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Pivot: How to become a better leader by adapting to changing circumstances

When is a punch more than a punch?

 

I spent a good part of my early life studying and teaching martial arts (Kenpo). For me this is was a time of great development and learning. In fact, some of the lessons I learned during this time have helped to inform my development as a leader when I moved into various roles as a corporate manager, executive, and ultimately the owner of my own company.

One of the most important lessons that I learned from martial arts is the necessity to adapt to changing circumstances.

 

When I received my Brown Belt I thought I had attained a high level of achievement. Shortly after that I had the opportunity to spar (a training fight) with my instructor who was a 4th Degree Black Belt. During the match, I landed a solid counter punch to his ribs. Apparently, I was proud of myself for a second too long. He quickly pivoted and swept my legs. Before I knew it I was on my back staring up at his fist which he stopped about an inch from my face, which was not only a display of his self-control, but also an indication that he could have finished me.

After the match, he asked me “What did you do wrong?” Sheepishly I replied, “Clearly I got my butt kicked.” He smiled and said, “No. You landed a good hit and then you stopped.

Understand that the difference between a Black Belt and White Belt isn’t that the Black Belt doesn’t get hit. It’s what happens when you get hit that distinguishes the expert from the beginner.”

Those words and the memory of being on my back with his fist in front of my face have served as an embodied lesson about the power of pivoting.

 

What are the leadership lessons here?

 

1. "If the plan changes, change the plan, not the goal." 

A plan is just a collection of assumptions and anticipated tasks to achieve a desired outcome. Most leaders assume that the work is the execution of the plan. However, the real work comes from navigating through changing circumstances and adapting the actions you coordinate for the sake of achieving that same outcome. This is the ability to pivot and it is a critical leadership skill. In my experience with my Black Belt instructor, he was able to pivot when I landed a good punch. He adapted to what I did and used my own actions against me to his benefit. 

 

2. Because you’re a Black Belt doesn't mean you don't get hit. It's what you do when you get hit that makes a difference.

Quite often the leaders that I coach ask me to help them keep from making "leadership mistakes." It's a natural desire. Unfortunately, it's also unrealistic. You will make mistakes. You will do things one day that you will question the next. You will get "hit." It's what you do when you get hit that matters. How quickly do you accept the fact that you just got "hit"? As a leader, things will go wrong. Things will happen that you didn't anticipate. Circumstances will change. (Did anyone see the magnitude of the financial crisis of 2008 coming?) How do you respond to what is happening around you?

 

3. "Denial" is more than a river in Egypt.

It's been said that all of human suffering comes from resistance. Primarily, it comes from people resisting reality. Reality is simply what is happening. From the perspective of leadership, I've seen this manifest itself in various ways. For example, often senior leaders convince themselves that the culture in their organization is healthy when turnover is holding steady at 60% and employee engagement is minimal at best, and half of the managers are taking vacation days so they can interview for jobs somewhere else.   

 

How well do you pivot?

 

  • What do you do when things don’t go as planned?
  • How are you actively working to accept what is happening around you?
  • Are you allowing yourself the opportunity to make mistakes and learn from them?
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Several years ago, during the dot com boom, I worked for an internet startup company. During the company’s prime there was a desire to have the Account Managers understand what it takes to be a good Project Manager (PM). There was lots of talk about doing training to develop these PM skills. Despite the talk, there was never the time or the budget to get the Account Managers trained. After one particularly disastrous software implementation, the Account Manager admitted that he made promises about dates that were completely unrealistic, but he was hopeful the team would be able to “pick up the slack.” Even after this situation, there continued to be lots of talk but little action. Sadly, this startup company didn’t actually start-up (are you surprised?). Today I affectionately refer to it as “goingdownthetubes.com”.

Is It Really Important?

This scenario is not reserved for young, startup companies; nor is it reserved for inexperienced staff. It highlights what happens in the most elite of organizations and in your personal life on a daily basis. It highlights the foolishness of hoping for one outcome while demonstrating behaviors that do little to ensure it will happen. The result is frustration, counter productivity, and unintended consequences. And it is something that we can all relate to.

 

The Checkbook and the Calendar

This scenario highlights a truth called the Checkbook and the Calendar. I learned this model from a good friend and leadership coach, Croft Edwards. The Checkbook and the Calendar model is a simple and effective way to do two things. First, it is a way to validate what is really important to you. Second, it is a way to see what is really important to those around you (staff, peers, or superiors).

Here is how it works.

If you want to know what is truly important to someone, all you have to do is look at their checkbook and their calendar. People spend their time on those things that are important to them. Conversely, the things that people spend time on show what is really important to them. Similarly, people will invest (spend their money) in those things that are important to them and the things they invest in are what is really valuable. This is true whether it be a conscious or subconscious decision.

It is a cruel and brutally honest reflection of what is important to you. It is universally true and accurate. You can’t deny it.

Let me give you two examples to which most of you will be able to relate. Thinking of my college days, no matter how “broke” my buddies and I were, when the weekend came around we were somehow always able to come up with enough money for beer. It was fine if that meant we had to eat Raman noodles for a month. What was important was getting the beer. You could see that by where our money went.

Another example is a bit more current. I know that it is good for my overall health to exercise at least 4 times per week. My doctor has even confirmed that this is an important thing for me to do. Despite the validation from a medical professional and the logical argument purporting the benefits of this activity, it is relatively easy to see if I concur with the importance of acting on this. Just look at my calendar. How many days in a week do I set aside an hour to exercise at some point in the day? If it is really important you will see it on the calendar.

 

If you still have doubts about the truth of the Checkbook and the Calendar, then think about yourself. What’s happening with that unfinished project in your garage or the box of pictures that you are going to scrapbook when you got a chance? How much did you spend on that leadership development class you were looking at?

 

The beauty of the Checkbook and the Calendar model is in its simplicity.

It always tells the truth.
You can use it to look at yourself.
You can use it to look at others.
And others can use it to see what’s important to you/

The Checkbook and the Calendar model is a way to prove something that Stephen Covey says,

You can’t talk your way out of something that you behave your way into.

So, what is really important to you?

Do you pay lip service to developing the leadership skills of your staff or even yourself? Where are you demonstrating that on your calendar and with your checkbook?

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