How to Deal with STRESSED OUT Customers

Next week, I am stoked to be joining my friends Jim Keenan (@keenan) and Anthony Iannarino (@iannarino) for a “jolt of Sales 411.” Our topic is going to be people who drive us nuts how to deal with a pain in the a$$ prospect/customer. Knowing these guys the way that I do, it’s going to be a GREAT conversation. One that you definitely won’t want to miss.

Since I typically obsess think about things way too deeply before doing these kinds of events, and I have been focused on the concept of stress this past year, I wanted to cover stress as ONE of the ways that a client can become an absolute terror.

High thermometerIn case you missed my last post on dealing with stress (and since it was months ago that I posted it!), let me give you a brief summary. I find that stress is generally caused by three things: a lack of success, a lack of significance, and/or a lack of control. When I talk about success, I am talking about the feeling that one gets about their sense of worth being defined by how often they win or make an impact. When I talk about significance, I am talking about the recognition that one can crave from others. And when I talk about control, I am talking about the (false) sense that one has to maintain authority over the people and events around them.

You can quickly see how these dynamics play out with customers.

On one hand, you’ve got people acting this way all the time – whether you are there or not. They live in a continual state of irritability and/or sensitivity, waiting for their sense of success/significance/control to be disrupted. You know these kinds of people. They can never be happy. They turn sales interactions into an opportunity to dump on you in the hope that by making your life miserable, their existence is somehow improved.

My advice: run from them. Get the deal finished and set them up for automated service. Do not let their toxicity infect your business. If necessary, fire them. Walk away and breathe some fresh air. There simply isn’t enough value to keep doing business with them.

You can’t fix crazy.

On the other hand, you’ve got people acting this way in Twilight Zoneseemingly random moments – as if your working relationship just entered the Twilight Zone. What was going great is suddenly going badly. They stop showing up at meetings. Emails stop getting answered. Or worse, they start generating emails with insane accusations. What is going on here?

My guess is that, somehow, they are suddenly at risk of losing success, significance, or control (or a combination of all three). Something just disrupted their flow and they are freaking out.

You have two options here.

First, make sure YOU are not the cause of their stress. Honestly, we’ve all been there. In our attempts to close the deal/grow the business/expand our influence we have overstepped our bounds. Hopefully, it was done with good intentions – which means that you can back off and apologize to get things back on track. But if it was done with bad intentions (i.e. to feed your own addiction to success/significance/control), you may not be able to fix the relationship. Buyers are that savvy. They can smell a self-serving ego in sales a mile away (Hello, Mexican timeshare salesperson).

Second, find out what the likely cause of your customer’s stress is. Are they suddenly at risk of failure, at risk of not being recognized for their work, or losing their way in the midst of a complex problem? If you can pinpoint the greatest cause of stress, you have the chance to do something about it. You can offer a solution that will address their need. Maybe it will require more work on your part. Often, I find that it’s more about assuring your client that you are there in the foxhole with them. That you will bring all of your resources to add to theirs.

The key is to match your solution to their emotional need.

If they only care about achieving success, they will be far more collaborative than if they only care about significance. Significance chasers will look at your attempts to collaborate Suspicious eyesas competition to their efforts. In these cases (and often with control freaks as well), you just need to offer your resources and let them select how/when they are used. If you are dealing with someone who is really just having a bad day, they will turn off their negative behavior relatively quickly. If you are dealing with someone who is genuinely addicted to success/significance/control, well… start creating your exit strategy. You may not need it – but don’t wait until you actually do.

I hope that helps. And if you are dealing with a stressed out customer now, feel free to ping me in the comments below. I’d love to help you navigate it successfully.

I mua. Onward and upward.

By Tim Ohai

The Three Biggest Causes of Stress… and Why You Are Addicted to Them

StressWell, it’s that time of year again. The business year is winding down. The holiday season is ramping up. And with just those two dynamics, the potential for stress is about to spike (if it’s not spiking already). God only knows what else could be contributing to the complexity, but – for me – it’s my wife’s continued battle with cancer.

We are almost 5 months into this beast journey. Thankfully, she is in remission. But that doesn’t mean it is easy. Chemotherapy, bone marrow taps, hospital delays, unexpected side effects, and on and on. Add to that the countless internal conflicts of fear, fatigue, confusion, doubt, anger, and on and on. And that’s just what my kids and I are going through. My wife – well, I honestly can’t even begin to truly understand her perspective.

So, why am I bringing up this stuff? Because it is teaching me SO MUCH, and one of the biggest lessons has to do with understanding stress. How it works. How it distorts. How it causes great and horrible responses. How it causes great and wonderful breakthroughs.

Stress is powerful stuff.

We all get affected by it. We all experience victory with it. And we all experience utter failure with it. In our efforts. In our jobs. In our families. In our relationships. In our quiet moments. In fact, I would go so far as to say that our understanding of stress, and how it affects us, is genuinely one of the most important aspects of our lives. It’s one of the most important aspects of YOUR life.

Research consistently shows that stress is one of the greatest drivers for bad decision-making (I’m guessing that stupidity is reason number one). It causes our brains to retreat to survival mode – which often makes things worse, especially when you are tasked with leading a team or group of weirdoes like your family. (Note: For the record, you may be the chief weirdo. Just saying…)

Do you see the inherent conflict of being in survival mode while trying to lead others? It’s like saying that you want everyone to follow you/get along/be safe while you are shoving them off of your life raft.

Mirror moment: Do you do that? Shove people off your life raft, I mean. Do you allow your stress to justify your own fight for survival at the expense of others? Maybe your customers stress you out, so you take it out on your co-workers or direct reports. Maybe your work stresses you out, so you take it out on your family and/or friends. Maybe your family stresses you out, so you take it out on yourself (holiday binge eating, anyone?). Whatever. I know that I am not innocent here. What about you?

Rather than continuing to talk about what your stress looks like, today’s blog is focused on what causes your stress. Once you understand your own patterns, you can then begin to apply these concepts to other people. But do yourself a favor first. Build some credibility by working on yourself before you start pointing out the mistakes opportunities for growth in others.

It’s interesting to see what kinds of answers you get when you ask people, “What causes you stress?” Typical answers are: work, money, politics, a mother-in-law, etc. While partially true, they are not the right answers. If you will allow, I want to give three completely different answers. These answers, I believe, are at the root of most (if not all) stress. I find that every time the ugly part of stress raises it head, one (or more) of these dynamics is at play. In fact, you can review the stories of major, stress-related leadership and personal failures and find incredibly unhealthy doses of these things at play every time. Ready?

They are (drumroll, please):

  • Success
  • Significance
  • Control

Please let me explain.

Each of these points is a desirable outcome. There is nothing wrong Drug addictionwith healthy success, significance, or control. The problem surfaces when unhealthy things become attached to these outcomes. Or in simpler terms, when we become addicted to these outcomes. I have seen wonderful, talented people become dangerous, ineffective people when their addiction to success/significance/control manifests itself. And the first indication of this addiction is stress. Let me explain what I mean.

Success, on its own, is a fantastic thing. It’s the ultimate measure of whether or not you are doing the right things. And yet, it is like fire. Small amounts are useful. Large amounts create havoc. Particularly when the definition of success becomes attached to your ego, your sense of identity. There is a massive difference between the idea of doing something successfully versus being successful. The first idea is rooted in accomplishment, one accomplishment at a time. The second is rooted in identity. And that is where the toxicity begins to churn, for once I make the leap from doing something well – one experience at a time – to measuring my own worth by the consistent presence of success in my life, I lose the original purpose of success. And I create stress every time I do not experience success. Or, as I more commonly see it, every time I see the tiniest hint of intended success beginning to stumble, I start to freak out. Because, in essence, my identity is beginning to stumble. And that causes stress. Often in massive, toxic amounts.

This idea is a touchy point. On one hand, we don’t want to create stress simply because we have an addiction to success (which is really what it is). On the other hand, we don’t want to be so lackadaisical about achieving success that it is never achieved. So, here is what I do when I have the self-awareness to actually practice what I am preaching – I ask myself a question. The question is this: “If I/we fail, will anyone get hurt?” This can be a tremendously difficult question to give an objective response to, so you may have to bring in other people to gain some perspective. But you have to learn to separate between failing at something that is genuinely going to hurt others (like a failure in the safety of a facility or event) from the impact of simply bruising your ego or reputation. Obviously, you don’t want to hurt others. But is your ego somehow paramount to the health and safety of others? Seriously?!

Look. We all have to recognize that failure is normal. It really is. No one is successful every single time. No one.

In fact, many of our greatest cultural icons for success (a la Joe Montana, Richard Branson, and so on) have far more failures under their belts than successes. Which is why they are known for creating success around them instead of contaminating everyone around them with stress. They understand that success is an outcome, but not an identity. Therefore, when success is at risk, they don’t stress. They thrive.

Which leads me to the second major cause of stress: significance. If you are someone who has to be at the center of attention, or even simply liked by everyone, you know what I am talking about here. You want to be recognized. You want the fame.

Listen, I get it. It’s fun to be in the limelight. It’s energizing. And if the reward for doing something that will make a major impact for other people is going to be some recognition, that’s an ideal prospect. I mean, who wants to do what is often difficult work without being recognized for it? Well, that creates stress. Some of you reading this right now are genuinely struggling because you are generating herculean amounts of effort to do important things – for little or no recognition. And you’re stressing about it. Growing bitter. Seething under your breath. Feeling under-appreciated. Whatever.

