From Reactive to Proactive





ID-10071284We are so often caught up in the reactive, and it is an inevitable part of life and business.  There is too much data to be able to anticipate all of it coming at us.  So how do we make a transition from reactive to preemptive?

Know the Destination

You can’t go somewhere unless you know where you are going.  Simple, I know.  But do you jump in your car to go somewhere without having a destination in mind?  Probably not.  So what does your professional destination look like?

Taking time to plan an endgame is necessary for a huge transition.  You need to be able to define success not only for you as a leader, but for the team as well so that there is a sense of momentum and, ultimately, accomplishment.

Set up Your Waypoints

Every flight plan has waypoints, intermediate destinations that help to set the overall course.  Your journey from Reactive to Proactive should have waypoints as well.  In Project Management they are called Milestones.

The purpose of the waypoint is to provide you with a series of connected destinations that help to ensure a safe path is set and that you are moving in the right direction.  You can choose your waypoints to be in units of time, percent completion, accomplishment of specific events, or even arrival of the destination for only a part of the entire vision (completing the journey for one product line before expanding to another).

Understand Your Compromises

It’s difficult to get everything you want.  By knowing where you need to compromise you allow yourself a safety that will prevent you and your team from being discouraged.  Know where you can balk and where you mustn’t in order to help ensure success.  Some areas cannot be compromised, define them.  Others can be sacrificial should circumstances require it, be ready to sacrifice.

Communicate Your Destination

Give others the vision you have.  Allow your team and your supporters to envision the destination with you.  Take every moment you have to describe your destination in detail.  Outline how it looks and give them the ability to see it with you.  This will make others hungry to help you succeed.

If I told you we were going on a road trip your first question would be, “Where to?”  If I simply said, “West,” that wouldn’t be very motivating.  If I said, “The beach,” that might be more motivating.  But if I took the time to describe the beach, how it looked at sunset, the warm breeze that blew on my face, the sound of the waves crashing on the nearby cliffs, and the long boardwalk the stretched over the water, you might be more excited about going there.

Invest in the Change

Change is a movement of inertia.  The organization has momentum in its current direction.  If you want to change that direction, you have to be willing to invest in the force required to overcome that inertia.  This investment may come in the form of additional people, a new technology, external support, rebranding and marketing, or a number of other things that will give you the force needed to change your momentum.

Celebrate the Change

I am a big fan of celebrations.  They can come in small forms of encouragement or lavish company parties.  The purpose is to keep people motivated.  Once you have gained a little momentum in the new direction you have to keep pushing.  Celebrations as simple as a pat on the back can help to accelerate your change.

The Challenge

If you are in the midst of a change, look at your flight plan.  Do you know the destination?  Do you have your waypoints?  Do you know where you may have to make compromises?  Have you visualized your destination and shared that with others?  Have you made the proper investments?

If not, take the time to figure it out.

Do you see a need for moving from reactive to proactive in your business, in your life?  Start today with planning on how to get to your destination.


The End of Winter…Perhaps? A Lesson in Extremes

Image courtesy of dan/

Image courtesy of dan/

I live in the Chicago area, which means that along with corrupt politicians I am plagued with cold winters, hot summers, and not much time in between.  For those of you that have been keeping up with the national weather this winter you have noticed that the entire United States has been through quite a bit of a cold snap.  Chicago had to deal with actual temperatures of -20 degrees Fahrenheit (I didn’t make a mistake, that is a negative sign).  It the summer we will undoubtedly have a week of highs that will reach, if not breach, triple digits.  That is a 120 degree swing!

We can cope with these changes because they are gradual.  Yesterday was 50 degrees and it felt like a wonderful summer day to me.  Everything is relative.  If you peppered 100-degree days in with -20-degree days it would be miserable (not that they aren’t by themselves).  However, the gradual changes makes for a more tolerable extreme.

The caution I am giving here is the analogy of the frog in the pot of boiling water: put a frog in boiling water and he will jump out, but put him in warm water and slowly boil it and he will stay in and not notice the difference.

