Garrett Mintz
Garrett Mintz
Garrett Mintz is the founder of Ambition In Motion. He frequently features in Ed-Tech podcasts, news outlets and conferences promoting data driven corporate mentorships.

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Articles
10
Sun 26 September 2021
Attracting and retaining talent in the summer of 2021 has been incredibly difficult – so much so that LinkedIn and other news outlets have dubbed this time period as the “Great Resignation”. I have personally interviewed dozens of executives and consistently heard sentiments like this: 

“Business is booming, but we can’t find people to staff the demand we are receiving or keep the people we have!”

Some executives I have interviewed have blamed working from home and the general burnout from the increased uncertainty as reasons for this. Other executives blame generous unemployment benefits as the reason for these hiring struggles.

This article won’t serve as a deep-dive into why the Great Resignation is happening. Instead, I’m going to focus on solutions and highlight one major way we can handle this challenge to our businesses’ viability.

According to a Gallup survey, 75% of employees who voluntarily left their jobs did so because of their bosses, not because of the position itself. 

In other words, the adage ‘people don’t quit jobs, they quit bosses’ seems to ring true for people who are quitting – and with workers quitting at an incredibly high level at the moment, it is paramount that we, as leaders, do more to equip our managers with the tools and resources to be better managers.

There has been significant research into measuring work engagement and its impact on retention and productivity from teams – and if your team isn’t measuring engagement, I would highly recommend starting now. But new research is showing that there are 5 additional criteria that should be measured to understand the level of satisfaction employees have at work and their productivity.

1.       Team Cohesion – Employees’ self-assessment of how well the team has been working together in terms of their camaraderie
2.       Team Productivity – Employees’ self-assessment of how productive the team has been 
3.       Task Performance – Employees’ self-assessment of how productive, they personally, have been
4.       Manager Performance – Employees’ assessment of how effective their manager has been at leading them
5.       Organizational Citizenship – Employees’ self-assessment of their ability to be helpful to the team outside of their explicit work duties 

Caveats about measuring this data: 

1.       It should be measured monthly, at a minimum. Feelings about work and productivity change rapidly and asking annually, bi-annually, or quarterly is not enough to garner an accurate picture.
2.       It should be measured on a team-by-team basis, not a general overview of the entire company. The dynamics that occur within teams are more relevant and critical to an employee’s sense of belonging and willingness to stay at a company. Company-wide metrics are far too broad to be useful.  
3.       Managers should be provided with tools for enacting change based on these metrics. For example, conversation prompts and suggested questions for 1-on-1 meetings with direct reports can help managers address these issues early. Collecting data without immediate action diminishes the employee experience instead of enhancing it.

If you can measure this data on a month by month basis for each and every manager and their respective teams and equip your managers with suggested questions and conversation prompts to discuss with their direct reports based on the data, you are significantly better equipped to elevate the employee experience and feelings of belonging at work.

Why?

Because employees’ feelings of burnout and dissatisfaction with managers don’t happen because the manager is purposefully trying to sabotage the team or individual employees. These negative feelings typically happen because of poor communication between the manager and their employees. Most bad managers think they are good managers.

When an employee receives poor communication from their manager, there are consequences. It may cause them to do work that is not what the manager actually wanted, or to feel they are being treated unfairly, or to feel they aren’t receiving ample feedback (or too much unnecessary feedback), or just feel uncomfortable or dissatisfied with the manager in any way. When this happens, it is VITAL that the manager understands this frustration right away and have a conversation to rectify it (Kim Scott, the author of Radical Candor calls this “challenge directly while caring personally”).

If a manager doesn’t rectify the situation and this feeling of dissatisfaction from the employee festers, they are going to become actively disengaged, bring down other employees because of their dissatisfaction, and eventually leave. 

If you are a CEO and you believe that having an “open door policy” or “clear lines of communication” is enough to gather this information, you are making the MASSIVE assumption that your managers’ direct reports have the same level of psychological safety as your direct reports have with you. You are also assuming that your employees have personality traits in which they are comfortable being optimally objective with everyone they interact with across all levels of an organization. 

Overall, now is the time to equip our managers with the data and the tools necessary to build strong teams. Providing a robust system through conversation prompts helps managers understand how their direct reports are feeling about work in terms of their team cohesion, team productivity, task performance, manager performance, and organizational citizenship. If we can do that, we are much more likely to increase retention and the productivity of our teams.

A quick final note, my team and I at Ambition In Motion are working on tools and ways to research these 5 core areas that increase work satisfaction and productivity across all employees. If you are a manager that is interested in collaborating or learning more about our research, please feel free to send me an email at garrett@ambition-in-motion.com.