It’s all part of a grander scheme called insecurity. Somehow, whether by your own nature or how you were nurtured growing up (maybe even a combination of the two), you determined that doing significant things would produce some sort of recognition that you are a significant person. And if you aren’t being recognized for doing significant things, you stress out. Again, we are back to the idea of accomplishment versus identity. And we are back to the idea of addiction.

Being recognized is a wonderful thing – something that everyone should experience. But when that recognition reaches the point of being addictive, when the efforts you become part of (or the efforts that you make other people do) become the cornerstone of how you manage your reputation, any hint of insignificance sends you into a tailspin. You stress yourself and you stress others. You go to bed stressed and you wake up stressed. All because you need other people to recognize you as significant. My friend, that is no way to live.

If this describes you, try asking yourself this: “Is what I am doing exactly what I need to be doing?” In other words, are you doing the right things? Even if they are insignificant things? If the answer is yes, who cares if you are recognized for it? Trust me, the wheel is round. The opportunity for recognition will eventually come back around to you. That’s why we give lifetime achievement rewards and honorary titles. We eventually recognize people who consistently do the right thing. The right efforts will come back to honor you. Stop stressing about it and just do it. Don’t allow the stress of significance to derail you.

The third major cause of stress is control. Okay, let’s all Oompa loompatake a breath here. I say that because this is the one area where hyperventilation occurs most often. I mean, we all have to be in control to some degree, right? How can we possibly let go of control as an outcome? Well, to put it bluntly, control is a myth. And if you think that you have control over anything other than how you respond to reality (and I will argue how much you actually control your responses), you are living in la-la land. Say hi to the Oompa Loompas for me. And grab an extra dose of magic from the chocolate river.

And this is where I see stress most often in the smallest things. The desire to be in control drives massive amounts of our behaviors. Even our daily routines are shaped by the tiniest efforts to be in control. We choose when to travel so that we can avoid the worst of traffic or weather, bringing as much control as possible to the commute. We choose to eat certain foods so that we can avoid the negative impacts that come from eating the wrong things, bringing as much control as possible to our health. Except, then, there is that one donut muffin kolache cookie forbidden bite of temptation that destroys all attempts at self-control. And we begin to stress.

We stress at every single disruption to our sense of control. That’s why traffic, politics, and mother-in-laws get such bad raps. They are not the actual enemy (well, mother-in-laws can be, but that’s not the point). The enemy is our sense of control. Traffic happens. Weather happens. Relationships happen. And if you are somehow trying to be in control of every little aspect of Life, you will only live in constant stress.

And this is where it gets… sensitive. Because I know that some control freaks are actually behaving this way because bad things happened to them when they were younger. Control – to them – is a form of therapy. Maybe this is describing you. Maybe you have created – no – justified your addiction to control because it is how you survive your past. Maybe, just maybe, it’s time to look differently at your attempts to be in control. Maybe it’s time to ask yourself, “If I don’t have control over anything, what is the healthiest thing that I can do?” The first part of the question is 100% rhetorical because you clearly don’t have control over anything. But I find that I have to remind myself of this truth before I can ask the real question – what is the healthiest thing that I can do? Note that the word healthy is the critical point here. I can readily choose the unhealthy things, but that only creates more stress. It’s the healthy options that move the stress needle back to where it needs to be. Sometimes, the healthiest response is to approach the disruption differently. Sometimes, the healthiest choice is to separate from the problem for a while (go for a walk, do something differently, take a break, etc.). Sometimes, it’s to get as far away as possible from the disruption. But the health of your response is not determined by whether or not it re-creates your sense of control. If you are trying to regain control, you are simply feeding your own inner beast. That is making your problem worse. Rather, let your response be one that supports the idea that you are not in control and you simply want to do the right/healthy thing. This is the right way to deal with your stress.

Now, obviously, we often deal with more than one of the success/significance/control dynamics at any given time. For example, we seek control so that we can be successful. We seek success so that we can be significant. God forbid we actually try to chase all three down at one time. I’m sure you know those types of people. You may have worked or served under someone like that. But the real question is this: are YOU like that?

Are you someone who is addicted to success/significance/control? Is the cause of your stress your attempt to be successful, be significant, or be in control? And, if you are a leader, are you generating stress with your attempts to be successful, be significant, or be in control?

If you want to reduce the stress in your life, try asking yourself these questions:

  • If I/we fail, will anyone get hurt? If the answer is no, accept that failure is an option and that you may have to try again. And that’s okay.
  • Is what I am doing exactly what I need to be doing? If the answer is yes, just keep on going and don’t worry about the recognition. It’s okay if you are not getting recognized. You are still making a ding in the universe.
  • If I don’t have control over anything, what is the healthiest thing that I can do? If the answer is obvious, just go do that. If the answer is harder to find, ask for help in figuring out what to do. Asking for help will not be a sign that you aren’t in control, because you were never in control to begin with.