If you are in a working environment where the pot has slowly started to boil, how can you tell?  Have you ever worked with the people that say “we have always done it like that”?  Those are the folks that started in cool water and have reached a boil and don’t know it.  Extremes can sneak up on us if the change is slow.   And these extremes aren’t limited to processes or equipment, they can be related to culture and working relationships as well.

So how can you make sure you are not in hot water?

  1. Benchmarking.  If you can, benchmark your industry and see where you sit.  Don’t give yourself excuses either, if you are at the bottom, so be it.  Get better.
  2. Long-term trending.  See if you can get trends from the last decade.  Don’t look at the last few years as they may be too small of a sample size (Have you seen the stock market daily chart versus the 3-year?  One is not necessarily and indicator of the other.)
  3. New-hire assessments.  Use your new people as thermometers to gauge your water temperature.  Have them write honest one-month, three-month and six-month essays about your organization.  Make them anonymous so that they can be completely truthful.  They are the frogs that just entered the pot.  They can tell you if the water is too hot.
  4. The Right KPIs.  Make sure they are the right KPIs (read here).  It is not always easy to tell if you have the right one, but looking at these trends versus your standard can help.  You should always evaluate your standard, too.

Those 50-degree days seem great in the winter, but they seem downright cold in the summer.  Make sure you are using the right thermometer when you gauge the temperature.  A point-of-reference is necessary to understand your true situation.

Running by the Numbers

Image courtesy of jscreationzs/

Image courtesy of jscreationzs/


We are all measured on what we do and how well we do it.  After all, if you don’t measure it, you can’t improve it.  But what happens when we measure the wrong things?

The answer is simple, we get the wrong (or suboptimal) results.  Having KPIs is a good thing.  But the wrong KPI or the wrong target can spell disaster.  It is important to find the right measurements before you implement a tracking system.

Step 1 – What do you want to accomplish?  Define a goal.  It doesn’t have to be quantifiable at this point.  It can be something as simple as “reduce operating costs” or “improve customer satisfaction”.

Step 2 – Is your goal one that will not contradict others?  For example, if instead of “reduce operating costs” we used, “reduce labor costs” that could cause a reduction in throughput and then a net increase in operating costs if we are not careful.  Don’t improve in one area simply to worsen in another.

Step 3 – Determine not what will get you there, but what will hold you back.  Understanding the constraints to your goal will help you to find the areas where your KPIs will assist one another rather than conflict with each other.  If you want to decrease operating costs know that you still will have to conduct changeovers and shutdown for cleaning, etc.  Quantifying these impacts will help you understand the real room for improvement that you have.

Step 4 – Create your baseline.  If you don’t have one, you need one.  If you have one, confirm it.

Step 5 – Set a realistic, time-based goal.  Don’t shoot for the moon on your first try.  Set something modest and make sure you have enough time to accomplish it.

Step 6 – Celebrate your wins.  Learn from your losses.  Too often we are focused on the bad.  Take some time to recognize when you and the team have done well.  Don’t punish failure, rather learn from it and publish the results or talk about them in a team meeting.  Don’t hide from failure either.  People should know if they didn’t hit the mark and how to do better next time.

Step 7 – Repeat.  This is a process.  Don’t rest, but don’t change things up so much that you don’t have time to make significant strides.  Try to have fun and make sure you are winning more than you are losing.

Leading Operational Change



I read an interesting post on about change management and reactive vs proactive maintenance.  The article, by Ricky Smith, was thought-provoking.  He talks about culture change in the organization and how to determine if you are in a reactive or proactive organization.

As leaders, regardless of department or function, it is our duty to create and build the right culture.  Below are 5 tips on how to do this in an operational setting.

