Leading Through Uncertainty Part 2 – What We Can Learn from the Best Sports Coaches

Trying to figure out the best play to call

The current situation with COVID-19 pandemic has been unlike anything we have experienced previously.  With sports seasons suspended, I began to think about some comparisons between the best sports coaches and the best leaders in the current environment of uncertainty.

Here are 8 things you can learn from the best sports coaches:

  1. Be willing to call an audible.  The best coaches call audibles when their game plan is no longer working.  Even though you may have prepared what you thought was a strong strategic plan, when circumstances change, recognize that it’s time to call an audible and change the plan.  When external factors are changing this rapidly, you will likely need to implement changes quickly.  Be willing to change the course and adapt.
  2. Know your players and the depth of your bench.  Good coaches know the strengths of every player, even those who spend much of their time on the bench.  Great players are hard to replace when they must come out of the game.  The best coaches know the hidden strengths of all the players and can find the magic combination of players to overcome the loss of that one great player.  A real-life example of this is if your production supervisor must stay home since schools are closed, who else can help identify and implement changes in efficiency and processes?  If you know the hidden strengths of your team, you may recognize that your shipping clerk has created efficient processes in their department that indicate an innate strength that could be applied to other areas of the business.
  3. Recognize that losing one game does not mean the season is over.  The best coaches help their teams get over the loss as soon as possible in order to focus on the next game and the long-term vision for the season.  They inspire confidence in their players and motivate them to think positively.  As painful as it may be in the short term, recognize that the current challenges we are facing may just be a blip in the long season of your business.  Do your best to get through it, understanding that there may be some short-term, painful losses along the way.  If you can keep your team focused on your long-term vision, you are likely to succeed in the long term.
  4. Believe in yourself.  The best coaches believe in themselves and have the confidence that they can overcome adversity.  That type of confidence is contagious – the players can feel it.  Even when the players start to doubt their own abilities, the best coaches overcome that doubt by inspiring confidence and showing that they believe in their team.  And we learn the most about ourselves and our teams when we face adversity.
  5. Remain calm.  In my opinion, the best coaches remain calm in tough times.  Even when games become emotional, if the coach keeps his or her own emotions in check, he or she is often able to get the team to refocus on what they need to do.  Think about it – if you are in a critical situation, who do you want to follow?  A leader who is frantic and crazed, upset and out of control?  Or one who is calm and using the highest functioning portion of their brain because they are not in “fight or flight” mode?  If you tend to become emotional under stress, then self-care is important.  Getting enough exercise and sleep, eating healthy, and using mindfulness practices can help, even in small doses.
  6. Seek input from your best players.  The best coaches trust their team leaders to provide input on what could be done differently.  As leaders, we don’t have to have all the answers.  Our job is to hire the best and allow them to help us lead more effectively.  They will likely see things differently in the middle of the game than we see from the sidelines, and that perspective can be invaluable when making decisions.
  7. Focus on opportunities.  The best coaches watch for mismatches between the teams, then take advantage of the opportunities that appear in the moment.  For example, if you have been struggling to hire workers for the second shift, perhaps now is the time to seek out those who worked at the bars that are now closed.  If you have unused trucks, could they be leased to companies who are struggling to keep grocery stores stocked?  Is now an opportunity to partner with a competitor, or to make that acquisition that would enable you to provide a more comprehensive service to your customers? 
  8. Think about next season.  When things are not going as well as planned for the current season, the best coaches start to think ahead to the next season.  Internally, where are the gaps in talent on the team?  Which players are just not a good fit with the current game plan or culture?  Do some players just need a bit more development in order to reach their full potential?  Externally, will any rules of the game change next season?  How might your industry be different when the pandemic has ended?  Will your products and services still be relevant?  How can you be less reliant on one supply chain?  How can you handle more work virtually? 

What other attributes have you observed in the best sports coaches that could be applied during this time of uncertainty?

Leading Through Uncertainty

Uncertainty

One of the biggest challenges leaders face is leading through uncertainty.  The current COVID-19 situation is certainly one of those times. 

Uncertainty creates stress, so it is more important than ever for CEOs and business owners to step up and lead their teams with confidence.  Here are my 12 tips for effectively leading through uncertainty:

  1. Communicate – Especially in times of uncertainty, the grapevine can run rampant.  It is important for everyone to hear from you directly about the situation and what you are doing.  Communicate frequently and in small sound bites.
  2. Lead by Example – Understand that everyone is watching you – even when you think they are not.  Everything you do and say is under scrutiny.  Are you frantic or calm?  Are you withdrawing or making yourself available to your people?  Are you following company policy (e.g. staying home when you are sick), or are you breaking your own rules?  Your behavior sends a very strong message.
  3. Create Contingency Plans – What if your largest supplier shuts down temporarily?  What if your customers stop buying your products and services for a month?  What financial resources are available?  What happens if schools and childcare centers close and your employees need to stay home with their kids?  What will you do if someone at your company tests positive?  Create contingency plans for various scenarios in case you need to implement them quickly.
  4. Be Decisive – It’s ok not to have all the answers.  Ask your team for input and brainstorm with them on areas where you unsure of the best approach.  Seek outside input from your peers, such as your fellow Vistage members.  Once you’ve gathered input from others and evaluated the potential risks and rewards, then go ahead and make those decisions, no matter how challenging.  Procrastination only leads to more stress and uncertainty for everyone.
  5. Inspire Confidence and Teamwork – Let your team know that you believe in them.  It’s ok to admit to them that you do not know the potential impact of the situation on your business.  Just let them know that you are glad you are entering this period of uncertainty with such a strong team on your side.  Inspire confidence that together you can get through anything that comes your way. 
  6. Delegate Small Decisions – A sense of control alleviates stress caused by uncertainty, so find opportunities to allow your employees to exercise control within their departments.  For example, can employees within a department figure out how they are going to cover the work if someone is out, rather than being told that everyone needs to work 10-hour days?   For the short term, can they control moving the weekly meeting to virtual rather than meeting in person in the conference room?  Delegating some of the smaller decisions allows you and your management team to focus on more strategic decisions.
  7. Offer Support – Understand that some of your employees may be feeling overwhelmed and fearful.  So even if you do not feel stressed, be aware that others may be experiencing extreme stress.  They may be worried about the health of an older relative, or their personal financial situation.  Remind your employees about resources that are available to them, such as your EAP (Employee Assistance Program) or other mental health or financial resources.
  8. Practice Self-Care – Are you taking care of yourself?  Getting enough sleep?  Exercising and eating right?  Are you giving yourself mental health breaks?  Taking care of yourself can help protect your immune system and enable you to be at your best.
  9. Include Humor – Laughter is a terrific stress-reducer.  Are there ways to inject appropriate humor into the workplace?  For example, we are being reminded to wash our hands with soap and water for 20 seconds at a time.  A recent article in the Tampa Bay Times listed 20 songs that you could wash your hands to, such as “Stayin Alive” by the Bee Gees, “Kung Fu Fighting” by Carl Douglas, and “Karma Chameleon” by the Culture Club.  Could you pipe those songs into the bathrooms to add a bit of humor while encouraging them to practice good hygiene?   Or could you start the weekly meeting with a funny clip from a movie?
  10. Encourage Breaks – Exercise and sunshine can reduce stress.  Consider encouraging your employees to take short breaks to walk outside.
  11. Fix Existing Problems – Does the current situation allow you to make changes that you’ve been procrastinating?  Is it time to update employee policies or terminate that underperforming employee?  This time of uncertainty may be the perfect time to act and fix existing problems.
  12. Identify Potential Opportunities – Are there opportunities in this time of uncertainty to provide a new product or service to existing customers or sell to a new market?  What long-term effects might the pandemic have on your industry?  How can you adapt your business model to a new normal?  Staying focused on opportunities and possibilities can give you an advantage over your competition.  It is also much more fun than looking only at the negative impact of the current situation. 

Companies that are well-led through difficult times often come out stronger than before.  It’s time for you to step up and lead!

Are You an Inspirational Leader?

Are you an inspirational leader? Even when times get tough? How you lead your team through challenging times can significantly impact their motivation and potentially the success of your company.

Let’s assume that Joe and Sue are CEOs who have just learned that their biggest customer has been acquired by a much larger company. The acquirer informed them that they will no longer need their service or product. This customer represents a significant portion of their business, and the acquisition was completely unanticipated. They did not have a contingency plan in place. (For more on the importance of contingency plans, see my blog entitled, “Distant Storm Clouds – Do You Have a Plan?”)

Joe hears the news and immediately retreats to his office and shuts the door. He spends the next hour frantically calling his contacts at the customer, trying to ask them to make an introduction to the new owner so he can get back in the door. When that doesn’t work, he sits in his office, completely stressed out, and worried that he may lose the entire business as a result. He stays in his office, afraid to talk to his employees even though he knows they have also likely heard about the lost customer. He waits until all of his employees are gone for the day, then goes home, where he also avoids his family. He does not want to worry them, and he is so stressed that he cannot think clearly. He continues to avoid speaking to his employees for several more days. While he knows that the problem will not go away, he is afraid to tell his employees that he does not have a plan.