Sun 8 August 2021
Over the past 2 months, I have interviewed over 50 senior-level leaders and CEOs of companies in the Louisville and Indianapolis communities, and this article shares their perspectives on the key trends and challenges facing local industries and businesses. This article omits specific names and companies to keep the focus on the industries, trends, and challenges facing our community.

Below are the industries and types of companies interviewed:

 | Industry | Company Types
| Recruitment  | IT, medical, sales, and manufacturing
 | Media  | AV, Entertainment
 | Sanitation  | Janitorial Services, PPE
 | Healthcare  | Telehealth, Pharma, Community-Based Healthcare, COVID Testing/Vaccine Rollout, Physical Therapy
 | Manufacturing  | Legacy and Startup
 | Hospitality  | Hair Care, Hotels, Restaurants, Theme Parks, Online Food Ordering,
 | Logistics  | Legacy and Startup
 | Banking & Finance  | Collections Agencies, Credit Unions, Banks, Title Companies, Insurance/Financial Management
 | Technology  | Development, Software, Hardware
 | Government  | Local Government, Criminal Justice System
 | Real estate | Commercial & Residential
| Consulting  | Management, Technology, HR
 | Marketing  | Legacy Mail Marketing, Search Engine Optimization, and Social Media
 | Key Challenges | labor shortages, inflation/raising prices, supply chain/inventory management, workspace management, finding new ways to sell
 
From the diverse perspectives of these industries and companies, there were 5 key challenges that emerged from these interviews: 1) Labor shortages, 2) Inflation and rising prices, 3) Supply chain and inventory management, 4) Workspace management, and 5) Finding new ways to sell.

This article will focus on these key challenges and share stories on how different types of companies reacted to these challenges and are creating opportunities from them. 


Labor Shortages
The number one challenge posed by the executives I interviewed was labor shortages.

From blue collar to white collar, from entry-level to highly experienced roles, finding the right people to fill those roles has become a challenge for many companies.

Two questions become apparent: 1) Why did this happen? and 2) What did the most successful teams do to keep their teams?

When the pandemic first hit, many companies laid off their less-essential employees because of the uncertainty as to what would happen next. Some companies were able to get creative, and they found ways to pay people hourly and retain their benefits for their employees, but the most common response was to either furlough their employees or let them go. 

Other companies kept their entire team on-staff and full-time, despite the reduced demand. Those companies definitely took a financial hit, but the stability and continuity paid off when business turned back around and they were ready to go.

However, the teams that thrived during the past 18 months were the ones that completely leaned in to the necessary changes and rapidly pivoted at the onset of the pandemic. Some companies fundamentally changed their business model and were able to successfully deploy their teams and leverage their skillsets into a different vertical. Some of those pivoting efforts became total successes – i.e., creating entirely new business lines and driving strong revenues. Others saw ephemeral successes that temporarily worked but eventually fizzled out (e.g., distilleries changing from making spirits to  hand sanitizer during shortages). There are also other pivot-stories that didn’t work out but provided great lessons and helped exercise their innovative muscles for pivoting, changing, and thinking creatively. Compared to stagnant companies that were caught flat-footed, even the unsuccessful pivots had long-term benefits on the companies that sought to adapt to the new challenges. 

Trend Observed: If you are a leader and you are ever faced with an existential scenario where your core business has completely fallen off, the businesses that thrive in these conditions are the ones that accept the need to pivot immediately and start trying new things, while the stagnant or stubborn companies get stuck in the churn that accompanies momentous change.

Most teams did not pivot immediately, and nor could they afford to hold steady, so most teams ended up with furloughed or laid off employees.

Paired with strong unemployment benefits during this time period and the lapse in hiring new employees from April through November of 2020 (for many companies), that 8-month gap disrupted the typical job turnover and growth cycle and led many to delay going back to work.

For companies that hire recent graduates, finding hires has been a struggle as well because of how many students delayed or altered their college education plans due to COVID. With fewer students graduating and a strong need to hire out of college, being attractive to candidates has become crucial for getting the best candidates.

For companies seeking to hire highly experienced (high salary) roles, finding and identifying the right person has been difficult because of the lack of in-person interviewing and onboarding. Most companies have found ways to make virtual onboarding work (and some even thrive), but when it comes to hiring for a highly sought-after role, some companies have become more risk-averse towards making a hire with less experience because of the high expense of making a mistake. Plus, with it being so difficult to fill less experienced roles with an organization, the promotional track for some companies’ employees have been delayed because companies need continuity for these key functions during this chaotic period.

However, we are seeing the light at the end of the tunnel! There are companies that have filled all or most of their hiring needs during this time without substantially raising their wages offered. Two of my interviewees found a way to successfully attract great candidates to their firms. One company was a management consulting firm, the other, a large hospitality company, but both used similar tactics. Their secret: focus on the brand and making the brand fun, enjoyable, and attractive. They observed that their benefits weren’t terribly different from comparable firms with similar hiring needs. However, these firms leaned their marketing resources, internal communications, and overall brand statement towards having fun and doing good work, they were able to fulfill all or most of their hiring needs. One other interesting observation about both of these companies was that they both also provided opportunities for either temporary work or changing work. For example, the hospitality company hired their employees with the expectation that they would only work for the summer. For these employees, this was great because they had a very clear end-date for their employment with the company which caused them to feel like they weren’t making a massive commitment by starting work with the company. For the management consulting firm, they constantly switch their new employees on the type of working they are doing (e.g. a rotation). So, the employees knew that if they didn’t like the work they were doing, they were going to switch in a few weeks and if they did like it, they knew that they could always come back to that work.

Trend Observed: The (usually) unstated precept from leadership to employees that “You should be grateful to have a job” is gone. In fact, in many ways it has inverted to become “You should be grateful to have me.” People’s motivations have shifted away from simply working to get a paycheck. For many people, work is an outlet to socialize, collaborate with great teammates, use their brain in fulfilling ways, and get some time away from the house. If you are a leader and you are struggling to hire and are feeling pressure to raise your wages and benefits past what is feasible, you might find greater success in attracting candidates by developing your company culture to be more fun in the eyes of your current and prospective employees.


Inflation and Rising Prices
Since many companies are struggling to make the right hires, or in some cases just hire enough employees to do the work, companies are following the logical conclusion and raising wages.

Paying for wages is the largest expense for most companies. Therefore, when wages rise, margins rapidly diminish. So, the only major way for companies to get back to their previous margins is by raising the prices for their goods and services.

Make no mistake about it – this is inflation.

Inflation isn’t necessarily horrible, but it can be if you don’t know how to handle it or if you are in an industry that regulates how you handle it.

For example, there were many small business owners that I interviewed that were apprehensive to raise their prices to avoid offending their legacy customers with sticker shock. Many small business owners also have fewer resources for determining when or by how much to raise their prices.

With inflation reaching a peak compared to the previous 15 years, it might be difficult to determine when the right time is to raise prices and project how inflation will change in future years. 

If you are a business owner and you are trying to figure out how to keep your salaries competitive, retain margin, and not offend your customers with price increases, you are not alone. Some ways business owners have handled this situation is by assessing how often they will adjust prices. By increasing the frequency of price adjustments, you can decrease the effects of sticker-shock that may coincide with increasing prices. If you are apprehensive to changing your prices frequently, then you need to project inflation’s trends and bake in extra margin now to buy time for once the margin dwindles over time.

There are some industries that don’t have the luxury of easily adjusting their prices. For example, in healthcare, many insurance companies have already determined the price of certain procedures and medications. Hospitals and healthcare companies are then forced to work their business model around the predetermined prices. This model works well when there is little to no inflation, but when inflation weakens the value of a previously competitive salary, companies must choose between more difficult hiring, or reducing their margins by offering higher salaries.

One question that comes up frequently around this topic is: What happens when the unemployment benefits end and all of these people flood the market seeking a job?

Most of these open roles will likely be filled, but it is unlikely that the companies will be able to drop their salaries back to where they used to be. At the start of the pandemic, some companies were able to get away with “hero pay” in which employees were temporarily paid a higher salary. It was mutually understood by both parties that the salaries would eventually revert. However, most companies have already adjusted their wages, some by 20-30%, and they are not branding this wage as “hero pay” or any other form of temporary high pay based on need, meaning that these salaries are here to stay – but so is the inflation that comes with it.

Trend Observed: If you have the freedom to adjust your prices, it is probably best to rip that band-aid early and have a plan around how often you are willing to adjust your prices and clearly communicate that to your team. Your team needs to be in the loop on the plan or they may become frustrated at being stuck in the dark regarding the changing prices. If you don’t have the freedom to adjust your prices (e.g. in an industry that has regulation), you need to begin lobbying and having the conversation around having more flexibility around adjusting those prices. This will likely take a very long time to happen, but what alternative do you have? You either get to a point where your staff is completely overworked and underpaid (compared to other work opportunities), and either your people leave or you eat the losses because the business is losing money (to keep wages competitive) for the hope that one day the prices will adjust.