And as a bonus, remember this: the size of your addiction to success/significance/control determines the size of your stress.

I mua. Onward and upward.

By Tim Ohai

Think You’ve Got Stress?

I have a confession that you probably already know: I’m a horribly inconsistent blogger. But, hopefully, you find my content good enough that when stuff comes out, it’s worth your time to read. Which I’m hoping this post will be equally regarded – but know that I am starting with some heavy words.

My wife has cancer.

Actually, she was diagnosed with Acute Lymphoblastic Leukemia (ALL) in July of this year. It was shocking/horrific/confusing/stressful – all at the same time. Obviously, I had to take a hard look at everything in my life to determine what was truly relevant and what wasn’t. And this blog made it to the irrelevant list. At least for as long as my wife/family needed it to be.

Fast forward to today, and I am STOKED to report that the cancer has gone into remission. I cannot say enough good things about the power of modern medicine (especially the fantastic team at Stanford Hospital, where my wife was treated). And I cannot say enough good things about the power of prayer (especially since many good things occurred during chemotherapy that modern medicine has no answer for). The bottom line is that we find ourselves continuing the cancer journey while she undergoes more chemotherapy while we literally sit on pins and needles watch for any recurrence over the next five years.

It has been a stressful time for us, to say the least.

Which is what I want to write about today. Stress, that is. Or more specifically, dealing with it.

HammerLook, I know that I am pulling out a gigantic hammer when I mention the “Big C.” And with all of the look at me ice bucket challenges this past summer creating a bunch of noise about the effects of horrible diseases, it’s pretty easy to move on to something else. And I don’t blame you. Especially if you have enough stress on your own. Why would you want to add to it by reading about someone else’s stress?

(Side note: I thought Sir Patrick Stewart’s ice bucket challenge was the best video out there.)

So, hear me now: I want to talk about YOUR stress.

Honestly, I have no idea what is going on in your life right now. You might not even be stressed at all. But I’m not seeing very many stress-free people around me. I see people stressing about major initiatives at work. I see people stressing about the current economy and what it is doing to their businesses/jobs. I see people stressing about stuff at home, which only adds to their stress at work. There’s stress about finances. Stress about health. Stress about politics. Stress about weather. God forbid that you have a daughter in the midst of puberty (like I do – THAT problem alone is worth it’s own BOOK).

Everyone has stress. And that is a condition that will never go away.

The key is how you handle the stress.

THIS is the real definition of the problem. The fact that you have stress – whatever it is – is not the important part. It’s how you deal with it that defines you. If you are a leader (or parent), this has exponential impacts because you have to apply all of this to every member of your team/organization/family.

To explain this, please let me take you on a short geek-fest rabbit trail journey into the world of neuroscience (because I know you wanted to know about neuroscience).

In case you didn’t already know, our normal functions for solving Amygdala-Prefrontal cortexproblems and making decisions occur in the prefrontal cortex of our brains (see the highlighted purple area in the picture). This is essentially where we live. Our personalities, our decision-making, and our relationships are basically run from this part of our brains. When we experience stress, our brains produce hormones that basically shut off the prefrontal cortex and transfer control of our behavior to the amygdala, a tiny little part of our brain that runs with pure reaction and very little – if any – cognitive logic. Oh, and what reactions we can have.

Our personalities can become toxic. Our decisions can become stupid. And our relationships can become fractured. If we allow the stress to take over and justify everything.

Obviously, we have to find a different way to respond to stress – especially since we have the ability to understand the mechanics of our brains. I am also saying that we have the ability to overcome the mechanics of our brains – to a degree. Can we stop the hormones from launching us into a jittery mess? No. But we can…

  • Take a different approach to defining what stresses us
  • Learn to recognize the insanity when it is occurring

I have a LOT more to say about these two topics, but I need to go right now.

TiredSo, let me leave you with this mirror moment to ponder: How are you dealing with the stress in your life right now? Is it healthy? Is it helping you to be who you were made to be? Is it helping you to make the best decisions? Is it helping your relationships to be what they need to be?

If you don’t like the answers you get to those questions, you, my friend, don’t have a stress problem. You have a dealing-with-stress problem. Ponder that for a while…

I mua. Onward and upward.

By Tim Ohai

Strategic Execution, pt. 4: Feed the Team

So, I have been ranting on strategic execution for a while now. And I want to take it a step further. Most of what I have been saying could be categorized as intellectual – as in each of the keys involve harnessing your intellectual choices.

But for this blog, I want to engage your emotions. Because if your heart is not attached to this critical key of strategic execution, you shouldn’t even try to leverage these concepts.

Now, if you are reading this sentence, you are agreeing to go down the rabbit hole voluntarily of your own free will and accord. Duly noted…

The fourth critical key of strategic execution is feed the team.

