Keep a Steady Hand!

Forget the management fad du jour! Much of which is “new”, or “just being discovered”, is basically a reframing of best practices that have been around a long time. Leadership, at its essence, is very, very simple. Engage people to collectively work toward a common goal. That’s it.

However, we humans are easily distracted by bright shiny objects – the latest article or blog or conversation about “I tried this and it really worked!” And since we’re not getting the results we want, that we know our organization is capable of, we try the latest and greatest.

Unfortunately, flitting from one management fad to the next is not only ineffective, it is actually detrimental to the organization. That’s because people become numb and jaded. They know that the previous fads have not produced the stellar results that were touted at the kickoff. “Been there, done that, and there was no t-shirt. It was another mirage.” And they know that if they successfully ignore this one, another one will take its place in the near future. So they basically retire in place, doing a decent job, and giving up on any effort to make a real, long-lasting improvement.

The only truly effective way to have an organization improve is to do the fundamentals:

1. Create, WITH your employees, a clear, compelling vision of the future, and how your organization can make that future happen. The best way to do this is to ask employees how your products and services can make a better world for their loved ones (children, grandchildren, etc.). This type of vision will indeed engage employees and ignite their creativity and passion.

2. Keep that vision foremost in all decisions at all levels. The vision will help align decisions at all levels, and will minimize inter-departmental differences.

3. Then, keep on encouraging and assisting employees as they strive to attain that vision. Understand that the real purpose of management is to provide resources so the employees can do their jobs the best possible way. “Command and control” approaches remove the ownership and passion from the employees; empowering employees to be great creates the foundation for breakthrough results.

What’s your reaction? Have you tried this? How has it worked?

Gary Langenwalter

New Beginning – Phase 3 of Transitions

Finally (after FAR TOO LONG in the neutral zone!), a new beginning emerges. It can be a “Eureka!” moment, or so slow that you don’t even detect it until it’s underway and you look back and see the pattern. Or it can be somewhere between those two extremes. This process is equally true for groups as well as individuals.

A new beginning is the third and final phase of a transition, which is the emotional adjustment to an external change. The first phase is letting go of the old; the second phase is the “neutral zone” (these are explained in greater detail in prior blogs). One very important point to remember: these 3 phases are NOT through sequential, one pass through and you’re done. They overlap and can iterate. A person can have twinges of letting go even after they have discovered their new beginning, or they can doubt that the new beginning is right for them (neutral zone).

If you have done the difficult work of the neutral zone, a new beginning is just that. It is a new way of being, a new way of doing, a new identity. When I was promoted from programmer/analyst to manager of programmer/analysts, it took me a while to get used to being a manager – to the expectations, the rhythm of the new position. Turns out I really enjoyed managing more than programming. I tried programming again a few years later just to see if I still could. I could, but I no longer enjoyed it.

One hallmark of a new beginning is the way it “just feels right.” Typical comments include, “This was just meant to be,” and “It is so obvious! Why didn’t we see this before?” A new beginning creates new energy and excitement. A new beginning opens up new possibilities, new ways of accomplishing things. It can reflect new values, a new understanding about how the world works. A profound new beginning is a life-changing experience – a person or group does not want to return to the old way ever again!

Sometimes one new beginning is the stepping stone to others, a first step on a pathway of continued growth and contribution, of being more authentic to who you are being called to be.

However, if you have not done the necessary work in the neutral zone, if you have not had the courage and patience to endure the uncertainty and lack of productivity that characterizes the neutral zone, the new beginning might be a dead end, or the old situation with a new face. The neutral zone is the price to be paid for a good new beginning.

What has been your experience with new beginnings?

Gary Langenwalter

Neutral Zone – Phase 2 of Transitions

Confused! Rudderless! No sense of purpose! Can’t do (or remember) anything! That’s how the Neutral Zone feels. The neutral zone occurs after an ending, a letting go. Neutral zones run on their own time – one cannot predict when (or how) they will be replaced by a new beginning. However, neutral zones are absolutely required to have a successful transition – successfully leaving an old way of being behind and embracing a new one.

The neutral zone can be understood in 3 different ways. It can be a time of:

1. Emotional reorganization – one’s psyche is busy re-examining all past experiences, knowledge, feelings, etc., and trying to come up with a different way to organize them, because the old way of organizing, of “being”, is now gone. So most of one’s energy, or bandwidth in computer terms, is going to this reorganization. That means there is not as much available to focus on anything else.

2. Inner healing – healing from whatever loss was incurred in the letting go. The deeper the loss, the deeper the healing required.

3. Re-tooling – trying new things, developing new capabilities, getting ready for whatever new beginning will eventually occur.

