Leading in Uncertain Times

Like you, this past week has transformed my world.  Imagine a single strand RNA genome could create such havoc.  Actually, it is not very surprising.  We are an interconnected global ecosystem and COVID 19 has put that to the test.

There are so many leadership lessons to observe.   Some commendable –visible examples of presence, calm, focused communication, clarity, and others – well, let us just say questionable.

This week, I have watched shoppers in grocery stores acquiring supplies and daily consumer goods arguing with each other, hoarding precious commodities (okay, code for bath tissue) while others offering to share what they have secured with perfect strangers.  It has been curious to me why we suddenly decided that a COVID 19 pandemic would cause a shortage of that particular product! 

Yet it goes deeper than that for me.  What is it about human nature that causes us to have a scarcity mentality?  Is it because so much is at our fingertips?  For most of us, we never have to worry about acquiring the necessities we need when we need them.  The ambiguity of the unknown becomes scary, reduces our world to what is just in front of us; in short it becomes limiting in our minds. 

How does this translate to leadership I wondered?  Over a cup of hot tea on this snowy day, I reflected when I was leading in challenging times; when the key question for me was “how do I know what to do when I don’t know what to do”. Some musings came to mind….

Think with abundance not scarcity

When faced with change, most of us focus on what we are losing, what we do not have any more, what will be different, less than or sub-optimal.  It causes us to clutch onto our beliefs, our “things” and ways of doing our work.   As leaders in times of change we are best served to acknowledge what is going to be different, what may be lost or changed, and then gently, firmly and with realistic language switch the tone and narrative to seeing opportunity, finding abundance in the midst of chaos and driving innovation.  Some of our greatest thinking comes when we think and act “out of the box” and make do with what we have instead of what we are used to.

Avoid rumination: “Stay safe in our imagination “

Our brains are wired for “flight or fight”.  We are constantly scanning the environment for threat, danger and insecurity.  It is part of being a human.  When our senses constantly are bombarded by social media and 24/7 news feed, it is easy to lose perspective.  As leaders, if we can help our colleagues “stay safe in their imagination”, we can help them stop ruminating; the act of continuing to replay what concerns us repeatedly in our minds.  Let’s communicate good information, pragmatic and digestible data and facts, mixed with a healthy dose of support and empathy while working in uncharted spaces.  Like the moment a trapeze flyer leaves one rung to grasp another – the space in between can be both fearful and exhilarating . Keeping perspective creates forward movement which leads us to new frontiers.

Apply past lessons to future challenges

We have a rich history of human lessons of experience in our society, our work, and our lives.   Making meaning of these experiences is critical.  We owe it to ourselves to make sense of our lives- to look inward and use our lived wisdom in new situations.  We owe it to ourselves to ask the hard questions that have no right to go away.  “What did I learn from this, how am I different, what has shifted in my thinking, what skills or capabilities did I gain, how can I make sense of what I’ve never experienced before”.  As leaders, we certainly do not nor should we have all the answers for the challenges we face.  Don’t go it alone, call in your resources, solicit input from others who have had different experiences yours, put yourself in their shoes and see the world through their eyes- even if it is for a brief moment.  Only then, can you make decisions and guide the way with greater sense of certainty and confidence.

Let’s all stay healthy and safe and use this experience to help us “next time”…because there will be a “next time”.

P.S. Do wash your hands, and don’t hoard bath tissue…please!

The counter- intuitive

This week I had a chance to carve some of my own edges.  On skis in Crested Butte, the best ski town in Colorado (in my opinion).   What I love most about CB is the landscape.  The beautiful snowcapped mountains, juxtaposed against expansive open spaces.   The air is crisp and clear; the locals are warm, kind and have a keen sense of play and adventure. What is not to love?  Okay, back to my edges.

My goal was to learn become more skilled at carving- using my edges to ski down steeper runs.  Kathy, my ski instructor for the day made it look so easy.  As we settled into our lesson, I continued to make my usual mistakes.  Working too hard on my turns, leading with my shoulders and make too many quick inefficient turns.  We stopped to debrief and chat and suddenly the light went off.   Kathy had just shared a mantra with me that she has been using for years with her students. “Dive into Danger”.  While that didn’t sound so wise at 10,000 plus feet standing on waxed metal, why not try I told myself.  What did she really mean anyway? 

