Move the Chains

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wpid-ap-first-down-line-football-4_3.jpgThe phrase “Hail Mary” to describe a desperate long pass down the field entered the NFL lexicon after a Dallas Cowboys vs Minnesota Vikings playoff game in 1975 when Cowboys’ quarterback Roger Staubach connected with receiver Drew Pearson in what turned out to be the game-winning play.

Despite the glamour of the Steve Sabol narrated NFL films, few games are won with last second heroics. In fact, most NFL games are won with solid defense and relentless offense. In order to score, you have to “move the chains” (make first downs). Put more simply, games are won when you score more points and gain more yards than the other team, and that’s only done when you make first downs and “move the chains.”  “Move the chains” is football lingo for playing for the next first down, advancing down the field purposefully and continuously until you cross the goal. It’s a way of thinking about the game that’s directly transferable to organizational change because it speaks to continuous disciplined progress rather than just sprinting for the finish and hoping for a miracle.

When a team marches steadily down the field each time they have the ball, they demonstrate discipline and gain confidence. That discipline and confidence is what wins ball games, and it’s the same discipline and confidence needed to make organizational change successful. Like football, moving an organization through change seldom comes from “Hail Mary” plays.  Interim goals and steady progress are the keys to success. Just like moving ten yards to the next first down sets up the offense for the next ten yards, so do interim goals plot the way toward the ultimate goal. Furthermore, in NFL the head coach has to have a game plan and then train the players to execute it consistently. So it is with organizational change: the leader has to have a plan and a disciplined team with the ability to execute it.  No plan or an undisciplined team is a recipe for disaster.  Furthermore, a leader who can’t communicate the vision and the plan to get there is headed for a fall no matter how good is his team.

Organizational change, especially revolutionary change, is hard on the people in the organization if all leaders are doing is flinging the ball down the field and hoping for a miracle. Even Peter Drucker thought so. People will very quickly surmise the leader doesn’t have a way ahead, which will in turn manifest itself in workplace discord, a drop in productivity, and eventually a hemorrhage of talent. For the visionary leader, it’s very tempting to want to move an organization quickly: “revolutionary change” versus “evolutionary change,”  but organizations and people are rarely that nimble without a lot of practice. In the NFL coaches will sometimes rely on trick plays, all out defensive blitzes, and long passes when they’re out of ideas. Those coaches don’t usually last very long. People can become disillusioned with their leaders quickly when faced with too many “Hail Mary’s” and not enough “first downs.” This is not to say teams can’t “do” revolutionary change…but like the ’75 Cowboys people can’t make the big plays unless they can make the small ones.

On the other hand, if leaders are focused on the next first down while continuing to point the way down the field…that is the interim goals pointed at the final goal…then the team will continue to work together to get into the end zone. Revolutionary change is possible so long as leaders prepare their teams with solid leadership and clear cut interim goals, and most importantly, a clear destination everyone can buy into. Achieving interim goals on the way to the end zone gives the team confidence. Repeated and consistent “first downs” reinforce discipline in the team, discipline the team will need to score again and again.

The confidence gained by high performance then directly contributes to a team agile enough to make those “Hail Mary’s” when they have to take the long shot. They will develop confidence in themselves and their leaders.

They will become a championship team.

Hau’oli Makahiki Hou! (And Giveaway) -UPDATED Winner!

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Marc is our winner, congrats! Look for an email from me with instructions on how to claim your prize!

Happy New Year from Hawaii!

I’ll resume weekly blogging next week, but in the mean time I thought I’d ask you to comment with your 2015 goals. A few of my goals for 2015 are to ride in the Haleiwa Metric Century and Honolulu Century Ride, and to publish at least one book and one article in a mainstream business mag.

Goal setting is different from resolution making in two important ways. First, good goals are usually more concrete and achievable. Second and perhaps most importantly, people actually intend to reach goals while resolutions usually die out by March. (Just compare the gym on Jan 2nd and March 2nd for some validation of that last statement!) Leaders should take the time to set personal goals, and keep them in mind as the year progresses. Don’t forget to reach a little when goal setting! A well-balanced leader can harmonize personal and professional/organizational goals; a practice that inspires his teammates to be well-balanced people too. Healthy employees make for a productive team!