All ancient cultures have stories of a hero(ine) leaving a place of certainty and going on a journey into the unknown – wandering through a wilderness, discovering friends and foes, learning who he/she is through those experiences. They eventually emerge as a more powerful being. Christian tradition contains two obvious examples of this: 1) Jesus spent 40 days in the wilderness as he started his ministry, and 2) after Jesus’ crucifixion on Good Friday (ending), on Holy Saturday the disciples were utterly lost, not knowing what to do or where they would go (neutral zone). Jewish tradition has three: 1) Abraham leaving Ur and journeying to a new place (he didn’t know where), 2) Joseph being sold into Egypt and undergoing tribulation there, and 3) the Israelites wandering in the wilderness for 40 years after they leave Egypt.

One excellent analogy for the neutral zone is a lobster or crab – after they have outgrown their old shell and shed it, they hide under a rock for a few days until their new shell hardens. During that waiting period, they are much more vulnerable. That’s equally true of a person in the neutral zone – they are much more vulnerable. Here are 5 ideas for coping with being in the neutral zone:

1. Recognize that it is natural, and normal. I first learned about neutral zones when I was in the middle of one. I was so relieved to understand that this is a normal process for human growth.

2. Let go of as much expectation as possible – allow yourself time to wander, to wonder, to do nothing. Allow yourself to make mistakes, to be distracted. Pretend you’re taking a medication that warns “may cause drowsiness – do not operate heavy machinery”. Refrain, where possible, from making irrevocable large decisions.

3. Be gentle with yourself, and deliberately choose to be around people and in environments that will support you during this time. Likewise, intentionally avoid people and environments that require more than you can currently give.

4. Have the courage to remain in the neutral zone until the new beginning does occur (and yes, it does take courage). Think of other times in your life when you’ve been in a neutral zone, and remember that a new beginning occurred each time. Therefore, a new beginning will occur for this one as well. The neutral zone can be viewed as a faith journey. Trying to force the neutral zone to end before its time is naturally up can be very harmful.

a. One can try to go back to the “old way” – forsaking the growth and blessings that the new (as yet undiscovered) way will provide.

b. One can forcefully create a new beginning, but it won’t be the one that “should” occur, and it probably won’t work very well.

5. Journal, so you can learn from your journey and share your journey with others.

The motto for a neutral zone: “This, too, will pass. That which doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.”

What additional ideas would you like to share with me? What has worked best for you when you’ve been in a neutral zone? What have you tried that didn’t work so well?

Next week’s blog: New Beginnings

Gary Langenwalter

Letting Go – the 1st phase of transition

Last week I outlined the 3 phases of transition: 1) Letting Go, 2) the Neutral Zone, and 3) New Beginnings. These phases are overlapping and sometimes iterative, depending on the depth of attachment to the situation/identity which is being left behind.

Letting go has 2 major aspects: loss and uncertainty:

1. Loss. A loss of what was, and what could have been. A closing of a door, precluding any opportunity to rectify mistakes, to offer a brilliant insight, to… Where there has been serious attachment, the person or group can go through the 5 stages of grief identified by Elisabeth Kubler-Ross: 1 denial, 2) anger, 3) bargaining, 4) depression, and 5) acceptance. Example – the workers at the Carrier plant in Indiana who have been told that their jobs are being off-shored.

Even when the change is “good”, such as a promotion, a person or group still needs to let go of the old. This can sometimes be more difficult, because the person or group might not understand why they are having mixed feelings about the new opportunity.

Unfortunately, our culture tends to view people and groups as resources to be deployed, ignoring the psychological processes necessary to adapt to change. Compounding the difficulty, each individual, each group, grieves and lets go differently.

2. Uncertainty. As a person or group lets go of the old, they face uncertainty about what to do in their new capacity. Questions and doubts abound and multiply. How will they learn to function in this new role? Will they succeed? There can be an underlying fear of failure. One example is people adapting to a new information system – they have to use the new system, which they are not yet expert at. Facing uncertainty requires courage; it is far easier to cling to the old way.

If a person or group does not let go emotionally, they remain stuck in the past and compromise their ability to function effectively.

Some ways to let go include:

· Honoring each other

· Celebrating accomplishments and relationships

o Most humorous experiences (“Remember when that experiment caught on fire?”)

· Identifying and recording “lessons learned”

· Creating the space for members to commit to future mutual support and/or communication

· Allowing time to grieve, and allowing each person to grieve in their own way

· Talking things out with a trusted co-worker, friend, or professional (e.g. life coach, LCSW, pastor…)

What have you learned about letting go, either by personal experience or by watching others? What has helped you let go? What has hindered the process?

Next week I’ll cover the Neutral Zone.

