Staying calm is a choice

In business lots of things can get us worked up – even when we’re not in the midst of a pandemic quarantine. We frequently don’t get to choose our circumstances – but we always get to choose how we respond to those circumstances.

Me, trying to stay calm

That’s what was going through my head yesterday as I was transferring four frames of honey bees from two nucs to two, ten-frame hives. Why?

As bee keeping experts will tell you, bees pick up on your stress, so it’s important to remain calm while you’re working with them. That’s what I was telling myself as I peeled back the lid to the first nuc and exposed thousands of bees.

And it was easy to remain calm while they sat on the frames in the nuc. But the calm didn’t last long. Once I started removing the frames, those previously calm bees started swarming and buzzing around my head. And if you’ve never experienced that before, I promise you that my first instinct was not one of calm.

Here’s the thing, I had to continually remind myself to stay calm. The first frame won’t easily slide out? Stay calm. The top box is heavier than I remembered and I almost drop it? Stay calm.

I think business is the same way. We know that finding order in chaos is an important attribute of leadership today, according to Justin Menkes in his fantastic book, Better Under Pressure. But it’s usually not our natural response when things don’t go according to plan. That’s okay. Just remind yourself that this is a normal response – but it’s also one that you can change.

What happens if you don’t remain calm? When you’re working with bees, they get stressed and start attacking. And then you get more stressed and the negative feedback loop continues. In business, it’s the same way. It’s often not the negative event that kills a business. It’s our negative response to that event that does it. By responding in a state of stress, we just make the situation worse.

So, how do you stay calm? By constantly reminding yourself. It’s that easy and that hard. You must choose calm, especially when everything swarming around you is pushing you in the opposite direction.

Only Coach the Coachable

I’m a third of the way through reading the Trillion Dollar Coach. At the end of chapter three, the authors summarize Bill Campbell’s coaching style:

He started by building trust, which only deepened over time. He was highly selective in choosing his coachees; he would only coach the coachable, the humble, hungry lifelong learners. He listened intently, without distraction. He usually didn’t tell you what to do; rather, he shared stories and let you draw conclusions. He gave, and demanded, complete candor. And he was an evangelist for courage, by showing inordinate confidence and setting aspirations high.

This is a great summary of the book so far and the recipe for being a great coach. But the one line that stood out the most to me was: “he would only coach the coachable, the humble, hungry lifelong learners.” It’s really tough to coach someone who doesn’t want to be coached, even (especially) if they need it.

In order for coaching to succeed, the “want to” of the coachee is more important than the “have to.”

Resilience > stability

I recently read Simon Sinek’s latest book, The Infinite Game. It has a lot that can be applied to the current situation we’re in with COVID-19. One I’ve been thinking about the past week is the need to build companies for resiliency rather than stability.

And it’s how companies perform in times of crisis that determines the difference. Here’s how Sinek puts it:

An infinite-minded leader does not simply want to build a company that can weather change but one that can be transformed by it. They want to build a company that embraces surprises and adapts with them. Resilient companies may come out the other end of upheaval entirely different than they were when they went in (and are often grateful for the transformation.

Sinek said something similar in a virtual meeting with his team that he posted on his YouTube channel:

Leaders who are building companies for stability are simply waiting for the current crisis to pass so they can go back to doing the exact same thing as before. But crises always leave their mark and leave the world in a different place. Resilient companies understand this and are – right now – planning for what they’ll do differently in a different world.

The Purpose, Partners and Plans of Paul

We’re in Holy Week and today is Maundy Thursday, so I thought it appropriate to post about a sermon my friend Jason Folkerts preached at our church a little over a month ago.

Jason preached on Acts 18:1-4. To me, the four verses seemed like an unimportant introduction to the rest of the chapter, but in Jason’s hands, they uncovered the most important thing about Paul’s mission to take the good news of the Gospel beyond his nation.

Purpose

“After this Paul left Athens and went to Corinth (18:1).” Athens was the intellectual center of the world. A place where the scholar and theologian Paul would have felt right at home.

What would cause him to leave Athens for a port town like Corinth? His was following his purpose that we learned about in Acts 9:15. Pursuing his calling necessitated that Paul leave the familiar and comfortable for something new and uncertain.

