Leadership Caffeine—What to Do When You Grow Fatigued

image of a foam coffee cup with brown outer sleeveThe Leadership Caffeine series is over 200 installments strong and is dedicated to every aspiring or experienced leader and manager seeking ideas, insights or just a jolt of energy to keep pushing forward. Thanks for being along for the journey!

Much of our common dialog around leadership focuses on the lofty and noble. That’s good and appropriate. After all there are some remarkable opportunities for growth and reward in the life of a conscientious leader. Empowering people who respond in great form to drive remarkable outcomes is indeed exhilarating. Taking a short leap of faith on an unproven player in a new role and watching (and helping) it work is what it’s all about. Looking back at the careers and achievements of people who intersected with you during your journey for a moment in time is truly amazing and humbling.

Why then is it so damned exhausting to serve as a leader? And better yet, how does someone entering the power dive of leadership fatigue find a way to pull out and continue serving enthusiastically in pursuit of the noble?

Vexing (and very real) challenges and questions for anyone who has served in a role responsible for others.

An Inelegant Escape (With a Great Outcome):

I hit the wall hard earlier in my career and made what was likely my biggest career blunder in my drive to escape the tyranny of the team. After being in a supervisory or managerial role for all but 6 months of my first 14 years out of college, I had had it with the drama, soap operas, head cases and garden variety of issues that all people and all teams bring to the occasion. All my teams had been successful…our businesses grew nicely and the talent was everywhere. And I was out of gas spinning the plates and keeping the wings from breaking off during our tumultuous flights for success.

In my attempt at achieving escape velocity from the life of a leader, I took an individual contributor’s role as a senior staff member working for a brilliant (but very) mid-twentieth century style command and control leader. It didn’t take long to recognize that something was wrong. While the people around me were brilliant and the many divisions and firms under this corporate umbrella fascinating, there was no team for me to develop and I wasn’t building with anyone. I discovered that if I wasn’t building people, teams and businesses, I felt like I was dying. Fortunately, this role led to an unexpected door into a new role and new firm leading others and growing a business that by all standards was the most rewarding portion of my corporate career. Happy ending. Good fortune. The next time around, the experience with all of its headaches was so rewarding from a people perspective, I dedicated my first book to a good number of those “family” members.

You’re Not Alone:

I’ve discovered that I’m not alone in having hit the wall of leadership fatigue. Many former colleagues and coaching clients have experienced their own form of this syndrome. Many suffer in silence, counting the days and marking time. Others have pursued radical career changes and entrepreneurial adventures and a good number have managed to find ways to revitalize and reset around this wonderful, vexing, draining, exhilarating role of leading.

Here are a few thoughts drawn from the wisdom and examples of others striving to recover from a bad case of leadership fatigue. Feel free to add your guidance here for all of us striving to keep the energy high.

Ten Ideas to Help You Fight Leadership Fatigue:

1. Create an Artifact to Remind Yourself Daily of Your Real Purpose. The daily challenges in our organizations can be all consuming. Chasing the urgent consumes much of our time and the urgent-unimportant has a way of filling any openings. An exercise I’ve used for years now to help leaders remind themselves is to develop and make visible their own personal leader’s charter. I have my own…and those who have followed this tactic have developed their version of why they are serving in this role and what they are accountable for in leading others. A simple morning re-read of this framed charter hanging on the wall or sitting on a shelf provides a powerful reminder of your real role and the opportunity you have to build others and your business with every single encounter in the upcoming day.

2. Cultivate a Beginner’s Mind. This one is difficult for the young and brash. It takes a few laps around the blocks of professional life to recognize that you don’t have the answer to every problem. Approaching issues by suspending judgment and seeking first to understand is a remarkable way to change the tone and tenor of every day. Beginners learn to ask questions and viewing people and teams and challenges from a fresh perspective can lead to an inner calm and a perpetual journey of discovery. The wisest leaders I’ve worked around understand that with every person and every day they are beginners.

3. Keep it in Context. Remember, you have the privilege of helping people and helping your firm every single day. Each day is a blank canvas that you get to fill-in with positive encounters, helpful ideas and productive interactions. Problems and issues represent opportunities to serve and to teach. Recognizing and reminding yourself of this privilege of serving helps to tame the stress.

