Time to Debrief

When a United States Air Force Squadron undertakes a mission they invest time to plan the mission down to the smallest detail. They then execute the mission according to the plan. Upon their return to base they meet again to debrief. They discuss what worked, they discuss what didn’t and they discuss what they could do better next time. 

These are brutally honest meetings, rank and friendships are set aside. The goal is to learn from every mission. Every mission must be better and safer than the mission that came before it. 

Many of the pilots would tell you that other than hitting the target itself the most critical part of the entire operation is the debrief. All future success comes from those vital debrief meetings. 

As we approach the end of the 12 month period we call 2021 it’s time to think about debriefing the year. 

2021 was another unpredictable and challenging year. But if you’re reading this then it’s likely you’ll survive it to tackle 2022. It would be foolish for any of us to expect a return to the old normal so we need to learn as much as possible from the year that is coming to a close.

How you choose to reflect on 2021 is a personal choice but here are some of the things I’ll be considering. Keep in mind, the goal of my personal debrief is a better 2022.

The first thing I need to consider is who I choose to associate with. I alone can control the content I allow into my mind. The people I associate with put thoughts into my head. There is nothing I can humanly do to change that. But I can decide who I will and won’t associate with. So one of my biggest questions for my debrief is, “did I associate with enough positive people?” Are you allowing too many negative thoughts to creep into your head or are you focusing on the positive? 

You get to make the final decision on whether or not you’ll have a positive attitude but other people influence your decision. Make sure it’s the right people influencing your decision .

I always start with attitude because once you get your attitude right everything else, and I do mean everything, becomes much much easier. 

My other questions are what worked? What didn’t? What did I learn? What will I do stop doing in the coming year? What will I begin? How will I use what I’ve learned to be a better resource for my customers and colleagues? Most important, how will I use what I have learned in this still challenging year to be a better husband, parent, sibling or friend?

Once this year is passed whatever you’ve accomplished or failed to accomplish will be behind you. Guess that’s why it’s called the past. Because it’s in the past it’s far less important than what’s in front of you. 

Even if 2021 wasn’t all you hoped for you can use it to ensure a better 2022 and remember it’s YOUR future, only YOU get to define what better is for you. 

Reflect on that and then reflect on your year. 2022 is fast approaching and how you start the year is a great predictor of how you’ll finish it. 

Engaged Leadership

I’ve never been a huge fan of companies doing culture surveys. Most companies that use them do the surveys every couple of years to take the “pulse” of the company and determine what the employees are thinking. 

The survey questions typically ask about how the company is treating them. How the leadership of the company is doing. If they “like” working there and on it goes. 

I suppose asking once every couple of years is better than not asking at all but not by much. What I really hope is that no company that conducts a culture survey is surprised by the responses. 

If a company’s leadership team is surprised by the results of a company survey then that company’s leadership team is not engaged with it’s employees. If the survey was about the culture of the company and the leadership team is surprised by the results then it’s very likely the culture is not very good.

I’d much prefer to see an organization’s leadership team doing mini culture surveys on a daily basis. An EVERY SINGLE DAY basis. The easiest way to do that is to have members of a company’s leadership team do five minute “innerviews” with at least one team member a day. Note I did not say “interviews,” I said “innerviews.” An interview is what you do when you hire someone. An “innerview” is what you do when you want to know how they, are the company are doing. 

For an Authentic Leader those five minutes are frequently their most important minutes of the day. First, they discover how they and the people they lead are doing. Are their people engaged and prospering? Do their people have ideas that could help the organization be better? Do that have family and friends who would be a good addition to the organization? What changes would they make if they were in charge? 

The second thing an “innerview” accomplishes is showing that the leadership team is listening. It shows that the leadership team is engaged. It demonstrates that the leadership team cares.

Conducting daily “innerviews” requires the leadership team to be “out there” interacting with every level of their organization. It gives them visibility within the organization and breaks down barriers that are common in companies with poor culture. 

If you hold a leadership position in your organization then you must understand that you need to be seen to be relevant. You need to be IN the organization not merely at the top of it. 

So ask yourself these questions: How many different people in your organization did you talk with last week? We’re they the same ones you talked to the week before? And the week before that? Were they all near the top level of leadership in the company?