Supply Chain and Inventory Management

The pandemic has put to the test the just-in-time inventory management system. Just-in-time inventory management is the notion that companies hold inventory for the least number of days before the item is shipped to the customer. By limiting the amount of time inventory sits in a warehouse, waste from spoilage, breaking, and mismanagement is significantly diminished, and this allows companies in supply chain and logistics to work more efficiently. 

But what happens when you have one part that is missing? You have a car that consists of hundreds of different parts and is completely assembled, but it is missing 1 semiconductor chip. What happens? The answer is that you have thousands of cars sitting, unable to be shipped because they are missing 1 part out of hundreds.

Why is it so difficult to get one measly semiconductor chip (or any other product or material that is leveraged in just-in-time inventory)? Aren’t there competing manufacturing companies that can find the part they need?

The answer is complicated. With the world economy opening up and allowing for companies to procure materials from anywhere at the cheapest price, the supply chain is growing more complex. Combined with just-in-time inventory management, this means that manufacturing companies hold only for their immediate needs. When a global pandemic hits, different countries are impacted in diverse ways. Some countries can’t let raw materials get shipped out, or some countries can’t get raw materials in for their factories. Others can’t operate at maximum capacity because people are sick. This all makes the seemingly brief delays pile up, turning an interstate into a traffic jam. 

Another massive issue in all of this is the overall lack of organization of many of the ports in the US. Many ports in the US, before the pandemic, were operating in a way where some shipping containers would never get processed and left in potential space available for unloading new boats. That extra space was taken for granted and containers just kept getting stacked up over years. Well, when the pandemic came, not only were boats still arriving in US ports, but the people to operate those ports weren’t coming to work because of COVID. Essentially, this giant game of catch-up for unloading cargo becomes exacerbated because the decreased workforce around the ports means that parts come into the US more slowly (or not at all) and the entire supply chain becomes compromised.

One supply chain CEO I interviewed was able to project what was about to happen and benefit from his forward thinking. He observed what was going on in China in January 2020 and decided to stock up on the raw materials he needed for him to provide his products, and this gave him an advantage later.

Most inventory management systems observe low demand (e.g. March, April, and May of 2020) as a sign to order less in subsequent months. When demand drastically swung back, companies were caught on their back foot trying to catch up. The supply chain CEO I spoke with projected this would happen, went to his clients to inform them of what was going to happen, and was able to get his clients to pay early for materials for the rest of the year based on this projection.

Trend Observed: Most inventory management systems focus on microeconomic, short-term factors for making inventory decisions. And although this works 95% of the time, it is extremely important to project for macroeconomic factors that could have a long-term impact on inventory and supply chain management overall. 

Trend Observed: The other trend observed was the importance of diversifying sources for raw materials. Obviously quality control, price, and a drive for simplicity play a factor in business decisions, but if your business is solely reliant on one provider for your raw materials, you are leaving yourself liable to changes in their market conditions which inevitably impact your business. 

Workspace Management

Work from home, hybrid, or the traditional office set up. Which is best? 

The answer is that it depends on your company and your work situation.

Every leader I spoke with had to adjust their working situation some way or another. Some leaders went to their employees and took a vote of what they would like to do. Some leaders immediately started having their teams work remotely. And some leaders had to implement sanitation and safety measures to keep their teams working at the office. 

Now that people are starting to feel more comfortable opening up socially, many companies are starting to come back to the office, but not all in the same ways.

Some companies are directly coming back to the office and generally returning to the status quo. However, many other companies are finding creative ways to either get out of or diminish their leases. For example, one executive that I interviewed partitioned off half of his office and is now leasing out that space to drive some additional income and allow his staff to continue hybrid work – partly from home and partly from the office setting. Other companies are simply letting their lease lapse and partially converting that funding to support coworking spaces for sales conversations or board rooms for big meetings, but otherwise allowing everyone to work from home. 

If you own commercial real estate, it isn’t all doom and gloom. There is an opportunity in supply chain. As mentioned in the previous segment, this notion of just in time inventory is falling out of favor meaning that manufacturing companies and companies that work with raw materials are starting to buy larger warehouses to store more raw materials. Some large logistics companies are even looking at leasing or buying old malls and converting them into warehouses and supply chain centers.

Trend Observed: Companies are finding unique ways to optimally deploy their teams into work environments that are efficient and work for them, and there isn’t just one trend everyone is following for finding the best working situation for their team.

But back to the original question as to what is best: working from home, a hybrid model, or at the office. The jury is still out. However, I have found it strange how many CEOs are clinging onto anecdotes and feelings when deciding between working in the office versus remote or a hybrid.

