Career 24 January 2020
For the last 30+ years, I have focused on bringing together political parties, corporate competitors and disparate nations to foster quality leadership, diplomacy and results that better society, creating sustainable partnerships and profitable business models. Has it been easy? By no means. Rewarding? Immensely.
Here's what I learned along the way, how I did it, and how you can, too.
When I left Washington to enter the corporate world, I was asked to investigate and determine ways that companies were struggling to be successful in areas where major investments were being made. This meant meeting with and challenging key executives, staff and stakeholders, benchmarking against best in class competitors and making recommendations that change processes, cultural norms and internal ownership. The end goal was always to move the organization or activity to a higher level of performance. In other words, my job was to figure out what were the "boulders in the road" and move them. The boulders in many cases were people or projects they designed and held dear. Not surprisingly, my inquiries caused adverse reactions. Over time, as boulders turned into rocks, and rocks turned into pebbles, consensus came to bear, and goals were met that enabled the organizations, department owners within them, and society to thrive. My work – which had been unwelcomed by some – was accepted, and even appreciated, by those who had once been critical.
As a 26-year-old who was doing this for the first time and facing strong head winds expressed in highly personal ways, I sought advice from my father, an executive operating in a highly politicized arena. His letter is worn, but I keep it on my desk.
"I wish I could be there with you when you have to face these challenges...just remember to look beyond what is currently in your life and try to visualize what is unseen. Count your blessings and it will also help you challenge the crisis you are experiencing...Some of the greatest stumbling blocks I have ever faced have also resulted in being my greatest stepping-stones." His wise words encouraged me to turn managing complexity into an artform. As a U.S. Ambassador and the ﬁrst female Commissioner General to the World Expo, I was able to create an atmosphere of confidence amongst project investors which resulted in the first financial surplus in the history of US participation in a World's Fair. As CEO of FARE, I guided a major restructure to support food allergy research and received commitments of $75M within 12 months.
Here is what I learned along the way, including guidelines I follow each time I find myself facing a new or complex situation:
- Recognize that when there are different levels of real-time execution and a sense of urgency, the risk complexity is multiplied. Know what you want the organization or alliance to look like, speak with facts and build a roadmap to get there.
- Break down each problem, recognize the constants and the variables. Identify what is the same in each situation and what is unique.
- Itemize the constants. What characteristics are seen across the entire organization which are impediments to change? Fix those first.
- Identify the unique issues that are compounding the problem, e.g. finances, people, legal, channel relationships, history, culture and politics.
- Don't pretend to know what you don't know. It hurts your credibility. Keep asking: Why? How does x relate to y? Who makes that decision? Remember, as a change agent, you are not expected to be the subject matter expert, so feel confident and admit you don't know how "the thing" works. Your goal is to understand the pathway for how we ended up where we are today—a place none of us want to be.
- Move boulders out of the way for your team, so that really smart people who are committed to the new way of doing things can run as fast as they can without being tripped. Your job is to manage the complexity by keeping your eye on standards, governance, revenue, external perceptions, fiduciary responsibilities and long-term consequences. Adjust accordingly to avoid greater problems while continuing to move towards the long-term goal.
- Align incentives to change by identifying motivations to better maximize resources. View the situation from the perspective of the other person and determine what is most important to them. Unless the organization or situation is completely broken, you can find ways that everyone can feel a sense of ownership in the new way of operating. Although there is a sense of urgency, you can move more quickly by bringing your critics along if you frame your recommendations in a manner that positions change in their vernacular and aligns with their worldview.
The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines complexity as "the quality or state of not being simple; a part of something that is complicated or hard to understand." However, always remember problems can be solved and issues can be resolved as long as you stay committed to the facilitation of success. Inspire the loyalty of those around you. Celebrate the early wins. Systematically, keep key stakeholders apprised of successes and challenges on a regular basis.
Most importantly, focus on helping others succeed. Let your employees know – and demonstrate – that they are a part of a team that matters. To achieve real, meaningful social impact, leaders and their teams must be sure their actions are also real and meaningful.
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Help! My Friend Is a No Show
Dear Armchair Psychologist,
I have a friend who doesn't reply to my messages about meeting for dinner, etc. Although, last week I ran into her at a local restaurant of mine, it has always been awkward to be friends with her. Should I continue our friendship or discontinue it? We've been friends for a total four years and nothing has changed. I don't feel as comfortable with her as my other close friends, and I don't think I'll ever be able to reach that comfort zone in pure friendship.
Dear Sadsies,I am sorry to hear you've been neglected by your friend. You may already have the answer to your question, since you're evaluating the non-existing bond between yourself and your friend. However, I'll gladly affirm to you that a friendship that isn't reciprocated is not a good friendship.
I have had a similar situation with a friend whom I'd grown up with but who was also consistently a very negative person, a true Debby Downer. One day, I just had enough of her criticism and vitriol. I stopped making excuses for her and dumped her. It was a great decision and I haven't looked back. With that in mind, it could be possible that something has changed in your friend's life, but it's insignificant if she isn't responding to you. It's time to dump her and spend your energy where it's appreciated. Don't dwell on this friend. History is not enough to create a lasting bond, it only means just that—you and your friend have history—so let her be history!
- The Armchair Psychologist