If you’re only interacting with other senior leaders in your organization then the information you’re receiving is heavily filtered. It is filtered by the experiences and biases of the other senior leaders providing the information. If they got the information second hand or third hand then by the time you hear it you might as well not have heard it at all. 

The culture of an organization is incredibly important. Many would say it’s more important than all the strategies and tactics you’ll ever have. As a leader you don’t evaluate your strategies every couple of years. You should not evaluate the culture in your organization every couple of years either. 

Take the pulse of your organization every single day. Be an engaged leader. Lead by walking around and while you’re walking, stop frequently to talk with people to see how you, and the organization you lead, are doing. 

If you occupy a leadership position and you’re not regularly engaging with people at all levels of your organization then you may be managing the business but you’re not leading it’s people.

Defeat Isn’t Bitter…Unless

Defeat is only bitter if you choose to swallow it. Sooner or later everyone who tries something new to improve their lot in life will experience failure. Trying anything is a risk and the fact is, the more we are willing to risk the more we will fail. Defeat, at least occasionally, is inevitable. 

The people who eventually turn out to be the most successful are the ones who viewed their early defeats as part of the process of achieving ultimate success. They accepted the defeat, learned from it and moved on. 

Learning from a failure or defeat is essential to ultimate success. Truly successful people do not endlessly repeat the same mistakes. They keep the lesson from the mistake top of mind but they let go of the mistake itself. They linger on the mistake only long enough to be certain it’s not going to show up again. Once that certainty exists the mistake is quickly forgotten. 

People who refuse to swallow the bitterness of defeat do not blame others for their failure. They analyze what worked, what didn’t, why it didn’t and then they accept responsibility to make whatever changes are required to avoid repeating the same mistake. They may make new ones but they understand that even new mistakes indicate a level of progress. 

People who succeed despite the occasional defeat keep their emotions in check. They don’t get too excited by a win and they don’t get too low from a loss. Defeats simply build their resolve to try harder next time. Defeat spurs them on to develop a better plan for the next attempt and provides them energy to implement the better plan. 

People who refuse to swallow the bitter pill of defeat consistently validate themselves. They remind themselves that even champions rarely go undefeated. While they accept responsibility for what went wrong they don’t wear failure like anchor. They remind themselves of past successes and the failures it took to achieve it.

They know they can succeed. They believe in themselves. They trust themselves. They push themselves. They hold themselves accountable. They know they are a product of the decisions they make and the decisions they don’t. They know mistakes of omission are as costly as mistakes of commission so they take action even when the outcome is uncertain. 

When you start tasting the bitterness of defeat spit it out. Spit it out, a take a sip of a new, fresh tasting idea that helps you change direction towards success.

Like most things in life swallowing defeat is a choice to be made…or not. 

Choose not!

Think About This…But NOT for Too Long

Thinking is a very good thing to do. It seems as if a whole lot of people would be better off if they did more of it. Everyone knows that it is best to think before they speak. Clearly not everyone knows it’s best to think before they post. I am shocked by what people will tweet or post to Facebook (is that still the name?) and other social media sites. I can’t believe they thought at all before posting some of what I see and if they did we are in worse shape then I would have ever believed. 

But doing too much of a good thing can turn it into a bad thing. So it is with thinking. 

Overthinking can be as bad as not thinking at all. Sometimes it’s even worse because overthinking can create problems that were not there in the first place. It can even create problems that are nothing more than a figment of the over-thinker’s imagination. 

The most surprising thing about overthinking is that it seems the smarter you are the more prone you are to fall into the overthinking trap. All that knowledge can cause you to over prepare and over analyze. 

It’s good to be thoughtful and use your experience when making a decision. Just be mindful as well of the danger of paralysis by analysis that too often comes with overthinking. 

Overthinking is the most common way smart people sabotage their own success. 

Partly because of what I do for a living a attend a lot of conference type meetings. That’s where I see smart people endlessly toiling away in front of a screen trying to create the perfect PowerPoint slides. Thinking and rethinking and thinking some more about exactly what they want to say. Changing one slide after another to get the exact “look” that will make their message connect with their audience. 

In 1000’s of meetings like that with a countless number of attendees I have never heard “wow, that was the most awesome PowerPoint I’ve ever seen, it totally made the presentation.” 

