Learning from the past to enhance the future is a crucial skill, especially in a time of extremely rapid technological and digital evolution. Those who know me know that the future of work is a true passion of mine. That said, having a long-term mindset and outlook in the middle of a pandemic requires some critical and timely short-term focus, which can be quite challenging.
Glancing over the past four months, here are a couple of lessons learned that will not only have a long-lasting impact on my leadership style, but also help expedite the evolution of HR into a true strategic business partner.
The Three Lenses Framework
Through my reflection of the past four months, I am continuously amazed by how much has been accomplished in such a short period of time. Projects that would take months or years to complete were planned and executed in a matter of days, if not hours.
Many factors were involved and there was one common denominator. Due to the pressure of the pandemic, the three lenses framework was used almost perfectly on each project. The concept is well-known and often used. Optimal results come by using the three lenses: strategic, political and cultural.
Identifying and having “at the table” from the get-go 1) the colleagues with the right knowledge, regardless of their department, 2) the people who have clear understanding of the organizational goals and 3) the decision-makers or, if that’s not possible, proven decision influencers to the decision-makers.
An obvious fact often not taken into account is that executives, while representing the full enterprise, will often have a dominant interest in any project (CFOs will pay more attention to the finance component, CHROs to the people one, COOs to the day-to-day operations, etc.). Having representatives from as many of these departments as possible dramatically increases the capacity to gain solid executive buy-in in a swift way.
Defining who is impacted by the project; who needs to be in the know. Understand how the work will impact the internal politics. Identify and involve in the decision-making right away the leaders or executives who will support you as well as those who might otherwise hijack or delay the project.
Making sure the initiative is not only embracing, but reinforcing, the culture of the organization. Too often, great bodies of work are delayed or scratched as they don’t adhere to or enhance the enterprise identity, values and culture.
The social delivery of the work is as important as the work itself. It has never been truer than in the current landscape. Of course, the goal is to have the quality of the work match the quality of the social delivery.
A mentor of mine once taught me: “You don’t want to be the smartest or best person in the room. You want to be the one understanding the socio-politico underline of the audience, their motivations and, therefore, how to socialize the work, attracting positive responses and recognition.”
I will always remember that an A+ project that is socialized at a B- level will be perceived as a B- project. Reversely, a B- project that is socialized at an A+ level will be perceived as an A+ project.
Leaders Operating in the White Space are a Step Ahead of the Masses
Looking at an organizational chart, you will see boxes and lines. Boxes are what the individual job is and the lines are the reporting relations. Although most of a leader’s work might fall within their job description, the meaningful activities that will advance an organization never truly fall into any specific “box,” but surf in between them in the white space.
My observations of the past few months are very clear. The leaders who had the most comfort with the ambiguity of the white space and were able to bring a team of teams to work together as one have been able to achieve a tremendous and impactful amount of work in ways that heavily exceeded normal productivity. In my opinion, the differences between good and great leaders and executives in the near future will be:
- The capacity to “see” what can be done in the white space
- The ability to define it in a clear strategy
- Having the capability to translate it into a clear tactical plan
- All while engaging multiple, cross-departmental groups.
Not having all the answers yet on how to maximize this concept, here are some key questions I am asking myself to operationalize and push this philosophy forward:
- How to recognize and reward strong white space leadership?
- How to assess and identify this skill prior to the recruiting stage?
- How to develop the white space leadership skills with current leaders and executives?
All parents love all their kids the same way. Often, the same can be said for all the projects led or sponsored by executives. No leaders enjoy having to be vulnerable and make the tough decision to give up on a body of work that was previously committed to. That said, this specific skill is one of the best ways for a leader to prevent overwork, burn out and unbalanced work/life with your team.
It is the reality of the world of work to have to add projects to teams with time. This can’t be avoided. One of my grad school professors always said, “If the capacity of your team is 10 projects, all of them would be accomplished at 100%. Adding an eleventh project will negatively impact the first 10 and leave you with 11 projects executed at 85%.” Adding number 12 would lower the execution of all of them to 75%, etc.
True and efficient leaders, when project 11 is on the table, look at the first 10 and kill one of them. Leaders should never add more work to a maxed-out capacity. Leaders need to assess priority and remove the less important one.”
Admittedly, this is the best leadership lesson that I never learned, and I commit to improving for the sanity of my team. During the pandemic, leaders were forced to kill projects, as it was literally a matter of life and death. Making sure to learn from that experience and nurture this capability will be key for organizations.
The current pandemic has forced healthcare organizations to move forward and come together in ways like never before. As internationally known author, Mark McCormack said, “The best people know that there are two phases in every crisis: the one where you manage it, and the other where you learn from it. To succeed, you have to do both.”