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Adding value by doing nothing…

I had a boss once who said my greatest strength was an ability to think strategically.  He also said even I – as directionally-challenged as I am – could learn to use a compass.  He was, therefore, not always right.

That aside, living with a chronic condition like Essential Thrombocytosis (ET) reminds me that thinking strategically isn’t complex. It’s simply choosing actions which will achieve a clearly defined objective.

Because of the fatigue associated with ET, there are days the stairs in our house nearly defeat me.  At the point where – literally –  crawling is the only way I can make it upstairs, I am forced to implement the ‘refill energy’ strategy.  This includes, among other things, a blend of gentle exercise and lying on the bed doing nothing.  When I get to the Doing Nothing bit, I spend my time complaining about how I don’t like the fact that I need to do nothing.

The complaining doesn’t help.  The doing nothing does.

My personal and professional objective is the same:  to add value.  Some days this looks like facilitating a meeting, working on an assignment, hanging out with my family, drinking good coffee.

Occasionally it looks like doing nothing.

Pre-ET, my strategy for adding value was about doing things.  I’ve had to adjust the strategy to include doing nothings; adding value doesn’t look so frenetic anymore…and I’m more effective than I’ve ever been.

Whether running or walking or crawling, I always conquer the stairs.

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Maybe I don’t know everything…

I like to think I like to try new things…but I’ll (inflexibly) prefer dark chocolate with coffee.

I like to think I’m open to new ideas…but I’ll (close-mindedly) assure myself I already know a lot and that what I know and believe is – almost always – Right.

At the end of last year I travelled with colleagues to Malta and the UK.  I expected to enjoy the usual travel-related edge-stretching of new experiences.  What I didn’t expect was to realise I’d been wrong in how I’d started to view leadership conceptually, my leadership abilities specifically, and accompaniments for coffee gastronomically.

I knew I liked ethical, strong, visionary-and-at-the-same-time practical leaders.  I knew I wanted to be that kind of leader.  I knew on some days I could stand on my tippy toes, stretch high and nearly reach it.

But I didn’t know – until I was exploring new places and organisations, sharing meals, coffee and conversations with other people – that I had settled into a kind of complacent, comfortable discomfort.  Over time I’d taken the path of least resistance.   Leading well was risky and took more focus than just ‘doing my job’.  Objectives were met but I wasn’t leading myself or others as well as I could.

It’s like the difference between a coffee made with freshly ground beans and one made with packaged pre-ground beans; they both still taste good but the latter is somehow, ever so slightly, lacking.

Our band of merry travellers shared a meal together recently, and discussed how we were implementing what we’d learned on our trip.

The exploration of our organisation’s history reinforced for me the need for value-based leadership.  I don’t know if they meant to, but while we were away – and again over dinner back home – my fellow explorers reinforced the importance of listening, observing, and when necessary taking action.

I’ve returned to the freshly ground beans of value-based, outcome-focused leadership.

I’ve re-learned I don’t know everything, and that’s okay.

I’ve newly-learned that salted caramel brownies or salted caramel gelato work extremely well with coffee; this is almost as life-changing as the Not Knowing Everything and the Value-based Leadership things.

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Critical filters

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Don’t mess with the recipe

Anzac biscuits are a truly delicious, memory-rich, taste of childhood holidays at Nanna’s house.

There is debate over whether they were invented by Australia or New Zealand, however – much like the pavlova which both countries also claim – I don’t care where it hails from; it tastes good and therefore I’m happy it was invented at all.

The flavour I remember was all about the brown sugar, golden syrup , butter and oats.  Nanna stored her chewy-but-kinda-crunchy Anzac biscuits in gum-leaf green tupperware containers on a shelf above her stove.

I’m domestically indifferent and not a fan of cooking, but occasionally the muse descends to eat a certain thing which must taste a certain way.  I forget how easily bored I am with baking and off I trot in search of a recipe.  Such was the case with Anzac biscuits.

I wanted to recreate the magic of Nanna’s kitchen.

Until today, I’ve been spectacularly unsuccessful. 

I had become distracted by recipes with ‘clean eating’ and ‘wholefood’ variations.

All attempts were unfit for human consumption.  My dogs thanked me.

The problem was a loss of focus on the original goal and consequent unnecessary change.

Sometimes changing is important; doing things a certain way because That’s How We’ve Always Done It can be counter-productive to growth, improvement or achieving objectives.

However, the Great Anzac Biscuit Debacle of 2015 has reminded me that sometimes change is not helpful.

Before implementing change objectively analyse the situation and required outcome.  If change is required, be clear about why and how.  Make sure the process will achieve the desired result.

Above all, know this:  Anzac biscuits don’t need changing.  Ever.

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Value in opposing forces

I had my knee bent and ankle resting at the top of my thigh while I bent forward, balanced precariously on the other leg.

I looked like a drunk flamingo.

Find balance working with those opposing forces

My thoughts moved between contemplating how fabulous I was for beginning to move my body into a tricky balancey pose, pondering the happenings of my day…and thinking about how not to topple over.

Then these words from Yoga with Adriene floated off the iPad: find balance working with those opposing forces.

It shifted two things:  mostly importantly at the time, I applied the statement to my body and it created a stronger foundation for the balance pose. I was – gratefully – less likely to face-plant in a tangled mess.

It also created a calm, clear focus in my mind’s eye as I applied the concept to leadership and management.  Opposing forces don’t have to be obstacles to be overcome or battled; they can be strengths we leverage to achieve goals.