If you think your PowerPoint is the centerpiece of your presentation your thinking has missed the mark. PowerPoint should be a bit player behind your staring role. Whenever I see people fussing with their PowerPoint right up until the second they are presenting I know they are over thinking their presentation. WAY overthinking. 

Just an aside to all the presenters reading this. If you know what you’re talking about then use your slides to merely support your presentation. If you don’t know what you’re talking about then don’t be doing a presentation. 

Napoleon Hill wrote one of the all time greatest books titled “Think and Grow Rich.” He lived long ago but his principles still perfectly apply today. Obviously I never met him but I’ll bet if he would have written a sequel to that book it would have been titled “Over Think and Lose The Riches You Earned by Thinking. (Okay, I know his editor would have made him shorten the title but you get the point)

Do not limit your success by overthinking. Once your knowledge, your experience and your instincts tell you to act then act. Don’t let the same brain that informed you of what to do take that decision away from you by thinking and rethinking. Act!

Are you an “over-thinker?” Think about it…but not for too long.

Why Would Your People Leave?

I’ve written about this before so it should come as no surprise that I’m not a fan of exit interviews. Most people are not fully transparent with their answers for a variety of reasons. Some don’t believe the company they are leaving will actually act on anything they say. Considering most of the people are leaving because the company never listened to them it’s easy to see how they would feel that way. 

Some just don’t care. They have emotionally moved on to their next job or their next opportunity and they want to make the exit interview as short as possible. 

But the big reason I do not like exit interviews is because they fall into the “too little too late” category. Finding out why someone left after they have made the decision to leave is far less effective in building a strong work force than finding out how you can keep them from leaving in the first place. 

So I am a fan of a “stay interview.” A stay interview is something that happens on a semi regular basis. A leader can either conduct a more formal interview asking a series of questions all at once or they can “deconstruct” the interview and ask the questions here and there over a longer period of time. 

I am a bigger fan of the deconstructed method because it drives more consistent dialogue between a leader and their people. Either way here are a few examples of the types of questions I suggest for a stay interview.

What part of your work do you find most enjoyable? The point of this question is simple, do you know what your people like about their job. Do you know what it is that keeps them engaged and committed? It’s interesting to note that in 25 years working in corporate America I have never heard of a single employee asked this question by their leader. 

What might make your work life easier? Many leaders don’t ask this question because they simply don’t want to know the answer. Knowing what they could do to make life easier for their people causes the leader to have a sense of responsibility to do it. Authentic Leaders accept that responsibility, lesser leaders do not. 

What three ways would you like to be recognized and rewarded? Here’s another question that many people in leadership positions don’t want to ask. But recognition is a form of reward in itself. Leaders who know how their people want to be recognized can target much more impactful recognition instead of the more common “one size fits all” approach.

When was the last time you were recognized by me or the company? Leaders most often decline to ask this question because the answer is frequently awkward…since the answer is too often, “I have no idea.” But this is a leadership accountability question. If your people don’t feel as if they are being recognized then they aren’t being recognized, no matter if the leader thinks they are or not.

What can I do to ensure we never lose you as a member of our team? Be prepared for some surprising answers, many of which you would have never thought of on your own. 

What different jobs or roles might you envision yourself doing in the future? Leaders grow their business by growing people. Don’t “plant” your people in a field where they have no interest in growing. Feeling “stuck” leads people to disengage. Authentic Leaders know that the most expensive employees are not the ones who are paid the most, it is the ones who are least engaged.

What would cause you to leave our company? Yep, ask it. Might take a bit to muster up the courage to ask this but this is where the rubber meets the road. This question alone could bring the “Great Resignation” to a screeching halt. But somehow, many many leaders are too afraid of the answer to ask it. Authentic leaders ask it then they act on it.

How can I be a better leader for you? Let me assure you that your people don’t have to be leadership experts to answer this question. Give them some time to gather their thoughts on this one. Maybe circle back with them later in the week. Your success as a leader is completely dependent upon the success of your people. You can help them be more successful but they can return the favor…if you’ll let them. 

Above all your people need to know you’re asking these questions because you care about them as people. They need to know there are no consequences for their answers, only possible improvement. Improvement in their situation, improvement in your leadership abilities and improvement in the company as a whole. 