There is a lot of data that has shown that working remotely has led to greater productivity from teams, particularly for output and qualitative data around satisfaction at work. Remote work hasn’t led to greater productivity for every team, but between my interviews with executives and the research articles I’ve read on this topic, most teams were more productive working remotely.

However, many CEOs and leaders that I have interviewed have taken their team back to the office. I believe that the data on best practices for determining work location will become clearer in the future, but I have only seen a limited amount of data showing the advantages of in-person over remote. When I have interviewed CEOs that have taken their teams back to the office, the traditional response I have heard is “this working situation works best for us” or “everyone seems much happier at the office compared to at home” or “we have been able to collaborate much better at the office”. Like I mentioned before, I believe the data could come, but none of the CEOs that I interviewed referenced any sort of comparative analysis on productivity differences between remote-work versus in person. 

For the most part, this ends up being just conjecture and feelings and not rooted in metrics. My biggest surprise is how many of these CEOs dove fully into working from the office without offering a hybrid model to ease this transition. 

Trend Observed: If you are transitioning back from working remotely to the office, it is really critical that you consider some metrics you can measure to assess whether one works better for you. If your team is currently working remotely and you are contemplating coming back to the office, you must have a system in place for measuring productivity, so you can understand what happens when you come back to the office.  

Finding new ways to sell

Finding a new way to sell was critical for many companies to stay alive during the pandemic. From restaurants transitioning from legacy ordering via a server to online orders, to companies expanding delivery to include curb-side drop-offs right into one’s car, companies have had to completely transition the way they operate and sell their goods and services.

Here are some of the most interesting stories about how companies have had to change the way they sell.

One of the executives I interviewed works for a large pharmaceutical company. One of the biggest challenges she faced was retaining her high-level account executives who sold their medicines into doctors’ offices.

Since many doctors embraced telehealth, they left their medical offices and started working from home. For small pharmaceutical companies who relied heavily on in-person meetings with doctors to sell their medicines when doctors have a free moment to chat, they now had to find alternative ways to get their voices heard. Therefore, they started poaching account executives from larger, established pharmaceutical companies to harvest their rolodex of relationships and for the opportunity to drive business from those account executives. 

This forced these larger pharmaceutical companies to focus more heavily on the doctor experience and having multiple points of relationship with their company, not just one individual account executive who might convince the doctor to take their business elsewhere.

Another executive I interviewed creates software and learning programs for governments working on educating and rehabilitating people after they have been arrested for a crime. Most of these classes were in-person and expensive for local governments to run. Since most local governments have limited budgets for this type of work, and they must keep offering these services, they were in a bind. This executive decided to offer his software and learning programming to governments for free with the caveat that those who were arrested would pay for the classes. He was able to help these governments get COVID-compliant, continue offering these services to their citizens and still save money.

Other executives I interviewed decided to take full accountability of the entire process of their service. For example, one executive whose company helps roll out the COVID vaccine and testing in low-income areas. This executive’s work went beyond providing the vaccine and the tests, but also renting the portable facilities to create a comfortable environment for their clients to get tested and vaccinated. Another executive in the consulting space provided free consulting to businesses and startups trying to find traction in the pandemic, because he realized that he could boost his brand and name recognition by being helpful to others that may want his services but couldn’t afford them (yet!).  

Trend Observed: Never waste a pandemic! When consumer behaviors are changing rapidly, there are opportunities to solve problems and build relationships with people that could become fruitful both immediately and over time. If you are a leader, it is critical to take time to step back and observe the trends that are happening so you can leverage your team’s skillset and product to help solve a challenge faced by the constant changes in consumer behavior. If you don’t, you may miss out on an opportunity, or worse, get left behind.

Wed 7 July 2021
Every year, PriceWaterhouseCoopers (PwC) conducts a survey of over 5,000 CEOs to assess trends and forecasts based on what these CEOs are seeing in the marketplace.

PwC’s global chairman on strategy analyzed the responses to this survey and identified two key trends that leaders need to be preparing for in 2021 and beyond. The first is urgent innovation, the ability to make quick pivots in the face of data contrary to your expectations. The second trend is fostering an environment of innovation that builds teams that feel comfortable generating bold potential solutions, turning those into actionable plans, and sharing their results after testing. 

These concepts may seem like obvious goals that all leadership teams strive for, however, the reality is that most leadership teams struggle with empowering their teams for urgent innovation and the ability to empower their teams to be innovative.

This article is for people in those companies that tried new business ideas, regardless of whether they worked. Most leaders would agree that it’s important for their company to be innovative but struggle to empower their people.

