April 12, 2013
Hang on, because the path to grow your business can be fraught with peril. This is just not a journey for the weak of heart.
Last August, Incite's executive team met with Roy Group for a two-day retreat. The purpose was to focus on making tough decisions that will help us move forward. After several discussions, it soon became clear that a more focused approach in the marketplace would eventually position us ahead of our competition. But in order to commit to a more streamlined offering, we had to take a few steps backwards (in revenue and market share) in order to hopefully make a giant leap forwards.
It’s easy to say “let’s narrow our service offering”, but actually following-through on this kind of self-imposed constraint is a different story. It resulted in us examining our skill-set, assessing our strengths, and eliminating some unprofitable clients who just didn’t fit what we have to offer.
But, as luck would have it, this was not an opportune time for us to make a decision like this.
Shortly after our retreat, two major accounts made announcements that they could no longer work with us for reasons beyond our control. The CEO of one account passed away, and another account was acquired by one of their competitors.
What we thought would be a short-term revenue crunch turned into a full-blown crisis.
Just when we thought we had made a terrible mistake, Roy Group pointed out that this was "the call" - a mythical milestone that every heroic venture includes. They were using language from The Hero's Journey (from the life's work of Joseph Campbell).
With open minds and eager ears, we listened as they explained the architecture of The Hero's Journey, a series of events that Campbell believed marked the key points in every human story. It goes something like this:
The hero begins in the ordinary world, when “the call” appears to enter an unknown world of strange powers and events. This call reveals a crisis that is unexpected, unpredicted, and daunting to the core.
Shouldering the gravity of this crisis becomes unbearable and the hero within the story is filled with doubt, isolation, anxiety and fear, and finds themselves in "the pit of despair" - depression, darkness, and hopelessness set in.
If the hero can just endure, the theme of hope makes an entrance - closely followed by the most familiar themes of friendship, family, mentorship and tribe. A new order of things begins to show itself and there is a bold "emergence". Fueled with newfound allies and strength, the hero becomes capable of a victory that could not have been imagined in the pit of despair.
During the great banquet or whatever celebration follows the triumph, the hero connects to a sense that there is a new challenge approaching over the horizon. With this "the hero's return" marks the time in the story where the hero makes a courageous choice to quest again, to serve again, to lead again, to be tested again, and to throw themselves to forces larger than them, once again.
As entrepreneurs, executives, and leaders, we know this story. It is ours. It resonated with our situation and accurately portrayed the choices we had in front of us. With help from Roy Group, Incite got through.
Here are a few of the lessons I took from this:
Be conscious and honest about where you are in the cycle of the Hero's Journey and know what it is time for.
Recognize when you’re in the "pit of despair" - engage the chance to have your metal tested and know that there is always a way forward.
Plan ahead and know that the decision to grow will inevitably introduce some form of crisis into your organization.
Good luck on your journey!
Jared Smith is Principal and Co-Founder of Incite, a Western Canadian marketing firm and Roy Group partner in developing the leadership our communities need.
Culture or Not?
March 1, 2013
Recently, for whatever reason, I have been acutely tuned in to and moved by small but big acts of compassion from people who put themselves at the heart of a situation and offered their best to lead. These seemed to be individuals who were not concerned so much about “the job” and much more interested in the actual work.
A recent example got me thinking: has the organisation these leaders are members of wonderfully nurtured a culture to enable such simple and authentic levels of presence or is it that whatever their culture might be “good people” will unerringly behave in the most appropriate and meaningful ways?
I have often pondered too, why some people seem to do excellent work no matter the task, circumstance or environment. I have a friend who excelled wherever he “earned his money”. During our student years I worked with him in bars, on building sites, in offices and on farms. He has since gone on to apprentice in his profession and grown to be a senior leader. In each of these “arenas” he has done wonderful work, no matter the variety of role, the clients he was facing or the people he worked with, for or who reported to him. Culture? Stellar individual? Character? Emotional intelligence? All of these and more?
Join me as I embark on an internal flight with a low cost carrier. There are no frills here. The targets for this organisation are to sell as much as possible while in the air, turn around and get off the ground as quickly as possible having landed and get people on their bottoms faster than you can say, “Is this seat taken?”
As we take off a gentleman in an aisle seat three rows in front of me seems to pass out and collapse across the aisle, held in only by his seat belt. This is the first of this unfortunate man’s ever worsening, very ill, moments during our flight.
Throughout the flight all the attendants, and the Spanish male steward in particular, care for him as though they are travelling with him, as though he is a member of their family. The sales trolley is unceremoniously dumped; he is cleaned and freshened over and over, quietly, sensitively and with great attention. He is spoken to throughout, softly, almost in calm whispers, drawing as little attention to his embarrassment as possible.
Upon landing the steward ensures everyone else waits (for way more than the 20 minutes he is tasked with having his plane back in the air) as he personally helps this gentleman regain his bearings and gradually come to. The steward behaves as though there is no one else there while simultaneously managing to seamlessly engage with all the other passengers.
It is past 11 o’clock now but none of the weary, mainly business travelers, complains about the ever increasing delay. We all seem mesmerized by the elegance of this steward’s kindness and attention. Without speaking he insists that we also think only of this other person. We feel transported to a calmer, kinder place. We are moved by his humanity. As I leave the steward is now wishing everyone else a good evening. I say, “thank you” and he nods back to say that he understands what I really mean. There is a hush in the baggage collection area and strangers are talking quietly to each other.
Now I have no idea if the organisational culture creates this powerful leadership. I have no idea if there is a rule which says that this is what you must do if you are a steward in this situation. I am fairly sure it wouldn’t have mattered. This steward simply could not, not have behaved as he did.
I imagine this steward would have been a success in bars, on building sites, in offices, on farms or in any other profession. It is who he is.
A Coaching Approach to Conflict
February 11, 2013
I think it is only human to look back on past experiences and feel regret about missed opportunities. I am pretty hard on myself, so I feel this way at times. I have also been able to see a common thread that binds many of these missed opportunities. I did not lean into conflict the way I should have. The situations, the people I worked with and my leadership would be much stronger today if I had saddled up some courage, believed in who I was and walked into more difficult conversations.
My story is not unique. We work with many senior and emerging leaders who, although fearless when it comes to taking risks, making a courtroom submission or designing an ambitious strategic plan, side step when it comes time to address uncomfortable, difficult situations with their colleagues. For many of those leaders who have just retired, their single greatest regret was not capitalizing on the value that these situations could have created.
Most of our clients have been introduced to a coaching approach to leadership at some point in their engagement with us. They embrace the practical tools and the underlying philosophy – the question they inevitably ask is how does this approach work when emotions are high, when you have "skin in the game" and when an inevitable change of course is really, really uncomfortable?
We have been working a lot with this question. Over the last three years we have been building an approach that will both help our clients navigate conflict in a more productive way but that also fits with the coaching approach to leadership they have already been introduced to.
Without getting into detail about the approach - I wanted to touch briefly on the thread that connects coaching and this powerful way of seeing and approaching conflict. The philosophy of coaching that resonated most with me was the idea that wisdom does not only exist within me, but in the system. Often what is needed is well crafted, objective questions and the space to let the answers emerge.
I was excited about my introduction to conflict – I walked into the room with Anne-Marie Daniel and Alice Estey – both masters in the world of conflict resolution. I thought I was going to be learning the skills that would allow me to send the all-convincing message, to stand my ground and change the behaviours of others. Although that was part of the learning – it was only a small part. Most of the work, to my surprise, focused on changing my perspective, becoming more objective (even when I was personally entangled), listening for the gems and crafting the types of questions that get to the heart of the matter. Sound familiar?
What I learned from Anne-Marie and Alice was that the foundations of coaching play a powerful role in not only managing conflict but finding opportunity in it. I am practicing - I just wish my practice would have started years earlier.
If you are interested in learning with us, we invite you to join us at our upcoming Opportunity in Conflict, March 25 -27 at Brentwood Bay Lodge with Anne-Marie and Alice.
Letting go is hard to do
Shifting your professional practice to a practice of leadership
December 5, 2012
Imagine walking into the dressing room of the Team Canada Olympic hockey team, dragging Sidney Crosby out to the luge track, throwing him onto a sled and expecting him to win gold. We would never do it. We would never take someone fully immersed and masterful in his sport, throw him into an arena totally foreign and expect the same level of mastery. We would never do it in sport, but we do it in our professional organizations all the time.