DoughnutsAs you can probably guess by now, I’m not talking about food (though you should never underestimate the power of a box of doughnuts. And really good coffee. Never forget the coffee.). I’m talking about feeding the willpower of the team. Engaging their hearts in a way that transcends the usual marching orders we often give.

Think about this. If you’ve already invested in the previous keys (demanding clarity on the problem being addressed, providing a definition of success for everyone to aim for, and proactively defining your back-up plan), why would you allow all of that effort and time to be wasted because people won’t put their hearts into the execution? That would be like building a car and never filling it with fuel.

Trust me when I say this, if the execution of your strategy is Smiley Facereduced to a stupid checklist series of tasks that have to be fulfilled – and not a mission that is worthy of real sweat, effort, and possibly even some pain – you are not strategic. What you are doing is not strategic. It’s busy-work. At least that’s how the team is going to perceive it. They will tick whatever boxes you are telling them to fill and give you whatever smiley faces they think you want to see, but they won’t be doing it to the best of their abilities. Not in any sustainable way. As soon as you turn your back, things will go back to normal the way they were before your strategy interrupted their lives.

You have to feed their emotional appetites. You have to engage them. It’s the only way to make certain that the responsibility for execution is shared (unless you actually like doing everything yourself).

And here is where I have to pause and clarify something. The phrase “employee engagement” is a popular one, but I am amazed at how wildly mutated different the definition can be from person to person. My definition of engagement means people believe that what they are doing is the right thing for them and their company/organization. It’s not just a shared, intellectual belief. It’s an emotional commitment. It certainly involves intellectual reason, but it doesn’t rely on it.

Think of it this way. Sometimes (maybe even often times) the strategy can be so complex that only the most senior leaders actually understand the whole thing. You don’t want to have to rely on everyone intellectually grasping every jot and tittle of the strategy. But you do want them to believe in it. So when I say engagement, I am talking about the kind of emotional connection that execution can genuinely anchor itself with. It is way beyond the normal head-nodding that leaders usually shoot for (as in, “Do you understand what I am saying? Nod your heads “yes” so that I can tell myself that you are fully onboard – even though you are going to forget this entire conversation ever happened as soon as I turn my back.).

Got it? Alright. Let’s continue.

This kind of engagement requires two things: empowerment and motivation. I don’t have the space to explain everything that is connected to these concepts, so let me just provide the highlights.

First, let’s deal with motivation and get it out of the way.

I do not believe that you can truly motivate someone else. Motivation comes from within. So, as a leader, my job is to find what is de-motivating you. I need to identify and eliminate the things in the environment that are making execution too hard for the team. This is a MAJOR part of being a strategic leader. Go read more about this on my Facebook rant post here (and you might as well “like” the page while you are there because I post random stuff on that page more often than I blog). The bottom line is simple: If I don’t address the external de-motivators in the environment, you WILL run out of whatever emotional fuel you possess internally. It’s guaranteed.

The other half of this concept is empowerment. Empowering my team is about ensuring that the right behaviors are happening during execution. Again, we are back to the emotions, because behaviors are emotional. We choose our behaviors, consciously or not (anybody ever try to quit smoking/lose weight/increase your fitness level? Increase the emotional drive and you get decidedly more powerful change; turn off the emotions and you get nothing). This selection is driven by what feels good/right. If you are asking your team to do something that doesn’t initially feel good or right, you have to empower them to figure it out on their own. To change the situation. To make the feelings of good and right surface properly because each team member has been given the authority and has been equipped to shape the situation in a way that is aligned with both what is good for the organization AND what is good for them personally.

QuestionsBut there’s one more ingredient to empowerment that I want to add. Consider it my off-the-wall observation. True empowerment, the kind that takes on a life of its own, must demand learning. In other words, the people who are being empowered MUST also be expected to learn. They must use the authority and whatever they have been equipped with in a way that forces them to expand their behavior and become more proficient.

Think of it this way: empowerment must have an ROI. If you are going to give people the authority and people/time/energy/resources to make mistakes so that they can execute the strategy (and you must because otherwise you haven’t empowered anything), you need to get something back. The people who you have just empowered need to come back from the experience smarter, wiser, and more proficient than they were before. So that they can take on more responsibility, tackle harder strategies, and achieve greater successes. I would go so far as to say that if you don’t get smarter/wiser/more proficient people, you didn’t empower them. You only gave them enough to work without your supervision. You turned the opportunity for engaging your team into a mini, on-the-job vacation, when you could have been involved stretching people, growing talent, and increasing your bench-strength for executing in the future. And looking for de-motivators.

And you have to be emotional about it. Authentic. Or as my friend, Dan Waldschmidt, likes to say – human. Trying to connect with other people’s emotions without bringing your own emotions to the party is, frankly, pathetic. I am not saying that you have to be some sort of emotional display of fireworks. I am saying you have to tap into whatever emotions that are telling you that executing this strategy is good and right… if you want other people to be engaged.