Common things I hear from leaders are:

My team always comes to me (the leader) with problems but rarely with solutions,

Or

I give my team complete autonomy, but they keep doing the same thing over and over again,

Or

My team and I talk about being innovative all the time, it’s even in our core values, but we never find time to actually innovate.

When leaders run into these pitfalls and struggle to empower their teams, it’s usually for one (or both) of these reasons:

1.       Leadership didn’t provide sufficient context, and the team fails to focus on the problem that needs to be solved or on the desired outcome being created.
2.       Leadership failed at demonstrating psychological safety. You need to be willing to showcase your own mistakes and bad ideas in a way that invites others to share their own crazy, off-the-wall ideas.

The reason this article is titled Innovation with Bumpers is Better is because this approach is a simple way of solving both challenges from a leadership perspective.

Innovation with bumpers provides context to teams because it helps outline the problem being solved and the outcome being created.

For example, if you were to ask your team to cook you an entrée and stop there, that’s not enough context (i.e., too much autonomy). If you ask them to cook you an entrée after going to the grocery store, that still wouldn’t be enough because of the near-limitless combinations of ingredients your team must pick from. However, if you ask your team to cook an entrée from what’s available in your refrigerator now–that’s how you spark some creative solutions because there are a finite number of potential entrées your team could cook.

When you narrow down the problem scope and present clear context, it becomes much easier for them to innovate. The more open-ended your innovation process is, the less likely your team is to innovate because they don’t have enough context to innovate. 

Bumpers are the context clues you provide your team based on your own experiences in the market. You still leave some problem aspects open-ended, but you focus them on achieving a specific desired outcome because you are facing a specific problem that needs a solution.

Innovation with bumpers also provides teams with the psychological safety necessary to innovate.

A great example of this is the honeypot example. A Canadian power line company faces the challenge every winter of getting snow off their power lines. Their solution has been hiring a person to climb up the wire poles and shake the snow off the lines one-by-one. Not only is this process dangerous, it’s also extremely expensive. Insurance premiums from this work are enormous, plus the one-by-one nature of de-snowing each pole is extremely inefficient.

This power line company was very clear about the problem that needed to be solved (removing snow from the power lines) and the solution it wanted but left the team open-ended on how to solve this challenge.

A team without psychological safety will defer to leadership to generate ideas because they fear what their leadership might think if they share an idea that seems nonsensical or absurd. 

The reason this is called the honeypot story is because one of this company’s lowest level employees suggested putting honeypots on top of each pole and when bears smell the honey, they will try to climb up the poles for a snack and shake off the snow in the process. 

Take a moment to let that sink in…what an insane idea!?!? For a low-level employee to feel comfortable enough to propose an idea like that, it shows a LOT about their level of psychological safety within their team. 

And although the company didn’t end up using the honeypot idea, it did spark their eventual solution: hiring helicopters to fly by their power lines and using the wind from the helicopters to knock the snow off: a cheap, safe, and efficient solution. 

Psychological safety in innovation doesn’t mean that people feel comfortable when proposing the ultimate idea. It just means they feel comfortable proposing ANY workable idea and help narrow down what the eventual idea might end up being.

One of the best ways to build psychological safety on a team is with vulnerability. As a leader, being vulnerable shows your team the emotional bumpers and that you don’t always have answers to every problem. Vulnerability also shows your team that you have made big mistakes and had awful ideas before and that those ideas help lead to better solutions. In the early days of Amazon, they had to pack their boxes on the floor, and Jeff Bezos suggested that the team needs knee pads; psychological safety helped an employee to say “No Jeff. We need packing tables”. 

When I write “innovation with bumpers is better”, this means that if we can provide enough context and psychological safety to our teams, we are much more likely to empower them and build an environment of innovation.

Mon 10 May 2021
I lead an Executive Horizontal Mentorship Program and part of what I do is facilitate group sessions where all the executives come together to share their insights, questions, and thoughts on a new topic each session.

For our March group meeting, the topic was leadership and how we can improve our ability to lead at our companies. These meetings tend to start with one topic, but eventually lead to fruitful, wide-ranging conversations that might not obviously connect to our initial topic. For this meeting, we eventually started discussing psychological safety, the belief that you won’t be punished for making a mistake. 

And then, one of the executives in our group brought up the point:

“It seems that progress and gratitude are in conflict with each other. If I am grateful, I am celebrating something that existed in the past. But if I am focused on progress, I am quickly dismissing the wins to move onto the next challenge.”

This is a fascinating point that I’ve been ruminating on for the past few weeks. There is a lot of research on the power of gratitude and its correlation with happiness. As a simple demonstration, really try to be grateful and angry at the same time and notice the contradiction between those feelings. 