Partners

“There he found a Jew named Aquila, a native of Pontus, who had recently come from Italy with his wife Priscilla, because Claudius had ordered all Jews to leave Rome. Paul went to see them, and, because he was of the same trade, he stayed with them, and they worked together—by trade they were tentmakers. (18:2-3).” Paul didn’t go to Corinth and try to do it all on his own. He got partners from the city and worked with them.

As Jason pointed out, when God is up to something really good, it’s rarely around one person. Even someone as influential as the Apostle Paul had partners that he worked with throughout his ministry.

Plan

“Every sabbath he would argue in the synagogue and would try to convince Jews and Greeks (18:4).” Lastly, Paul had a plan for accomplishing his mission. Every sabbath he went to the place where practitioners and seekers of religion gathered for debate.

I like the word “every” at the start of verse four. To me, it shows commitment to the plan. I think of Paul on the days he didn’t feel like going to the synagogue, but doing it anyway out of commitment to his plan. His plan wasn’t just a dream. He built a routine.

So, the Apostle Paul had a purpose that was bigger than himself, he joined with other people to complete the important work, and he followed a plan.

How did that turn out? Maundy Thursday is a celebration of the Last Supper, when most of the Christians fit around one table. Today, Christianity has almost 2.5 billion followers. That would require a little bit bigger table.

Finding order in chaos

In his book, Better Under Pressure, Justin Menkes has identified three traits that enable the most successful business leaders to operate in challenging times: realistic optimism, subservience to purpose and finding order in chaos.

The ability to find order in chaos seems most applicable today, so I want to focus on the two elements that make up that trait.

First, is maintaining clarity of thought. In times of stress, the best leaders don’t just tolerate the stress. They use it to motivate themselves and the people they lead to focus on the right priorities.

One of the biggest temptations in the midst of a crisis is to become consumed by it to the point that all you can focus on is what’s right in front of you. As Menkes writes, “You’ve got to be thinking about how it’s going to be when you come out of it, not just six months from now, but six years from now.”

That’s where crises can actually be useful tools – if used correctly. They can help the leader focus the team on the essentials of the business and pursue them relentlessly.

Second is being driven to solve the puzzle. Business today, in a rapidly changing marketplace, is little more than a never-ending series of puzzles to be solved. As Menkes writes, “there is always a critical puzzle to solve.”

Successful leaders get curious in a crisis. How can we get through this and come out stronger on the other side? How have people navigated something like this before? What’s the next step?

I’ve talked to dozens of business leaders over the past few weeks, in various stages of the ability to find order in chaos. And here’s the takeaway: it wasn’t their circumstances that influenced this most directly.

One calm leader I talked to was at the head of a company in a good state – still doing some business, no debt, good cash position, and he was methodically meeting the crisis of COVID-19. Another, had completely shut his doors and furloughed is entire staff. He was also confident that they were in a good spot and was focused on applying for the SBA Paycheck Protection Program.

That’s the message of Menkes’ book. Leaders can’t control their circumstances, but they can always control how they respond to those circumstances. How you respond to a crisis – from a small personnel issue to one as a big as a new coronavirus – determines your ability to lead.

Never Waste a Crisis

Never waste a crisis. Depending on which Google link you follow, that was first said by Niccolo Machiavelli or Winston Churchill (both of who I enjoy immensely, BTW). Whoever said it, it’s been on my mind these past few weeks during the economic slowdown caused by the government response to COVID-19.

It was also a frequent theme in Better Under Pressure: How Great Leaders Bring Out the Best in Themselves and Others, which I read while trying to discern what leading in this crisis would require of me.

In the book, author Justin Menkes tells the story of a new CEO who was facing almost insurmountable problems. But, instead of correcting the problems, “he embarked on changing the whole organizational culture to one that focused on putting forth excellence in every aspect of the business.

Most people resist change until forced. That’s why, as a business leader, you should never waste a crisis. The CEO mentioned above used the crisis to force the kind of tectonic shift in the company that made it less susceptible to future crises. As Menkes writes, he “fixed the cause of the problem, and the problem itself went away.

How are you going to make sure you don’t waste this crisis? Have your people grown complacent and in need of a motivational purpose? Have they become siloed and lacking a rallying cry to unite them? Have they gotten sloppy and ready to be called back to excellence? That’s the role of the leader.

Don’t simply respond to the crisis. Use it to become the kind of organization that is impervious to crises.

There’s a lot more to say about this book, and I will likely say more here. If you want more now, I recorded an episode of Mastering Your Mindset on Better Under Pressure: