Note: This is adapted from a message I recently shared with key leaders in my team. We’re facing off both exciting and frankly scary situations anticipating a big merger. I’m sharing with you in hopes that you find it helpful.
Subject: Principles to stand on
Anybody else notice how much is changing day to day and week to week? Wow. Events, tactics, and projects swirl. Did you know that in rivers about 20% of the water is actually moving upstream at any point in time. The principle is clear: the water gets to the sea eventually. So we pay attention to principles that we can count on.
Note: a few of these ideas were catalyzed by some podcasts and books I consumed this past weekend.
Principle: Leaders go first. We take action. We set the pace. We lean in.
I have only snow skied twice in my life, both absolutely miserable experiences, both as a teenager. Recently I was recounting my experience to a friend who lives for double-black diamond trails. “I know exactly what you did wrong,” he told me. “You leaned back rather than leaning forward over your skis. So you were fighting your skis the whole time.”
Principle: Speed matters. I’m not advocating the driving strategy of my perpetually drunk moonshiner neighbor who, unsure of his direction, would simply speed up to get somewhere faster. But having picked a direction, we need to move with urgency. “We’re burning daylight,” as John Wayne used to say in the westerns.
We have all kinds of procedural and size-of-organization challenges. Let’s find ways to pick near-term targets and hit them quickly, then pick the next one. I sure understand the “Why would we do X when we know we’re going to be spin mode in a few months?” question. In general we need to move forward on current direction and plans, and trust that when we have more information we’ll adjust plans for splits. I’d rather be in a position to say, “Our plans changed, and yes, it’s rework” rather than “We weren’t sure what might happen, so we just paused everything.”
Principle: Employ realistic views and unshakeable confidence. We’re in a messy series of transitions and evolutions. Imperfect information. Uncertainties with new partners. Our perception of the larger story is important to our success. We absolutely hold to the reality of our situation – no fantasies, no wallpapering, no fuzzy-wuzzy. AND we retain our complete confidence that we’re going to prevail in the end no matter how difficult the obstacles.
Let’s learn from “Stockdale Paradox.” Admiral Stockdale was a POW for 8 years during the Vietnam war, held mostly in solitary confinement and tortured repeatedly. After his release he told reporters “I never lost faith in the end of the story. I never doubted not only that I would get out but also that I would prevail in the end and turn the experience into the defining event of my life, which, in retrospect, I would not trade.” When asked about who didn’t make it, he said “Oh, that’s easy. The optimists. They were the ones who said ‘We’re going to be out by Christmas.’ And Christmas would come. Then they’d say ‘We’re going to be out by Easter.’ And Easter would come and Easter would go. And then Thanksgiving, and then it would be Christmas again. And they died of a broken heart.”
I want to be careful here – nothing we’re facing is anything like being a POW. But there are hard things going on, and people understandably have a lot of doubts about getting to a better future state. Some of the timelines we were hoping for – merger date, leadership appointments, org designs, etc – are already coming and going. The principle applies: admit the full ugly reality and be confident we will prevail. We need to keep our hope. It’s been well said that a person can go 30 days without food, 3 days without water, 3 minutes without air, but can’t go 3 seconds without hope.
Principle: The way to gain clarity is to move forward toward the destination. We and our team members are all asking questions that we can’t answer because we’re not close enough yet. What business do I go with? What will my role be? Who will I be working with? Who will be leading? What facilities will be closing/consolidating? Which software tools/services/data centers/etc are going to be used? There are many questions which cannot possibly be answered until post-merger, and even then it will take time to get them made with a wide range of decision-rights in flux.
Leaders who hang back from the fog are going to find that others become the leaders. We should exploit the infantry principle of cover-and-move, but we’re not going to reach our destination by playing sit-around defense of the current positions.
Principle: Reallocate energy/effort from “stop doing” items. It’s really, really tough to kill some work and some initiatives. Finite energy, skills, and time mean we have to think about our portfolio. It’s true that we can do more than we think we can. It’s true that we’re not getting paid to be comfortable. It’s also true that we need to think with sober, professional judgment about what scope we can deliver in a given timeline.
Principle: Only people who are caring for themselves physically, emotionally, and spiritually can sustainable lead wisely in chaotic times. You and I are probably going to spend 30, 40, maybe some days 50% or more of our energy in self-leadership. We have to stay in control, think clearly, make decisions, evaluate options. As you know, I have whole committees in my head, many voices to manage, and too many are whiners.
Demographically our group has aging parents, kids at various transition points, our own health challenges, stresses of all kinds. I recommend you consider yourself #11 on people’s list, because they have at least 10 things more important than you are.
If you care for yourself, it will be easier to connect with the larger WHY that will get us through the chaos.
Principle: You are going to be criticized. God knows I hate being criticized. I hate thinking anyone is disappointed in me. I hate it. I hate it.
My mother used to tell my sister and me, “If Jesus couldn’t make everyone happy, you’re not going to make everyone happy.” I completely understand this intellectually. I still hate it.
The worst for me is when I disappoint people I believe are my clients, and our businesses. These people are the raison d’etre for our group.
Preaching to myself, you’re welcome to listen:
- When the criticism comes, don’t automatically say “Force fields up!” and cut off dialogue with a lengthy defense via a “safe” email. Listen, learn, figure out what to do differently in the future.
- Pre-decide how you’ll handle criticism of your decisions. Sort out intentions from actual comments and how I interpret them. Remember that you’re not the only person who gets criticism.
- “Wrestling with pigs only gets both of you dirty.”
I hope you find these principles helpful.