4. Don’t Cede Control to the Gremlins. Faced with circumstances that are personally toxic…a hostile environment; a micromanaging maniacal senior executive breathing down your neck or an endless barrage of Everest-like problems, it’s easy to fall into the professional death spiral. Unless lives (yours and others) are on the line, beware this trap of equating your self-worth and your life’s value with your miserable work experience. While I don’t advocate a casual attitude about your work, remember that you have to give permission to that miserable manager or the stressful circumstances to take control of your perception of self. Strive to not cede that control by looking at the reality of the less than life or death issues swirling around you. (In some cases, external help/counseling/coaching is a great idea if you’re in this mode.)

5. Engage In the Moment—One Encounter at a Time. Instead of focusing on the noise and heat that you expect to encounter every day, reign in your focal point to the person, group or issue immediately in front of you. Much of our angst is over the expectation of what will happen. The act of focusing on what’s happening in the moment versus boiling the ocean of uncertainty over what may happen or what’s happening in the background is liberating. You get to create the future one controllable moment at a time.

6. Get a Coach. I love great executive and professional coaches for all of the wonderful wisdom they bring to our issues and for the metaphorical clubbing upside the head they provide to help us see ourselves and our situations with a level of clarity that we are unable to gain on our own. Great coaches peel back the layers of complexity and help us identify our core issues and then they kick our asses in pursuit of resolving or strengthening around those issues. If you’ve ever had a great strength training or conditioning coach, the professional coach has the same priceless impact. They see you through eyes other than your own and they push us harder than we would ever push ourselves.

7. Master Another Discipline. It’s amazing how pursuing something new…a new language, a craft or a hobby that takes you completely out of your daily life can help you cope with those vexing daily circumstances. While you hate to say that the workday becomes less important, the pursuit of a new passion is energizing and it creates a halo effect around your work days. You’re aware that you are tackling something bigger and different than your daily work and strangely/interestingly, it makes your work all the more bearable.

8. A Healthy Body Breeds a Healthy Mind. Working on your diet or fitness offers nearly instantaneous feedback and it’s amazing what a host of small victories (more time, faster time, more strength, the first few pounds, the next weight target, the better fitting clothes) will do for your daily attitude. In my case, it has been transformational for both mind and body.

9. Manufacture “You” Time. Finding time to think deeply about what you are doing and what you need to do is priceless. Our always-on world and our omnipresent devices don’t make this easy. Something as simple as 15 minutes of reading (in your profession, in your faith, pure escapism… whatever) gives your brain both a much needed stress rest and a jolt of energy and creativity.

10. Don’t Be Afraid to Push the Eject Button. While it may sound like I’m suggesting you give up, there are absolutely circumstances where enough is enough. I tripped and stumbled a bit with my own eject activity, however, I would do the same thing all over again. The transition helped me refuel and regain much needed context. Importantly, it set the stage for some of my life’s best work. Sometimes a new adventure is just what the spirit needs to revitalize.

The Bottom-Line for Now:

I’ve encountered too many people suffering in silence in their roles responsible for others. Nothing good comes of this martyrdom…for you for or for those around you. Pick a strategy to recharge…try a variety of approaches until something works or, cultivate the courage to go do something else. The only mistake is to stay locked in irons, making yourself and everyone around you miserable. Leading others is too important to be left to someone out of gas and out of heart. Given our challenges in this world, we need all the leadership energy and heart we can muster.

Don’t miss the next Leadership Caffeine-Newsletter! (All new subscriber-only content!) Register herebook cover: shows title Leadership Caffeine-Ideas to Energize Your Professional Development by Art Petty. Includes image of a coffee cup.

For more ideas on professional development-one sound bite at a time, check out: Leadership Caffeine-Ideas to Energize Your Professional Development

New to leading or responsible for first time leaders on your team? Subscribe to Art’s New Leader’s e-News.

An ideal book for anyone starting out in leadership: Practical Lessons in Leadership by Art Petty and Rich Petro.