It turned out that I was doing all sorts of things to avoid pointing my skis straight down the hill before making my slow and controlled carving turns.  I was scared of losing control, not being able to stop and of course, falling.  I was fighting my skis and the hill and most importantly do what was completely counter- intuitive, lean down the hill.

As soon as I let go of my fear and concern, and allowed my skis to work for me – to maximize the natural edges and torque of the skis- to move with controlled speed, amazing things happened.  My turns immediately improved, the speed now helped me use the skis to their full potential.  My legs no longer burned from effort.

My experience on the slope caused me to wonder, “How often do we work against ourselves?”  What really holds us back?

When we are asked to take on a new project, or pursue that seemingly unattainable goal, how often do we lead with old techniques, mindsets or habits that won’t serve us well?  How can we find our own way and “dive into danger”.  Two things come to mind. 

Resources:  Do we have enough we ask ourselves?  Enough is an interesting concept.  What is enough really?  One definition is “”as many as required”.  I prefer the synonym sufficient, “enough to meet the needs of the situation” (Merriam Webster).  We often think resources are about quantity- more people, time and/or money.  How often do we think about using the resources we have in new ways?  To manage with what we have but eliminating unnecessary effort. To do the counter-intuitive?  Just like working those edges on the mountain, how might we move out of our comfort zone to work in new ways?  To stop doing what isn’t working and focus on what is.

Work- arounds: If we stopped to realize how many work- arounds happen in our business lives, we might be shocked.  Like urban legends, they persist over time often without truth or value.  Yet, they serve a purpose- to get the work out the door.  Just like the work arounds I created on the mountain to avoid falling, there is a better way.  Unpack it all, examine the inefficiencies and start again with a new technique. What would happen if we stopped building onto old job descriptions and existing roles just because they have always existed and listen to the people actually in them?  What do our talented people need more or less of to do amazing work? It is our job as managers and leaders to support their insights and help them make it happen.

My day on the slopes was shape shifting for me.  I woke up dreading another day of effort and returned with the satisfaction that there was indeed a new way of thinking and doing. The counter- intuitive created possibilities.   What might happen in your world if you were to think about your edges?

Joanie Gurvis in the mountains

Personal Leadership

The truth is I have never written a blog post before. Yes, that is correct; you are reading my very first one. I wondered what to write about as I sat down to organize my thoughts.  Then it came to me, why not blog a bit about me, and tell you why I selected the word Edgeline in name Edgeline Leadership Group.  Actually, the simple answer is that I chose this name because it reminded me of what it has been like for me to navigate in life’s hard places. 

As I reflect about my own experiences and the times when I have felt “on the edge” three perspectives come to mind that have been useful to me in helping me to find the means to step through the discomfort. 

  • Face the challenge with everything you have
  • Don’t be afraid to stand in the thick of it
  • Looking back can help you see the way forward

Shortly after I moved to Colorado, my husband and I went skiing for a long weekend in Crested Butte.  (one of my favorite places to ski).  The snow was magnificent- deep champagne powder.  There was only one problem.  I grew up skiing in New England; yep – little powder lots of ice.  What was this stuff?  As I careened down the hill feeling pure joy it happened. I fell, tumbling backwards and as I did, my ACL tore along with a few other things.  Things changed quickly for me.  Significant pain, a brace, waiting for the surgery to be scheduled, imagining what the recovery would be like.  I had this big job to contend with – there was no time for recovery.  My surgeon was amazing and told me that the recovery would be a year- at the year mark he said, “I meant two…it would have been overwhelming to hear that any sooner”.  In those two years I learned how to walk on crutches, how to walk properly again, to understand the pain of just trying to turn the bicycle in PT one rotation, hours in the pool for water therapy and putting on a serene face at work when all I wanted to do was cry.   While my knee healed beautifully, I forgot to heal the rest of me.  My head was a mess.  I experienced depression related to the general anesthesia from the two surgeries exacerbated by the stress of work.  It was all overwhelming.  My husband was a huge support when at the end of each week all I could do was cry.  I had a choice- to have this define me or step into it – face what was hard and get over it.  Fortunately, I chose the latter.  What better place to start then back on skis.  We found an instructor who gave me a few lessons- about technique but mostly about how to get my head back into the game.  Focus, breathe, visualize, and relax.  It worked. I translated that mantra into the rest of my life and work.  I created time to mediate, to intentionally decompress, not try to take it all on at once and look for joy in unexpected places.  It took effort, intention, and all of my being to regain my health – and perspective.  

