re just not “executive enough” for that next promotion.

Owning the room

Whether you are making a formal presentation, participating in a group discussion, or having a one-on-one with your supervisor, there are definitely things you can do to present yourself in a self-assured manner.

Here are six ways you can improve your presentation effectiveness and own the room.

1. Serve the audience with an “adviser’s mindset” – Start by reminding yourself: It’s not about you; it’s about them. Set aside your constant worry about “what’s at stake” and focus your attention on meeting the needs of your audience. That’s why you’re speaking after all – to share something useful with them. If you can effectively give your audience what they need to hear, the “what’s at stake” list will take care of itself.

2. Know your material – When you prepare for a presentation, you must give yourself plenty of time to develop and learn your material. I start days – usually even weeks — in advance to flesh out my content. I think through what objections my audience might have that I need to overcome, what points I believe they need to hear in order for them to think, behave, decide, reflect in the way I want them to.

Once I have my content organized, I refine my notes or script, read it through numerous times, and practice out loud at least 4 or 5 times. The point is, I prepare well enough that I know my material inside and out. It’s ingrained in my head, and in fact, much of it is memorized by the time I speak.

When you know your material this well, your confidence soars – because you know exactly what you have to say, where it comes in the presentation, and what’s next. You never worry about losing your place or forgetting a key point, because you know it that well. Plus, most of the time you can have your (well organized) notes or script to prompt you if needed.

3. Believe in your message – Too many speakers shy away from putting any real energy into their presentation. Their voice is flat, their face is creased with worry, and they’re more focused on their PowerPoint than the audience. You’ll never own the room if you present like this.

Instead, bring some passion and confidence to your presentation, which is easier to do if you believe in your message. Even if it’s just quarterly performance numbers, challenge yourself to ask and answer:

  • Do I firmly believe in what I have to say?
  • Does my audience need to hear this?
  • What else would help them understand a deeper truth?
  • Is there a bigger goal that could be accomplished through this presentation that I am passionate about?

Then don’t just state the obvious. Say something that matters. Provide some context or perspective that sheds new light. Ladder up to a bigger message or important takeaway that your audience should get from you. Have a clear point of view.

Finally, bring this powerful content to life with a poised delivery. Stand tall. Smile. Use eye contact with the audience in every part of the room. Gesture to underscore a point. Walk around. Pause for emphasis to let something sink in. Your body language and demeanor telegraph your confidence (or your fears) just as much as your words. When you truly believe in your message, your energy will be there and your delivery will reflect that.

4. Speak only when you have a meaningful contribution to make – This is a critical tip for projecting confidence in small-group meetings. Think about that one person who talks so frequently that everyone just tunes them out. To avoid that kind of reaction when you speak, learn to be a thoughtful and intentional communicator in group settings.

What does that look like?

  • When you want to speak up, don’t simply restate what others have said; offer something unique. Ask a question that will help enhance the discussion and help the group consider new information.
  • Share an example or case study you know of that will bring forward a valuable learning.
  • Acknowledge someone in the room who you know has expertise that should be included.
  • Pick your battles. Don’t be the constant whiner or nay-sayer that brings everyone down. Go along with group decisions and be supportive whenever possible. Then when you have an important objection or alternative to offer, you’ll have more credibility to sway the group your way.

5. Grab their attention with a story – Our brains are wired for narrative. We love nothing more than for someone to say “I’ve got a story to share with you…” It makes us want to lean back, close our eyes and go on a journey.

Storytelling is a powerful presentation technique that anyone can use to their advantage. Compelling stories grab our attention, reveal an insight, and help us remember a speaker’s message. I often use my love of motorcycling to bring my messages to life and make them more memorable. You know how to tell stories, too. The trick is finding the right story to tell AND tying it to your overall message.

Start by brainstorming a creative way to underscore your message. For example, reaching a big goal could be illustrated by a story of a remarkable achievement such as the Iron Man competition or a famous scientific discovery. If your overarching message is the importance of teamwork, share a story from the world of sports or your own company’s history.

Once you have a relevant story, introduce it early on in your presentation. Then tie it to your overall message by saying “The same is true for us” or “What we can learn from this is…” Then weave the theme throughout your presentation, using creative imagery or references just enough to tie it all together.

6.Get to the point – Unless you’re telling a well-crafted story, don’t be verbose. People lose patience with speakers who can’t get to the point in a timely manner, especially in meetings.

Naturally, you need to strike a balance with including useful supporting information, exchanging niceties and building rapport with others. But in general, stick to the issue at hand. Make your point or ask a question, and that’s it.

When you learn to be concise, others will be more willing to give you time to speak and consider what you’ve shared.

I hope at least a few of these tips are helpful. I encourage you to give them a try on your next presentation. Then let me know – I’d love to hear how you increased your confidence and got one step closer to owning the room.

 

 

Copyright (c) 2017 Velocity Collective, LLC. All rights reserved.

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