The Saturday Serial Number 1—Welcome to ACME John Anderson

A text slide reading: The Saturday Serial: A Management and Leadership Story Delivered One Post at a TimeThe Saturday Serial is an on-going management and leadership story and case based on a fictional firm and fictional characters all dealing with very real challenges in leadership and management. The intent is to stimulate thinking and discussion in a format different than the traditional “how to” blog post. Each episode includes a series of discussion questions for your consideration (or use with your team). I’ll share my views on the prior week’s chapter and questions in a subsequent post.

Episode 1:

The electronic sign in the lobby, offered up a friendly, Welcome to ACME CONSOLIDATED SOLUTIONS GROUP (ASCG). As John waited to check in with the receptionist, he was pleased to see his name scroll past: John Anderson, Manager, Product and Marketing. Nice touch, he thought as he stepped up and gave his name to the receptionist.

John was excited to be starting at ACSG today. This was his third employer in 14 years since graduating from college. While ACSG was a big conglomerate, John would be working with one of the smaller units…the Data Systems Solutions Group (DSSG)…an area that from all of his research, appeared to be an important part of the conglomerate’s future. During the interview process, John had been impressed with the entrepreneurial spirit he sensed in the people working in the Data Systems Solutions Group, and he liked the fact that he could help grow a start-up under the umbrella of a firm with deep pockets and diverse business interests. Also, John was mid-way through his MBA program and it didn’t hurt that the firm offered to pick up the future tuition costs as part of their generous employee education reimbursement policy.

All in all, John was excited to start this next chapter in his career.

After a quick greeting with his boss, Pat Paulsen, John was off to a whirlwind of meet and greet sessions. He met with security and had his picture taken for his permanent i.d. badge. HR took him through benefits sign-up and then Pat walked him around the Data Systems Solutions Group offices and introduced him to all of the unit’s 54 employees, including his new product management and marketing team members. After some time spent with I.T. setting up log-in credentials, it was 11:45 a.m. and John was scheduled for lunch with the unit’s six-month new CEO, Victoria Pyott. Victoria’s policy was to have lunch with every new employee regardless of level or title on their first day, and John was impressed with this thoughtful treatment.

Over lunch, Victoria outlined her view on the opportunities and challenges for the team in DSSG, and John was impressed with both her excitement about the unit’s prospects and her frank assessment of the challenges for the upcoming 18 months.

“We’re in a great arena,” offered Victoria. “The opportunity to help firms, teams and managers make better sense of their data is huge. All of us in all of our firms have spent years investing in systems to capture and access data, but we’ve still not resolved some of the fundamental issues…how to get the right data at the right time for the business problem or process issue we’re attempting to resolve. There’s all manner of software packages and tools to help clients do this, but by and large they’ve failed, because they’ve been expensive, complicated to install and integrate and frankly, very complicated to use. We can’t expect the finance or supply chain manager to be a software or even data expert…we have to create offerings that make their lives easier and that easily help them develop trusted, complete data on demand for the problem at hand,” she stated.

“Of course, like any firm motivated to grow and supported by a parent company that looks for results, not just promises in the future, we have to do a better job turning our ideas into solutions that we can monetize,” added Victoria. “That’s where you and your team come in, John. Thus far we’ve been led by the vision of our CTO, Raj Nataraj, and while he’s brilliant, he doesn’t have that knack for commercializing his vision. I’ve invested heavily in your team, and when your predecessor was grabbed by our parent company to lead another new initiative, we worked hard to find the right replacement. I think you’re absolutely the right person at the right time to lead this team and help lead this business into a successful future. It won’t be easy, but you have my support and the support of our entire management team.”

After returning to his office and sitting down with his manager, Pat, he relayed the lunch discussion and shared his over-the-top excitement with her.

“John, Victoria is right,” said Pat. “We’ve got a great opportunity and your role and your team is critical. But remember, no one said this would be a day at the beach. There are challenges ranging from the choice of markets and the development of the best entry strategies to critical product investment calls and challenging execution issues. We’re a young unit, but we’re big enough to need more process around our approach to daily operations…while at the same time insuring that we keep that entrepreneurial culture. And yes, I read once that these jobs would be easy if it weren’t for the people. It’s true here…there are a wide variety of personalities, all with different perspectives and all trying to help the firm grow and go. More than a few of them missed the memo on teamwork. You definitely have your work cut out for you, but I’m glad you’re here. And I’m thrilled to have your help and to offer my support,” she said.