I suppose as I unpack that experience, my take a ways are small but powerful.  Somehow, as I was growing up I lost my fearlessness and became a cautious adult.  To have a plan B and C was my strategy.   Not a bad approach, and yet those alternate plans kept me from fully experiencing what was challenging and uncomfortable right in front of me.  It was more alluring to think about how to bail out then to dive in.  When I learned to stand in the thick of the challenge, to stop and be present with what was hard, to face down reality I grew stronger, clearer, and at peace with myself.  Looking back and learn from that experience has helped me in so many ways.  I learned to admit when it is getting hard, to ask for help and support if I need it, to focus on what I can do, think about safe experiments and to walk the edge- that line between uncertainty and certainty is what makes us human.

Community Leadership

Some of my most powerful leadership lessons have come from my community service experiences. I really believe that community service – whether it is serving on a board, volunteering at a local nonprofit, coaching a sports team, being part of a community action coalition or showing up to staff your hometown food kitchen is a powerful playing field for developing leadership “muscle memory”.

The opportunities for gaining lessons such as influencing without direct authority, negotiating for limited resources or doing more with less, delegating, shaping organizational culture, mobilizing people around a clear and compelling vision…the list goes on. You get the idea. At work, we feel real pressure to perform in our leadership roles, formal or informal. The risks/stakes may seem higher – and so is our accompanying fear of failure or sense of vulnerability. So if you want make a difference for your community while at the same time flexing new leadership muscles, consider choosing roles or volunteer activities that will help you practice aspects of your leadership skill set that you want to intentionally grow or develop. Think of it as a way to learn in new contexts and without the same pressures you have at work. Try it..and see what happens.

Stepping back not down

Stepping back not down

My world was suddenly shifting.  Of course I knew it was coming but not at that particular moment.  I was seated comfortably (that is the operative word) in my role as a Managing Director of the Business Unit I was leading.  My boss walked into my office very cheerily and said, “this is it, your time is over and we’re executing the transition to your successor”.   I didn’t even realize I had a successor. We had never spoken of that, much less how to communicate the change, how to prepare her for the role and when to tell my direct reports.  In the scramble to do all that in short order, I was left feeling lost, isolated and sad. What would be next for me?

As I lamented my position to a very wise friend (okay there were several glasses of red wine involved) she said to me…”Joanie- you are stepping back, not down”.   I thought about that comment for a long time. I wouldn’t be honest if I didn’t admit that moving from Senior Leadership into an Individual Contributor role was more than a little adjustment. Among the things I missed most was being “in the know” about what was happening in the organization.  The information flow shut off like a faucet the day I transitioned with just an occasional drip of intel.

What did it really mean to step back?

Let go of who you think you are

At some level, I know that our roles, our reputations, or positions within an organization don’t define us.  Yet to some degree, I felt they did for me. My friend insistently reminded me that I had an entire life to define me not just my work.  Hmm…what was she hinting at? It became clear that I had to let go of who I thought I was and spend time figuring out who I really was. 

The answer came to me for work first.  Now, I was an organizational citizen-not bound by my work group or functional area.   I had years of experience; depth and breadth in my company more than 20+ years’ worth.  I intentionally shaped my brand to be that of a connector – to where we have been to where we were going, connecting people, the dots, being a perspective taker and perspective shaker.  Suddenly I felt free.

In my personal life I worked on building my “cabinet” the women who I could hike with, laugh and cry with, who I could count on to see just me.  As I expanded my hobbies and found a passion in fly fishing- discovering that there was sufficient time to be present, still, relaxed.

Take stock of lessons learned

There was so much that I learned while I was a Senior Leader.  The lessons didn’t really become apparent to me until I stepped back and looked at that time through a different lens.  At first, I focused on all the “do overs” rethinking big decisions and dilemma’s…and then I realized that at the time I did the best with what I had and what I knew.  Time to put that to rest. I took thoughtful time to just let is all sit- to not guess what would emerge. 

In the end, I learned that not taking myself so seriously would have served me well.  To have the intention to ask more curious questions, the courage to be more fully present and the openness to find more joy in the journey.   To not feel burdened by knowing all that there was to know.

A gift was given to me that day when I was asked to step down and a bigger one when I realized that stepping back actually creates space to move forward.