Improved Leadership. Competitive Advantage.

Research on goal setting is rather conclusive in a couple of areas. Notably, trying to fix everything at once will, almost always, result in failure. This principle should apply as we approach our To-Do list. Before we go any further, we put forth our legal jargon here. There is no single ‘right’ way to do this. There is no regression equation, F=ma, or y = mx + b answer to fix your To-Do list. Unfortunately, there is no easy fix; no silver bullet. Even worse, it will require you to make some hard, even, unpopular decisions. With that behind us, here’s a way forward.

First, look at your calendar or your recent To-Do lists. Go back and get a good sampling. Maybe the last 10 or 15 To-Do lists. Second, try to identify the single biggest culprit that derails your To-Do list. Is it your boss? An outside agency? Corporate ‘help?’ A bad employee? A lazy peer? We’ll come back to this in a minute. Third, pay yourself first. Attempt, as much as humanly possible, to start your day with one of your priorities. Block off that time. As the day gets going, you will lose more and more control and will get blown farther and farther off track. Having a say in how your day starts, though, is a big deal. In one of the more famous commencement speeches of our time, Admiral McRaven told the graduating class at the University of Texas to begin the day asserting control by doing one singular activity/priority: make your bed! Laugh it off at your own risk. The simplicity of this one act is profound. Even if you have to get to work 20 minutes early, commit to beginning the day with your priority—not someone else’s. What we’re saying is that the first activity you should tackle at work—even if it’s just minutes at a time—is to make your bed…not someone else’s.

We offer two other improvement tactics. We’ve become experts at this phenomenon and a universal truth almost always if not always emerges. Return back to our Law & Order theme. Remember the single culprit that seems to assert primary authorship of your To-Do list? It is time to initiate a conversation with him. Especially in command and control climates such as a power station, many times leaders forget that their suggestions become orders to their subordinates. One leader that took our suggestion found exactly that. When she sat down with her Director and actually showed how she wasn’t getting important work done because she was always responding to his missives, his response back was telling. He simply said that he didn’t expect her to do all of those action items, and many were just suggestions. Moving forward, they were better aligned, and she got to author more of her To-Do list. Related to this point, we suggest the strategy of cooptation. Cooptation involves assimilating or winning others over to your views and getting other stakeholders to assume your views as their own.

Put differently, if you can’t be sole author of your To-Do list, you should strive, at the very least, to be a joint author. This involves sitting down with a boss, an auditor, or a peer and saying, “I think these should be my main priorities. Do you have a problem if I really focus on them?” Strive to earn their buy-in. Once you get that buy-in, you can refer back to that conversation when the To-Do list drifts too far off course. Finally, and the tactic that invokes the most risk and could invite conflict, is just to say NO and stay true to your own priorities. We know of two cases where facility leaders were getting swamped by corporate requests. In both cases, these two leaders spent so much time responding to higher HQs, they were no longer managing or leading. After having enough, they both said NO to some corporate requests. Both lived to see another day. Neither were fired. Amazingly, the barrage of requests and To-Do’s from higher began to shrink. Performance, not surprisingly, began to grow. This takes courage, and that can often be in short supply.

You know what TO DO. Don’t forget to put on your To-Do list to reach out to Robin Bichy, a founder and principal at ELP. She’ll help you with prioritization. After all, we offer compelling solutions to strategic planning and time management that can unlock enormous value immediately. Reach her at robin@elpadvantage.com.

On February 13th of this year, the Supreme Court lost an intellectual heavyweight, a model for conservatism, in Antonin Scalia. His death ignited a political firestorm as Republicans and Democrats now fight to replace this controversial Supreme Court Justice. Almost lost in this story, though, is the grieving. Perhaps few have grieved more than Ruth Bader Ginsberg.

These two represent an odd couple if there ever was one. Physically and intellectually, many compared Scalia to a bear. Demonstrative and biting, this ultra conservative Catholic was known to write scathing dissents and is largely recognized as the most aggressive questioner on the bench. Ginsberg, diminutive in size, was in many regards the opposite: strongly liberal and progressive, Jewish, and soft-spoken in her dealings. Amazingly, they were the best of friends. There are lessons here that touch upon leadership and personal relationships. We reflect on a couple below.

First, disagreement should never mean disrespect. It’s possible, although difficult, to remain passionate about an idea or a course of action without tearing another person, who disagrees, down. On the judicial continuum, it is difficult to think of two intellectual forces more apart in how they viewed the law and the Constitution. In spite of their differences, disagreement never boiled over to disrespect. Just the opposite, those that cover our nation’s highest court, remarked that there was mutual liking and respect between the two. So, the next time you diverge with someone who sees the world differently or suggests a course of action to solving a problem that you don’t buy, feel free to disagree—but do so in a way that never spills over to disrespect. By the way, if you ever want to see what NOT to do, go on to Facebook and see the political hate and viciousness. This isn’t discourse. The leaders that read this newsletter are better than that.

Second, we need to leave our egos at the door. We should invite and be comfortable with people attacking our ideas—just as long as they aren’t attacking us. We’ve seen too many people take it personally. In a spirit of true intellectual honesty and curiosity, Ginsberg and Scalia seemed able to divorce their personalities and friendships from their judicial opinions and philosophy. In other words, they attacked each other’s ideas with rigor and force without attacking the person. Maybe most importantly, they seemed to welcome the intellectual challenge—without ever taking it personal.

Some parting thoughts and questions—do you always get defensive about your proposals and ideas or, conversely, do you welcome—even invite—challenge? As a leader, are you fostering relationships like Scalia and Ginsberg where ideas are ferociously attacked without ever going after the person? Do people feel free, even encouraged, to disagree? When you’ve witnessed another leader attack a person rather than their idea or proposal, did you correct and coach them? Or did you look away?

The death of Antonin Scalia has, on both sides, instantly turned political. Lost in the carnival atmosphere, however, are some elegant leadership lessons. Just maybe, because of this column, we’ll disagree better this month. By the way, if you can’t disagree in a healthy way or lobby good challenges at each other, you have a teamwork problem. Your next step should be to call Evan at 240.727.5965 or send an email at evan@elpadvantage.com.

We are ‘pulling the thread’ from the last entry of healthy intellectual challenge directly into this column. The best way to assess whether disagreement leads to disrespect, or whether leaders and individual contributors can engage in productive—not personal—intellectual challenge, is to track meetings.

At ELP, we’ve created a proprietary meeting scorecard that tracks the presence of strong teamwork, collaborative problem solving, and a culture of responsible and thorough questioning. Of course, you’ll have to call us to get more, but we’ll pull the curtain back for a moment.

To begin, keep your ear out for employee voice. Empirical research confirms that employees and leaders who feel they have a voice are more engaged, less likely to quit, and report higher levels of job satisfaction. To be sure, there are limits and boundaries to employee voice. In general, at this meeting, did you observe leaders, managers, and individual contributors offering expertise and informing the conversation? Did members of the team listen and were they respectful? The opposite of this is when one individual owns the room. Here, a single individual dominates, asks all the questions, and commandeers the meeting. Another way to examine the presence or absence of this phenomenon is to track the behaviors and communicative patterns when the leader is not in the room. Are people more relaxed and involved or engaged?

Next, examine and track the meeting for appropriate challenge. Were assumptions called into question? Did people push back at ideas without attacking the individual? Unfortunately, the absence of challenge is groupthink or the spiral of silence. Under the phenomenon of groupthink, mental models morph into one—alternatives are ignored or downright flouted. The spiral of silence is equally damaging. Here, people are afraid to push back and silence is perceived as collective agreement. If you are tracking a meeting using this metric and detect zero challenge to a complex solution, proposal, or recommendation, there’s a problem—a big one.

Lastly, and this may seem a touch outta place here, but were people knowledgeable and prepared for the meeting? Return for a moment to Scalia and Ginsberg. Without question, both were highly knowledgeable and came prepared. It is almost incomprehensible to believe that these two individuals ever ‘shot from the hip.’ Healthy challenge can only exist when we have trust and faith that the other person is informed in their thoughts and mental models. The minute we perceive the person as ill equipped or misinformed, there can be no healthy challenge. During the first 3 minutes of almost any meeting, we can detect those that’ve prepared and those who didn’t. To challenge is to prepare.

To learn more on how to blend teamwork, intellectual curiosity, respectful challenge, and accountability into a single meeting event, you must reach out to Robin Bichy and get our proprietary ELP Meeting Scorecard. Reach her at robin@elpadvantage.com.