Breaking Free From The Work Trap While On Vacation

Fall’s coming. And as much as I adore this season, my mind can easily turn to the cold that will arrive and vacation adventure travels.. We love our vacations, yet the persistent challenge of working during cherished breaks is as ubiquitous in the leaders I coach as it is with their teams. Disconnecting from work and immersing in leisure is not just a luxury, it’s a fundamental human right. Making it happen may seem simple to imagine, but it’s not that easy to do. So let’s explore some strategies for making time to vacation, what often gets left out in communication before you leave, different styles of vacations and what to do if you’re failing to take a true break.

Streamline, simplify and succeed.

Let’s face it—getting away can be a challenge. After all, there’s so much to do. This is especially the self-talk of those who are experiencing work overload that never seems to let up. If you’re involved in far too many projects to ever consider taking time off to rest and reenergize, then it’s your job to negotiate people’s expectations of your role and streamline their demands. Proactively prioritizing, delegating and negotiating are the skills to put into action to make your working life reasonable and create the pathway to providing your brain with a mental break and stress relief.

Communicate your availability limits.

Once you set the date when you will be off work, it’s up to you to enable others to plan for your absence well in advance. Merely activating an out-of-office (OOO) email alert is too late and insufficient to announce your vacation status to those you work with inside the organization and out.

One partner in a financial services firm was on vacation when his client urgently communicated that there was interest in a company buyout. They hadn’t said anything to him for months prior, but now suddenly they were crushed with preparations and the deadline was imminent, leaving him little choice but to sacrifice a half-day of his time away with family because he was the only one on the team who could do the work.

To minimize surprises in the future, he’s taken to putting a proactive strategy in place. He initiates early client conversations, supplementing the communication of his upcoming vacation dates with a comprehensive checklist of common challenges and deadlines. This serves as a helpful reminder to jog their memory regarding potential impacts of his unavailability. This proactive communication has lessened client surprises and left him with peace of mind that he didn’t leave it all in the hands of his clients.

Expect to be surprised.

Nevertheless, let’s be real. It’s smart to do what you can to diminish the probability that you will be interrupted on vacation by a surprise demand. It’s also realistic to accept that no matter how resolute you are in your desire for uninterrupted bliss, and no matter what you’ve done ahead of time, there will be times when work comes knocking on your holiday’s door. High-stakes situations can arise while you are away that can’t wait for your return, and your team will reach out to you. But here’s the catch—make sure everyone is on the same page about what truly constitutes a “high-stakes” matter. Is it an intergalactic invasion threatening the fate of your company? Or a trumped-up fake deadline that your team has been duped to believe? What information can you provide to your team ahead of time to help them effectively spot the fakes and to triage the real, urgent messes?

Stop temptation with a habit.

It’s problematic to aim to de-stress and truly relax if you are checking your devices all day long and crowding out the benefits of why you took time off in the first place. There’s no chance of interrupting the sources of stress. Self-monitoring is easy for some but not for all. If you have trouble holding back from repeatedly checking for messages from people at work, there are plenty of hacks for you to experiment with. Recruit an ally and empower them to be your gatekeeper. They could safeguard your device(s), maintain the secrecy of your passcode and help you respect a time limit you make for yourself. With their assistance, you can override the temptation to constantly look at work-related messages.

Choose your vacation style.

Not all vacations are created equal. If you want to work during your time off, consider embracing the concept of a “working vacation,” and own it. Maybe you are a digital nomad—working while traveling on “holiday.” Be transparent about your intentions, letting your team know that you will be available to them while also taking breaks for personal rejuvenation. Setting these expectations up front can foster open communication and ease any hesitations from your staff and colleagues who might otherwise shield you from interruptions.

Get out of your own way.

Finally, if you have a pattern that you intend to disconnect but don’t every time, consider that it’s not them—it’s you. You might be getting in the way of your well-earned vacation. Reflecting on what saboteurs are causing you to avoid putting on the brakes is helpful, whether it be the ceaseless need for accomplishments, the driving fear of what could happen when you aren’t working, persistence in the role of the victim or the people-pleaser or a reluctance to put yourself first, to name a few. These saboteurs aren’t fixed for life, but their hold on you can be. They are at the root of your dissatisfaction and explain your unhappiness and frustration. It’s time to recognize them and lessen their hold on you.

Does anyone need evidence that taking breaks from work is a good thing and necessary? They offer relaxation, fill us with positive emotions and diversify our experiences away from the routine. It’s a no-brainer, and yet there are so many things conspiring to take us off our leisure time while away from work. One big one is work itself. Another one is us.

A version of this article was published by Forbes.com. Photo thanks to Priscilla du Preez.

Examining The Gains And Losses Of Our Changing Work Environment

(Forbes published this article in the early summer and I am posting it here because the strategies are evergreen.)

Organizational life has changed. Yet even with a global pandemic and a broken economy, the world keeps on “worlding.” In addition to the threat to public health, the disruption to our livelihood and our businesses is challenging many millions of us around the world. We have changed how we work and lead. Our work lives in this liminal space is worth examining. Here are a few observations and recommendations worth noting.

Get On Video Selectively

It’s times like these when we reflect on what we miss the most. Meeting informally is one of those things.

Virtual work has seen leaders taking on extra effort to seek out conversations that would have occurred by happenstance at the coffee machine, the work lounge, around the ping pong tables and in private offices. Now, everyone’s calendars are filled with back-to-back videoconferences on Zoom. Need to address a problem? Schedule a Zoom meeting. Initially, many raved about Zoom calls because they enabled remote video contact, but now, I’ve heard people in my network complain about how exhausting it is to go from Zoom call to Zoom call. It’s a better idea to ask yourself if a voice call is needed, if video needs to be on or if an email should be sent. Use videoconferences selectively. It’s not the only way to make connections among people.

Book Time Of Your Own

One client company of mine instated a 30-minute, meeting-free zone, organization-wide. It was communicated by the CEO, who is doing what can be done in a hurried, emergent environment to ensure people’s well-being. It’s a recognition that in addition to the loss of informal time, we are forfeiting alone time to think.

Susan Cain, author of Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking, says that we’ve idealized extroversion and teamwork, and this new “groupthink” has left leaders with not nearly enough time to reserve thinking of their own. I see this in my work, too, across all industries. This 30-minute respite is a useful directive and experiment.

Pooling Collective Intelligence Is a Smart Way Forward

A lot has been written about top-down leadership as the most suitable style for urgent situations. Overlooked, though, is the expanded role a more decentralized model of leadership can offer. The emergency situation is exposing and, in some cases, exacerbating company vulnerabilities that require far more mind trust than the senior team can provide.

The same client company I discussed above seized the opportunity to engage its employees in adaptive challenges. Adaptive challenges are those that can’t be solved by experts. They require courageous creative thinking. Crowdsourcing models such as these develop people’s strategic thinking abilities so that many more can make sizable contributions. And the proposals are far more considered since the crowdsourcing process encourages radical ideas where diverse perspectives are sought out and heard.

Taking on truly transformative ways of working by addressing challenges frees up the senior team to see the big picture by encouraging large-scale transformation and innovation thought through by others. This leaves the senior leaders to fly at 43,000 feet, the altitude at which a commercial passenger airplane flies safely at its maximum speed.

Team Retreats Reimagined

Once considered a luxury for some who viewed off-sites as time away from getting things done (or, at least, many had low expectations of what could be achieved), retreats are now seen as invaluable. And that’s a very good thing. Now, these retreats have urgency driving their agenda. Done remotely, the logistics of navigating time zones isn’t always easy, but it can be done. The previous model of a few full days away is now being replaced by two to three-hour multiday retreat sessions in home offices or people’s living rooms. It’s a recognition that in-person human hours are not the same as Zoom hours. Shorter bursts of meetings are far more productive than one long stretch when you are online.

Work In Unity

Leaders who are clients of mine have also reported less infighting, and fewer impasses caused by intractable disagreements. Not all senior teams are acting harmoniously, no doubt, but early reports of reaching agreement following a rigorous exchange are telling. There’s nothing better for business continuance than when people are driven by a common purpose.

Looking to what’s happening around the world also reveals countries shifting from discordant divisions across political party lines to a unified voice. Canada is showing a common front against the virus even though the ruling government party finds itself in a minority situation. And in Europe, there are calls for unity. There’s even an appeal for a global ceasefire endorsed by the United Nations while the virus rages. In time, we will know if this will have an enduring effect.

What are the long-term effect of these changes, and will they stick when the emergency situation is over? It seems to me that it depends, in part, on how long this lasts. The duration of the crisis, the reason for all the changes we are making at work, will decide for us whether returning to how we did things is even feasible. We want to be deliberate about processes and practices so that we choose wisely what we want to keep, and we discard the bad practices that were bred out of speed and desperation and evolve them so they are better.

A version of this article first appeared on Forbes.com. Credit to the beautiful photo goes to Elana Mozhvilo.

Advice for Leaders Newly Working from Home

I might be in the lower percentage of those people who enjoy working from home. My work as an executive coach and before that as a management consultant has provided me with the opportunity to choose where I work, for the most part.

Many more people are working from home as a precaution to protect from the further spread of COVID-19. You’ve been told to work from home, and you are nervous about whether or not you can do it successfully. Maybe you tried it once or twice and failed. With a little bit of foresight and planning, and following good advice, you can make this work for yourself and for your team.