We take our high performing lawyers and doctors out of their courtrooms and operating rooms – the arenas where they have pursued mastery, we add the word “Managing” or “Chief” to their business card and then wonder why our teams lack “leadership”. There is a significant disconnect between the value we put on the quality of leadership - the culture of our organization, vision, engagement of the team vs. the time, resources and the support we devote to intentionally developing the leaders of our teams. We expect them to jump in and perform as masterful leaders.
There are a couple disruptive mental models at work here.
1. The only valuable learning is technical learning. A common theme we have experienced is that worthwhile learning in a professional environment needs to focus, solely, on the substantive disciplines of that profession. Lawyers learn about new legislation and case law, doctors learn about new medical developments, designers learn about exciting industry innovation. Creating opportunities for learning around disciplines that would position professional to begin their leadership practice is often considered an expensive investment not “connected” to the core business.
2. Leaders are born. We carry around the idea that some people are born to be leaders and others must be content to follow. With this approach we can see why ‘leadership development’ becomes a process of identifying those who exhibit what we believe leadership needs to be and then throwing them down the icy track – kicking and screaming if we have to.
What is possible when these mental models begin to shift? We have had the privilege of working with Mentors who have instilled in us the belief that leadership is a choice and a practice. We each have the ability to choose leadership and by doing so we choose to begin to learn and practice methods, tools and skills that will help us become stronger in a leadership role. These practices are different than our professional practices; for some professions very different, and therefore the learning is different too.
If you are a professional moving into a leadership role – you may have to fight for the learning opportunities you need to get better at your leadership. You may be the only one in the office immersing yourself in this different type of learning – and often it means setting your professional practice aside to make space for the new.
For many, moving into leadership does not just involve setting aside a practice, but setting aside something we are masterful at. Over a lifetime we get the chance to become masterful in a collection of things… and it’s all in the combination. Think of the stories we can make happen in our professional organizations, in our families and in our communities if one of the masteries we have chosen is leading self and leading others.
Like a longtime skier learning how to snowboard for the first time – there’s going to be some bruises and sore muscles, but it’s worth it in the end.
A Lesson from a Premier
September 28, 2012
A client recently asked me to help him ‘hone his listening skills’ – an action item from a tough 360 feedback report. I didn’t like this assignment – it felt superficial for some reason. Paying attention, eye contact, non-verbal cues, summarizing.... blah, blah, blah. I am sure that these refreshers were valuable and created a change in behavior in the short term but there was something lacking.
I realized that by targeting the level of "listening skills", I was not stepping into the real conversation that was ready to happen – a conversation about his beliefs. What did this leader believe about himself, his leadership and the value of those around him? That is where the conversation will go next time.
The idea of something ‘deeper’ than mere skills started to crystallize over the last few weeks as I have been thinking about the passing of former Alberta Premier Peter Lougheed.
It was my first meeting Premier Lougheed that made the most impact. I approached him with my dad in the Edmonton airport; we both felt the need to meet the legend personally. He was 80 at the time, but without hesitation, he slowly and carefully stood up out of his chair, notwithstanding our polite objections. He shook our hands and asked about the crops in Saskatchewan, the politics we're involved in, and told us a funny story about airport security. After five minutes, he gracefully left us to catch his flight. He told us how much he respected both of our decisions to serve in provincial government. We were both left speechless… the atmosphere that was left in us was unexplainable at the time.
I have heard many stories about others’ experiences with Premier Lougheed. Regardless of whether the story originated from a former civil servant, caucus member, cabinet minister, staff, Albertan or child – they all have a similar pattern and theme. He always knew what it was time for. He lived his life on purpose and with intention. He showed up – whether at the negotiation table with a Prime Minister or in the back yard playing catch. The best line from one of these stories was: “It didn’t matter who you were it was as if he believed you knew something about Alberta that he was interested to learn.” It wasn’t listening skills that Premier Lougheed brought to his interactions it was this belief that others had much to offer him.
How do you show up in a room where you believe everyone has something to learn from you? In contrast, how do you show up and listen in a room of people you believe have opinions and ideas that could change things? What actions do you take based on these beliefs? I was introduced to the simple logic model of Belief-Action-Results – if we believe in something, our actions will reflect this belief and the results we experience, of course, will unfold as these actions are taken.