“Now, are you prepared for your first team meeting?” asked Pat. “It’s in five minutes.”

While the morning’s raw enthusiasm was still there, John was beginning to understand the magnitude of the work out in front of him. He smiled, and said, “Absolutely. Just point the way to the conference room.”

Discussion Prompters:

  1. The initial meeting with a new team is one of the more challenging for any manager. What do you think is running through the minds of John’s new team members as they head to the conference room for this first meeting with their new boss?
  2. What are John’s objectives for this initial, formal group contact?
  3. What must John do and say to make a positive first impression?
  4. What must John avoid to minimize tarnishing that first impression?
  5. Help John get started on the right foot in the weeks ahead. What should John do in the early days of his new role as the head of Product Management and Marketing in the DSSG?

All characters and firms are fictional and any resemblance to any person or any firm is purely coincidental. The Saturday Serial is a copyright (2015) of Art Petty, The Art Petty Group and The Management Excellence Blog.

Introducing The Saturday Serial—An Ongoing Management & Leadership Case

A text slide reading: The Saturday Serial: A Management and Leadership Story Delivered One Post at a TimeA note from Art:

I’ve long believed serials are great ways to share stories. Dickens published many of his works in serial format and the dockworkers were reputed to shout from the shore as ships arrived with the latest installment of The Old Curiosity Shop, “Did little Nell live?” The Golden Age of Science Fiction was filled with stories told one chapter at a time from issue-to-issue and today’s Game of Thrones novels from George R.R. Martin are an excellent example of the serial on steroids, with fans (myself included) waiting impatiently to learn the fate of our favorite characters and hoping that Mr. Martin finishes the story. Who lives? Who dies? Who conquers?

Serials provide readers an opportunity to become invested in a story and the characters, and I believe the approach provides authors an opportunity to think and then create new twists and new approaches to challenge the characters and further engage the readers. As a child and teen I was addicted to the Encyclopedia Brown Mysteries because I appreciated the characters and I loved the ability to try and solve the cases. I’ve added that twist here in the form of discussion questions and I look forward to sharing my ideas and learning how readers might solve these business cases.

Welcome to my intent and attempt to share and cultivate management and leadership lessons beyond the format of a stale blog post and endless lists of “10 ideas to… .” While I love writing the Management Excellence blog and the first 1,025 posts are testament to my commitment, I’ve wanted to experiment with the serial and management fable format here for a long time. I’m emboldened by the reader appreciation for the short, fictional cases around my mythical APEX Corporation, inserted in front of the chapters in my book with Rich Petro, Practical Lessons in Leadership. Those mini-cases and their discussion questions and the author’s take on the cases have been a staple of this book and something many managers have leveraged to stimulate thinking around the issues we all face in growing as leaders. I’m grateful for the appreciation many of you have expressed for those cases.

Lencioni and Goldratt popularized the novelized or fable form of business lessons in their various writings and I understand that some of you love those and others don’t. For those who prefer their business and leadership lessons and questions with a taste of drama, The Saturday Serial is ideal for you.

Beginning with my first episode, “Welcome to ACME John Anderson,” you will meet a growing cast of characters facing a series of very real management, leadership and career challenges in this fictional high-tech, global conglomerate and its various units and divisions.

Yes, the issues are real. I see them every day and I’ve experienced and observed these dilemmas around strategy and execution and learning to lead and learning to manage in many flavors  for 30-years. And while the characters and firms are all fictional, I will wager a fair amount, you will recognize these issues and challenges…and many of you will be dealing with them in real time. Now, you get to see and hear them unfold here in this on-going series of stories and cases, and hopefully, we’ll all engage in sharing some ideas on how to navigate the challenges. After all, the intent of my work and this entire blog is to help those striving to grow their firms and grow in their careers find useful and creative ideas and answers to the vexing challenges we all face during our journeys.

Welcome to The Saturday Serial at Management Excellence I hope you’ll tune in and chime in as the story develops. After all, the beauty of this format is that you can help determine the outcomes. -Art

Check out Episode Number 1.

 All characters and firms are fictional and any resemblance to any person or any firm is purely coincidental. The Saturday Serial is a copyright (2015) of Art Petty, The Art Petty Group and The Management Excellence Blog.