  1. Set the expectation.  It seems easy, but it isn’t.  Expectations must be realistic.  That is not so simple.  It takes a bit of educated guessing and self-temperment.  Often, as leaders, we expect others to be as capable or more so than ourselves.  That is not always the case.  Don’t underestimate the ability of people, but don’t set the bar so high as to create discouragement.  Remember that there is a limiting factor to the progress that can be made, find that and then set the pace.
  2. Create the game plan.  Here is strategy.  Don’t confuse strategy with goals.  Strategy is the route that you plan to get to the destination.  Jim Collins has had some great books and one of the lines that has stuck with me is the “20-Mile March” from his book Great by Choice.  Pick your march.
  3. Don’t be a flavor of the month.  You can’t be a fad (read more here).  Once this happens you lose all credibility.  Trying to recover from a lackluster start is just as bad as never starting.  Don’t let up and keep your strategy in view.  Even when times get rough, continue your march to make sure that you can gain what is needed.  If you said you would shut down the line once a week for maintenance, do it…even if the schedule is tight.  It will be worth it in the long run.
  4. Get the team on board.  Make sure your teams are supporting the change.  There can’t be any undercutting of the program behind closed doors.  Encourage your team to vent to you if they are frustrated with where the change is going, but make sure they don’t vent to anyone else.  The team must have a united front everywhere in the organization.  If not, this is poison to the change process.  It is painful to do it, but you may have to cut loose those that aren’t supporting your culture change.  One rotten apple can spoil the whole bunch.
  5. Celebrate success.  Celebrate your accomplishments.  As milestones are achieved, make sure that people know you are proud of them.  Don’t celebrate if you don’t succeed something, that makes it superficial when you do celebrate for just cause.  Culture change is a long road and these celebrations keep people motivated along the way.

Change is never easy.  In any organization where deadlines and customer demands are put before everything else, you can never accomplish your own goals.  We tell people that they need time for themselves, so do companies.  Treat your company right and your customers will notice.

Placing Blame: It’s All Your Fault


It is easy to point fingers and highlight problems.  The difficulty comes with solving the issues.  If you find yourself finding problems more than you are solving them, you may want to change your approach.

The problem is perception.  While you may think you are doing a good thing, you are really just creating work for other people.  Granted, it may need to be done, but it creates a negative vibe and that doesn’t help to motivate.

What are Some Alternatives?

Instead of just pointing out the problems, try partnering the issue with a potential solution.  Take some time to work out a way to fix the problem before you tell someone about it, especially if it is something that is not directly under your authority to fix.

If you get into a finger-pointing match try to take the conversation back to a root-cause analysis.  Even an informal RCA discussion will start your conversation on the path of figuring out how to fix something rather than trying to figure out whose fault it is.  Blaming doesn’t do any good if the problem still exists.  Using 5-Why or Fishbone diagrams are examples of more formal ways to conduct an RCA and may be appropriate depending on the complexity of the problem or the audience you need to convince.

Be willing to own the problem, or at least help with fixing it.  It makes the pill a lot easier to swallow if you are willing to work with people to get things done.  You may make some valuable allies along the way as well.  Remember that you probably have some issues of your own that you haven’t identified that your new ally may be willing to help you with down the road.

Set aside personal agendas and do what is best for the organization.  Allocate some of your labor or budget to fix the problem if it is worth it.  Your generosity will help the organization and will earn you more respect in the long run.

Create a list and prioritize.  Stephen Covey, in his book First Things First, uses a quadrant approach to categorize items as Not-Urgent/Not-Important, Urgent/Not-Important, Not-Urgent/Important, and Urgent/Important.  Using this method is a good way to categorize your finds and determine the amount of effort that needs to be put to them.  Keep in mind, however, that your filter may not be the same as others and take that into consideration when working in groups.

If you are approached by a finger-pointer, guide the discussion one of the directions above so that you are talking solutions rather than taking the blame or retaliating.  Remember, it is easy to find problems, but it is difficult to find solutions.  The people that find solutions are the valuable people in an organization.

The Value of Steady Eddie

steady eddie

We don’t really talk about playing to other’s strengths.  But as leaders, that is what we must do.  It is that ability to think like someone else and to understand his strengths and weaknesses that makes a good leader.  But knowing how far to stretch people and when to bolster their abilities is a delicate dance.  When we focus too much on putting people ‘out of their comfort zones’ or creating ‘developmental plans’ is when we basically create a negative environment, no matter how positively we try to spin it (“I’m here to help you get better”).

Cue the “Steady Eddie”: the guy that comes to work every day to do the same job and goes home happy about it, that supervisor that has been a supervisor for 20 years and doesn’t really want that management job, that person that does a good job day in and day out.  This person usually has no desire to move out of his current role, nor does he care too much about changing things up.  There is usually a small sense company loyalty closely knit to a sense of entitlement.