Premier Lougheed believed that everyone had something valuable to offer him and the province - this belief showed itself in how he occupied the ground, how he made people feel, even in a five minute airport interaction. The result: nothing less than a powerful, dynamic and progressive province made up of people that believe that they can change things.
Do you believe as a leader you need to work on your listening skills, or do you believe in the value, the wisdom and the potential in those around you?
Mastery in Stereo
July 12, 2012
My business partner graciously arranged for my wife and I to take in a Lyle Lovett show in Victoria. There were no visual distractions, no opening band and no gimics. After an 8 word introduction on the microphone - Lyle Lovett and his Band hit the ground running. They played for two and a half hours straight and from the energy of the audience at the end of the show - could have played for two and a half hours more with no protest, whatsoever.
Anyone who has experienced Lyle Lovett in concert would agree that there is something powerful going on up there on stage – he loves what he does, he always has, and along the way he found a sound that is totally unique. He is a gentleman, a charmer, a perfectionist, and a showman - the whole package. But it was something else that really shifted a mental model that I was carrying around about what mastery is. It took the idea of mastery from being about how great you ARE to how well you SHARE. What Mr. Lovett did better than anything else was to create the space and the conditions for others find and share their mastery, too.
Can you imagine being asked to go on tour with Lyle Lovett? His small band consists of 6 other performers. Over the course of the evening each member would be introduced personally. It was clear early on that Mr. Lovett does’t fear being surrounded by talented musicians – he seeks them out. His band was not just his “accompaniment” or “backup”, they were his full-fledged partners. At times, they backed Lyle up beautifully, spotlighting his incredible unique talents. At other times, Lyle would step back and accompany them as they shared an original composition of their own. Lyle created the space for these others musicians to introduce themselves and their craft to the world. The audience had not arrived knowing that they would be introduced to their next favourite artists - but this was a non-negotiable design feature of the evening.
The humility and grace Mr. Lovett displayed in creating the space for others to grow and practice made me wonder if mastery can exist without it. Can someone be a master if they are not willing to support others to find their own? Can the artist who toils away in solitude, never engaging with the world or other artists, be considered a master? Can the brilliant legal mind that shines in court but refuses to put any effort or attention to developing young lawyers be considered a Master? Is leadership actually an integral, requisite part of mastery? It certainly felt like it the night of Mr. Lovett's concert.
Does it Always Have to be Difficult?
July 31, 2012
I love watching the Olympics – mastery, commitment and human potential on international display. It was not the typical events that caught my attention this year, however. I watched the Women’s Canoe Slalom – an event I did not even know existed until it was right there in front of me.
During the first few runs I watched, I was struck by the physical strength required to navigate kayaks around markers - at times against and even directly into the powerful current. It was obvious from the clenched faces and strained muscles of the athletes that determination, effort and good old fashioned grit is required. And I admired them for possessing these qualities.
My admiration shifted to amazement when 20 year old Italian, Maria Clara Giai Pron took to the course. Her face was not clenched and her muscles were not strained. She didn't force anything. It looked like she was dancing with the rapids. Even the commentators were speechless as she used the tremendous force of the water itself, in combination with the most discerning of movements, to rocket herself, without fault, through the course in incredible time.
As I often do, I started to think about the lessons in work and in life that I could glean from this remarkable performance. I recalled a former instructors's advice to me when I was going through my coaching certification – “Stop trying so hard – just use what the client is giving you.”
How often do we try to force it – to use our will, our tenacity and our dogged determination to grind down some invisible opponent and make the changes that we “know” need to happen. For me, it is often. But if we are clear about the life we want to live, if we are honest on the realty we are living in now, what things can we put in motion that will effortlessly take us to the next gate. Sometimes we believe that if it doesn’t take massive effort and fortitude that its not worth doing, but how far could we get if, at times, we trusted the rapids to take us where we needed to go – with a lose but vigilant awareness of what was called for when?
I also recalled playing the game Jenga growing up (I think my mom loved the fact that I had a wooden toy that gave me enjoyment, so it was aggressively promoted). I learned early to go after the blocks that were ready to move first – to follow the path of least resistance. Easy points, limited consequences. Conserving my effort to unleash on the truly challenging hurdles.
What blocks in your life are ready to move?
What rapids can you use to get you there?