Sue hears the news, and immediately calls her management team together. She shares the information she has just learned, and tells her team, “This is a big loss for us. I must admit that I did not see this coming, and do not have a plan that is ready to implement. I will call the customer in case there is a way to negotiate a longer transition period. Meanwhile, we will need to work together to find a way to increase sales to replace the volume of business that we lost. At the same time, we will also identify where we can cut costs to offset the loss in revenue in the short term. One of the first things we will do is to determine how to share this information with the rest of our employees so that they can help us find the necessary solutions, while being truthful that we do not know how this may impact us in the short term. Let’s spend some time brainstorming ideas, then I will ask each of you to take the lead on one or more initiatives. We will check in with one another daily to see how things are progressing and how we can support one another. I have confidence in our team and know that we will be able to work through this challenge and come out on the other side even stronger. Let’s do this!”

Which of these two leaders inspires more confidence?  If you worked for Sue, you would likely respect her approach, and how she takes charge of the process while seeking input from her management team. She admits her mistakes, and most importantly, expresses confidence in her team’s ability to work together to overcome the challenge.

Sue is an inspirational leader.  What type of leader are you?

Squirrel!

Do you find that you are easily distracted? Especially when you are supposed to be working on something that isn’t much fun? I generally do not procrastinate – I’m usually one of the first people to respond to a request or to tackle a big project. I can really get things done when I put my mind to them – if they are things that I enjoy doing. Head down, focused, intense, and determined are all terms that describe me when I am in that “zone”.

Then there are those things that I really don’t enjoy doing, such as administrative or repetitive tasks. I have discovered that I not only procrastinate starting on those types of tasks, I also get distracted easily when I finally start to do them. If you have seen the movie “Up”, you’ll know what I mean when I say, “Squirrel!”. Whenever they thought they heard a squirrel, the dogs in the movie would stop whatever they were doing, turn their heads and freeze, saying “Squirrel!”. After a pause, they would continue with what they had been doing previously as if nothing had distracted them. In real life, when our thoughts are interrupted, we are less efficient and effective than we would have been without the disruption.

I’ve noticed that sometimes these less enjoyable tasks take me 2-3 times longer than they should have because I have allowed distractions to take me off course. So now when I will be starting a task that I suspect may lead to a “squirrel” distraction, I promise myself a reward if I can get the task done in a focused and timely manner. Awareness is an important first step. After all, I can always chase the squirrels after my work is done!

A Positive Attitude Can Be Contagious

Parkour Egypt

 

I recently spent a week with about 25,000 teens at a national youth gathering.  You may have assumed that this posting on attitude would be about stereotypical negative teen attitudes.  Instead, I’d like to share my observation of how positive attitudes that week were contagious.

Everyone who attended the national youth gathering had to walk miles each day in high heat and humidity, wait in long lines, share hotel rooms with others, and sleep very little.  There were definitely many reasons to have a negative attitude (and all of us were tired and grumpy at some point during the week).  However, what impressed me was how quickly positive attitudes changed everything.

These teens went around saying “Hey” to other groups of teens and giving one another high-fives.  They burst into spontaneous song and dance, clapping and laughing.  When someone started to complain or feel sorry for themselves, another person distracted them or got them to laugh.  At one point, we had fun turning complaints into “love” statements, such as, “I love how much my feet hurt”, or “I just love sweating and standing in line”.  We were soon laughing and back in positive moods.

Vistage speaker Boaz Rauchwerger often says, “Fake it till you make it!”, and these 14-18 year olds showed me how effective that approach can be.   A positive attitude can be contagious.  As a leader, you can overcome the negative attitudes in your company with a little effort – even if you have to fake it till you make it!

Laughter is the Best Medicine

Bolt laughing

When was the last time you laughed so much that your cheeks hurt?  For me and 100 of my colleagues, it was just last week.  I was co-leader of an event in Boulder, CO for 100 Vistage/TEC peers from around the world.  My co-leader and I selected the topic of “Creative Brilliance”, which enabled us to take the group down a path most had never experienced.  We decided to bring in an expert to do a session on “Laughter Wellness”.  After sharing a bit about the physiology of laughter and the impact on health, she led us through 30 minutes of laughter yoga. 