Now for the giveaway!

I’m giving away a signed copy of Leading Leaders to one lucky reader. All you have to do to enter is comment below with at least one (1) of your 2015 goals! Winner will be selected at random on Jan 3, and the names posted on Jan 4th!

With warm aloha from Hawaii and best wishes from my family to you and yours!

The Power of Silence

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Our world is very noisy and very busy. In fact the world is so loud, it’s hard for leaders to find the space for reflection and thinking. The way we fill up our world with noise and activity, you’d think we’re actually afraid of silence.
image Consider this: most of us wake to an alarm and turn on the television to get the news of the day while we dress and eat. We then get into a car and listen to the radio for “traffic, weather, and updates on the 8’s,” followed by entry into a noisy work space filled with telephones, meetings, and perhaps even more media. If you work in an office, there’s email, video, and smartphones. At the end of the day, we’re back in the noisy car to a home where, in most American homes at least, the television is on until bedtime. There’s very little time or space in the entire day that’s quiet enough for a person to be alone with their own thoughts. Time spent in silence or at least low noise levels, therefore, has to be consciously scheduled and quiet space has to be carefully planned.

We need “quiet time” away from the noise just like we need sleep and food. In the September 25, 2013 edition of Psychology Today, healthy lifestyle author Meg Selig describes the physiological response to excessive noise as triggering a stress response:

Why is excessive noise to hazardous to your physical health? The reason is that noise causes a stress response. You hear a loud sound, and a stress cascade begins—adrenalin is released, blood vessels constrict, muscles tense, and blood pressure rises. We are not fully in control of this stress response: “Even though noise may have no relationship to danger, the body will respond automatically to noise as a warning signal.” 

In light of this kind of physiological, and even psychological, response what is the imperative for leaders? Put simply, control the noise in your life and make time to think. Excess noise leads to higher stress levels, which in turn leads to a distracted leader who won’t make good decisions, and is much more likely to lose composure. Maintaining composure, or recovering it quickly when human weakness leads to an occasional mistake, it’s a crucial leadership skill.

Time spent away from the noisy world allows leaders the opportunity to do the one thing they’re actually paid to do: think. That quiet thinking time is not merely “me” time, but time spent in active self-evaluation and organizational evaluation. We don’t always live up to our own standards, and if we don’t spend time in critically evaluating ourselves against our own standards (and our boss’ standards), we may never know whether we’re making the grade. It’s easy to allow events to consume our time and mental energy; it takes leaders to devote that energy to planning and evaluating the organization and oneself.

The idea that leaders need quiet time for reflection is not just my idea. As a student at the Eisenhower School at NDU it was my privilege to hear many highly successful people speak. The two dozen or so senior government officials & military officers, as well as executives from industry all had a similar habits: most were early risers and most used that early morning time for (among other things) reflection. In the quiet of the early morning, they set goals, evaluated themselves and their organization against those goals, read, and planned their day.

No matter how or when you do it, finding time away from the noise is crucial for leaders’ health, and their effectiveness.

What 100 Miles Taught Me

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Last Sunday, I accomplished a personal goal by completing a “century” bicycle ride.  100 miles in six and a half hours flat on a bicycle took commitment to a training schedule, some acquired knowledge on endurance nutrition, and not a small amount of determination to finish the full 100 miles.

Besides the “ordinary” preparation of putting lots of miles on my bike, I also had to learn the art of setting intermediate goals.  Just gotta make it up Heartbreak Hill, I thought at the beginning, then Makapuu, then Kailua, then the Mike’s Kiawe Chicken stand, then Kualoa Ranch, then the turn around at Swanzy Beach Park…. then the whole thing in reverse.  I never focused on the odometer, only on the next goal because I knew that if I stuck to my plan I’d make it back to Kapiolani Park in Waikiki and complete the “century.”

It’s rare, I think, to accomplish any big goal without checking off intermediate goals first.  Breaking difficult and complex tasks down into a series of steps is a good way to cope with big projects.  Sometimes biting off the entire thing can be overwhelming, intermediate steps make the big project manageable.