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Organizational Change and Leadership Burnout

With Corporate America as volatile as it’s ever been, how are you supposed to have any energy left for yourself or your family when you go home at the end of the day? Here are four tips to help you avoid leadership burnout.

It’s true that executive teams are putting more and more pressure on leaders and that we are experiencing unprecedented change in the workplace. But, how much pressure do you put on yourself to:

  • Engage and motivate your direct reports every day in spite of a meaningful lack of strategic direction or focus?Organizational Change
  • Continually challenge your team to find innovative ways to do more with less?
  • Enthusiastically take on an ever-increasing number of projects?

All of the above are key elements of being a good leader, and on the good days you probably take everything in stride.  On the bad days, though, it may be all you can do to help everyone else just hang in there, let alone yourself.

If you have started to dream about your job every night, if your attention on weekends is tangled up in problem-solving and focused more on the upcoming week than the present moment, here are four tips you may find useful:

1. Whatever is happening at work is just a point in time:  Many of the women in my mother-in-law’s church have been known to say “this too shall pass” when life is just too much to bear. It helps to remember that whatever stress we are experiencing in any given moment really is just a point in time.

2. 9s beat 8s, so apply the Span of Control Model to your current situation:  “Sher, your major problem is that you keep forgetting 9s beat 8s every time in poker. You are an 8. It doesn’t matter what you think about this situation. The 9s have all the power. You have no control, and this is not part of your job. So, give up, and move on.” Rick a director of Human Resources, was a good colleague of mine. I have never forgotten his advice.

Earlier in my career, I took on more extra work than I ever needed to. I did it because I believed that if I just worked hard enough, long enough, talked to the right people, and didn’t give up I could make a bigger difference. Sometimes it made sense to take on this extra work. Other times it didn’t, and my energy was misspent instead of focused. I would go home stressed and unable to forget about work.  Then, a friend drew the Span of Control model on a napkin and explained it to me one night over dinner. (See figure above.*)

When we truly focus on what is within our area of responsibility first, then judiciously consider where we might influence a situation—and quit stressing about those things that are totally outside of our control, our jobs are much more manageable–and so is our stress level.

3. Know when to fold:  I’d been hired to build a new department at GE, and I’d just hired a new manager. About a month after she started, she came into my office to tell me an opportunity had come up for her to move into another field, and she had to take it. She apologized, but I understood. The problem I faced was that our business group was under pressure to control hiring—not exactly a hiring freeze—but close. I knew that if I built my case and asked my CEO for permission to replace her, he would probably say yes. I also knew he would not be happy about it. On the other hand, I was charged with building a strong new department. I wanted to do the best job I could for my business unit, so I was pretty stressed out about what to do.

Finally, I went in and explained to the CEO that the new manager I’d hired the month before had a new opportunity. I told him that given the current hiring situation, I was proposing that we hold off on replacing her. I explained that I could still deliver on all the key projects, and that some of the nice-to-have projects could easily be put on hold for a few months.

Two fantastic things happened as a result. First, all the stress I’d put on myself about having to fight to build this new department was alleviated by the support I got from all my executive team mates as they worked with me to prioritize what really needed to happen. Nine months later, my department had accomplished everything we’d promised. The second good thing happened when the CEO called me into his office. He said “I want to thank you, Sher, for giving up your open position. It was a stressful time for our business unit, and now things are back on track. Your team has done a great job this year, and I want you to think about how you want to build your department.” That day he told me I could design the department in any way I wished and that he would support any hires I wanted to make.

4. Learn how to go with the flow:  This phrase was quite popular in the 1970s. One day not too long ago, a friend of mine asked me if I really knew what it meant. My reply was something along the lines of “it means that you have no power and to accept where the river of life chooses to send you.” His response was an immediate, “Nope. What it really means is that you have to use all your experience and talent to dip your paddle in the flow of what is happening and begin to move in the direction you really want to go.” Thought provoking, isn’t it?

What helps me most when times are stressful at work, when I think if I work a little longer or a little harder, is to remember what’s really important. There will always be another crisis or a new challenge at work. In fact, there will always be another job. What we all have to remember, is that work is just a part of our lives. It isn’t our whole life.  What matters is our family and our friends. In the end, no one can control how much we work, how much we sacrifice for our jobs but us.


*Note: I have not able to find the source for this model. If anyone knows of it, please send me a note.

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A Zen Master on a Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day

We all have them. You know, those days when from dawn to dusk nothing seems to go right at work.