This is real engagement. This is feeding your team. This is how you strategically execute. This is how you lead.

I mua. Onward and upward.

P.S. If you are a subscriber to my blog, you will have noticed that production has dropped waaaaaay down. This is because I am up to my eyeballs in cool things/work. And the thing that I am most excited with right now is a new book that I writing with my partner-in-crime, Dr. Brian Lambert. So, please be patient with me. And know that when we are done, you will get a free copy of the book. Yep. I just said that publicly.

By Tim Ohai

How to Build – and Destroy – Great Working Relationships

I wrote a guest blog for Nimble on “How to Build – and Destroy – Great Working Relationships” at http://www.nimble.com/blog/how-to-build-and-destroy-great-working-relationships/

I think you will like it…

Tim Ohai

Strategic Execution, Part 3: Plan for Detours

DesertOkay. You know it’s been a while when you have clients, passing you at work, commenting on how long it’s been since your last blog. Doh!

No, I did not get lost in the desert. And I won’t bore you with my reasons… so here we go.

The theme we are tackling is strategic execution. Why? Because it is one of the BIGGEST weaknesses I see in organizations, no matter what kind of sector they reside.

My first critical key to improving your strategic execution is defining the problem. This is massively important as it defines a clear, properly defined starting point (and end point) for the whole strategy. The second critical key to improving our strategic execution is to define success. The definition of success is something that EVERYBODY needs in order to move in the same direction (and defines when people are moving in the wrong direction).

So, what is my third critical key to improving your strategic execution? Plan for detours.

It sounds so – I don’t know – elementary, doesn’t it? You would think that folks would automatically do this. That folks would automatically imbed this thinking in their teams.

Nope.

Team after team, leader after leader, share that the idea of a backup plan is a luxury they can’t afford. The strategy is too urgent. They have deliverables they have to hit, targets to achieve, and blah blah blahblahblah… (I can’t really define the rest of this sentence because at this point of the excuse-giving, I usually tune out and allow my “fake listening” mode to take over.)

The easiest way that I disrupt that kind of false rationale is when US SoldiersI teach these concepts in a workshop setting. I always ask if there are any veterans in the room. Of any military branch. From any country. (Of course, this also works when you are talking one-on-one with a veteran.) Once they identify themselves, I ask them, “Were you ever given a mission that didn’t have a backup plan in case it didn’t go as originally planned?” The answer is ALWAYS, “Never.”

Pause.

People, if you launch the execution of your strategy without a backup plan already defined… You. Are. NOT. Strategic.

I would even go so far as to say that you are sabotaging your strategy. Because, when the detours occur, and there is no previously defined backup plan, everyone has to scramble to come up with their backup plan right then. When you add in the fact that our brains most often react negatively to stress (producing hormones that cause us to either become combative, withdraw, or just plain ol’ shut down), the quality of those plans is significantly reduced. And the impact of unintended consequences is – well – sad.

Bad decisions. Lowered morale. Strained relationships. Poor coordination. Wasted time and missed deadlines. And people are stuck taking this stress home, sharing the unintended damages with their families and friends.

And the insidious part of this whole rant dynamic is that most people would say that the reason they didn’t create a backup plan before the execution of the strategy is that they didn’t have the time.

And yet they are wasting spending the exact same amount of time (possibly even more time) after the execution launched that they were trying to save. And all for smaller impacts with limited success. While senior stakeholders are wondering why the strategy didn’t deliver the intended results.

If this is hitting you in the head/heart, stop the insanity. Please.

Plan for detours.

Detour signDetermine where the risks for detours are as part of your planning process. Build points of divergence into your thinking so that as critical inputs/outputs become blocked or hindered, you know in advance what you and your team will do. You will rest easier and your team will actually be empowered to make decisions that they already know are aligned with your thinking. Meaning that they won’t always be asking you to decide for them (adding to your already packed inbox and constant voicemails).

Then there’s this extra benefit. You can use this kind of thinking to develop your team leaders. Make it mandatory for them to include a backup plan every time they are tasked with launching the execution. Never sign off on anyone else’s strategic execution unless they have already done their own homework with the possible detours. Otherwise, you will miss the opportunity to develop their own capabilities. And add to your already massive to-do list by having to create all the backup plans by yourself. Unless you like that kind of torture.

In closing, there is one more, slightly dark aspect of this whole concept that we have to address. It’s your own leaders (if you have them). I have heard from many people that their leaders view the idea of having a backup plan defined before execution as a sign of weakness. That you are planning on failing.

Well, aside from the urge that I have to put an “I need therapy because I fear failure” sign around their necks, I would tell these leaders that you are doing precisely the opposite of planning for failure. You are planning for efficiency and maximum impact. You are proactively assessing where the risk exists and putting a plan in place that will both address the risks and empower the team to press forward and deliver the initiative with the best possible impact.