At first, our “ha, ha’s”, “he, he’s” and “ho, ho’s” were forced, yet in a very short time, we were all laughing hysterically.  Each time I looked at someone else doing the motions, I found myself laughing even harder.  It’s amazing how terrific we all felt after just 30 minutes of laughter.  The tension left our bodies, and we were energized and ready to take on the world.  

It was a great reminder of how easy it can be to pull yourself out of the doldrums.  When you’re having a rough day, take a short break and watch a funny video, ask someone to tell you a joke, look at the comics in the newspaper, or just remember the last time you laughed until you cried.  Once you start laughing, invite others to join you so they can reduce stress and become energized as well.  Laughter is the best medicine – no prescription needed!

Emotional Intelligence

Conversation with a rescued owl

You may be smart, but are you emotionally intelligent?

Is there someone in your company who is very much attuned to the needs of others? They seem to be able to sense things about people that the rest of us miss. Others have a way of controlling their emotions and remaining level-headed in even the most stressful situations. I suspect each of you can think of at least one person who displays those characteristics. How do they do it?

Chances are that they have a high degree of emotional intelligence. Emotional intelligence, also known as Emotional Quotient or “EQ”, is often defined as the capacity to understand and interpret the intentions, motivations and desires of others and the ability to understand oneself. EQ is often broken down into 4 core skills:

  1.  Self-awareness — is the ability to accurately perceive your own emotions in the moment and understand your tendencies across situations.
  2.  Self-management — involves controlling your own emotions and impulses and adapting to changing circumstances.
  3.  Social awareness — is the ability to sense, understand, and react to others’ emotions while comprehending social networks.
  4.  Relationship management — is the ability to inspire, influence, and develop others while managing conflict.

Studies have shown that 90 percent of high performers are also high in EQ.   These are important skills for good leaders. The good news is that EQ can be developed.  You can start by taking an EQ assessment to identify which areas you would like to address, then by creating a plan to improve in those areas. By focusing on increasing your emotional intelligence, you will likely increase success in both your business and personal life.

Failure to Respond

Phone

Are you someone who fails to respond?  Not to cold-calls or blind solicitations, but rather to someone you contacted first?  I am curious what is causing you to behave in that manner?  Do you realize that when you reach out to someone else, they must spend time and energy to respond?  Your own lack of responsiveness when they reply to you creates more work for that person, who wonders if their message was actually delivered or tries another way to reach you, thus expending even more time and energy.  If you contact someone and then change your mind, it would seem to be common courtesy to let them know.  You could send a quick note or leave a voice mail message, anything that would enable the other person to take you off of their list of things to do.

Vistage is not for everyone, so I know that many of the people I speak with will not be a good fit for our organization.  However, I want to help people and will always try to respond in a timely manner when someone reaches out to me.  However, when they fail to respond to my offer to answer any of their questions or provide them with information, it becomes very frustrating.  I am left alternating between irritation, concern for their well-being, and curiosity as to why they reached out to me in the first place.

If you read this and realize you have been unresponsive to others, it’s not too late to change your behavior.  Just let them know you resolved the situation and no longer need their assistance.  Display some no-longer-so-common courtesy!

Stretch Goals

 

Miss Charley Leaping for Treats

What are your stretch goals for 2016? Make sure they are “SMART”: Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Results-Oriented, and Time-Specific. Then write them down, share them with others, and look at them daily or weekly.  If your goals can be broken down into milestones and you can establish target dates for those milestones, you have just increased your chance of success.

Along the way, if you are not achieving a particular goal, figure out why. Is it a limiting belief that is holding you back? If so, work on overcoming that limiting belief. Is it procrastination? Then make a point to tackle that goal first thing in the morning before doing anything else. Or establish mini-rewards for achieving milestones toward that goal. For example, once I have achieved “X” today, I’ll take a break and walk around the office, or get a latte, or go out to lunch today rather than eating at my desk.

If you are particularly challenged with a goal and you can’t figure out a strategy to overcome a roadblock, ask for help. Others might be able to brainstorm alternative approaches that would enable you to achieve that goal.

Lastly, sometimes outside forces make a goal no longer relevant or attainable. If you are a taxi company and your original goal was to continue to grow your business as you have done in the past, and now Uber has come into your area, your original strategy may not be working. Rather than focusing on your goal of doing more of what you did in the past, it’s likely you will need to revise your strategy to compete with Uber. If goals become impossible due to external factors, it’s fine to replace them with other goals that will help you to achieve your long-term vision.

Stay focused, and make 2016 a terrific year!