How to Help Leaders Figure out Where They are Going

5 Keys to Avoid Being Merely Busy

You’ve all heard the one about the airline pilot who came over the intercom with a good news/bad news announcement. The bad news was that they were completely lost. The good news was that they were making great time. Many leaders are making great time all the while being completely lost.

Few things are as deceptive as thinking that activity equates to real movement.

This was the problem with one of the agencies I was coaching. I asked the leadership team what they used to assess whether their work day was a good one or not. To a person, their evaluative tool was how many items they could check off their to-do list.

Even while we were meeting, at each coffee break, the smartphones and tablets would immediately come out. They scrambled to get as many replies to texts or emails sent back out as possible. Completely lost but making great time.

Busyness is not the same as moving in a direction. Many times you may only be spinning in a circle. Quite active but accomplishing little. And it’s much easier to appear busy than to be held accountable for actually accomplishing the mission of the company or agency or project.

To avoid the deception that being merely busy can create, leaders must start with setting direction. Setting direction is about target. A leader must take time to think, figure out, and plan the direction to steer things.

Setting direction is not something that is obvious. Often the things that seem most obvious tend to be very short-sighted with no long-term advantages.

Here are five key questions to help with setting direction.

1. Where? Where are you going? What’s the goal? What’s needed? What are the outcomes you’re after? What’s the destination you’re shooting for? What gets most leaders in trouble with this one is that the direction is assumed to be obvious, or it is not as clear to the others as the leader thinks it is.

2. Why? Why are you going there? What are the justifications for the endeavor? Is there a good rationale for what you’re wanting to do? What will be gained or accomplished by doing it? Is it worth their time, energy, and effort? Is it compelling?

I asked a team of leaders to write down two reasons each for the major project they were wanting to launch. I then had them read out loud what they wrote. My response was in the form of a question. “How many of these reasons would get you out of bed in the morning?”

One replied with head down, “Not very compelling, were they?” I went on to say, “You have 300 staff coming in tomorrow. Yet, you’re not really convinced of this major new direction you want them to embrace. How then do you think you can convince them?”

3. What? What does it look like when accomplished? Clearly communicate what fulfillment looks like. This is where many leaders miss it because it is assumed.

An example: For those with teens, how many times have you asked your son or daughter to clean their room? After some initial complaints, they say, “OK.” You come back an hour later to the same disarray. You then say, “I thought I asked you to clean up your room?” Their reply, “I did.” And they mean it. The problem? Different assumptions of what a clean room looks like. The end result was not spelled out.

4. What? The second what is ‘What are your present realities?” That is, “Where are you now?” What are the real obstacles and opportunities you are currently facing. Why ask this? Because while you may have the long goal in view, your current situation may prompt a new, immediate and temporary change in direction.

I like to use the analogy of golf to illustrate this. Standing on the tee box, you can see the flag on the green - your target. Yet, your drive off the tee leaves your golf ball squarely behind a big tree. You cannot hit through the tree. You still see the flag stick but cannot go directly toward it. Your present reality requires you to change direction. You must hit safely into the fairway again. Perpendicular to your initial direction.Then you’ll be able to continue toward the original goal of the flag stick.

5. Which? Which boundaries will get you there? What drives success? Boundaries are a handful of essential guardrails that make sure certain things happen and prevent other things from happening. It is determining what you will allow and what you will not allow. Reality reminds us that the process of getting there has many distractions that may keep you busy but not on target. What will you do and what will you not do to get there?

A classic example of this is when Steve Jobs came back to Apple. They were in big trouble with dozens of projects in various stages of development but sales slim. After sitting through a production meeting talking about the myriad projects, Jobs had had it. He screamed, “This is crazy.”

He went to the dry board and drew a horizontal line and a vertical line. Above the columns he wrote, consumer and pro and next to the rows, desktop and portable. He then said the task for Apple was to make one great product for each quadrant. It was reported that the room sat in stunned silence at the setting of boundaries. And as the saying goes, “the rest is history.”

These questions take time to process well. They need to be reviewed periodically. With careful thought and consideration, they can help the leader move in the right direction. Beware of being completely lost but making great time.

Which of these questions do you need to answer right now? How would it keep you from being busy?

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