Leadership Lesson #2: Make a plan; don’t assume


Before I reached the point of being okay with my son and I hiking The Pass Mountain Trail on Usery Mountain in Arizona at our own very distinct paces, I was angry. Very angry.

Angry that I couldn’t keep up with him.

Angry that he wasn’t waiting for me.

Angry that we weren’t having a mother-son bonding moment on the mountain.

Angry that his flight back to Minneapolis was leaving in just a few hours.

Angry that we technically didn’t have time to do the full 7.1 mile hike.

And most of all, angry that we hadn’t made a plan before we set out.

How many times has it happened that you assumed the other person was of like mind about a situation when, in fact, you had very different ideas about how things would go?

I assumed there was no need to make a plan because we would be together. And, based on our speed and the time of day, we would together decide when to turn back.

If I was with my best friend or my mom, that would have been the case indeed. But there are very few others who can read my mind.

And so, we set off without an agenda.

Without a plan, my assumptions took hold and ran the dialogue that played in my head: “I’m the parent here, I should be in charge. I am the responsible one and I need to make sure we get to the airport on time.  He’s flying Spirit so I’ll need to feed him before he gets on the flight. How can I be in charge if he’s a half-mile ahead of me?”

A simple plan – before we set out – would have alleviated a great deal of angst for me (and eventually for him after he summited and reached the bottom, wondering where I was and whether he’d catch his flight).

A simple plan would have taken just under a minute to hash out in the form of a few simple if/then statements.

If we get separated, then A.

If it is noon and we aren’t at the summit, then B.

This simple, straightforward plan would have saved me 30 minutes of agony. Fortunately, it was only 30 minutes of agony. Given that he is my son, I’m predisposed toward forgiveness. Given that I quickly realized I didn’t want to waste the day being upset (30 minutes is pretty fast, at least for me), I found peace with our varying paces. And in my shift away from anger and toward the mountain experience, I assumed positive intent: he was just enjoying himself and the climb.

It is easy to waste an entire day to frustration with our colleagues and clients over assumptions we are making in the absence of a well-communicated plan.

Here are three steps for turning it around:

  1. Assume positive intent.
  2. Lean toward forgiveness.
  3. Vow never to spend an entire day (or even an hour) upset about something.


Catch the full series of blog posts of my Lessons on Leadership from the Side of a Mountain.

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    You know the guy (or maybe it’s a gal): the one who steamrolls the meeting with their own agenda item.

    You can see it coming: his eyes light up, he leans in a little bit, he’s even salivating, isn’t he?

    The next agenda item is remotely related to his pet topic.

    He’s getting ready to pounce.

    He gets his chance and then . . . BAM! He’s on a roll and there’s no stopping him.

    You send all the right non-verbal messages to get him to stop. You try to interrupt. You glance around the table and see that everyone else is resigned to the next 15 minutes (or more!) of his recapitulation. You give up and settle in, feeling defeated.

    “How do I stop that guy?” a participant in a workshop recently asked me.

    Here’s how you stop “that guy” from derailing the meeting:

    Step 1: Be Ready.

    You can’t effectively stop him if you’re not ready. Watch for signals that he’s about to jump in, uninvited. You might need to observe him in action a few times before you are fully ready.

    Think of yourself as a cultural anthropologist: your objective is to learn the characteristics and habits of the interloper. What actions does he take in the moments and micro-moments before he interrupts?

    Get to know those characteristics until they are second nature.  You’ll be better able to head him off – and you’ll be more confident.

    Step 2: Jump In, Just Before He Starts.

    You’ve studied him. You know his demeanor. You know the specific gesture he makes just before he interrupts. You’ve strategically seated yourself across the table from him so you have an unimpeded view. He leans in and adjusts his glasses, just like he always does.

    And then, BAM! You’re there. And you jump in and take control of managing the turns in the conversation. You have two choices:

    1. You take a turn yourself. That is, if you’ve got something to say.

    2. You give the turn to someone else. It sounds like this: “Let’s hear from Jeanne about how we are doing on the budget before we take the discussion any further.”

    Step 3: Redirect.  Respectfully, Of Course.

    If he persists — and he will — repeat the steps and redirect the conversation.

    It sounds like this: “Steve, I know you have a lot of interest/passion/history with this project. In order for us to address all the things we need to cover in this meeting, we need to stick to a tight timeframe to make sure we get it all in. We still need to hear from Sherry on the budget and Rick on the overall timetable first.  Sherry?”