Six Ideas to Help You Have Better Days at Work

Businessman Being Hit with Boxing GloveEveryone has difficult days, however, when every day feels like a slow, painful, stressful march up a rock-strewn path toward certain calamity, it’s time for you to take action. Here are a few ideas to help you re-frame your daily activities and reset your attitude.

Six Ideas to Help You Have Better Days at Work:

1. Shrink your goals and create little victories. View every encounter or task as an opportunity to succeed…and internally acknowledge the successes. This technique is often referenced in the context of the Navy Seals as one that allowed them to survive and succeed one of the most rigorous training programs on the planet. Every successful step during this stressful program places them one step closer to achieving their goal.

Instead of focusing on the less tangible yearly or quarterly goals, spend more time succeeding in the present. Remind yourself that every day offers a host of challenges and encounters ripe for earning victory. Whether it’s taking the burden away from that stressed out customer, sharing challenging news with executives or, making the calls needed to support your sales pipeline build, every step and every encounter offers a chance for you to say, “OK, I succeeded with that one. Next!”  You’ll be pleasantly surprised at how acknowledging small victories will improve your attitude and steel your resolve and confidence for solving the bigger challenges.

2. Defuse stressful situations by employing a “seek first to understand” approach.  Instead of arguing with that same character in the other department, ask questions that when answered will help you understand why he is so animated about a change in process or policy. When you encounter squabbles on project teams, take the same approach. This is a classic negotiating technique where striving to uncover shared interests allows the two parties to work towards or design a proper outcome. More often than not, we engage in verbal arm-wrestling over positions and approaches without cultivating a clear view to the real interests of all parties. Questions are your best friend here!

3. Try Admitting Your Mistakes…instead of hiding from them. It’s typically not the mistakes that we make that are damaging to our credibility and our immediate environment…it’s what we do once we’ve made them that determines the real impact. How you handle one of your mistakes says a lot about your character and whether people can trust you. With a genuine dose of humility, try a simple, “You were right and I was wrong,” or some variation based on the situation. This approach can prevent emotional boil-overs and help cool simmering slow-burns.

4. Try Offering Your Help. The words, “How can I help?” or, “Here’s how I can help…,” are lifelines for individuals and teams struggling through complex issues, and your support is a great way for you to build professional equity and credibility with your coworkers. Of course, once the offer is made, stand prepared to deliver.

5. Practice Preparing Your Daily Attitude. I’ve referenced this one before and it bears repeating. A participant in one of my workshops offered how she managed to move her attitude from negative to positive with a simple daily ritual. She would arrive at work a few minutes early every morning and use those minutes in her car to begin focusing on how she wanted her day to unfold…from beginning to end. While things have a habit of not going as planned in most workplaces, she offered that the simple adjustment of walking in the door and walking around to greet her team members helped her improve her attitude and set a better tone with her team every morning. As she walked out the door at night, she would think about the achievements of the day (small victories) and how tomorrow offered another great set of opportunities to succeed. The other workshop participants (and the workshop leader) found this approach to be priceless!

6. Ask for Help—Seek Outside Perspectives on Big Issues. While I encouraged you to offer, “How can I help?” above, it’s important for you to recognize that in some circumstances, an objective outside perspective is essential to identifying or evaluating a situation. Instead of stewing and stressing over a big decision on your own, identify someone who is experienced enough to offer valuable perspectives and far away enough from your situation to be objective. While you may own the call and the implications of the call, seeking external input is an important and stress-reducing step we should all take more often in our work.

The Bottom-Line for Now

Creeping negativity is a morale killer in too many workplaces and a potential career killer if you’re the one spreading it. If you’re daily attitude needs a bit of adjusting, you owe it to yourself and your colleagues to take action. And who knows, you might just stimulate some creeping positivity and help make work a better place for everyone around you. For those of you who have some additional ideas and approaches for improving your days at work (and reducing stress), please share. You’ll be doing us all a public service.

Don’t miss the next Leadership Caffeine-Newsletter with subscriber-only content! Register herebook cover: shows title Leadership Caffeine-Ideas to Energize Your Professional Development by Art Petty. Includes image of a coffee cup.

For more ideas on professional development-one sound bite at a time, check out Art’s book: Leadership Caffeine-Ideas to Energize Your Professional Development

New to leading or responsible for first time leaders on your team? Subscribe to Art’s New Leader’s e-News.

An ideal book for anyone starting out in leadership: Practical Lessons in Leadership by Art Petty and Rich Petro.

For a Change, Try Embracing Change at Work

Graphic image with the words, It's Your Career and other related professional development wordsThe “It’s Your Career” series at Management Excellence is dedicated to offering ideas, guidance and inspiration for strengthening your performance and supporting your development as a professional. Use the ideas in great career health!

We all know that we live in an era of constant change. Gary Hamel in his excellent video on the reality and near future of management, “Reinventing the Technology of Human Achievement” suggests that even “change is changing.” It impacts our firms, competitors and markets, and of course, change impacts all of us in our jobs.

And more often than not, the thought of change is enough to send us scurrying for cover.

However, hiding or simply allowing fear of the unknown to seize your emotions is the wrong approach in a situation that stands to be both a rich learning experience and an opportunity for you to showcase your value to your managers and your firm.

Organizational Health Demands Learning and Change:

In the McKinsey study summarized in “Beyond Performance” by Keller and Price, the definition of organizational health is one where a firm “aligns, executes and renews faster than competitors.” The align/execute/renew tasks imply the need to be in a constant learning and adapting mode, and that means that firms, teams and individuals must adjust their strategies and approaches to cope or leverage changing market conditions. Naturally, this means our own roles and tasks and teams will change.

The McKinsey study goes so far as to offer a causal relationship between this ability to learn and change and drive financial results. Firms that do this well win and firms that don’t struggle or die. Now, about that new team you are being asked to join or that new set of challenges in front of you and your group… .

Don’t Assume the Worst About the Rationale for Change:

While there’s little doubt that change is often mismanaged by those in charge of leading it, and I’ve certainly observed change that was politically motivated rather than motivated by market conditions or opportunities, more often than not, the need to change is based on very legitimate issues. In particular, in those organizations where leadership is critically concerned about serving stakeholders (employees, customers, suppliers, partners and shareholders) and building or sustaining success, change is essential for prosperity. Markets, technologies, customers and competitors don’t stand still and don’t doubt that your competitors would love to keep you and your team members from earning those bonuses or paying those bills. We’re all in competitive markets and our ability to quickly change and adapt is essential not only for success, but survival.

Adjust Your Attitude and Seize the Golden Opportunity that Change Offers You:

The only people truly nervous about change should be the leaders and managers leading the charge on change. After all, they’re dependent upon everyone else for their success.

Try spending a few minutes walking in your manager’s shoes and you would quickly learn that she’s hoping and looking for someone and some people to step up and help with change. Whether it’s building that new market-focused team or combining two formerly siloed groups into one or taking on a new set of customers or tasks, your willingness to help with the heavy lifting is a priceless opportunity to stand-up, stand-out and enhance your professional equity.

To seize this opportunity, you will need to quell that queasy feeling of, “I’m not certain what this means for me in my work” and adopt the more productive perspective of, “If I jump in, I can help form what this means for me and my team, and I can help my manager and firm.” There’s a profound difference between the two types of thinking and the behaviors and results each one promotes.

The Bottom-Line for Now:

When faced with change, fight your natural instinct to hide or react with outrage. Take a few deep breaths and recognize that you will be dealing with change the rest of your career and you can either make it your friend and an engine for your growth, or, it’s going to be a long, unpleasant career. My vote is for you to jump in and pitch in. Your manager and your firm need your help and your career might just get a boost in the process.

Don’t miss the next Leadership Caffeine-Newsletter with subscriber-only content! Register herebook cover: shows title Leadership Caffeine-Ideas to Energize Your Professional Development by Art Petty. Includes image of a coffee cup.

For more ideas on professional development-one sound bite at a time, check out Art’s book: Leadership Caffeine-Ideas to Energize Your Professional Development

New to leading or responsible for first time leaders on your team? Subscribe to Art’s New Leader’s e-News.

An ideal book for anyone starting out in leadership: Practical Lessons in Leadership by Art Petty and Rich Petro.