I can handle a lot of change and a fair amount of conflict. What sends me over the edge every time, though, is when my technology quits working right about the time I have a deliverable. I can go from zero calm to totally frazzled in 2.5 seconds–or less. I’m not proud of it, but that’s how I’ve been wired in the past.

Stressed out leaders

But today was different. It was different because I got the best coaching I’ve ever gotten about how to manage my techno-stress. I believe this advice will also serve me well in other areas of my work and personal life, so I’d like to share it with you.

My Story

I’ll start with a bit of back story. I’m currently working a gig as a Change Manager for a major company. Last week, just as I was getting the hang of things and had a bunch of deliverables to hand over and presentations to make, strange things began to happen with my computer.

The first thing was that every PowerPoint slide would print with all the text outside of the shapes. I called and received some excellent support from our IT experts, but we didn’t find the problem day one, day two, or even day three. On day four, Outlook began doing funny things as well. We found a temporary fix that worked but then on day five that poor computer had to think awfully hard to boot up at all. I started to wonder if the hard drive was going.

Yep, that was it. So, our IT team provided me with a loaner machine, and I breathed a sigh of relief, thinking that I could still make my deadlines. Unfortunately, the hard drive on that machine wasn’t working either. My stress was rising, but the next day things started looking up when I got a call to pick up my work computer.

It was as good as new. I was jubilant. So, today I got up at dawn determined to catch up and even get ahead with all the work that had begun to pile up. I rolled into work ready to move mountains. Then, I turned on the computer. Nothing happened. It wouldn’t boot up. For the first few minutes, I was cool, I was calm. I know what you’re supposed to do if your computer won’t boot up. Reboot, right? No such luck. That darn machine just would not boot up. I panicked.

A Session with a Technical Zen Master

I trudged downstairs with gloom on my face and found my IT expert. He took one look at me, and this is what he said.

“Breathe, Sher. Take a big, deep breath and just breathe.”

“But you don’t understand,” I began to babble. “This isn’t the first time . . .” and I started to enumerate all my techno-woes.

My computer expert smiled gently and held up a hand.

“Stay with me, right now in this moment.”

“But . . . ”

My new Zen Master didn’t lose one ounce of calm. He wasn’t arrogant, frustrated, or pushy when he nodded at me and said,

“I understand that you have a story about all the things that have happened, but let’s focus on what is happening right this minute. Stay with me in this moment, and don’t think about the past. When you come right down to it, all we can do anyway is focus on now and fix the problem.”

So, I took a breath, sat down, and then took another. What he said certainly made sense and the way he said it was lovely. And, wouldn’t you know it, when he turned on the computer it booted right up. The computer had just been cycling through some updates. That’s all. I was on my way in less than five minutes.

The Choice is Ours

For the rest of the day, I kept thinking about what my computer expert had said. I thought about how I handled other situations and how my colleagues did as well. Most of the time, we don’t have control over things that go wrong. But we always have control over how we respond. It’s so easy to fall into our own stories about woulda, coulda, shoulda, and yet telling and retelling our woes doesn’t solve a darn thing in the end.

Taking a deep breath, though, and thinking about what we can do in the present to move forward is much more productive. Taking action to put a plan in place and then moving forward alleviates stress enormously.

The choice is always ours. We just have to remember that. I will never forget how kind this computer expert was today in helping me resolve my techo-issues. Instead of thinking I might have to move to Australia–the potential solution for the main character in Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day by Judith Viorst–I finished my day right where I most wanted to be. Here in Minneapolis, working with a brand new client. How lucky did I get to be?


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Listen to the Music Inside of You

Wishing you a relaxing Labor Day weekend to reconnect with your own form of music

I once worked with a wonderful human resources leader who talked about how important it was for leaders to take care of their own needs as well as the needs of their teams. The example she gave was that if we were on an airplane in distress and that handy little oxygen gizmo dropped down, it would be imperative to ensure our own supply first so that we would be able to help others.

I hope you will take some well-deserved time off over this long weekend to take care of your needs to rest and play and do some of what really makes your soul sing.

One of my favorite quotes is by Benjamin Disraeli:

Most people die with their music still locked up inside of them.

I made a vow to myself years ago that I would not die with my music all locked inside. How about you? What form does your music take? Have a wonderful long weekend off.

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How to Recover from a Leadership Mistake

The issue is not whether we will make mistakes as leaders. The real issues are how we respond when they happen and what we learn as a result.