    You need to say that with complete confidence and authority. If you waver in the slightest, he will jump right in and you’ll be back to square one.

    You might also seek the support of a confederate on this. Let someone else in the meeting, ideally one of the people you’d like to take a turn instead, in on what you are doing.  They can back you up – and be ready to take the next turn when you pass it to them.

    Your turn: Next time you are in this situation, jump on it.

    Be aggressive.

    Everyone will thank you.

    Well, okay, one person won’t.

    But everyone else will.


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    Last week I attended a TechCities Women in Technology panel discussion titled “Finding the Talent to Win” at the Carlson School of Management. Women from some of Minnesota’s fastest growing tech companies shared their perspectives on recruiting, hiring and retaining women in the high tech market in the Minneapolis St. Paul region.

    The conversation was stimulating and fast paced and, as any good panel discussion does, included many questions and contributions from audience members (including men).

    Here are my top three take-aways from the discussion:

    1. Learn the language of the space.

    Caroline Karanja, Senior Manager at LeadPages, emphasized that organizations have their own language and that’s it’s strategic to learn the language. Speaking to others in their native language is how you get things done.

    Caroline shared the example of how she’s transitioned from the turn of phrase “I have have a gut feeling” when working with male co-workers to “I have a hypothesis.” Why the shift?  Intuitive hunches are ideas likely to be dismissed by analytical colleagues (male or female) but hypothesis are ideas to be tested, ideas that data-driven decisions can be made around. The idea has not changed. What has changed is the way she frames the idea.
    Frame the idea in the language of the space.

    2. Don’t advertise for ninjas.

    Vocabulary draws people in or turns them away. Emily McAuliffe, VP Strategy & Account Director at Clockwork Active Media, skillfully moderated the discussion. As she transitioned the discussion to attracting more female employees, McAuliffe aptly noted, “Companies are advertising for PHP ninjas. No one but my ten year old wants to be a ninja.”

    How the role is positioned says a lot about the culture of the organization. When organizations actively seek out MySQL “warriors” or PHP “ninjas,” those for whom the ancient art of Japanese warfare don’t resonate are not likely to apply. The functions of the ancient ninja included espionage and assassination. Not typically the things that women, who lean more toward collaboration than annihilation, are looking for in their next career move.

    Word to the wise: If you want to attract women, write job descriptions that resonate with women.

    3. Speak up.

    Angie Franks, Chief Marketing Officer at Sport Ngin, stressed that women in technology often don’t use their voice. “I can’t tell you how many times a woman has come up to me with a great idea – after the meeting,” she remarked. “Use your voice,” she implored the women in the audience.

    Speak up, even if you aren’t sure if you’re right. Taking a stand for something will help to develop the confidence to speak up again the next time. Contribute to the discussion, even if it makes you uncomfortable.


    All of these top lessons come down to one theme: effective communication.

    >> Culture is expressed through communication (and everyone insisted the right cultural fit between employee and employer is critical).

    >> Effective communication is paramount in attracting the right employees.

    >> Confident communication is imperative in ensuring that all the best ideas are put on the table – during the meeting.


    Question: What are some of the worst examples you’ve experienced – where the words/language/culture did not resonate with you?

    Share your answers on Facebook.

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    The six directors sat with Jim, their VP, brainstorming ways to get out of their latest technological dilemma. Several features on their flagship product would not work with the new database upgrade they were undertaking. The ideas were flowing, but the “breakthrough” idea that would solve their problem remained elusive.

    “How about re-writing the code in R?” Sharon asked, proposing they use a relatively new statistical programming language that’s particularly useful for visualizing big data.

    “Yeah right, like Rrrrr’s going to magically fix everything. Do you even know how long it would take to rewrite the whole thing in R?” Steven muttered.

    Sharon was at a loss for how to respond. The spirit of Steven’s comment broke from the collaborative nature of their brainstorming meeting. There wasn’t anything in Steven’s berating of her idea that was easy to respond to or challenge directly. Rather, the comment felt like a dig, and it felt personal.

    “What do you mean?” Sharon put forth, working hard to manage her emotions and not become defensive.

    “What do you mean, ‘What do you mean?’” Steven shot back snidely.

    “Let’s take some time to think through the ideas that we put on the table today,” Jim said, curtailing a situation that was likely to go from bad to worse. “We’ll regroup tomorrow, same time.”

    Sharon left the meeting feeling defeated, both personally and professionally.


