Get unstuck: Avoiding Task List Target Practice. Part 1 of 2

This is part one of a two-part article.  The second installation will be published on June 7, 2010.

This post  is for leaders — from students to mid-level managers like me — dealing with workaday problems.  It is about the importance of seeking mentoring to inspire you.  It is for people who have been frustrated for so long, they may have forgotten how to reset the Attitude button and release themselves from suffocating intellectually.

For weeks, I wrestled with some turbulent leadership learning opportunities.  It seemed at every turn, the reality of our progress was subdued by a few key colleagues’ ability to make it seem like failure.  As a result, I was, by definition, “stuck.”  Folks in my Accountability Group worried openly about me, and my usual laid-back demeanor was wound tight.

I faced more than a reasonable number of issues in which I felt compromised, undermined, or simply overruled, even though I was responsible for setting and leading a team in accomplishing objectives.

I started last week with the belief that none of the grinding, intense work I — and numerous other staff — were putting in was netting us enough productivity or, to be frank, appreciation.  In the last year or two, our business unit has undergone extraordinary change, from who sits in each proverbial seat on the bus, to how we manage our business processes and track productivity, to how we assess what success looks like.  We went from a larger staff to a smaller one as we launched major new initiatives.  We went from young guns anxious to correct the boss to young guns being bosses.  My self-congratulatory takeaway is that progress and change, and both measuring and sharing productivity,  are fearsome threats to the ineffective and unfocused among us.

At any rate, a couple days ago, my outlook changed.  Why?  I had  lunch with a person I admire and respect deeply, and who is one of the most intelligent leaders I know.  I shall query him and question him, and call him AL.  This meeting was like getting an iPad for Father’s Day when all you rightly and happily expected was a card; it was a huge treat.

It took me from  exasperation to excitement.  I left with clarity about where next to apply strategic pressure within my work unit.  My focus is resolutely on escaping the hamster wheel of daily “Task-List Target Practice” and returning to the strategic thinking needed to shape my staff into a more-effective, productive, responsible team.  AL helped me get unstuck by reminding of the importance of remaining focused on the ultimate goals rather than becoming trapped in the lint filter of small-minded pursuits that so easily occupy the unfocused mind.

Here are the major observations that readied me to charge ahead:

  1. Do your homework and know your craft so you can ask staff and leaders the important questions that will grow your business and increase collaboration and trust.  This will help you escape the orbit of mediocrity or status quo thinking.  It also means you may ask more probing questions than you answer.  In my case, I need to care more about what resources my staff need to grow professionally into great thinkers.  I should be asking “if you were in charge, how would you handle this challenge?” and “where do you see growth opportunity for our business and how can we capitalize?” more than I ask, “how are your numbers compared to goal?”
  2. Inspiration and motivation can come in short exchanges and can turn your attitude 180 degrees in an instant.  Never, never, never quit on the organization.  As long as you collect the paycheck, it is your responsibility to motivate yourself to produce results.  When you find yourself burning toward the end of your productivity candle, step back from the details, seek out a trusted and inspiring voice, and just let them talk to you.  Listen carefully, soak it up, and refocus.  For each winter of cold anxiety, there is a spring of renewal and rebirth.  And refocusing can happen almost daily, if that’s what you need.
  3. Do not confuse being a great employee or leader with being a perfect one.  There is no such thing as “perfect” except in the dictionary, after “perestroika” and before “perfecta.”
  4. Find a good mentor outside your organization.  The rest of this will sound familiar!  A good mentor will help you escape the orbit of mediocrity or status quo thinking.  This also means you should ask and answer more probing questions than case study-types.  In my case, I need to care more about “how do I inspire staff to outperform past results without promising more money” and “how do I bridge the gap between old-school rigidity and new-school stridency to unify staff” instead of using their valuable time on “what else can we do to raise more money?”

I hope you will tune in again tomorrow to read part 2, focused on the value of mentoring.

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