This four-step process will help you increase your credibility and retain your sanity when a leadership mistake occurs in spite of your best efforts:

How to recover from leadership mistakes

  • Perform triage to contain whatever has happened.
  • Create a system to avoid similar mistakes in the future.
  • Forgive yourself—and move on.
  • Share the mistake with others so they can avoid committing it themselves.

Jaime Richardson headed up marketing for a national manufacturing company. Her team produced an expensive printed calendar to send out to all customers. The theme of the calendar was quality, and the key message was about how the company embedded quality in everything they did. When the calendars arrived from the printer, Jaime grabbed one from the box, and as her team gathered around, she flipped through it, excited to see the finished product.

The calendar was beautiful, reflecting their quality message with vibrant color and images. But when Jaime got to August, her eyes opened wide. Instead of August 28, August 38 appeared in large black letters.

Her team was devastated. They’d worked so hard to produce a high-quality marketing piece to reinforce their commitment to quality—and the irony was that their customer gift contained a mistake. Jamie called the printer immediately, but the calendars had already been sent out to every customer on their list. Here’s how she followed the four-step leadership recovery process:

  • Perform triage to control what happened: The first thing Jaime did was inform her boss and propose a recovery plan. He was impressed with both her plan and how quickly she’d come up with it. He agreed. Jamie immediately asked the printer to correct and produce a new set of calendars and sent them out with a note from the CEO to all customers explaining that the first batch contained a mistake, and so they were sending out a correction. In the note, she also took the opportunity to reinforce that providing the highest level of quality was their commitment to customers and that they would always make things right. The CEO received notes from several customers thanking him, and in the end, the mistake turned out to increase their credibility with customers.
  • Create a system to avoid a similar mistake in the future: Jaime and a member of her team had carefully proofed that calendar more than once. Unfortunately, one of the executives had come down and requested a small, last-minute change. Because they only proofed the requested change, they didn’t see that somehow in the process a typo was entered for the August page. To avoid any similar mistakes in the future, Jamie and her team devised a new process for managing last-minute changes.
  • Forgive yourself and move on: When Jaime went in to apologize yet another time, her boss said, “Well, did any babies die?” Jaime was so surprised, she couldn’t think of a thing to say. Her boss just smiled and said, “Look, if you’re not making any mistakes, you’re not growing. And if you’re not growing, you’ll never be the leader I know you can be. This isn’t the worst thing that could have happened. Let it go.”
  • Share the mistake with others so they can avoid committing it themselves: Jaime used this story to help train new employees when they joined her team, and even more important to reinforce the fact that everyone makes mistakes. She also shared it during a speech she gave to her professional association, and the fact that she was so open about her department’s mistake caused others to share and everyone learned more in the process.

In order to grow, every one of us needs to reach and risk. Sometimes we will make mistakes. But as Marvin Weisbord said in his book, Productive Workplaces, “Unless we make our own mistakes and learn to forgive ourselves, we cannot learn at all.”

How have you recovered from the mistakes you have made on the job?

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Leadership Resilience: On Starting Over

Remember, you don’t have to be perfect. It’s never too late to start over with your team if you remember these Starting over with your teamfour things:

  • It’s more important to listen first and speak second.
  • Use everyone’s expertise to plan and get results.
  • When you are wrong, apologize.
  • Honor your team. and they will honor you.

When I was promoted to my first leadership job at Honeywell’s Systems and Research Center, I was committed to being the best leader I could be. One of the first things I learned from my team was that they felt like second-class citizens. I had lots of ideas about how we could become strategic partners to support our business, and I shared them all. I was passionate. I was animated. I talked a lot. I listened a little.

Then, shortly after I started, my mother died, my father-in-law died, my own father had a stroke, and my grandmother died—all within a sixteen-week period. The pain was devastating, but I ignored it, and charged on. I was the leader after all, right?  My job was to set an example, not be an example.

I was exhausted, not particularly coherent, and I was abrupt as I tried to hide my feelings. Finally, Mike, the senior member of our team asked if I would meet with everyone the next morning. When I walked into the conference room, all ten of my direct reports sat waiting for me around a long table. Mike sat at the foot, and the chair at the head of the table was empty, waiting for me.

Before I could say a word, Mike broke in. “First of all, we want you to know that we really care about you. But lately, Sher, you seem really curt, and we feel that you don’t have any faith in us.”

“Are you speaking for everyone when you say “we feel”?  My voice was clipped and short, and then my face started to burn. I’d just proven his point.

Rita spoke up. “You seem to want to know every detail about all of our projects. It feels like you don’t trust us. And, you have all these ideas about how to change things.”

