As a leadership coach, one topic I spend a lot of time talking to clients about is getting results. More specifically, we talk about anxiety about getting results. When we dive into that a little deeper, what we discover is that the anxiety is about a fear that what we really want to happen … won’t happen. We talk about stress associated with being locked into specific outcomes like:
“I really need that promotion to happen.”
“I have to get this sale. My year depends on it!”
“I need my team to embrace my approach.”
“The new release of our software this weekend has to go well!”
The key issue here is that our focus can often be dragged into the future, about what we want to happen, need to happen or fear won’t happen. I love this quote from Jen Sincero. author of “You are a Badass“:
Fear lives in the future. The feeling of being afraid is real, but the fear itself is all made up because it hasn’t even happened yet – death, going bankrupt, breaking a leg, forgetting our lines, getting yelled at for being late, getting rejected, etc. Most of the time we have no guarantee that what we fear is going to even happen or that if it does, it’s going to be scary!
Don’t get me wrong. Bad things happen, things we worry might go wrong sometimes do. But focusing on that outcome gets us nowhere. But focusing on our intention to do everything we can to create a positive result is within our control. Think of a job interview. If we are well prepared, well-informed, well rested, calm and relaxed and ready to engage warmly as we enter an interview we have optimized the probability of success by exercising control over things that are within our control. What we can’t control is the decision of the interviewer, who might decide that hiring their out of work nephew-in-law is the right thing to do.
Let’s be clear about something. It is important to have goals, or perhaps thinking a bit more broadly, a vision, a quest, a purpose. Especially at work as a leader, where our teams want to know where we are taking them. I would propose that all of those words – goal, vision, quest, purpose – roll up into one concept called intention. What is it that you are working toward? Only when we focus on what we are trying to do can we actually make good decisions about how to get there and then focus on doing those things that will get us there.
Make sense? So now the question might be what are some strategies that will allow us to stay focused on our intention. Here’s my list (and a suggested order):
- Plan for the worst, hope for the best. So let’s start with some of the harsher reality. Not everything turns out as planned. Bad luck happens. Competitors try to counter what we are doing. Markets shift. We get in our own way trying to do too much. And so on. Wisdom says we should spend some time understanding what might go wrong and build contingencies for them. By doing this up front, we have fortified our resolve that we can overcome what might get thrown at us, and thus focus on our intention.
- Notice outcome anxiety. This is another reality check. Human nature says that if we aren’t vigilant our attention may get dragged into anxiety about the future. Even though we are focused on attention, it will be natural for our thoughts to drift towards revisiting possible negative outcomes. That’s not helpful. Monitor where your mind goes. If it is drifting back to the first strategy and focusing on possible negative outcomes, gently pull your mind back to the present, the only point in time where you can take action to move towards the intention.
- Focus on your “best next step”. I’m going to make an assumption here. Most of our goals, visions, etc. are not simple pursuits. They are complex, almost living and breathing things. All of the moving parts and complexities can’t be known at any time and even if they could, circumstances have the funny habit of changing without telling us. So we have to rely on our intellect, experience, talents, instincts and many other inputs to figure out what to do next. Sure we can ask “and then what?” That might be useful to a point, but every subsequent move we anticipate becomes more and more subject to things outside our control and if allow ourselves to go too far down that path we risk “analysis paralysis. What if we just trust that our capabilities will guide us effectively and confidently do what they are guiding us to do. And then once we have taken the best next step we ask the question again: what’s the next best next step?
- Use your strengths. Part of figuring out what the best next step is can be knowing our strengths and looking for opportunities to put them to work. The first step is knowing them. I see a strength as different from being good at something. A strength is something that we dive into with anticipation. We can get consumed by it and we give it all our energy, sometimes finishing the task with even more energy that we started with. For example, I’m a bit of a nerd when it comes to Excel spreadsheets and I can sit down and build a spreadsheet for a new business model for hours! That’s a strength. Now hand me someone else’s Excel spreadsheet and ask me to fix it … I’m quite good at Excel, but the thought of trying to figure out what someone else did and what is wrong with it sucks the life out of me. So if I point myself in that direction as my best next step, the whole initiative may grind to a halt as I avoid the task and start doing unimportant things.
- Recruit others’ strengths. So if the best next step actually is to fix the spreadsheet as that is what will make us successful, I probably don’t want to be the point person. I need to seek out someone on my team or in my network that is energized by that task. Once it has been accepted by someone else, that now frees me up to figure out the next best next step and as long as there are no dependencies on the spreadsheet, start moving forward on this new front. Now we have the power of multiple people doing things they love to do pushing our chances of success forward!
- Continuously affirm progress. Because outcomes are elusive, it is important to remain focused on the goal we are working towards. One way to do that is to regularly step back and make sure all of these best next steps are moving us in the right direction. Because we are being very intentional about these steps, it is highly likely that we are making progress and that is worth affirming and even celebrating, in order to keep the energy on the team high and focused. Of course, this activity also allows for course corrections when required, say when new information becomes available or the environment shifts.
To me that is the process involved in working with intention. If it makes sense to you then I think there is one final thing to do. Trust the process. This almost sounds like motherhood, but it is important to finish here. Outcomes aren’t certain, but the ability to follow a process is. Sports teams count on this all the time. They can game plan, execute their system flawlessly and play to the best of their abilities and lose, all because of factors outside their control such as luck, officiating and the skills of their opponents. That doesn’t mean the next time they it the court, field or ice they throw out their process. They review the game film, see what they can learn and then step right back into the same process, knowing if they execute it to the best of their abilities they will give themselves the best change of winning.
Winning consistently is a result … a result of the process, and more often than not a desirable outcome!