My thought is that every leader can use a good Steady Eddie.  Steady Eddie is a guy from whom you can learn the technical aspects of the job.  Steady Eddie usually has the respect of his team simply because of his knowledge of the job.  Steady Eddie knows crap when he smells it and can give you a perspective of the culture (although it can be a tainted one, so be prepared to take it with a grain of salt).  Steady Eddie is also the guy that can train future leaders on the how-to’s.

However, don’t expect stellar performance from Steady Eddie.  Usually he is happy to go home as soon as the day is done and he doesn’t want to step out of his comfort zone very often.  That’s manageable, however, since you aren’t expecting him to grow leaps and bounds.  Steady Eddie can be the constant in the department, but that also can mean a resistance to change.  This is usually accompanied with statements like “well we used to do it like this and I don’t know why we ever stopped” or “we’ve tried that and it didn’t work”.

In today’s society we often discount Steady Eddie and say that if he can’t change then we don’t need him.  He is so knowledgeable we expect him to take on more work and be a natural leader.  But understand that you can test the waters and see if Eddie is willing to do these things.  If not, it doesn’t mean that he can’t be a part of the team, but that his growth is limited and that change will come more slowly for him.  This is when you play to Steady Eddie’s strengths, that is when you will see Eddie stand up to the plate and hit a homer while most days he is a base hit.  Give Eddie something in his wheelhouse and watch him work.  You will get a good job done quickly.  Put him too far out of the comfort zone and Eddie will suffer, and so will your team.

Fraudulent Leadership


Have you ever been in over your head?  There are times when we are put into situations that we are not prepared to handle.  It is how we respond to these challenges that either affirms our leadership skills or exposes us for the phonies we truly are.  Which are you?


  1. Hide their faults.
  2. Compensate for inadequacies through intimidation.
  3. Stop trying.
  4. Forget how to learn.
  5. Treat others as underlings.
  6. Pretend to know everything about everything.
  7. Think they are the most important person in the room.


  1. Talk about their fears with trusted friends.
  2. Seek advice from mentors, coaches, and peers.
  3. Surround themselves with people who know more than they do.
  4. Set goals, personal and professional, to close gaps.
  5. Build bridges and tear down walls to expose weaknesses within themselves.
  6. Find something to learn every day.
  7. Focus on people, not power.

It’s okay to be in over your head.  If you are never in the deep end you won’t learn how to swim.  A little panic can be a great motivator.  Use it, don’t be paralyzed by it.  People will respect you more when you can admit you need help.  It is better for you and the team to acknowledge your shortfalls and try to work on them.

Getting into Character


Happy Halloween! In the spirit of the holiday I want to talk about how those days as a kid, pretending to be a princess, superhero, or zombie, can help us as leaders today.

Pretending to be something you are not can actually help you to relate to people that are different from you.  This can be done with role-playing or simply imagining people’s reactions to statements, strategies, initiatives, etc.

So for the non-actors in the room, how can you get inside the head of someone to understand their perspective?

  1. Give them a backstory.  If you can piece together the past of someone, then you can better understand how they turned out the way they are.  People are conditioned by their experiences.  You are no exception.  Even if you don’t know the history of someone, create one in your mind that helps to explain their personality.  It is easier to relate at that point.  Just be careful not to mix up your imaginary story with the real one…that would be awkward.
  2. Understand their motivations.  People have agendas and rarely are they the same. For some it is as simple as earning a paycheck to take care of their family.  For others it is about the shortest climb to the top of the mountain.  If you know what drives people, you can relate to their reasons for acting the way they do.  Knowing this can help you motivate your team.
  3. Put things in context.  Don’t isolate the reactions you get or the behaviors you see to a single moment.  There was a series of events that led to it and created that response you saw for that one instance.  Try to understand where it came from and you will better understand the person.
  4. Get a common language.  There are a couple of tools that tell you different things about a person.  There are Myers-Briggs, FIRO-B, and DiSC that help to describe different personality types, behaviors, and decision-making processes.  These “tests” can help you get your team on the same page and help you understand how people think.  It also gives you a way to help identify where people are coming from and why they act the way they do.  Check out the links for more information.