Linda added in her soft voice, “You just seem so defensive, lately. What’s wrong?” Linda was one of the kindest, most honest women, I’d ever met, and if she said I was being defensive, then I had to believe her.

Something shifted inside of me. I could feel it as I slumped in my chair and forgot about being the perfect leader for the first time since I’d joined the team.

“You’re right. I’m sorry. I’d like to listen, really. I do want to understand what you’re thinking and feeling.”

Around the table, people visibly relaxed, and I realized for the first time they’d been as nervous as I was. For the next hour, I listened for a change, and they spoke. Looking back, I realize that they had no big complaints. They were sincere when they said they wanted to work with me. They just needed me to listen.

“Thank you for having the guts to speak up,” I said after everyone had gone around the table. “I have been curt and preoccupied, but it had nothing to do with you.” And, I finally shared why I’d been out of the office. They’d had no idea about all the deaths in my family. “I’m really sorry it seemed as though I was finding fault. I didn’t mean to come off that way. I’ve been talking a lot about my vision. Can we start over and instead talk about our vision?”

I got an enthusiastic “yes” from everyone around that table.

Over a three-year period, we worked hard, becoming serious business partners with all the science areas at the Systems and Research Center, and we moved well beyond our previous role of support staff. We doubled our productivity, we maintained a flat-line budget, and we had fun.

It’s been more than 20 years, and I still remember that team with love and honor them for the lessons they were so willing to help me learn. I went on and studied everything I could learn about leadership communication. Since then, I’ve led global and strategic change management communication teams at GE, American Express, Honeywell, and Thrivent Financial for Lutherans. I’ve worked with hundreds of leaders all over the world from the front line to the C-Suite, from high tech to financial services to manufacturing. And to this day, the four most important leadership lessons I’ve learned are:

  • It’s more important to listen first, speak second.
  • Use everyone’s expertise to plan and get results.
  • When you’re wrong, apologize.
  • Honor your team. and they will honor you.

It’s never too late to start over as a leader when things go awry. Have you ever started over? How did it go?

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Manage the Presentation Terrors with These 3 Secrets

Learn to laugh, breathe, and push a wall to purge those nerves before you present to senior leaders.

It was 7:00 a.m. on a Friday morning many years ago, and I was scheduled to give a speech to the senior leadership team at Honeywell’s Systems and Research Center. It would be the first presentation I’d ever made to a group of executives. I was so nervous my hands shook, my knees wobbled, and I didn’t have a speck of spit left in my mouth to swallow.Managing nerves while presenting

I arrived at the conference room an hour early to practice and get my nerves under control. I was wired and so scared about making a fool of myself in front of my senior leadership team. I started speaking to the empty room, pretending each seat held an executive. Suddenly, I heard someone clapping, and I turned to find a man standing in the doorway.

“Honey, you’re going to be just fine,” smiled the janitor as he held both hands above his head in a victory shake. “Just look ‘em straight in the eye when you speak, answer their questions, and don’t forget to breathe.” I started to laugh, and in an instant, my nervousness disappeared. I thanked him for the tips, and by the time the executives came into the room, I was ready. I’ve never forgotten that man, and that he cared enough to give a frightened young businesswoman some much needed encouragement. I learned that day how laughter and remembering to breathe are excellent ways to dispel what I not so fondly referred to as the presentation terrors.

A couple of years later, I learned another way to manage the presentation terrors. I came across an article about how actor Yul Brenner pushed a wall before each of his performances in The King and I. He understood that by managing his nervous energy he would give a better performance.

Nervous energy is simply unchecked adrenalin, and it’s not a bad thing. Without energy, our presentation delivery is blah and boring. Learning to harness it allows us to direct that energy into our voice and gestures, which increases our power to inform, persuade and motivate others. When we don’t know how to manage that energy, adrenalin floods our bodies. The result?  A shaky, weak voice. Sweaty hands. And, wobbly knees. So, the next time your adrenalin is misbehaving right before an important presentation, find something to laugh about and push a wall:

  • Stand about two feet in front of your chosen wall.
  • Place both hands flat against it.
  • Push as hard as you can. As you push, your diaphragm will tighten, and the adrenalin will disperse throughout your body, leaving you with energy—and without the shakes.

Not convenient to push a wall? No worries. Just sit back in your chair and push against the conference table, discretely—but as hard as you can. You’ll get the same result, and no one will notice.

And, whatever you do, don’t forget to breathe!

Please share your own tips about how to manage the presentation terrors.

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