Be Real About What You Are Worried About
The secret is that you have to find solutions to your fears. Like anything related to leadership, you will be far more effective if you are honest with yourself and admit those areas where you expect that you’ll be challenged. In this case of working from home, you’ll need to help yourself and plan to keep up your level of productivity and not lose your sense of work fulfillment.
To that end, first, get clear with yourself on what you are jittery about. If it’s your fear that you won’t be motivated to work when you are at home, identify your distractors. Is it social media, fear of loneliness or household chores like cleaning out the fridge or doing yard work that will siphon off your time? Once you identify what you know will likely take your mind off work, make plans so it doesn’t stop you from getting work done.

If you are the only one in the family who’s staying home, don’t fall in the trap of doing everything during the workday because you are there. Be firm with your boundaries. Being at home isn’t the same as having time off. Continue to share whatever household tasks you can with others in your family. When my spouse also began working from home, we continued to share household responsibilities.
If it’s social media that pulls you in and gets you going down a rabbit hole for hours at a time, set a schedule of when you will indulge in the channels that delight you. Hold yourself to specific time limits. But beware of the social media discussions that can sour your mood. When you are at home, your mood needs protecting more than you might be used to because you are on your own, at least when you are new to this new work arrangement.

Be A Good Boss
I learned early in my career that I can be a very demanding boss when I’m the boss of me. In other words, many of us make the mistake of becoming workaholics who are immune to paying attention to the signs of overwork. We are all fueled by wanting to do high-quality work and avoiding being a bottleneck for others in the collaborative work we do, but we can go too far. If this is you, my advice is that one thing that can make an impact is to make sure you take breaks.

Ground Yourself With Breaks
What I’ve learned over decades of working in a home office is that when I venture outside and take a walk, I am far more productive. Don’t let a full day of meetings prevent you from doing it. Make room for being active in your calendar. If you want scientific evidence that taking breaks is imperative for productivity, have a look at Dan Pink’s book When: The Scientific Secrets of Perfect Timing. It may sound counterintuitive, but it’s really not. You’ll sleep better at night and be more productive during the day. This, in my experience, is hard advice to follow but has huge dividends if you do it daily.

Stay Connected
When it comes to interactions with your team and stakeholders, you’ll want to review your calendar and see which meetings you can hold in a group or move to a one-to-one. Once you are on the call, be sure to switch on your camera and invite others to do the same. It’s easy to send emails all day, but don’t do it. You’ll find that scheduling calls and seeing people will not only improve the focus of the group calls but also restore your sense of affiliation to others. As a leader, this is vital if you are going to continue to show you care about the members of your team.
Relatedly, it can be lonely working from home, so structure in some social calls to maintain the sociability that you enjoyed when you were able to share a coffee with people you saw in the halls.

Here are a few other tips from my experience:
• Get dressed in the morning as you would for work.
• Keep your pantry stocked with healthy foods. Don’t let junk food satiate your hunger or your boredom.
• If you are a compulsive snacker or a coffee addict, do not work in the kitchen.
• If you are a natural planner, plan your day. If you aren’t, make a list based on your goals.

Working at home isn’t hard, but like anything new, it may take you time to adapt to your new situation. You may surprise yourself by how much you learn to enjoy it.

Photo credit with thanks to djurdjica boskovic. This article was first published on Forbes.com.

Cultivating A Performance Culture Of Respect

There are few things more important for a leader than fostering a culture where people feel safe to contribute their ideas. In a psychologically safe workplace, people feel free to take risks without fear of any negative consequences for speaking up. I’ve seen firsthand the lengths involved in identifying, preparing and promoting talent when I ran a management assessment center. To spend plenty of resources for that purpose and then not use the talent is a terrible waste.

Amy C. Edmondson has written the latest sine qua non about psychological safety in the workplace. If you didn’t know, Google’s study on what makes the best teams was influenced by Edmondson’s early research. Google ranked psychological safety as the first and far and away the most important of factors vital for team success. But getting it right can get messy.

If you as a leader insist on high performance standards but neglect psychological safety, employees will want to speak up about quality or safety concerns, but they’ll feel anxious because they know that their observations and general input to make something better will be ignored or ridiculed. Their contributions, most of the time, aren’t welcomed, so they don’t offer input, and so on it goes. I’ve seen examples of this, and as an executive coach, I’ve heard of many more from my clients who share their stories. There have been situations where a senior leader demanded ambitious goals thinking it would take ambitious efforts, and then modeled bad behaviors such as a raised voice, throwing things and humiliating others with their words. The leader wanted to stretch the elastic band of possibility in an uncertain market, but their actions kept people silent, dampened people’s drive, encouraged cautiousness and promoted fear.

On the other hand, lowering performance standards and relaxing consequences isn’t the way to go about it either. When you do this, all you get is a “nice” culture at the expense of one that promotes challenge and innovates. Letting go of holding people accountable reduces people’s motivation to take risks and set ambitious goals. It reduces engagement.

