The purpose of yoga is connectedness: between the body, mind, spirit and universe. One of the key ideas of yoga is that there is no separation among things and beings. The underlying belief is, that somehow, even though we cannot yet scientifically prove it, everything is connected. The key practice in yoga to create connection is conscious focus on breathing. This practice is called pranayama. Literally translated pranayama means lifeforce (prana) discipline or practice (yama).
My yogic inspiration for today is about the concept of sthira sukham, the principle of effort and ease. This principle's idea is that most meaningful results, also yoga poses, are created through both conscious effort and ease; hard work and easy energy at the same time.
During a dinner this weekend I sat next to the CEO of one of the biggest construction firms in our country. He was asking lots of inspiring questions; like "what is the key principle for your coaching practice" and another one was "what is your recipe for success" and even better: he really seemed interested...
I have always been thrilled by leaders who stay open, curious and inquisitive despite the fact that they are in powerful positions which tend to give them the illusion that there is nothing to discover anymore and that they have all the answers. People who stay curious and resist this appeal to know it all, keep asking questions and stay interested are inspiring to me. That is one of the reasons I founded Inspiration & Discipline...to bring learning, leadership inspiration and follow-up discipline to leaders in organisations!
It has never stopped to amaze me how some of my big corporate clients spend hundreds of thousands of euros to bring together their topmanagement in fancy, extremely well organized events to bring strategic inspiration, direction and engagement to leaders in the organization without embedding these events into a continuous flow of triggers that ensures that leadership inspiration is translated into a shared ambition and collective actions. Most of these corporates do know how to work in disciplined processes though; they have yearly financial, HR and supply chain processes with clear deadlines, roles, inputs and outputs.
How come there is no consistent, connected and continuous process of bringing strategy into hearts, minds and behavior of people in organisations? I am not debating that well organized and fancy looking topmanagement events do bring inspiration and connectedness (Who does not like to stay in 5-star hotels and be treated like a star?) I just believe that they could yield a much higher impact in terms of shared ambition, pride and engagement, if they were embedded into a more continuous process through which leaders are triggered (more regularly) to engage into actions derived from the inspiration they got through the event.
The road from strategy (aka plans, objectives, priorities, projects...) towards behaviour is a challenging one; there are quite some roadblocks like no shared vision in the executive team, silos created by the organisational structure, a defensive culture or stress, an overload of initiatives and just plain tiredness among key people are some of them just to mention a few. On the image are the paradoxes that I recognise most organisations struggle with in the process from vision and strategy towards people. Below are some principles to bridge these paradoxes and connect strategy with hearts, minds and behaviour of people in your organisation:
Making strategy touch hearts, minds and behavior of people needs to be an ongoing flow. Like couples are never done renewing their love and connectedness with each other, an organisation is never done working on the connection between its ambition and the hearts, minds and actions people take.
How do you engage people towards your vision and ambition?
Everybody that has kids, knows that they make you feel more vulnerable. I felt a latent fear that was born with both my children. With my first son quickly the fear became less present and more latent the more he developed and grew. For my second son, the fear became worse, for at least 3 months and after that it took a year to get to terms with my pain and the fear of the future. I felt, that for the first time in my life, death had been put on the table.
The day after Ole was born he needed surgery. His intestines were not complete and the surgeons had to fix them. We knew this was necessary before he was born, but seeing Ole in the machines, tubes coming in and out of his just born, little boddy was the most painful sight of my life. It was unthinkable and unacceptable and yet it was there, a reality to deal with.
I live by the motto: "I create my own (perception of) reality. I cannot control what happens to me, but I can always control how I deal with it." When Ole was in that hospital bed, for the first time in my life, I felt that this motto was really being challenged. Up to then it felt easy to pretend that I could create my realities. The first step in creating reality was to accept reality as it was. "Accepting what is" is the key to many Eastern philosophies. And I had the hardest time accepting this new reality: my child having a genetic incurable disease limiting his life expectancy to under 40 was just not acceptable. I hated hospitals and they would be part of our lives as of now. I was vocally against antibiotics and they as well would be a companion in our process to deal with the disease. And there were many more things I was against that all were part of our new reality and that could better be accepted as part of the new reality to not loose tons of energy, get bitter and depressed.