Don’t wait until you’re asking your people why they are leaving. Ask now what you can do to ensure they never do.

If They Didn’t Hear it Then You Didn’t Say It

Leaders must be effective communicators. They must accept 100% responsibility for the success of all communications. When what they communicated was fully understood by those it was communicated to then and only then has successful communication taken place. 

Authentic Leaders never assume that communication has taken place merely because they said something. They don’t use more words than are required to clearly communicate. They don’t use bigger words than needed to be completely understood. 

They also don’t blame others for their failure to communicate effectively. They ask follow-up questions of the person they are talking with to determine if what was heard matches what they said. 

Notice I said “talking with,” not talking to. The most effective communicators understand the difference between a monologue and a dialogue. Authentic leaders know that true communication is an exchange of information.  That’s why they listen as much as they talk, actually many listen more than they talk. 

Lack of communication or miscommunication is the genesis of most conflict. 

If you’re a leader and your people didn’t understand what you communicated then you didn’t communicate. At least not effectively. You may have been better off saying nothing at all. 

Never mistake talking for communicating. Speak and listen. Verify what was said was actually heard. Verify what you heard was actually said. Authentic leaders don’t guess at what was said and they don’t assume what they said was heard. 

Poor communication skills can stop the momentum of the best organizations. It can damage the morale of the of even the most positive people. It can undermine the culture of a company. Poor communication starts more rumors than a room full of gossiping fools. 

Improve your communication skills and you’ll improve all aspects of your leadership. Struggle with your communication skills and all of your relationships will suffer as a result. 

They are called communication “skills” because like any skill they can developed and enhanced. You only have to commit to make it so!

When Decisions go Wrong

I remember the day in high school when I learned the importance of making a decision. I was a senior at an all male military school and I had been put in charge of a company of mostly Freshman students. 

We were on the rifle range teaching these mostly 14 and 15 year olds how to load, site and fire a weapon. Whenever live ammo and guns were present there was a heightened sense of awareness and even as a 17 year old senior I took the responsibility very seriously. Everything was going just fine until one of the freshman had a misfire on the range. Despite discussing and showing everyone exactly what to do in case of a misfire he was confused and perhaps a little afraid about what to do. 

He looked back at his platoon leader for direction and his platoon leader, a junior with the rank of Second Lieutenant froze. The Second Lieutenant hesitated and looked at me. The freshman turned around to look at me too. He was still holding his rifle which was now pointing at me… then it went off.

I felt this funny feeling in my foot, I don’t really recall it hurting that much, I didn’t fall or anything but it kind of burned. Our active army personnel on the range immediately starting yelling “guns down, guns down” and I still wasn’t quite sure what the big deal was. 

It turns out the big deal was that I was shot in the foot. Because it didn’t hurt that bad I might have been most unhappy about the hole in my absolutely perfectly polished shoe. The kid whose gun discharged looked like he was going to pass out. 

Our active army personnel that day included a Sargent Major who was furious. Now who do you think he was most furious with? Nope, not me. Not the freshman whose gun went off either. He left the freshman for me to deal with. The Sargent Major started ripping the platoon leader a new one. 

I remember his words from that day more than anything else. He told the platoon leader that his mistake was in hesitating when an immediate decision needed to be made. The mistake was in not telling the freshman to do something, anything, except turn around with a loaded gun in his hand. It was just a moment of indecision but it turned out to be a pretty big moment. 

It certainly left on mark on me, in more ways than one.

The decisions that are most wrong are often the ones you never make. Not making a decision IS in fact a decision… it’s a decision to do nothing and doing nothing almost never works out well.

Authentic Leaders do not make the “no decision” mistake. They know it’s in fact easier to fix a wrong decision than no decision. Decisions, once acted upon, created momentum. That momentum can be used to change direction faster than starting from a full stop. 

Decide to act…because that’s what Authentic Leaders do!

BTW, if you’re wondering what happened to the freshman well, he went away. We invested hours and hours on gun safety before live ammo was ever brought into the range. He violated one of the most basic safety protocols, he pointed a weapon at someone he didn’t intend to shoot. You don’t get to make that mistake twice, even if the weapon hadn’t discharged he would have been dismissed. Despite what you may have heard, some rules are not meant to be broken.