If they still can’t wrap their heads around that kind of thinking (and I’m sure you would be surprised how many leaders will positively react once you explain yourself), just move forward by doing what you believe is the right thing to do. Politics be damned. Your responsibility is to a greater set of stakeholders than your fear-of-failing, control-freak of a boss.

Besides, as we have all probably learned by now, when it comes to these kinds of leaders it is better to ask for forgiveness than it is to ask for permission.

I mua. Onward and upward.

By Tim Ohai

Strategic Execution, Part 2: Always Use a Compass…

CompassIn my last rant, I talked about the first key to strategic execution: demand clarity on the problem before you even begin (aka… Don’t chase the wind). I want to now turn my attention to the next critical key: Always use a compass.

I travel a lot. And I like to drive. So, even when my endeavors take me out to places like Mooseknuckle, Canada, I enjoy the experience of jumping behind the wheel and hitting the road. As long as I have two things – my phone and a GPS. My phone lets me stay in communication with whomever I may need. And my GPS allows me to be independent.

But in business, we get neither cell phones nor GPSs. In business, we are more often left on our own with little more than an objective to hit – a destination, if you will.

Sure, you can argue that our leaders provide the function of our metaphorical cell phone. IF you can get access to them. Ever try to get one-on-one time with an executive? You’re lucky if you can grab them for five minutes in a hallway on the way to/from a meeting.

And you can also argue that our organizations try to give us their version of shackles a GPS when they give us mandated processes. And constrictive policies. And technology that won’t actually do what you need it to do. (I know. If I sound bitter, it’s because I probably am.)

Now, don’t get me wrong. It would be awesome if our leaders – especially the ones who created the strategy in the first place – were accessible when we needed them. And it would be awesome if our processes, policies, and technology were completely aligned with the strategy we are supposed to execute. But we both know that is not common enough.

THIS is why we need a compass. We all need something that will at least tell us where the right direction actually is… and when we are starting to move in the wrong direction. ESPECIALLY during the execution of a strategy. That is what a compass does.

So what exactly is the compass I am talking about?

It’s the definition of success. But when I say the definition of success, I have a very specific concept in my mind. It involves three things:

  • A desired outcome
  • Defined metrics
  • Clear expectations/requirements

Why these three things? Because if you take away any one of them, you get sloppy execution.

Let’s start with the desired outcome. This is one of the most common areas that gets confused. Strategies – especially good ones – are looking for outcomes that are sustainable. They most often address a problem. You would never assign all of your people and resources to achieve a strategic objective only to let the problem come back. Leaders want the impact of the strategy to be ongoing. But too often, the outcome is defined as a result. Even if that is not what the leader wanted to communicate. So the players – often mid-level leaders – define the outcome as a single, hit-it-one-time initiative. No real attempt is made to build the system that would make the outcome sustainable. Goodness – that would take too much effort. And time. And money. And people. And we simply can’t do that. While the problem continues to exist – and even grow.

Can you see how this kind of thinking just torpedoes the execution of a strategy?

Consider how the organization would react if the outcome was defined in sustainable terms, so that everyone could see the bigger picture (and, of course, the problem that the strategy is meant to address). So that everyone had the chance to see when the initiative was going off track and make the thousands of simple adjustments that only frontline players can make to keep everyone heading in the right direction. It would be like giving everyone a compass to go with the strategy.

Which brings us to the second point. If the desired outcome is the compass needle, metrics are the compass markings.Compass points Metrics tell you if you are going in the intended direction. They define if you are on track for achieving the desired outcome. They also tell you if the outcome is specific enough.

Has anyone ever told you that the outcome of the strategy is “be better/do more/achieve new successes” or some other ambiguous outcome like that? I am amazed at how often leaders can fall in love with some visionary outcome, without any specific definition of what it actually means.

Try this: think of a strategic outcome you are responsible for. What are the metrics? Do they tell you if you are on track? Do they tell you when you are done?

Ready for the left hook? Do they tell you if you are building something that is sustainable? Because if they do not, please don’t be surprised when the team equates “strategic” with “tick-the-box.”

The right metrics not only empower the team, they strengthen the outcome. I would go so far as to say that if you don’t have well-defined metrics, you have not really given/received a desired outcome. You’ve only got a wish. A hope.

But there is one more element to this compass. And it is just as critical as the needle and the markings.

It’s the requirements that come attached to the definition of success. They are the housing of the compass. Just as you would never simply mark your hand and rest a compass needle in your palm, you would never simply give an outcome with metrics. Not if you are trying to be strategic. You need something to hold everything together so that the parts interact in the right way. Requirements do that.