The first days after his birth I woke up at night and felt I needed to see him. Luckily the neonatology was open 24 hours a day, so I could always go and see him. It took him 3 weeks to get out of the hospital. And then it took another 3 weeks to get his first pneumonia and the diagnosis of cystic fibrosis. He was still 500 gram lighter than when he was born and he coughed like crazy. Those 10 weeks were heavy for everyone around Ole: we were in constant pain, fear and complete sadness of what was happening to this little being.
Amazingly in all those moments of deep pain and fear there were also moments of happiness and joy: e.g. almost 3 weeks after his birth, when he was allowed to take my breast for the first time and he started drinking like he had done nothing else before. Or the moment 5 days after his surgery, when he was lying on my nacked tummy for 5 hours with all the tubes in his body and I would not move a dime because I loved him being so close to me. And of course the moment he made his first poupie 2,5 weeks after his surgery, giving us a sign that the surgery was successful.
It is amazing how these small events were able to fuel us up, make us intensly happy and give us hope and energy to go on. One of our ways to deal with this situation was continuously to face the brutal facts and believe in a positive outcome - the Stockdale paradox. It took me quite some time to "accept what is" and embrace the fact that hospitals and antibiotics would be part of our lives as of now.
After we had survived the first 3 months, Ole slowly started an upward line. He grew, gained weight and become a very happy little baby. During that period we started to think and worry: bacteria, puberty, life expectancy and all kind of other things that are attached to cystic fibrosis.
We are now in our seventh year with Ole. It is exactly 6 years ago in the beginning of October 2009 that we got the diagnosis cystic fibrosis, that changed our lives. And in the meantime we see it as "any child changes one's live". I have repeatedly felt that my general happiness level has gone up. Maybe because we have hit rock bottom and we know it could have been much worse or maybe because we are just more aware that health is not something granted. We enjoy being a family and being fit and healthy very consciously and we have something to hope for and to give all our energy to; we have a very clear purpose which is always around: finding a cure for the chronic disease of our son. Our foundation www.run4air.com is one of the ways to give energy to this purpose.
Whenever I start to think and worry about the future and about anything that could happen to Ole I remind myself of the lesson I have learned in this process: I am here now and I will cross bridges when I get there. The confrontation with death in my life which by the way seems far away again right now also created some freedom in my soul: Life is not about how old you get, but about how you get old.
I have learned a lot from this as I call it "crisis in my life": Happiness is a function of expectations and results; expectations were very poor upon Ole's start into his life and results are so far much better than we could have ever hoped for; he has been doing great year by year. Happiness is also a mindset: be aware, be here and now, accept what is, give space and take time (to accept what is) and enjoying the good times.
Too many executives and professionals I work with are in a constant rush-hour mode. They continuously have more on their daily to-do lists than they can finish in a day. Most of the time they have back-to-back meetings during work hours and a chronic lack of strategic reflection time in their agenda. The most used tactic to deal with this constant lack of time is "working harder"; working more tense and more hours. Impatience, intolerance for mistakes, a lack of humor and a coaching spirit and tensity are symptoms of this tactic.
I believe that this "working harder" tactic has an impact on creativity, spirit and self-management. As a consequence the ability to see bigger pictures, make sense and re-invent, everything that belongs to a strategic focus and inspiration gets under pressure. One of my observations in the organisations I work with, and I believe it is due to the lack of reflection time, is that too little time is taken to recap, repeat and remember "why are we doing this or that" and "how does it contribute to our strategy or values or other shared principles".
