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.

Get Bitter, or Get Better

In his sermon this morning, my pastor had a great message for everyone who has had life upended by COVID-19. The advice he gave to our congregation is useful for any person or organization dealing with this crisis, or, as he stated, any crisis that comes along.

Think about not getting caught waiting; waiting for everything to return to normal…most likely things are going to be different in the future. There’s no going back to what was, so we need to lean into what’s coming and not miss out on the opportunity that this season – this situation – gives us. We want to look back at what we’ve lived through in this season and accept the challenge of it for what it is and see it as a part of moving forward.

So my challenge to us is this: ‘Are you going to look back at this season with rejoicing or with regret? Are you going to rejoice in the opportunities that you had to learn and to grow and to engage with your life in a new and maybe different way and set yourself up for a better future or are you going to regret having all of the time that you’ve had and all this opportunity that you’ve had different than it’s been before; are you going to regret not having taken advantage of this opportunity. Are you going to sit back and let this all happen around you and to you or are you going to grab a hold of the opportunity and grow into what you want to become when this is all done and we’re on to whatever the new normal is after the storm?’

As pastor McCready said, we get to choose how we respond to the crisis – we have a choice in how we respond when anything in our life doesn’t go the way we want. He put it like this:

“In every storm, we have a chance to respond. We have the choice. We can either get bitter or we can get better.” Pastor Bill McCready

So, what mindset will you choose in the midst of COVID-19? Are you going to use the time of isolation to get better? To read good books, build new skills, shape better habits? Prepare for a new future Or, just follow Twitter and Google News all day and get bitter, hoping that the world quickly goes back to what it was? It’s your choice.

Here’s his full message:

What I read last quarter

I read. A lot. Last year, I read 164 books. No, that’s not a typo. Yes, that’s an average of three books per week. I’ve been asked how I can possibly get to that many books and there are three reasons:

  1. I don’t sleep much
  2. I cut the cable cord years ago and mostly replaced it with audio books
  3. I love to read all kinds of books

And thanks to COVID-19, I’ve suddenly had a lot more time to read. It’s not because work has changed; for me it really hasn’t. But, rather, all of the family activities have been canceled and I have more of my nights free. Since we’re all dealing with social isolation, I thought it would be a good time to launch this blog.

I had planned to start it anyway, because this year I’m taking a little more time to document what I’m learning from all these books. So, each month I’m going to write a paragraph on each of my favorite books from that month and share it all with you. For this first one, I’m going to cover the first quarter.

The books will be broken into three sections:

  1. Those related to my work. Business, organizational culture, teamwork, sales, communications, customer experience and leadership.
  2. Fiction and biography. I read fiction and biographies to calm my brain at night before sleep.
  3. Everything else. I also read a lot philosophy, theology, history, biography and really anything else that catches my eye. I post favorite thoughts and excerpts on my Tumblr blog.

If waiting a month between recommendations is too long for you, I post snippets from my work-related reading here, on LinkedIn and Tumblr. I also post all of these reviews on Goodreads. Here they are from the first three months of 2020:

The Infinite Game

Start With Why is one of the most important business concepts of the last 20 years. But Simon Sinek’s book of the same name is mostly forgettable once you understand that concept. Which happens about 20 pages into the 250-page book. Save yourself the time and money and just watch the Ted Talk. But Leaders Eat Last was a little better and Find Your Why even better. But The Infinite Game is without question Sinek’s best work. Unlike sporting events (before they were all canceled) that have firm rules and clear endpoints – that are finite – business has no such game to win. There’s always a new set of challenges and no such thing as “winning” – business is an infinite game. The goal is not to win, but to out-innovate and out-last competitors by playing an infinite game. Businesses get into trouble when they try to play an infinite game with a finite mindset. So, what do businesses with an infinite mindset do? They follow five essential practices: they Advance a Just Cause, Build Trusting Teams, Study their Worthy Rivals, Prepare for Existential Flexibility, and Demonstrate the Courage to Lead. This is a must-read for business leaders who want to operate for the future; not just the next financial statement.

The Fearless Organization

Remember Project Aristotle? This was from Google’s research to discover why some of their teams performed so much better than others. Things like the structure and purpose of the team mattered, as did the belief that the work the team was doing made a difference. But none of those mattered as much as psychological safety – the individual’s perception of what happened when they took a risk. Those teams whose members felt safe to take risks and be vulnerable outperformed the others. If psychological safety is a new term to you, Amy Edmonson’s book, The Fearless Organization: Creating Psychological Safety in the Workplace for Learning, Innovation, and Growth, is all about how to create a culture of high standards and psychological safety. Psychologically safe team members are willing to take risks, admit mistakes, have productive conflict and share information. This is a big deal in the modern workplace because teamwork is how most work gets done today. If you manage a team (or teams), you’ll want to read this book.