    What happened in the meeting? Steven broke the frame.


    What frame, you ask? Well, every conversation has a frame, or a set of indirect and implicit messages – or meta-messages – that tell us what is going on.

    Framing, a concept developed by anthropologist and communication theorist Gregory Bateson, provides context. It gives clues about what we mean when we say something. Much like a picture frame wraps around a picture and provides a style for the picture (classic, antique, modern, etc.), a frame provides stylistic cues and meaning in conversation.

    The frame in conversation, indirect and unspoken, sends messages about what we think is going on and our attitude about the messages in the conversation.

    The initial frame in the conversation above had a spirit of collaboration and trust. Steven’s remark broke the collaborative frame.

    If you try to name a frame, you indirectly invoke another one. For example, when Sharon asked “What do you mean?” she questioned his changing of the frame. That provoked Steven and he went on the defensive, shooting back a snide remark. In effect, he was saying ‘How dare you challenge me and my reframing?’

    When we feel reframed by others, like Sharon did by Steven, there are two choices: accept the reframe or resist it.  In order to do either one effectively, we must recognize that a reframe has occurred. That means, we need to be paying attention to not only what is being said but also how it is being said.

    In asking Steven about the reframe (“What do you mean by that?”) Sharon challenged his reframe. In order to resist his reframe, Sharon could have said something like this (in a most collaborative tone): “Steven, thank you for keeping us grounded in reality. We do have to account for the resources of our potential solutions. Could you provide us with an estimate of how long it would take to rewrite the code?”

    In every turn of the conversation we are either accepting the frame or rejecting it and reframing. Listening for the frame can provide great insight as to the dynamics and the power of those in the conversation.

    When was the frame switched on you? What were the results?

    Share your thoughts in the comments.

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    “I didn’t speak up. I didn’t say anything. I thought maybe I was wrong.”

    Women in business often tell me this, disgruntled and frustrated. What they say next usually follows along these lines: “I was right all along but I didn’t have the courage to speak up.” Or “My voice never gets heard. I have great ideas but I just can’t get them on the table.” In short, they didn’t take the situation head on and speak up.


    The Spiral of Silence Theory may explain why. Coined by German public opinion researcher Elisabeth Noelle-Neumann, the Spiral of Silence Theory suggests that people who believe they have a minority opinion will hold back and constrain themselves. And those who believe they are in the majority will be more encouraged to speak up.

    Noelle-Neumann’s theory originally pertained to public opinion. We can look at the prevailing public opinion inside corporations and apply the theory to work life: A parallel Spiral of Silence exists within corporate culture. People feel less inclined to speak out and offer their opposition when they do not have the support of the majority. And that can make for poor decisions, costly mistakes and wasted time and resources.

    Without the support of divergent viewpoints, organizations cannot make the very best decisions – not for their customers or for their bottom line.

    What is at the root of not speaking up, of this Spiral of Silence?

    The theory contends, and I agree, that those in the majority have the confidence to speak out. Those who hold a minority opinion have a fear about being alone in their opinions. They are usually cautious and silent on the topic. In the face of others’ confidence, their lack of assertiveness grows.

    So how does one push beyond the soul-sucking Spiral of Silence? Here are three ideas to boost your confidence in expressing a minority opinion.

    1.  Take the long view.

    Pull yourself up to the view from 10,000 feet and speak from there. Getting out of the weeds of the current situation and speaking on a macro level may give you the confidence to dissent. After all, then you’re not talking about the specific issue, you’re talking about a general issue. Once you’ve been heard and understood (even if they don’t agree with you yet), you can bring it back down to the situation at hand and sway opinion.

    2.  Play with personas.

    For a moment, allow yourself to take on the role or character of someone who was confident at speaking out against the prevailing opinion. Think of it as playing Devil’s Advocate. You might ask yourself this: “If I was the kind of person who enjoyed speaking up with a counter-idea, what would I say?”

    3. Practice with a coworker who agrees with you.

    People tend to share their opinions more freely with those who have a similar approach. Practice your pitch for an alternate viewpoint with a supporter. If your practice partner can be in the room when you speak up with your minority opinion for the real deal, all the better!

    Whatever you do, do NOT sit idly by, holding back perfectly good opinions just because they are not what the majority is thinking. It’s not good for you and it’s not good for business.

    Go forth, break the Spiral of Silence and speak up.


    Have you seen someone caught in the Spiral of Silence in action? Share your example in the comments below.

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