Gary Langenwalter

3 Phases of Change – Transitions

There are many models of change, including Kotter’s 8 steps and ADKAR. But the one I like best comes from Bill Bridges, Ph.D. Bridges differentiates between the external change (for example, a promotion, or replacing an old low-tech product line with a new high-tech one, or getting married) and what he calls a “transition” – the internal alignment to that external change. That alignment process, which works for groups and individuals, has three overlapping, and sometimes repeated, phases:

1. Ending

2. Neutral Zone

3. New Beginning.

Let’s explore each of these in more detail.

1. Ending. An ending is the letting go of the old. Reactions to endings can range from “We thought it would never end!” to “We’ll never let go!” and all points in between. No matter the reaction, the ending has to occur before much else can happen. If it doesn’t, people remain stuck in the past. I’ll cover Endings in more depth next week.

2. Neutral Zone. The Neutral Zone is uncertainty on steroids. A person or group in a neutral zone can’t seem to focus on much of anything. They have trouble doing routine tasks and have no energy. This is because their old organizing principle has ended but the new one has not yet formed. Being in the neutral zone requires courage and compassion, because people are typically uncomfortable with uncertainty. I’ll cover Neutral Zone in more depth in 2 weeks.

3. New Beginning. This is when the new foundation/organizing principles become clear. This can occur in a flash of inspiration, or so slowly that the person or group doesn’t even know it’s happening until they look back a while later. Energy and focus and abilities return. I’ll cover New Beginnings in 3 weeks.

When a person or group is moving through a transition, a wise leader lowers expectations of productivity and creativity, and increases the allowance for mistakes. Otherwise, transitions can cause extreme stress to groups and individuals, with concomitant cost to the organizations.

I’d enjoy hearing about transitions that you’ve been through.

Gary Langenwalter

I’ve Got Your Back!

A person is most vulnerable at their back – they can’t see what’s happening. That’s where the expression “I’ve got your back” comes from. So when someone has your back, they’re protecting you where you are most vulnerable. 3 recent experiences have reinforced this fundamental truth:

1. My wife and I watched the movie “42” over the weekend – it’s about Jackie Robinson and what he endured as the first black player in major league baseball. Branch Rickey, the owner of the Brooklyn Dodgers, had instructed Jackie to NOT fight back – to endure the harassment. During one game, the manager of the opposing team was viciously taunting Jackie each time he came up to bat, causing him to fail twice. The third time, one of Jackie’s teammates walked over and got in the opposing manager’s face. Until then, Jackie had been all alone. This made all the difference – having a teammate protecting his back.

2. The memorial service today for Bob White, a highly respected civic leader in Yamhill County, emphasized how much he gave to his community, and how much the community gave back. By definition, a leader needs to support his/her team, and to have their support. Bob lived that principle.

3. I was reading scripture at a worship service last Sunday. I printed out the passages for easier reading. Unfortunately, I had misplaced the last page, and fumbled and halted, extremely embarrassed. The congregation could see the passage projected onto screens which faced them; I could not. After I faltered, the congregation read the final verses aloud. They applauded when the reading was finished! After I recovered from being extremely embarrassed, I truly appreciated what the congregation did – they had my back. That’s a team at its finest – they applaud and hold each other up during a person’s difficult times.

What similar experiences have you had in your teams? What did that feel like when your team came to your rescue? What did it feel like when your team rescued a team-mate?

Do the teams and groups in your current work environment have your (and each other’s) back? Let’s have coffee and chat.

Gary Langenwalter

Well-Behaved Women

One of my favorite bumper stickers reads, “Well Behaved Women Seldom Make History.” That’s equally true for well-behaved men. Our civilization has progressed only because some people are willing to step outside of socially acceptable behavior and/or generally accepted wisdom.

What gives a person the courage and the stamina to face down social norms, to be willing to pay the price of creating a new and better world? Because there will assuredly be a price – somebody is benefiting from the way things are right now, and they will do whatever they can to retain those benefits.

In his book Let Your Life Speak, Parker Palmer says that he started his life, like most of us, following the goals and values that other people had set for him. And he reaped wisdom from that process – the wisdom that those goals and values, no matter how noble, were not him. They were not his life. He finally had the courage to let go of the expectations that others had put on him, and to follow his inner leading – that still, small voice that is so easy to ignore in our noisy, frenetic lives. He learned to listen to his inner compass, to let his life speak. Then he started being himself – his unique gift of contribution that the world needed.

When a person lets their life speak, they are no longer primarily focused on being well-behaved. They are willing, and able, to be a voice for the truths that they know, and to invite others to also be true to their own individual callings.

What is the most important task of a leader? Perhaps, instead of worrying about making quotas and measurable goals, the most important task might be to help each person who is entrusted to that leader to have the courage to listen to their inner voice, to let their life speak.

Have you tried to listen to and follow your inner voice? What happened? I’d really appreciate hearing from you.

Gary Langenwalter

Handling Setbacks

Setbacks are the direct result of trying to make a difference. The bumper sticker “Well-behaved women seldom make history” is equally true for well-behaved men. The bigger your goals, the bigger the game that you’re playing, the bigger the setbacks you’ll experience.

So what do you do when your idea gets shot down?

How do you get the inner strength to pick up the pieces and keep on keeping on?

Simplistic answer: by taking the long view, and realizing that you’re not going to win every contest of wills.

Deeper answer: by re-grounding yourself in your “why”. Why, at the deepest level, are you trying to reach your goal? Your answer to that question is your call – the fundamental reason you get up in the morning and keep on trying. Frederick Buechner said, “Your call is where your deepest gladness meets the world’s greatest need.” And since the world has so many great needs, I suggest that your call comes from your deepest gladness. What is it that you can’t stop doing? What do you keep on doing, no matter what? Have you ever asked yourself why you do it? That’s your call, your “why”.

I create puns (a few of which are actually pretty decent!) and interject humor frequently. Why? Because I want the world to be a joyful place, where people laugh and get creative. My call is for everybody to have a rich, full, rewarding life, and to treat each other with respect.

So, what’s your call? And how are you living that out day to day? (Because that’s the only place you’ll get to make it real – in your day-to-day life.) I’d truly enjoy hearing from you. Please e-mail me your call, and how you live it, at gary. I promise to respect your privacy, and if you’d like to engage in a dialogue, I’ll be glad to respond.

May your holiday season be joyous.

Gary Langenwalter

Gary Langenwalter

Portland Consulting Group

Coaching . Wisdom . Results



Embracing Opposites

I’m an ENFP. One of the senior leaders at a client is an ISTJ. That makes working together very “interesting” – the way in which I naturally interact, the way in which I typically make decisions seems to be the “right way” but Katie thinks and decides and works in a very different manner. Thus, working with each other takes a lot more conscious effort than working with a person with a style similar to my own.

It would be so easy to make her “wrong” for the way in which she operates. But that would not be fair to her, or to the organization.

Instead, we choose to understand that we are both completely committed to the organization’s mission, and to appreciate the gifts and talents that we each bring. And, based on that, we recognize that the two of us together make a powerful team. When we’re working well together, we have each other’s back. Me – I’m a visionary and possibility person. Katie’s a “do it now”, results-oriented person. I need her viewpoint and her task orientation so that the teams will move forward. She needs my vision and questions and possibilities to keep heading in the right direction. So I truly value her, BECAUSE she is so different.

Yes – it’s a lot of work. But it is definitely worth it – my life is richer because of working with her, and the organization is much better served by our collaboration.

By contrast, the 4 principals of a fledgling consulting organization had the same personality profile. In fact, that’s what attracted them to work together – they were very comfortable with each other. For months, they dreamed and talked and created and dreamed and talked and created, basking in the freedom to do what was truly important without a taskmaster forcing them to meet deadlines. But after a year, they realized that they not only had no clients, they had no prospects! Since there was not a results-oriented person in that team, they eventually dissolved.

What has been your experience in working with a person with a completely opposite type? Is a mix of divergent personality types required for an organization to be vibrant to succeed?

Gary Langenwalter

Ask Dumb Questions

Why ask dumb questions? For the same reason that Dillinger robbed banks – “That’s where the money (results) is!”

We’re accustomed to “telling” our employees what to do. But does that give us the results we want? What would happen if you started thinking of dumb questions that you could ask your employees?

A customer-facing team was not acting like a team – various team members were complaining to the manager that other team members were not doing their job, etc. So the manager led the team in defining their values, which were the typical values: trust, communication, etc. The next week was more same-old, same-old. While the team believed in, and wanted, the values, they didn’t see how their current way of operating prevented them from achieving their desired state.

So we decided to have the team focus on strengths. Each team member wrote the name of every other team member on individual note cards, then wrote a strength for that person. Example, Maria would write “Pat is joyful”, or “Kim is the go-to person for technical issues”. Then the manager collected the cards and gave them to the named person. The manager asked people how they felt about the praise.

The following week, the manager asked the “dumb question” – “Does anyone on the team have all the strengths of each person?” (Obviously not) Then the manager asked the follow-up question, “Since nobody here has all these strengths, is it realistic to try to expect each person excel in all areas?” (No) “So what do should we do about it?”

Have you tried something like this before? What do you think happened next? (And yes, that qualifies as a “dumb question”) J

Gary Langenwalter