Lead Like Walt

Only by being a great leader could Walt Disney accomplish the amazing things he did. This book is a catalog of the leadership lessons we can learn from Walt. A paragraph in the final chapter summarizes those lessons well:

“He dreamed big dreams – impossible dreams they told him. Then he moved heaven and earth to make his dreams come true. When you, as a leader, start with a vision, then communicate that vision to the people you lead, utilize your people skills to motivate and inspire them, maintain your character and integrity at every decision-point, command with competence, lead with boldness and confidence, and support your people with your serving heart, your vision will become your reality.”

Better Under Pressure

The best business book I’ve read so far this year. Author Justin Menkes, a consultant who evaluates and places CEOs, wrote this book based on his experience evaluating leaders and interviewing some of the most recognized CEOs from recent decades. Menkes shows how the complexity of modern business necessitates a leader’s ability to function under extreme pressure. But the best leaders not only survive tough times – they thrive in them. He identifies three traits that CEOs must have to perform under pressure: realistic optimism, subservience to purpose and finding order in chaos. A common theme throughout the book is the need for leaders to continually learn because change is so constant.

The Motive

My favorite organizational consultant, Pat Lencioni, is back with his 11th book and what he says should have been his first. Why? Because his first 10 were about the “what” of leadership and this one covers the “why.” According to Lencioni, there are two motives for becoming a leader: as a personal achievement of status or to serve others within the organization. Leaders who are in it for status will typically avoid the hard work necessary to lead, while those with the right motive will do the difficult things, like lead good meetings and hold their people accountable.

Catch and Kill / She Said

Harvey Weinstein has got to be one of the most evil scumbags on the planet. To call what he did “sexual harassment” doesn’t even come close to capturing the depth of his depravity. For decades, he used his position of power to prey on women with dreams of acting, assaulting and raping them and then terrorizing or bribing them into silence. But what is equally unconscionable is his paid army of lawyers, publicists, and private investigators who – after he physically attacked these women – carried out the financial and emotional attacks that cowed them into silence. These two books were from the journalists who did heroic work to uncover the story in the face of that onslaught from Weinstein’s army. If you only have time for one, Catch and Kill by Ronan Farrow was by far the better read.

Midnight in Chernobyl

The best book on the Former Soviet Union I’ve read since Lenin’s Tomb: The Last Days of the Soviet Empire. Higginbotham tells a story that is incredible, suspenseful and captivating. I’m just waiting for it to be made into a movie.

What Higginbotham shows so well is that Chernobyl was far from an “accident” but rather was the inevitable outcome of a society so built on lies that it couldn’t tell the truth if their lives depended on it…which, by the way, for millions of people around the Chernobyl nuclear plant, it did.

More

The Way of the Heart by Henri Nouwen contains lessons from the desert fathers of Christianity, teaching that we all need a little solitude and silence and a lot of prayer. This book was a short, good reminder for a driven person like me.

The Platinum Rule by Dr. Tony Alessandra takes readers through the four behavioral types (DISC) and how to do unto each the way they would have you do unto them.

I also enjoyed Crushing It! by Gary V, Get Sh*t Done by Jeffrey Gitomer, Servant Leadership in Action by Ken Blanchard, Stillness is the Key by Ryan Holiday, the Making of a Leader by Robert Clinton, and many more. But the two best books I read last quarter were both re-reads: The Hobbit and Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. Both are beyond parallel in world creation and storytelling.

Happy reading.

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.

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.

Pandemic as Portal

In the FT yesterday, novelist Arundhati Roy wrote:

Historically, pandemics have forced humans to break with the past and imagine their world anew. This one is no different. It is a portal, a gateway between one world and the next.

Roy was primarily talking about her native India, hoping that the mishandling of the pandemic by the country’s political leaders would become a portal to a better world. I know little of Indian politics, but my experience in American politics has left me less than hopeful that the end result of COVID-19 will be meaningful government change.

What is undeniable though is that consumers will change and force businesses to change with them. Something of this scale and duration will leave its mark, changing attitudes and behaviors long after it’s worst is behind us.

The challenge for businesses will be determining which consumer changes due to COVID-19 are temporary and which are permanent. Restaurants, who have quickly ramped up takeout and delivery, may find that consumers prefer this new way of doing things. Likewise for auto dealers who started picking up their customer’s vehicles and dropping them off after service.

What about telemedicine and other increases in video communication? Will consumers after the pandemic prefer talking to a nurse on Zoom rather than visiting a busy clinic surrounded by other sick people? How about the meeting with my financial advisor? Will I prefer Facetime to a drive across town, especially in the winter?

Consumers have changed in many obvious ways during the global pandemic. Which changes are likely to stay and which will go away once commerce starts flowing again?

Remember that today’s customer experience innovations become tomorrow’s baseline expectations. Start preparing for those expectations today.

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: