A Cup of Leadership CaffeineWhile the phrase is most commonly referenced as attitude adjustment, I’ll go out on a limb and suggest that one of the abilities that leaders must develop to be effective is the ability to adjust their altitudes.

Good leaders learn to scale institutional and intellectual heights with ease and comfort, quickly adapting to the audience and situation.

Examples of Frequent and Successful Altitude Adjusters:

  • There’s the CEO that’s built a career around being a brilliant strategist and an even better operator.  Watch him work a factory floor and you’ll see him descend from the lofty level of the boardroom to the critical issues of people and process.  He’s equally comfortable in the rarefied air of strategy and vision and market forces or as an observer and student on the shop floor where true value is being created.
  • The small business owner that serves customers all day long and drives home with an emerging vision for how her business must change in order to grow.
  • The college professor that translates the philosophical foundations and theories of her specialty into practical, relevant concepts and tools that clarify, stimulate interest and offer some form of sustaining value.  This professor offers knowledge and insight designed for use.
  • The Product Manager that is able to move seamlessly from detailed requirements discussions with engineers in the morning to a concise strategy discussion and competitive analysis with executives in the afternoon.
  • The Project Manager that pivots on one foot to resolve a team dispute and then pivots back to the work of helping his team learn to make better decisions.

Regardless of the specifics, these effective formal and informal leaders move seamlessly from the detailed to the general, from the tactical to strategic and from the confusing and complex to the simple and straightforward as easily as you are reading this post. Whether this is an innate ability for some or a learned skill for others, those that practice adjusting their altitudes are significantly more effective than others stuck at one level.

Of course, those that are effectively stuck at one level are requiring everyone else to adapt, and that takes energy and breeds stress and strife.  These less than effective leaders require both the proverbial attitude adjustment as well as some solid lessons in learning to adjust their altitude.

5 Suggestions for Learning to More Effectively Adjust Your Altitude:

1.  Seek first to understand and then be understood.  I love that saying for its wisdom.  I observe many leaders that engage with their team members on issues for just a few moments and then cut them off mid-stream, with an opinion, a decision or an order.  Teach yourself to clamp your jaw shut and listen and process on all of the verbal and non-verbal cues that are so generously placed in front of you.  The time you invest in focusing and listening and then thinking about the issue being presented will give you time to adjust your altitude to the right level.

2.  Plan your message. Knowledge workers and individual contributors should redouble their efforts to plan the messages for exchanges with executives.  While you may be personally fascinated by the details of your project or product, it is critical to recognize that those in executive roles want you to give them the time…not to tell them how to build the watch.  For unscheduled, hallway or elevator exchanges, condition yourself to move into time-teller mode, again resisting the urge to showcase your in-depth command of every detail.  Your overall work and results will showcase whether you have command of the details.

3.  Recognize that context is key to motivating action.  Assume that no one else has thought through the issue in as much depth as you have.  Management teams that vigorously debate strategy for weeks and then become satisfied on a direction and choices must recognize that no one else in the organization has any context for either the direction or the choices.  This common communication gap is actually more like a grand canyon of misunderstanding, both in expanse and in height and depth.

4. Learn to see patterns in problems. In your daily work life, develop the habit of identifying recurring problems and patterns and then suggesting and implementing ideas that eliminate these problems and improve organizational practices.

5. View your role and tasks in the context of a long value chain.  Instead of thinking about what you do as discrete and separate from people in other groups, recognize that your work impacts the performance of others along the chain.  Seek to understand how and why others depend upon you and better yet, develop an approach that emphasizes constantly measuring your own performance against how well you are meeting the needs of others that come after you in the organizational value chain.

The Bottom Line for Now:

For your own professional development, challenge yourself to understand issues from all levels.  The best leaders and the best employees connect their work to creating value for customers or solving vexing internal issues. These effective professionals learn to scale heights from idea to implementation, from problem to improvement and from understanding to new direction.  They strive to become effective communicators at all levels and they constantly focus on understanding what is reality to individuals at all layers of the organization.

While the vertical metaphor of altitude may grossly simplify what is really going on here, it’s simple and comprehensible enough to grasp and apply.  For today and everyday, make certain that you are challenging yourself to adjust your altitude.  You might just find a lot more enjoyment and success in your work, in the process of scaling the issues.