Opposing forces can be our greatest asset.

In leading and managing situations, finding balance working with those opposing forces might add value for everyone.  That matters.

In standing-on-one-leg situations, it might add value to my balance.

That matters too.

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Leading when life is forever changed

I can’t imagine a world without coffee.  Conceptually, I understand some people don’t or can’t drink it.  I just can’t picture me being one of them.

A year ago, I hadn’t imagined a world without my father.

In the week following his death emotions were deep, days were long.  We were at times overwhelmed and dazed, and yet I watched my brother lead our family with strength, humour and respect.   We gave Dad a cracking good send off, and then there it was.  Life without him.

Incomprehensible change had occurred but no other externals shifted: I still had objectives to meet, teams to participate in, a family to love, dogs to walk, friends to hang out with, and coffee to drink.

Leading self – and others – consistently and with grace always matters.  It’s a bit harder to do when significant change has occurred.  And I think then it matters more.  When the wind blows outside during a storm, I’m secure knowing my home’s foundations will keep me safe.

People need reassurance when there’s a metaphorical storm altering the landscape.  They don’t need to be told; they need to be shown.

That’s what my brother did.

That’s what matters when life is forever changed.

That, and coffee.

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Planning to be flexible

‘Hiding behind doors and jumping out to surprise Mum and Dad’ was one of my son’s Favourite Things To Do when he was a kid. He was pretty bad at it.

He has inherited a genetic inability to move quietly or keep a surprise. At 14 he still occasionally enjoys the aforementioned Favourite Thing To Do. He’s now 180cm tall and moves with the grace of a startled giraffe. He is gifted and brilliant in many areas, but stealth is not one of them. If he surprised me it would be…surprising.

This morning I realised Essential Thrombocytosis behaves in a similar fashion. It’s not always obvious but it’s always close by, and occasionally it bursts through a doorway knocking me on my butt for a few hours or a few days.

I’m not surprised; it’s not good at hiding either. I feel it every day.

It is, however, easy to camoflage. I’ve refined my strategies for successfully managing the symptoms, so at times I’m surprised and frustrated when it slips through my carefully crafted management plan.

Chronic conditions are excellent teachers.

Strategies and plans for achieving objectives are key to success. If, however, we are too focused on implementation that we forget why we’re doing it we become ineffective.

There are always factors out of our control. There will always be unexpected challenges or opportunities arising which interrupt or surprise us.

Keep focused while scanning the horizon and periphery. Plan to be flexible.

Planning flexibility sounds counter-intuitive but it works. I’ve found the broader perspective and flexibility enables me to be more effectively responsive. Sometimes it results in avoiding falling back on my butt. Sometimes it means I don’t stay down for too long.

Sometimes it means what knocks me down helps me back up.

As would my son.

If his ‘hiding behind doors and jumping out’ thing ever actually resulted in surprising me.

Giving thanks for people…and coffee

I left for work early this morning.  After seven hours driving, 540 kilometres, two coffees, and one gathering with a group of dedicated paid and volunteer staff, I returned home weary but thankful.

I was not thankful for the coffee; it was barely adequate.  I was, however, thankful for the people I spent the day with.

I will be profusely, profoundly thankful for good coffee when it’s in front of me.   I’m deeply committed to keeping coffee in my life so I’m automatically specific and generous in my praise for it.

The meeting I participated in today refreshed the importance of doing the same with praise for, and appreciation of, people.

So here’s what I appreciate right now:  I’m thankful our paid and volunteer staff are skilled, professional, and compassionate.  I’m thankful this state has a strong culture of community engagement and volunteering.  I’m thankful that our organisation is actively involved. And I’m thankful to be part of it.

If there are people within your sphere of influence you appreciate, don’t assume they know this.  Give thanks for them (whatever that looks like for you), and give thanks to them (in a way which is meaningful for them).

Given it is an inanimate object, I’m almost certain coffee doesn’t care how much I show my gratitude.

Almost certain…

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Caffeine-free me

It’s been nearly four days since my last coffee.

This isn’t a conscious choice. I’m not detoxing, raising money or awareness of a noble cause, or trying to save the environment.

Nope.  I simply have a cold and the idea of drinking coffee makes me gag. The last time I was too sick to drink coffee was 15 years ago when I was growing a whole other human inside me. I’m not pregnant now so this must be worse than a common cold; it must be ManFlu.

I’ve been coughing on my colleagues and sighing dramatically at my family. I can’t decide if my body aches because it’s sick or because it’s in caffeine withdrawal.  I am jet-lagged, flu-ridden, and have an overflowing inbox.

All of which I would accept better if I could just drink coffee.

I’d like to say this involuntary caffeine exile has made me attain a Yoda-like state of acceptance and peace, or zealously declare, ‘Hallelujah; life is better without it!’

Again, nope.  I find life without coffee is fundamentally flawed and categorically, well, meh…

While I haven’t developed a keener appreciation for a caffeine-free life, this experience has highlighted the following important leadership lesson: no matter what is happening in your sphere of leadership, keep the (literal or metaphorical) coffee flowing.

Our team stops work and gathers for half an hour each day for Coffee O’clock. Sometimes we talk work and sometimes we don’t.  It’s not about the content of conversation, or even – and it pains me to say this – about the coffee.  It’s about the team.

A difficult journey is made easier, a celebration more joyful, when we are connected.  When there is a place to pause in the activity.  When there is Something Good to experience, no matter how trivial it may seem.

Like coffee.  Everything is better when there is coffee.

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