A multitude of ice cream flavours

Lessons learned series: People make their own choices

This is the third in a four-part series chronicling the four most memorable leadership lessons I learned in my career – the hard way. And by “the hard way” I mean – boy did I get it wrong sometimes when I first started out, at times painfully wrong, but over the years I’ve learned by trial and error.
I originally meant for this to be one “listicle” post, but it turned out to be a long one, so I’ve broken it into a series. We’re at lesson #3, stay tuned for the last one:
1. Criticism doesn’t work
2. Get comfortable with uncomfortable conversations
3. People make their own choices
4. Great leaders are servants

As a leader you can create a “circle of safety” as Simon Sinek would describe it. You can create the conditions for trust, change, growth and optimal performance.

Then you need to get out of the way.

However, not everyone will respond in the same way. Some people will continue to respond in ways that are unproductive or not conducive to a high-performance environment.

Here’s a scenario: you’re a new leader of a team. You signal that the department needs to develop some new processes; to be more data-driven in your efforts. You can’t go by “gut” alone any more, you need evidence that your work is aligned to the strategic plan, that your department was helping to move the needle in advancing the interests of the organization.

You ask each direct report for a yearly plan, backed up by data. If data isn’t being collected, you want to know what your team needs to do in order to get it.

One of your direct reports does not submit their plan on deadline. No explanation, no request for information or extension.

Except for the fact that you have everyone else’s plans, you would have questioned whether you had actually made your expectations clear in the first place.

During the subsequent one-on-one, it comes out that your direct report has never actually written a yearly plan before. So you provide some guidance and a template that you usually use, plus some resources they could find on the internet. You extend the deadline by another week.

At the end of the week, you got a two-page summary of work already done, but it doesn’t include any goals, metrics, measurements, key messages, or budget, all headings in the template you had provided.

This is a composite, generalized, anonymized scenario of course, because a variation of it is something I’ve seen a number of times.

During one of these times, I turned to a mentor/colleague for advice.

“What did I do wrong?” I asked.

“Nothing,” he said, “You can provide no support at all, or all the support possible, but you have to understand: people make their own choices.”

There could be many reasons why your direct report didn’t respond: you had a short time to establish trust and a comfort level, perhaps not enough time for this person to feel like they could ask for more help or training. Perhaps the task was beyond their skill level. Perhaps they felt they had been promoted beyond their abilities and didn’t want to admit it. Perhaps they just hoped you or the problem would disappear. Who knows?

If you have time and your employees are willing, it’s worth delving into some of those reasons, because in most cases, they can be overcome.

In rare cases, they can’t be overcome, and your employee is completely unwilling to step up. In that case it’s time for some personnel changes.

In the end, we cannot control others, we can only invite them along for the journey. Whether they choose to come along is, ultimately, not for us to decide. In those cases, we have to allow for others to make their own choices.


Photo credit: “Once upon a Time” ice cream flavours by Ruth Hartnup on Flickr, used under Creative Commons (CC-BY 2.0) license.

Running at Shawnigan Lake Triathlon

This one weird trick will change the way you run

…and you’ll never guess what it is!

Just tear your ACL, get knee surgery, and be forced to teach yourself to run all over again. Easy-peasy!

No really, if there was a blessing in disguise for being off running for a couple of years, it was that I had to learn to run again.

Recovery was slow but steady, but running and triathlon training have been a different kettle of fish.

The fact that I am now regularly running 10k – and have signed up for a fall half marathon, is a miracle of modern medicine. And, to be honest, a testament to my following my physiotherapist’s instructions.

I began by “running” only the straightaways on a track, walking the curves, but it was clear from the very first foray that I would have to run differently.

I would have to run more efficiently, on my forefoot, the way Victoria runner Marilyn Arsenault tried to teach me years ago while I was training for my second or third marathon.

I had signed up for one of her clinics, then got impatient and left the group because I felt re-learning my running gait was interfering with my training. So I remained a heel-striker through my journey into triathlon some years later.

Then the knee injury and the surgery and the recovery.

So there I was, on the track, ready to run for the first time in two and a half years. I started out tentatively and immediately felt pain shoot up through the newly-reconstructed knee.

Discouraged wasn’t nearly a strong enough word. My tears said it all, and Ken could only commiserate.

Then I remembered the two or three Mindful Strides sessions I did manage to get through years ago in Victoria.