I always try to remember that people typically want to do a good job and be proud of their work.  That is not an absolute, but a great place to start.  As a leader you should try to understand the individual as well as the dynamic of the team.  Take the time to get to know your people and then practice putting yourself in their shoes.  You may just learn something about yourself along the way.

How to Make Anger Your Ally

angerWe all get angry…even great leaders…especially great leaders.

Anger is a symptom of passion.  However, just like a fever is a symptom of the flu, the symptom must be put into check or else it can be just as damaging.  So how do we turn anger into a powerful motivator, not just for us, but for our teams as well?

  1. Understand that being angry is not bad.  Don’t be ashamed of it.  If you are angry that something is not going right it just means that you care about the outcome.  If you don’t get angry anymore then you need to change your profession because you have stopped caring.
  2. Don’t make it personal.  You can be angry for a lot of reasons, but don’t make it a personal attack.  This is true at work and at home.  Say, “I am angry because you said you would have the project finished by January and now we are going to slip customer deadlines,” not “I am angry because you are a procrastinator.”  You have just attacked the character of someone, and that lowers morale.
  3. Explain your anger.  If anger just shows up out of nowhere, it can be scary.  Make sure that people understand why you are angry and how it can be fixed and, in the future, avoided.  At least people will get where you are coming from and hopefully they can relate.
  4. Be consistent with anger.  Don’t let something slide and say it is okay when it really grinds your gears.  Tell them about it.  You don’t have to be boiling mad before you show your dislike for a behavior or bad habit.  It may even keep you from popping your top.
  5. Don’t apologize for being angry.  You can apologize for your actions because of your anger, but not for being angry.  “I’m sorry I raised my voice” is completely acceptable, but “I’m sorry I was upset with you for losing that account” is not.  You should be upset and you have every right to be, but you could have acted differently about it.  Understand the difference between emotion and action. 
  6. Build emotional bank accounts all of the time.  I know this analogy is out there and overplayed, but it is a good one.  Making emotional deposits all of time will allow you to slip every now and then and not lose credibility with people.  You stay friends with people even after they get mad at you because they are good people and you just had a spat.  It is the same at the office.

These six pointers are just a start.  Understand that bottling your anger is a poor decision.  Controlling your responses to your anger is where the money is.  Making anger your comrade-in-arms is a process that will take much time, effort and self-patience.  Good luck!

Let me know what you think about anger and how it has affected your professional life.

Constructing a Team from Scratch


We talk a lot about leading teams, but what about building them?  There may be several situations where you need to build a team from nothing; a new department, a new project, restructuring.  Below are some pointers on how to build successful teams when you don’t have a platform from where to launch. 

  1. Don’t think about who, think about why.  Structure your team based on the talents and skills you need.  Many people fall into the trap of thinking about the people that are close to them or may be in a similar role already.  You need to think about the talents that will make your team successful before you start fitting people into the role.
  2. Imagine even workloads and staff for it.  It is difficult when you put together a team and create roles and then one person is doing all of the work.  If you need three people in similar roles because of workload then staff appropriately.
  3. Don’t forget the soft skills.  We get hung up on the technical stuff. However, things like “being a team player”, “easy to talk to”, and “a caring person” are just as (if not more) important.  These traits will define the character of your team.
  4. Don’t take on too much yourself.  It is typical to see a leader that will take on so much of the work that they don’t have the time to lead.  Don’t forget what your job is and make sure you give yourself the time and resources to do it.
  5. Don’t think in terms of dollars but in terms of production.  Let the dollars come in to play only after you have created a team that can get the output you need.  Budget is important, but so is not selling yourself short before you even get started.
  6. Place in people you can trust.  Trust is a two way street.  People need to trust you as a leader, but you need to trust people so that you can let them do what they are good at.  Remember, technical skills can usually be taught so plan on doing that at first with really good people to work with.

The above is not intended to be an all-inclusive list, but more of a rough map and thinking points.  I would be interested in your thoughts, so leave a reply if you get the chance.