#SWAAYthenarrative

How I Went From Managing Complexity to Becoming a U.S. Ambassador and CEO

Career

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.

How to Learn Much More From the Books You Read

It is one thing to read and another thing to understand what you are reading. Not only do you want to understand, but also remember what you've read. Otherwise, we can safely say that if we're not gaining anything from what we read, then it's a big waste of time.

Whatever you read, there are ways to do so in a more effective manner to help you understand better. Whether you are reading by choice, for an upcoming test, or work-related material, here are a few ways to help you improve your reading skills and retain that information.

Read with a Purpose

Never has there been a shortage of great books. So, someone recommended a great cookbook for you. You start going through it, but your mind is wandering. This doesn't mean the cookbook was an awful recommendation, but it does mean it doesn't suit nor fulfill your current needs or curiosity.

Maybe your purpose is more about launching a business. Maybe you're a busy mom and can't keep office hours, but there's something you can do from home to help bring in more money, so you want information about that. At that point, you won't benefit from a cookbook, but you could gain a lot of insight and find details here on how-to books about working from home. During this unprecedented year, millions have had to make the transition to work from home, and millions more are deciding to do that. Either way, it's not a transition that comes automatically or easily, but reading about it will inform you about what working from home entails.

Pre-Read

When you pre-read it primes your brain when it's time to go over the full text. We pre-read by going over the subheadings, for instance, the table of contents, and skimming through some pages. This is especially useful when you have formal types of academic books. Pre-reading is a sort of warm-up exercise for your brain. It prepares your brain for the rest of the information that will come about and allows your brain to be better able to pick the most essential pieces of information you need from your chosen text.

Highlight

Highlighting essential sentences or paragraphs is extremely helpful for retaining information. The problem, however, with highlighting is that we wind up highlighting way too much. This happens because we tend to highlight before we begin to understand. Before your pages become a neon of colored highlights, make sure that you only highlight what is essential to improve your understanding and not highlight the whole page.

Speed Read

You might think there have been no new ways to read, but even the ancient skill of reading comes up with innovative ways; enter speed reading. The standard slow process shouldn't affect your understanding, but it does kill your enthusiasm. The average adult goes through around 200 to 250 words per minute. A college student can read around 450 words, while a professor averages about 650 words per minute, to mention a few examples. The average speed reader can manage 1,500 words; quite a difference! Of course, the argument arises between quality and quantity. For avid readers, they want both quantity and quality, which leads us to the next point.

Quality Reading

Life is too short to expect to gain knowledge from just one type of genre. Some basic outcomes of reading are to expand your mind, perceive situations and events differently, expose yourself to other viewpoints, and more. If you only stick to one author and one type of material, you are missing out on a great opportunity to learn new things.

Having said that, if there's a book you are simply not enjoying, remember that life is also too short to continue reading it. Simply, close it, put it away and maybe give it another go later on, or give it away. There is no shame or guilt in not liking a book; even if it's from a favorite author. It's pretty much clear that you won't gain anything from a book that you don't even enjoy, let alone expect to learn something from it.

Summarize

If you're able to summarize what you have read, then you have understood. When you summarize, you are bringing up all the major points that enhance your understanding. You can easily do so chapter by chapter.

Take a good look at your life and what's going on in it. Accordingly, you'll choose the material that is much more suitable for your situation and circumstances. When you read a piece of information that you find beneficial, look for a way to apply it to your life. Knowledge for the sake of knowledge isn't all that beneficial. But the application of knowledge from a helpful book is what will help you and make your life more interesting and more meaningful.