Then and there, I switched my running gait to land more on my forefoot, with my bodyweight firmly under me.

Quite frankly, it was the only way I could run without pain. I was astounded that by switching up my gait, there was no pain at all.

I was running again!

I was slow as molasses. It was deliberate and exhausting, but exhilarating. It was a total of about 2 kilometres. But I was running, and it was pain-free.

I’ve been slowly building up fitness ever since. I’ve been incorporating strength training into my routine as well.

I haven’t been working on speed in the last year I’ve been running – just putting in some mileage, getting used to the idea of running and doing triathlons again. I’ve done a few hills now and then (they’re hard to avoid, living in Vancouver).

I’m still slower than I was pre-injury, but I’m hoping that’s because I haven’t deliberately trained for much of anything except completing a couple of 10k events last year.

Training starts in earnest mid-July for the Victoria Half. Then next year? Bring on the 2018 triathlon season!

Photo credit: Connie Walters Dunwoody

Photo of Two clear teacups with tea

Lessons learned series: Get comfortable with uncomfortable conversations

This is the second in a four-part series chronicling the four most memorable leadership lessons I learned in my career – the hard way. And by “the hard way” I mean – boy did I get it wrong sometimes when I first started out, at times painfully wrong, but over the years I’ve learned by trial and error.
I originally meant for this to be one “listicle” post, but it turned out to be a long one, so I’ve broken it into a series. We’re at lesson #2, stay tuned for the others:
1. Criticism doesn’t work
2. Get comfortable with uncomfortable conversations
3. People make their own choices
4. Great leaders are servants

(I have a mild cuss word in this post. You’re warned; I do swear sometimes.)

Focusing on what works (see post 1 in this series) doesn’t mean it’s all sunshine and roses, and it doesn’t mean shying away from difficult conversations about performance. Very few leaders are given the chance to practice this deliberately, in a safe space. Most of us had to learn by trial and error, in real world situations.

The TL;DR on this is: formal performance reviews generally do NOT work. What works is to intentionally build a culture of trust that leaves space for frank, compassionate conversations that can include performance issues.

Preferably over a cup of tea. Tea solves everything.

Learning how to give feedback is a skill, and like any other skill it takes practice to master. Learning to have those candid, forthright conversations, especially when they’re about the most difficult subjects, can mean deeper and more trusting relationships with team members.

Every time I must have a tough conversation, I re-read the book Thanks for the Feedback by Stone and Teen. When I’m in the moment, I try to remember four things:

  1. be specific,
  2. be non-judgmental,
  3. focus on the impact, and
  4. be curious.

A sample script might be: “I’ve observed (specific example of behaviour) a couple of times, and it has affected me/the team in the following ways. Can we talk about it? Where’s that coming from?”

Ironically, being empathetic by nature does not serve well in situations where you need to give specific feedback and outline expectations of better performance. The danger of an overdeveloped sense of empathy is twofold:

  1. knowing you might hurt someone’s feelings can make you hold back and not get specific enough. Your message won’t get through. You’ll step back from saying what needs to be heard.
    And that “shit sandwich” thing where you couch “bad” feedback between two “good” pieces of feedback? Well, shit is shit. It doesn’t taste any better when you slap it between two slices of bread; you’re just confused as to what you were supposed to be eating.
    I have had supervisors do this to me, and it always leaves me guessing: do I need to do something better? What WAS that conversation was all about? Why couldn’t he just get to the point?
  2. on the other hand, turning off that highly-tuned empathy button to get through your prepared list of grievances can make you come across as a wooden, unfeeling automaton. In turn, that amplifies any hurt feelings that may arise, provoking a negative, panicked reaction from an employee or co-worker.

Both (1) and (2) are over-corrections, and I have been guilty of both in the past.

I knew I nailed the balance between trust, compassion and candidness when I had to have a frank conversation with an employee who was starting to drop the ball on several projects.

I had set up a meeting and, as usual, couldn’t sleep the night before. However, I had already established a good relationship with the employee. At the end of our hour-long meeting, we had an action plan for improvement, including ways I would help her through it, and she said “I’m so glad we had this talk. It was hard but – I trust you.”

Instead of leaving my direct report confused or upset, the conversation deepened our relationship and added to a high-performing team atmosphere. And her performance did improve.

Candid, compassionate feedback is a skill, but it’s also a gift that will return itself many times over.

Image: Tea for Two by Naama ym used under CC-BY-SA-2.0