There is also a lot of research validating the power of SMART (Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant, Time-bound) goals to achieve progress. 

Being grateful necessitates focusing on your past; being goal-oriented necessitates focusing on your future.

Can these mindsets work together?

This article is going to assess the merits of both practicing gratitude and goal-setting. I’ll consider their respective implications on business outcomes and analyze whether or not they are truly incompatible.

Gratitude

Gratitude is the public and private act of conscientiously and deliberately acknowledging something that has positively affected you. In a work setting, gratitude can inform your team of a job well done or show how much your team’s efforts meant to you. Gratitude gives your team purpose, a sense of pride, and a sense of belonging. It is an important signal showing the impact of their work and it shows that their work is respected and appreciated.

When frequently expressing gratitude for specific, meaningful actions is ingrained in the fabric of a culture, people tend to be happier and more likely to reach out to a coworker when something negative happens. A culture of gratitude helps build up rapport and unity across people and across teams.

People are also less likely to mistake feedback for criticism. When gratitude is an active part of the culture, it fosters emotional resilience for negative news because they know that there is no malice from the other person when receiving feedback. 

The point is gratitude helps build emotional resilience. And a culture of gratitude for specific, meaningful actions helps deflate passive-aggressive mindsets or people omitting information for fear of hurt feelings. A culture of gratitude supports open, honest communication, resilient mindsets, and high-quality work. 

Goal Setting

SMART goal-setting means setting Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant, and Time-bound activities (SMART) for achieving your goals. This helps you identify a specific vision and create a measurable and achievable plan for something you intend to accomplish. SMART goal-setting helps teams plan for the future, improve performance, and identify specific issues and solutions for the problems they encounter. 

SMART goal setting improves the efficiency and effectiveness of teams. It empowers people to envision what they would like to accomplish and helps them create a specific step-by-step plan that will accomplish that outcome. 

Can gratitude and goal setting work together?

 The Executive Horizontal Mentorship group that started this discussion seems to think that they are compatible, and I am inclined to agree. As mentioned previously, a culture of gratitude can boost the emotional resiliency of teammates, and this makes the identification of challenges faster and finding solutions easier. 

When teams don’t have a culture of gratitude, issues start popping up all over the place: an employee trying to solve a tough problem alone; a coworker spending too much time crafting their feedback to avoid hurt feelings; a teammate happy to criticize problems without caring to offer solutions. These brief examples are only the tip of the iceberg.  

The ability to identify these challenges and properly communicate them with the team helps support the work of setting SMART goals to solve the issues at hand. Open, honest, grateful communication helps your team look into the future, and SMART goals help your team leverage the present to improve the future. 

Taking intentional time for gratitude on a consistent basis creates pathways and lines of communication that make problem-solving and SMART goal setting more effective. So, while the two ideas of Progress and Gratitude seemed to be in contradiction at first glance, hopefully, I’ve shown you how that is simply not the case. Instead, Progress and Gratitude build off each other to create a strong, productive, and engaged workplace. 

Tue 30 March 2021
I lead an Executive Horizontal Mentorship Program and part of what I do is facilitate group sessions where all the executives come together to share their insights, questions, and thoughts on a new topic each session.
   
Our most recent group conversation focused on innovation and how we would like to become more innovative with our work. As with most meetings, I lay out the topic, but the executives can take the conversation in any direction the group chooses.

I hypothesized a few ways I thought the discussion would go. I expected it to revolve around people management. We would discuss ways to be a better leader, how to foster psychological safety with direct reports, or how to improve a specific skill and perform their role better (all of which are great topics!).

Instead, many of the group sessions went in a very different direction when discussing innovation.

In this case, the conversation revolved around priorities, balancing our values, and discussing what we find most important in our lives.

An exchange between two executives sticks with me: one executive mentioned, “If I spent time innovating in my family life like I do my work life, I would be much happier and have greater balance.”

To which another executive chimed in: “If you ask me for my priority list, I would say family comes first, then work. But, if you were to ask me the amount of time and emotional energy I put into my work compared to family life, it wouldn’t even be close to a relevant comparison”.

A third executive jumped in to reply: “But our work allows us to live the family life we want to have. But, I will admit that I struggle to enjoy my family time when the majority of my focus and energy is on work.”

This was a really interesting and unexpected direction for this conversation to go. There is a shift in work mentality from the old school bragging about how many hours one has worked in a week (the notion of asking about or even mentioning how many hours one has worked in a given week indicates this). Instead of leveraging the response of “busy” as the default response to ‘how are you?’, the mentality is trending where family life is starting to be conscientiously prioritized above work.

