An executive shows up for his coaching session.
“Um,” he says, “I didn’t prepare for this meeting.”
I nod. After many years of coaching, this opening is normal. He has been busy doing his job rather than thinking about it. Ideally, for our session, he’d offer a broad-reaching topic, such as an issue arising from a recent strategic planning retreat, the integration of a new vice president or improving his executive presence. These matters, however, reside in the category of “nice-to-haves.”
I reply. “No worries. However, the difference between coaching and high school is that in coaching, if you don’t complete your assignment, we do it in class.” Then, “class” begins.
“What have you got going on right now?” I ask him, and we plunge into the hassle du jour. It could be anything: a recent all-hands meeting that was a dud, a thrash over performance bonuses or a surprise invitation to keynote at an industry conference.
The beauty of landing on the moment is that it mirrors the reality of the leadership life. Leadership is not a job. It is a mindset of keeping an eagle eye on what is happening around you and seeing every moment as a strategic opportunity. It also means having the courage to notice things that are unexpected, difficult and exciting.
The leadership mindset does not lend itself to preparedness in the ordinary world of lists and notes. Rather, it falls into its own realm of a mental preparedness needed to take on the risk of leading change.
The Leadership Mindset
The leadership mindset embraces the new, the unknown and the uncertain. Given those attributes, you can never be fully ready. What you can do is to work on embracing discomfort as essential to the leadership role. Without it, you will miss opportunities to raise the game.
Change, even positive change, challenges everyone:
- How will our demanding client react to the new product design we spent several late nights creating?
- What will my volatile sales vice president do when I tell him we’re shifting marketing to another department?
- How will the community respond when we announce our intent to move our back offices to the suburbs?
When you introduce a new idea, you are the catalyst who will have to face others’ reactions. These reactions will range from positive and enthusiastic to confused and negative, which can be uncomfortable. Then, you have to decide what to do.
Before you act, however, you should focus on understanding your own reactions. Separating facts from feelings will provide the mental clarity to determine what actions to take next to drive change.
Building Mental Preparedness
Here are five strategies to optimize your mental preparedness and move from reaction into action:
1. Accept Reactive Feelings as Crucial to the Cause
New frontiers are exciting and scary, for you and your stakeholders. If anyone knew how things would go, your idea would not be new. Feeling apprehensive is inevitable when you take on the risk of pursuing change.
2. Give Yourself a Moment of Privacy
If you encounter pushback to your idea, hear what the other person says; then, take a break from the action. Whether you retreat to your office and close the door, stroll around the block, or merely close your eyes for a minute, grant yourself the gift of self-examination to sift through your feelings. Resist ordering them while you ask yourself large and small questions about your emotional reactions. For example:
- Why did that guy’s silence bother me?
- How come people didn’t show any gratitude for my crawling out on a limb for them?
- I don’t get what my senior engineer was saying, but she’s so scary smart, I’m afraid if I ask her to explain, I’ll find out she thinks my idea is stupid.
During your private meeting, reflect on two sources of information. The first is the external environment: Remember what you heard and saw when you presented your idea. What did people mean by their comments or facial expressions? To find out, you could simply ask them. However, asking is complicated if you have not first weeded out factors from the second source, the internal environment.
Life experiences create internal filters and inevitably influence how you react to a situation. They can clutter your perceptions with emotional white noise. Were you sensitive to criticism because your audience’s demand for more information evoked your hypercritical parents? Did your team’s challenges raise your hackles because you thought you had given them more than enough opportunities to be involved early in the process, or are you acting defensively because they reminded you of a toxic, bullying colleague in a previous job?
As you deconstruct your observations, think about whether your reactions arise from insufficient information about the current situation or represent residue from past experiences that aren’t relevant to the present. Your team might have criticisms, but they are not your parents or your former colleague. Talking things through with a trusted co-worker or adviser might help you process.
3. Ask in a Nonreactive Way
Once you gain clarity about your reactions, it’s time for action. Return to your stakeholders to start the next phase of investigation. What further feedback can they give you on your new idea?
Decoding people’s reactions involves detective work. You might notice surprised expressions, agitation or excitement, and you won’t know what they signify until you spend time with your stakeholders to learn whether they are pleased, perplexed or merely distracted. Focusing on the end game of developing a course of action for your new idea help you to detach from reactivity and facilitate better listening and learning.
4. Find the Courage to Take in Information
It is hard to ask people for their opinions of an idea into which you have put your heart and soul. It can stir up uncomfortable feelings of vulnerability. Nevertheless, without it, you won’t gather the information you need to plan your next move.
The surprised expression on the faces of your audience could be their response to a level of risk-taking they are not used to seeing in you. Or, they know the initiative will be expensive and wonder how the money will be found. Or, they might be excited about the idea but nervous because it is new and untested.
5. Build an Action Plan Based on What You Learn
Honoring what you heard with responsive action is key to credibility and followership. You don’t have to accept every opinion offered by your stakeholders, but if you have cleared your listening channels of reactivity and demonstrate that you heard what they said, you will likely win the buy-in you need to pursue your new idea.
To react is human. To honor and understand one’s reactions before acting is leadership.