Slowing down in order to accelerate is a principle taught by Maria Montessori and it is true for people and organisations as well. Far too often the assumption in organisations is that people know why or how or what things are done and that (reflection) time spent on connecting with the past and the guiding principles is wasted. I believe that in our information crowded time we all need reminders and repetitors for the important/strategic stuff in order to become or stay aware that they are important (=re-member). And to be able to reformulate, remind and repeat the important we need reflection time.
Whenever I hear "making the strategy is not the issue, execution is" I actually hear "I find it difficult to put my time and attention to strategic priorities". The fact that our Zeitgeist demands business and action from us and that there is a tendency to business addiction in many of us does not help. Reflection time does not always feel as rewarding as action time. It entails fuzziness and contradiction that we are not used to. And it is not always as clear what has been achieved in reflection as opposed to action time. Inner personal reward systems in performance-driven organisations are not always geared to understand the value of strategic reflection time.
My call for every executive and professional is to create strategic reflection time to ensure that you do the right things and go home on a time that is good for you.
How do you create your own strategic reflection time?
There are lots of container words and concepts around the creation of the future of organizations: strategy, vision, ambition, mission, culture, core values and purpose to mention just a few; lately identity and brand values have become part of the mumbo-jumbo around strategy and organizations. In most organizations strategy is seen as complicated concepts coming from the top, oftentimes about numbers, focused around the percentage of profitable growth an organization is supposed to realize in the coming years. In most organizations strategy is not seen as a sense-maker for focus, decision-making and action.
What has been written about strategy and how did concepts around it develop? In 1996 Michael Porter wrote a controversial classical article in Harvard Business Review named “What is strategy?”. His key perspective around strategy is competitive position: “Strategy is about finding a unique position by combining a unique set of activities.” Just before Porter published his article, Jim Collins published his bestseller “Building your company’s vision” in Harvard Business Review where he defined vision as “The highest level of a cascading framework”. For him vision is a broader concept, consisting of purpose, values and envisioned future defined with BHAG’s (big hairy audacious goals). In 2013 according to www.businessdictionary.com the definition of strategy is still pretty simple “A plan chosen to bring about a desired future, such as achievement of a goal.” The idea of a deliberate choice to create a desired future is a key part in this definition. And I believe that for most people that deliberate, somehow controllable part, is important when they think of strategy. I also believe that this idea of deliberateness is being put under pressure in times of emerging opportunities.
One of my daily questions is "how does an organization's strategy drive hearts, minds and behaviors of people in that same organization?". Too often I get a complicated and lengthy document when I ask for the strategy. And when I ask for a verbal strategy pitch, I usually get various versions from different people. The key point I want to make here is that in times of hyperchange strategy cannot be merely captured by a document. Strategy needs to be a continuous dialogue- and learning process based upon a few shared guiding principles. It involves continuous top-down and bottom-up dialogue throughout the year; a journey that drives outside-in and inside-out connectivity, forward- and backward-looking; led by leaders in the organization.
What are key ingredients to create strategy awareness and engagement in organizations?
1. The first one is a short, clear and understandable, preferably visually attractive strategy message; ideally a one pager.
2. The second is a continuous process of top-down and bottom-up interventions to keep connecting collective wisdom within the organization and to drive change-ability.
3. The third is leadership behavior that mirrors desired behavior and that drives individual commitment of each employee.
I would love to hear your stories on experiences through which you felt engaged and connected to your organization's strategy.
When was the last time you did something for the first time? When did you listen to someone without judgment? How can we keep our change-ability high and reawaken the curiosity we all had as children? Overcoming some of the habits that keep us from learning and continuously changing or adapting is not easy. Even though: change is the only constant and we all know it. Here are my 7 habits to keep up personal change-ability.
Get regular feedback on your current behaviour: make sure you receive observations from the outside world on its impact. Be aware of the fact that the people who love you tend to see you differently than those who perceive you for the first time. Use the opportunity to receive feedback from someone who you met for the first time (even though it is often daunting to ask it!). So, make sure you have a diverse pool of allies – people who give you regular feedback and who are able to track your observable evolution.
One important point - do not only ask for points for improvement, because one major source for your learning is, happily, provided by your strengths! And by the way: “how did you like it?” “Good”, is not good enough. Do encourage your sparring partner to make the feedback concrete.
2. Set yourself clear objectives
Make sure that you focus. Having too many objectives in terms of learning and changing will drain you (and your environment). Emotional intelligence specialists claim that from consciousness of the need to change a certain behaviour, to having any chance of adopting it, at least six months of solid practice are required. In my previous incarnation as a professional volleyball player, my trainer sometimes sent me on the court with more than two pieces of advice. To experience how hard this is to put into practice, try moving your elbow along your ear above shoulder height, whilst advancing towards your attacker in a sequence of one long, then two short, steps. Often, and certainly when under pressure, I would implement none of his instructions. What worked best in my sports career was to fine-tune one aspect of play over and over again, so that under pressure, I knew what to do as a matter of routine.
So make sure you have concrete objectives on the basis of the received feedback and your own analysis. Experiment with these objectives and reserve reflection time to evaluate how you did on your objectives and whether they need adjustment.
3. Identify a role model
Who is successfully practising the desired form of behaviour? How does he or she do it? Observe and monitor what this person does. Anyone can be a role model depending on what you are looking for: kids, bosses, colleagues, friends. My kids are wonderful role models for me Owhen it comes to being in the present moment; they don't rush and they just float from one activity to the next. And: what do you want to be a role model for?
4. Be aware of your dominant BOCAs (beliefs, opinions, convictions, assumptions)
Do you know when you have the tendency to fight or flight? Are you aware of the situations that bring out your emotions? And do you know what these emotions are? What have I done or thought, maybe so far subconsciously, to provoke this reaction in another? One of my limiting BOCAs is ‘it or I must be perfect’; this can cost a lot of time that I spend on arranging the last details of whatever I do, even though that is sometimes not necessary to create the impact I want to and it also retains me from enjoying what is because I can always find something to improve. If you do not know about your (limiting) BOCAs, then go and find them. And if you do, use your self-knowledge positively: change! Reserve time to reflect and think on your BOCAs.
5. Practice a curious attitude
Say yes to things you have not done before and do things that you find frightening or uncomfortable. Practice the ability to do new things to make it a habit and be accustomed to the phases that come along with it. As we have seen before, the difference between learning and not learning often lies in the intention with which we do things. Deepak Chopra’s habit Doing things with the right intention without attachment to results might be a good motto. Give serendipity a chance, see things through a different lens and let yourself be surprised by what happens around you!
6. Reserve reflection time
“We learn from our mistakes”. Yes - if we reserve time to analyse, evaluate, reflect and imagine alternatives. Self-reflection is the number one key to change. We learn from action, but we learn much more from reflection on the action.
7. Just do it!
“We learn through our own experiences”. Behavioural learning takes place in the limbic system in our brain, which comprises the amygdala and the hippocampus. This is the home of our habits, emotions and emotional reflexes. However, this part of our brain is a slow learner. It needs exercise, experience and repetition in order to progress.
Behavioural learning is a different process from the cognitive learning we are used to from school, cognitive learning takes place in the neocortex; behavioural learning takes place in the more emotional part of the brain, the limbic system and the amygdala. For cognitive learning - through the neocortex - reading and explanation are good learning methods; for behavioural learning - through the limbic system - experience, interaction and emotions are good learning vehicles.
Even though you have just invested in a learning method that is not your limbic system’s favourite – (reading) an article - I invite you to now envision in your mind the first situation that you will create for yourself to learn and do new stuff or existing stuff differently. What does this situation look like? How does it make you feel? What does it bring you? ...
This article was first published in April 2010 when Katharina was still Managing Partner at Krauthammer.