Based on this group discussion, we still aren’t there yet. But the fact that this stemmed from a conversation on innovation shows where we are headed: there is beginning to be a conscious push to have more balance between work and home.

The overarching question that arose from the discussion is “can we innovate in our work in a way that reduces the amount of time and emotional energy required to get the same amount of work done?” AND, instead of replacing that time with more work, can we instead divert that time and mental/emotional energy to family? 

The open question here is: can this be done?

Based on the feedback from the executives in this group meeting, yes, it can be done. People become more efficient and effective in their roles all the time. Whether through new technologies or improved prioritization of time and tasks, improving the efficiency of both time and mental inputs for work can definitely be accomplished without sacrificing work quality.

The second question is: if this can be done, why do we fill that extra time with more work versus family?

There is a natural drive to keep pushing the needle forward; it manifests as a growing fear that if I am not working hard, the next person in line could be working harder and eventually take my spot. 

This drive also leads to a natural tendency for executives to not fully celebrate wins, and instead simply move onto the next task. When we don’t give ourselves credit for hitting a milestone, we rob ourselves of the deserved reward that we crave for getting the job done. And the people around you notice this: “If my boss can’t take a break to reward himself for a job well done, why would I deserve a reward?” This might be motivating for some people in the short term, but eventually, that kind of ambivalence to success drains the satisfaction in a job well done. 

Lastly, most executives justify more work as an effort to help their families live better lives. A perfect example of this is from the television show Breaking Bad. If you haven’t seen the show, Breaking Bad follows a high school science teacher who is recently diagnosed with terminal cancer. After realizing that he can’t afford the treatment, he decides to start cooking and selling meth to cover the cost. He justifies sacrificing his time, his emotional well-being, and even his morals into this endeavor because it is going to be “better for his family” (something he determined without their input!). Eventually, he comes to realize that he was lying to himself: it wasn’t about supporting his family; it was about his greed masquerading as providing for his family. I doubt many of your situations will end quite as dramatically, but I’m sure many will recognize some familiarity with that example. 

Most executives don’t want an outcome like this! The fact that they are consciously aware that they are spending too much time and mental/emotional energy on work and not enough time on their family is the first step to creating more balance.

So the third question is: what can executives do to ensure that their newly found time and energy doesn’t simply get used with more work?

Create Standard Operating Procedures around work and life

As executives, one way we grow our impact and scale our performance is by creating SOP’s (Standard Operating Procedures) for our team. So why can’t we do that for ourselves when distinguishing between work and life?

Oftentimes executives choose not to commit to this type of action because it “deters flexibility when emergencies happen”. And this is a fair point. But just like creating SOPs for a work team, you can build in caveats for emergencies. AND most executives know that this excuse is pretty flimsy: if there weren’t any SOP’s in other cases, inconsistency and quality control issues would be endless. 

Therefore, if we, as executives, don’t set SOP’s for when we are working versus when we are with family, then we are always working. Why? Because family time is a longer-term drive. There rarely are deadlines that occur with family time, but because work is typically filled with short-term deadlines, we prioritize those over the longer-term rewards from spending time with family. 

SOP’s help take the emotion out of the decision of how best to distribute your time. An SOP is like a computer; it will do what you tell it to do – no more, no less. If you are firm with your work and life SOP, you will not have to worry about circumstantial judgment calls. It either fits into your SOP or it doesn’t.

Devote specific time to family 

This is more like action 1A as it falls within the work and life SOP. Time with family is powerful. You could be doing absolutely nothing, but the fact that you are there with family is what counts. This sounds like an obvious point, but if it were so obvious, this article wouldn’t be relevant. It is easy to quantify work output and less easy to quantify family time output. You don’t earn “points” for attending your daughter’s soccer match or your son’s recital. You do it because it makes you happy. Even if you don’t have any plans on the docket for your family time, that isn’t an excuse for getting back into work during the time that you have already decided is for family. 

Devote specific mental and emotional energy to family

This is more like action 1B as it falls within the work and life SOP. Simply spending time with family is not enough for that time to be meaningful. Our executives clearly distinguished between both time and mental and emotional energy. If you are physically “with” your family, but you are mentally and emotionally “checked out”, can you really consider that time valuable?

Family time deserves as much mental and emotional intention as we are willing to put into our work. And it probably deserves more! 

If executives can begin to implement these actions into their lives, they will become substantially happier and aligned between their work and family time value system – at least according to our executives in our group meeting.



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Kickstarting Mentorships For Fulfilling Careers