If, however, there’s a high bar for performance and attention to promoting sensitivity when people take interpersonal risks, the environment will be productive, and people will feel open and ready to disagree. The Goldilocks principle is at play when this combination is exactly right. In a psychologically safe workplace, there’s challenging work to do in ways that are mutually respectful so that when people fail and recover, they do so without reprisal.

But let’s be careful not to oversell psychological safety. It doesn’t have the muscle to go all the way to motivate people to collaborate with one another, and that’s key because collaboration is how work gets done. Psychological safety is a hygiene factor, not an engine. When it’s absent, boy do we notice.

The Dynamism Of Trust And Collaboration

We also need to notice how psychological safety interacts with collaboration. What’s important for leaders to recognize is that trust is foundational. We can’t cultivate purpose without it.

We know that having a view beyond ourselves, to the group, the team, the enterprise and the higher mission opens our appreciation of what we are working towards and gives us the energy to work interdependently.

Collaboration without trust isn’t genuine or effective. The stepladder to effective collaboration begins with trust, so it’s disappointing that executives in a large study rated building trust very low in relation to the other factors of instilling purpose and generating energy. This news is hard to swallow and suggests that we still will be facing a trust deficit for some time.

I feel good about the leaders I know who read about management concepts with the intention of raising their leadership game. However, I’ve noticed as we hunger to learn, we can inadvertently overemphasize a useful concept like psychological safety, believing it can deliver more than it can. We can also slip up by overlooking the importance of trust in creating effective collaboration. Understanding and applying both go a long way towards creating a flourishing culture at work.

 

This article was published first on Forbes.com Thank you to Rodion Kutsaev for the photo.

For Women Leaders To Move Up, They Must Be Fully Themselves

I always knew that women were not smaller versions of men, but distinct all on their own. Recently, I found a photograph of me with a few of the female counselors I cherished from the overnight youth camp where I spent many summers. These pictures showed the women leaders to be who they were: strong, compassionate, smart, caring, funny, bold, loyal and ambitious. Young leaders comfortable being themselves. I had looked up to them and imagined growing up to be just like them. The male counselors were talented too, and different.

That’s why I was surprised when my internet search for women-only leadership programs came up with fewer results than I expected. Women’s identities, perspectives and the requirements for women leaders to succeed are different from those of men.

The underrepresentation of women in the C-suite and the boardroom is common knowledge, and less known is the wide gap that exists for all managerial levels. Women are much less likely than men to get promoted. These are signs of unhealthy organizations, and there’s work we need to do.

Here are six considerations for women leaders.

Refine skills traditionally known as women’s ways of leading.

Embrace empathy, compassion, relationship building and collaboration to get things done. These were known as women’s ways of leading not that long ago when they were undervalued, but the business world has caught up now, and it’s common knowledge that without skills of emotional and social intelligence, your career progress will be limited. Don’t consider quieting them. Instead, work to refine them and support other women and men to do the same.

Sharpen your decisiveness, negotiation and authority. 

While we live in a time when soft skills have been renamed “power skills” that reflect their high value, we also need leaders to make decisions quickly, negotiate, be authoritative and take up space. Think of Jacinda Ardern, the Prime Minister of New Zealand. She’s a leader among leaders who gained the world’s admiration when she communicated compassion then took decisive action following the mosque shootings in her country by pushing forward with gun reforms.

Observe role models to help claim your leadership identity. 

Find an employer where there are senior women leaders. Observing how women navigate as leaders is purposeful and effective for the process of internalizing a new identity that being a leader at any next level requires. This is doubly true if you fear whether or not you can be yourself at the next level of leadership. You can learn a lot from observing a woman leader who is authentically herself, happy and successfully operating at the level you aspire to.

Acquire two networks, not just one.

To navigate well inside an organization, it helps to work with powerful people at levels higher than your own. Being well-connected is good for men and for women, but women need a second network too. They benefit from a cadre of close women peers who give access to information about the leadership culture of an organization, maybe what success looks like in a male-dominated industry and ways of interacting. Close ties to a group of women account for an average job ranking 2.5 times higher than women whose networks didn’t have those two features.

Negotiate for yourself.

Women ask for things and they do it well. They feel at ease asking on behalf of their division and are less likely to ask for themselves. A telecom leader on a panel told a story about talking with her successor about work. He mentioned in passing that the team meetings were changed to 9:00 a.m. Surprised at this, she asked how it happened because she had perpetually been inconvenienced by having to run a teleconference in her car while stopping at daycare. He said that he had simply announced a time change to the team. She was visibly astonished as she’d never thought to negotiate this for herself and admitted the irony of having earned a strong reputation as a negotiator and first-rate deal-maker on behalf of her company interests.

Attend to your career, not just your job.