Requirements come in all forms. They can be about a deadline to hit, or the use of resources, or the methods that should be used/avoided, or even the people that should be involved/kept as far away as possible. When you get the requirements clearly communicated, they make the outcome and the metrics interact in a way that improves the entire team’s performance.

But here’s the sinister part: requirements often go unspoken.Taped mouth

Have you ever been trying to get a strategy executed, striving to achieve an outcome, tracking your metrics… when some unspoken requirement derailed your entire initiative? So here’s what you MUST do EVERY TIME you work out a definition of success. Get the requirements – all of them – pulled out and clearly agreed to.

IF you are a LEADER… communicate all of your requirements when you are defining what success looks like. And if you can’t do that, let your team pepper you with questions until your requirements are clear.

IF you are a PLAYER… do everything you can, even taking the risk that you will irritate the leader, to get all of the requirements pulled out and defined. And if you have to deal with more than one leader, get them together. Play their requirements against each other. Tell one leader about the requirements of the other leader. And vice versa.

My favorite way to pull requirements out of a leader (or even a customer) is slightly devious. But then again, that’s why it is my favorite approach. When you are discussing the definition of success, and you get to the part where requirements are being laid out, wait until everything has been said. Then restate the definition of success – going through the outcome, the metrics, and the requirements – then say, “If I do this, will you complain about anything else?” Ask this question over and over until the answer is no.

It’s AMAZING how often that pulls extra stuff out. Seriously. Because you have just pulled out a muzzle that the leader (or client) is now agreeing to use later on, during the execution. They don’t want a muzzle. But (if they’re reasonable) they will respect what you are trying to do. How fun is that? You just got a senior executive to agree to use a muzzle? I know. It’s devious. But it really works.

And it gives you a compass. A really robust compass that you can use during the execution of a strategy, so that when leaders suddenly become inaccessible, when processes/policies/technology/etc. are not helping, YOU can hit the outcome in a solidly measurable way and navigate the spoken (and UNspoken) requirements. You are now strategically executing.

I mua. Onward and upward.

By Tim Ohai

A Thanksgiving Note

It’s appropriate on Thanksgiving to take a moment and think. In the midst of so much food, family, and football (and not necessarily in that order), I think it is easy to get overwhelmed in the busy-ness. So, for my own sanity benefit at least, I offer the following thoughts.

E mahalo i ka mea loaʻa is an old Hawaiian saying that means, “Be thankful for what you have.” A very close alternate saying is e ʻoluʻolu i ka mea i loaʻa – be satisfied with what you have. I was struck by how often thankfulness and satisfaction are related. But being thankful and being satisfied are not always present in the same moment, are they?

For many this year, the act of thankfulness will be dulled by the lack of satisfaction in their lives. I would go so far as to say that the focus on dissatisfaction might even undermine whatever thankfulness those people have. To the point that the focus on dissatisfaction creates the inability to be satisfied.

I hope that’s not you. I hope that you (and me) can focus on the genuinely good, genuinely satisfying things in our lives. That the small, simple things have greater meaning this Thanksgiving because they exist. They are present. Things like health, having at least one good friend, or getting that one bite of perfection in a Thanksgiving meal that sends you back to the happy moments of childhood (like my mom’s molasses cookies make me feel).

But if being dissatisfied at this time of year, describes you, I get it. Satisfaction is not an easy “flip-the-switch” choice. (Note: it is a choice, though.) And if you have to be satisfied in order to be thankful, I understand how difficult even asking you to choose can be.

That’s where I was so inspired by my friend, Joe Castleberry, this past week. Joe is a great guy and writes a blog on networking from the perspective of the Christian faith. His latest blog really blew my mind. He talked about how one of the coolest dudes in all of history, King David of Israel (and killing-Goliath-with-a-slingshot fame), wrote a song about giving thanks. It’s found in the Book of Psalms (Psalm #9, to be exact). The words say things like “I will be happy because of you, God” and “Y*HW*H defends those who suffer.” But the most mindset-altering part is the side note that the song begins with.

Somebody (probably a scribe) wrote a note to whoever directs the music for the song. This song about giving thanks to God is to be sung to the tune of “The death of the son.” This really stands out when you know that this song was likely written right after David had ended a conflict with his son, Absalom – who had declared himself king, chased his dad off of the throne, then literally lost his life after losing the battle against his dad.

David was grief-stricken, wishing he had died instead of his own son. And he still chose to give thanks. He still chose to put his own feelings of dissatisfaction in the back seat. He let his faith define his satisfaction AND his thankfulness. Unbelievable.

So, to those who made it this far in my rant post today, I encourage you to not only be thankful, but to make satisfaction part of the experience. Focus on what genuinely does satisfy you. Savor those moments, however small they are, like the best bites of Life that they are meant to be. It WILL make your Thanksgiving that much richer.

I mua. Onward and upward.

By Tim Ohai