With increased artificial intelligence, greater digitization and technological integration, it’s a smart strategy to focus your time on high-value work. Too many women expend lots of energy being sticklers about their work and so forfeit the opportunity to move on to the next thing. Letting go of perfection to release time in your schedule for professional development, strategic thinking and broader networking will get you further.

One of the benefits of living in the era of #TimesUp is that people’s expectations of what is acceptable have changed for the better. To close the leadership gender gap, we continue to want to see equitable policies, programs and services. But now, more women and men regularly call out inequities when women’s voices are missing on thought leadership panels, when solid female candidates are overlooked for a leadership role or when not a single woman director makes the list during film awards season.

Many companies today are betting that their diversity and inclusion initiatives will close the gaps in women’s advancement. This requires looking to attract, hire and assess for promotion. It also involves taking a hard look at the workplace culture to identify the unseen biases and obstacles across the employee life cycle and the commitment of senior leadership to this goal.

What’s often overlooked is the traditional gender-neutral view of what it takes to succeed, as though being a woman is an incidental identity, not a material one.

Women have had lots of practice navigating their likeability with their competence and have had a tough time being seen as both at the same time. It’s one of many double binds, and it belies just how difficult it is. Nevertheless, some men and women still wonder why there’s a need for women-only groups in leadership development. It’s because women, men and organizations will benefit from women becoming fully themselves as leaders.

 

Leadership As An Infinite Game

If life is a game, you need to know whether you are playing an infinite game or a finite one. It’s especially true now as we sit still in our homes and reflect on our work and leadership. As Simon Sinek and others have pointed out, if you play the games of leadership and business as though winning is central, then you are playing a finite game. However, if the point is to keep the game going, then you’re engaged in a different game — an infinite one. Forming new habits of leadership is definitely playing an infinite game, and that’s a vital distinction.

It can be humbling when you realize the goal you’ve set for yourself to become a better leader hasn’t been accomplished. We feel worse about ourselves each time we don’t succeed at closing the gap between what we want to achieve and where we are now. It just might be because of the way we come at it.

Consider your last 360-degree feedback report. You studied the feedback, sorted through what you wanted to work on and then began. But here’s the secret that many know from experience but others haven’t yet learned: Goal-setting is overrated.

It isn’t that goal-setting is bad or not needed. It is. Starting with clarity about what leadership behavior you want to work on is vital. You need parameters and to start small. But goal-setting alone won’t get you very far.

Too many people start with the problem and then rush into correcting it. A more effective way to start is with the outcome you want to create. To genuinely create, you need to do better than react to feedback or a problem you’ve identified. So how do you set out on a path to become a better leader without it being a reaction? By getting very clear about the leader you want to be. Let me explain what I mean.

Take me, for example. As a young leader, I knew that I needed to delegate more. There were times that I was delegating, but then I’d fall back on my old habits of doing it myself. With more ups and downs, I did what most people do: I worked harder to ensure I had the right processes in place to make delegating likely. That new approach didn’t stick, either. Then something unexpected happened. I was beginning to lose interest in my goal, likely an expression that I thought my situation was hopeless. So I wrote out all the strategies I was using to see what was missing. Once done, I asked myself whether I needed more strategies. Nope, that wasn’t it. Instead, I refocused by asking myself a fundamental question that eluded me even though it was hidden in plain sight. I considered what sort of leader I wanted to be, and here’s what I learned: I wanted to be a trusting leader. Now I had a workable outcome to aspire to.

As Robert Fritz, an expert on structural dynamics for behavioral change, has written, the way to achieve a goal is to think of outcomes we want to create, not to simply react by thinking about how to remove the problem, because that doesn’t often work. With the insight about the kind of leader I wanted to be as my outcome, I resumed the game with the stakes far higher and engaged in the game far deeper than before.

Don’t Confuse The Scoreboard For The Outcome

Learning is often a game played with goals and scoreboards. Measures are helpful to know how you are doing, but we can often confuse the personal scoreboard with the outcome, and that can lead us to take a detour right back to playing a finite game where it’s about winning.

Many people know the story about Jerry Seinfeld’s productivity hack of marking an X in his calendar for each day he writes a joke and maintaining an unbroken chain of X’s. Even though he has disavowed the claim that it was his system, nevertheless, it’s a great approach for some people. But if the measure of the X’s becomes the goal, as often the measure can if you aren’t careful, it will replace the outcome of becoming a joke-writing comic. Getting and then maintaining a winning streak of X’s isn’t the same as writing high-quality jokes, for example. Too many people confuse the measure for the outcome, and that’s when they get derailed. Getting back to leadership and the skill of delegating, running a perfect streak of days delegating could mean I’ve reached my outcome of being a trusting leader, or it may not if I wasn’t mindful of also matching the work I assigned to people’s strengths and making resources available so they succeeded.

This is where identity-based habits are so vital. Those are the habits we form with deliberation that change our self-concept. The centrality of winning is not the main concern for those playing the infinite game. Playing this game shifts your mindset from winning, a place where you may have started, to building a new habit by deepening your understanding of yourself. It’s a game played outside in the world with new behaviors — and inside yourself, too. You take action while watching yourself, as I did, as an observer at the same time. I wanted to be a trusting leader; what was undermining my trust in others? How could I address it? How could I set expectations well when I delegated? These questions can show up and need addressing.

There’s a powerful myth that strong leaders come ready-made and fully developed. Maybe that’s why people think that strong leaders are born and not made. Yet people are growing around us all the time.

When we look at leadership development as the infinite game it is, with identity-based goals and not as a problem to be solved, we can experiment with who we are and how we show up with greater freedom.

A Simple Handbook to Living and Leading in Uncertain Times

Living and leading under emergency conditions is a skill set on its own. We quickly become aware of the gaps in our experiences when we face a situation where we have no choice but to navigate well, yet feel wholly unprepared to do so.

This crisis is different than a routine emergency. It’s existential. Potentially life-threatening. Global.

I’ve put together a simple guide to be helpful while we live under the dark shadows of COVID-19. It’s a compilation of information along with my own experiences that I want to share so that you are better able to deal with the transitions of loneliness, disruption and online life. It’s by no means complete, but a start.

Click here to download the Handbook.

Stay healthy and safe.

Image credit: Matthew Henry

Good Habits: What’s Lacking In Leadership Development

There’s something wrong with how we develop leaders. Learning what we need to do to step up our leadership, whether it’s because of a recent promotion or leading a disrupted marketplace, is helpful. But we don’t always do what we are convinced we should. Old habits get in the way.

Knowing what to do isn’t the same as doing it. Enjoying beautiful photos of food in a cookbook when you’re hungry is not the same as making those meals and satisfying your appetite. You’ve read the recipes but your stomach is still growling. What we want to do and know to do doesn’t always translate to action.

When it comes to forming new habits, we aim to behave in ways that will stick. Making behaviours automatic is what a habit is.

Employers have taken us partway there. Companies have worked for decades betting on the leadership competencies and behaviours that will lead a business to future success. They evaluate their leaders’ performance against these same behaviours. But it often stops there because, although people know what’s expected of them, what’s still elusive is how to continuously make the change.

As humans, we are naturally inconsistent and persistently habitual. You may have weekly Monday morning meetings with the team or run a meeting in a routine way. This can be useful if it’s valuable, but it can also be maddening to be consistent when you want to form a new habit.

I’ve spent years learning how to form habits with deliberation, and I’m learning to see myself as I am. I’ve noted where I went off the tracks and where I’ve thrived, revising what I know about myself as I go. That’s how you can determine your profile as a deliberate habit creator.

A few important things you’ll need to learn about yourself to master the game of habit building include how you motivate yourself, your strategies to succeed, your strategies for self-sabotage and the strengths and limits of your own willpower.

The Confusion About Habits

Like others, I first read about habits in Stephen Covey’s book, The 7 Habits Of Highly Successful People. First published in 1989, it was a bestseller and still has a hold on people’s imaginations. Covey’s habits were habits of the mind, such as being proactive and seeking to understand and be understood.

Today, we live in an age where research in brain science and neurology and a strong interest in healthy lifestyles have captured our attention, and it’s advanced our understanding of the mechanics of habit creation. Furthermore, knowledge about the self-limiting behaviours that hold leaders back from their full effectiveness makes turning our attention to changing our habits very appealing.

Although we are told in books and movies how successful people got to where they are so we can do the same, copying their formula doesn’t work. One size doesn’t fit all. We aren’t motivated in the same ways, nor do we all enjoy the same rewards. So, here are a few vital keys to make you the potter of your own clay:

1. Focus on smart design, not just willpower.

Habits that sync up with your goals don’t get formed without a deliberate strategy. I guarantee that leaning into your willpower as your single strategy won’t get you there. When starting out, we aren’t as clear about our drivers or even when we can lean into our willpower, so it’s key to be patient with yourself as you learn what works for you. Be sure to write down any information or insights about yourself, as you will be building your own habit profile.

2. Shape your environment by creating cues. 

A cue is the start of the design. It sparks the sequence of actions you will follow. So many people know they need to expand their internal networks but don’t “find the time” to do it. Counting on your memory as a reminder doesn’t help. You need reliable cues.

At 12:30 p.m. each day, a leader I coach grabs her lunch in the company cafeteria where she starts a minimum of one conversation with someone she doesn’t know. This is a big win, especially because she dropped her long-standing habit of eating a quick lunch at her desk.

3. Get it out of your head and into the world.

Too many executives I’ve known start habit building with an intention they keep locked up in their head. It may work for a day or even a week, but then it disappears. The secret is to get it out into the world.

For example, a hospital foundation CEO wanted to resist getting distracted from her daily priorities. So, she began creating a daily list first thing every morning and sharing it with her executive assistant. She sorts the urgent from the important and refers to prepared questions she habitually goes to when she’s considering deviating from the list.

4. Determine whether you need to make it social. 

Are you someone who will forge a new habit on your own, or would you prefer it to be social? When an accounting firm partner I know wasn’t taking care of her health, she pledged that she would walk the stairs at work. And then she didn’t.

Although she saw herself as autonomous, she didn’t expect that making this activity a social one with a buddy was necessary. If you’re in a similar boat, consider finding a habit buddy who is equally committed to their goal.

When we change our habits, we take ownership of our behaviours in visible ways. Learning to turn leadership behaviours into habits is what’s missing in leadership development.

A version of this article was published by Forbes here. Thank you for the image You X Ventures.

What To Do When You’re Overworked

“No one takes their foot off the pedal when they’re in the game.” 

Be forewarned, this idiom tells us, you need to go full tilt without letting up if you’re going to be successful, meet the deadline, or delight the client. As the belief goes, maybe those people who slow down “just don’t think like champions.”

That’s what a new client of mine said was the reason why he was exhausted at work. It resonated with me because my own work ethic used to be driven in this way. When I used to work intensively for years, I didn’t see the point of pausing or celebrating my milestones. It just slowed me down. When people around me insisted I take better care of myself or leave time for other interests beyond work, I felt they were distracting me from getting things done. My resistance seems nonsensical to me now, all this time later, but for many, this is still their reality.

For so many leaders, keeping your foot on the accelerator is an admonition not to slow down no matter what. Although giving up may not be a great idea, the belief in going without stopping can be dangerous. I’m not referring to the few who end up fully burned out and hospitalized, but there’s an agreement in the workplace that ceaseless change and churn will never stop, and we all know that it’s unsustainable. Just yesterday an executive told me that although it was crazy at work, he was going to take some time off to re-energize because “it never stops.” The charged-up velocity of change has many more people lamenting and asking themselves how much longer they can go on this way. The “slow season” is no longer. There’s only one season — it’s full-on.

Leaders often say that they don’t want to pull back because they want to model productivity. Ask yourself what you are really doing when you stay at work yet again dragging yourself from meeting to meeting with your head down, shoulders rounded, and maybe even shutting yourself away to “get work done” in your office. It’s easy for others to see when someone is working late most of the time and is tired and frustrated. Your emotional skills as a leader are what we know now as a social contagion. This means that if you are grouchy, showing stress and frustration, you’ll soon see it spread and reflected in the culture.

You don’t need an executive coach to tell you that this is real. You or someone you know probably lives this. The question on leaders’ minds is what to do about it. There are many good strategies to consider. Consider these three.

  1. If you’re feeling that you are doing too much, you most likely are. Capture your activities in an audit of your own making, documenting how and with whom you’re spending your time. I’ve observed many leaders discover that they have been over-involved with their team, for example. There’s an opportunity to pull back and nudge your rock stars forward without your full involvement. Too often, CEOs who are new to the role or leaders who have assembled a brand new team have let close stewarding go on for too long. Think about efficiencies for you while nurturing those around you. Where else can you elevate yourself to fly at the right altitude doing high-value work while providing new opportunities for others?
  2. How do you start your day? Do you set yourself up to be hooked by urgent matters? If you’re searching for business problems and urgent matters, as many do, you are looking to be helpful, but ask yourself if your work is really moving forward. Instead, begin with your strategy and then reverse engineer it so that your daily to-do list sets you up to achieve strategic objectives.

A client of mine was a fastidious list maker and then gave it up, priding herself that she could store her to-do’s in her head. It was one thing she started doing before she became a CEO for the first time. Then when she took a job as CEO, she continued to keep much in her head until she realized that she was prioritizing fighting other people’s fires. Without a written list she committed to of what she wanted to accomplish each week and day, she was easily taken off track.

She’s back at list-making now, and it didn’t take much effort to restart the daily habit. They say that our heads are round so our thoughts can change direction. It can be much easier than people imagine. Consider the productivity hacks that have worked for you and assess if it’s time to bring them back. Winging it just means you are receptive to whatever comes up. There’s not much strategic thinking in that.

  1. It’s necessary to give yourself a break, no matter how strong you enjoy your black coffee or how long you claim you can keep going on with little sleep. What often holds leaders back is their belief that they’re indispensable. Don’t believe your own good press. You wouldn’t tell your own team to postpone their vacations indefinitely, would you? Or encourage them to avoid organized social activities at work because it’s busy? Start planning so that you can absent yourself from a meeting or take the two-week vacation you are owed.

Perversely, if you don’t let up, you’re likely underperforming and dragging your people with you.

This article was first published here on Forbes.com. Photo credit: Matthew Henry.

Leadership: Why Execution Alone Isn’t Enough

“Being social at work is a waste of time.” When I heard these words from a leader regarding their approach to working with people in the workplace, I instantly recognized it to be a commonly held view, notwithstanding that it’s rarely said with the same degree of bald clarity.

It’s the belief of those who are driven to deliver yet haven’t yet updated their approach from when they were a single contributor. That’s a problem for them and their organizations. Without strong, trusting relationships, success is only temporary and limited to when things are going well. Watch out for when situations become problematic.

I attended the opening of a major exhibition of Brian Jungen’s art, the ingenious visual artist known for eviscerating Nike sneakers to create colourful indigenous masks. When the museum’s CEO took the microphone, he shared that the exhibit was only possible because of the lengthy relationship between the curator and the artist. Museums trade on relationships just as much as they do knowledge and taste. The artist and museum’s interests may be mutually beneficial, but it might surprise you to learn that without longstanding trusting relationships, many exhibits wouldn’t have happened.

Just as in the art world, relationships in any workplace are the grease that makes the wheels turn. It’s the social linkages — not just hard work and a dogged determination — that make it all possible, even in situations of mutual benefit.

So why do so many get stuck making it all about “getting it done” with their heads down and their proverbial sleeves rolled up?

To answer that, you’d need to look at who gets promoted inside of workplaces. I’ve worked with leaders whose careers rose swiftly, principally because of their ability to execute brilliantly. It’s no small feat to build a reputation for getting things reliably done and on time. The trap for emerging leaders is that it’s easy to have a hard focus on delivering and forget the importance of relationship building because results are what many businesses value.

A client of mine in the biotech industry earned a reputation as a formidable producer. Nevertheless, she felt frustrated that the cross-functional teams weren’t working as well together as they could. With the focus on results and the expectation to collaborate too, the missing puzzle piece was the lack of strong interpersonal connections.

What’s more, speed in some cultures is the name of the game, and what gets lost is the need for deliberate trust-building across the silos. When mistakes happen, people get blamed. Rooting out who is at fault is the first priority rather than collaborating for problem-solving. This scientist came to see that she and her peers can have a positive impact on the team climate with greater availability and openness that would reduce persistent misunderstandings. The solution didn’t rely on process clarity alone, but on trust-building too.

Let me tell you a story. A fundraising campaign pitch for a youth leadership summer camp I attended as a young girl found its way to my inbox. I knew I wanted to contribute funds and revive an old community to enroll others to do the same. So I sent an email to three people from the greater community. I’m not a professional fundraiser, so I leaned on what I knew about people, relationships and getting results. Two said yes to the request and showed enthusiasm, a sign of commitment. I didn’t receive a reply from the third person, and he didn’t donate. That’s because trust and rapport had long disappeared with time. Whereas my email requests showed competence with the ask, that was table stakes. Rapport and a relationship were the difference between results and none. Social persuasion depends on a foundation of both to gain commitment that produces results.

Language gives us access to ways of thinking that may be hidden from us. With that in mind, here’s a helpful vocabulary and a list of useful approaches to get work done more effectively. Each is vital to good leadership.

  1. Take on social fluency. Engage and get proficient in interpersonal relationships that are mutually satisfying and that include give-and-take, trust, and the expression of compassion.
  2. Develop an affiliative leadership style. This is the approach to leadership where people come first. You do this by taking an active interest in the whole person, developing connections between you and between others, and doing what you can to create a harmonious climate.
  3. Lean into vulnerability. Admitting when you don’t know (but will find out) is a means of building trust. When I’ve coached leaders who have fudged the answers more than they should, they’ve learned from their multi-rater reports that in fact, others often knew they were pretending to “know” and it eroded their credibility. It’s amazing how winning it can be to show what you don’t know.
  4. Bring joy to it. Most of us have serious jobs, and people rely on us to do well. But being serious at work as a default without play and joy leads to disengagement on the team and a workforce that puts time in without feeling satisfied.
  5. Become more likeable. Yup, this can be learned. The way to grow your likeability is to be friendly, connect over shared interests, be genuine, ask questions of others and show empathy.

Leaders who rely on their expertise alone and make do with transactional relationships lose out on being included in the trust network. By seeking out social linkages, there is an opportunity to become a collaborative leader. These leaders know how to create a climate where people talk openly about mistakes and letting go of silos. Those who show strong managerial ability and foster quality connections create cohesion where there isn’t any and make genuine collaboration possible.

The key to creating a collaborative leadership culture is the shared belief in the mission, the expression of mutual support, and strong connectivity, a requisite for the practice of holding honest conversations. Executing alone doesn’t get you there, but the expressions of genuine relationship-building can.

Image creds go to Patrick Fore. This article was first published at Forbes.com here.