Do you have a Worry list?

Hint: you should!  😊

We all have a lot on our minds – juggling different responsibilities, complex project dependencies, competing priorities. The risk of keeping so many things in our heads is that we will miss a bunch. We had a great idea, go to bed, and poof, it’s gone.

The solution to this is to get those ideas, questions, challenges out of your head and into what a former manager of mine called his “Worry list”. If you learned formal project management, you would call it an Issue tracker, but I like “Worry list” better.

The idea of a Worry list is to 1) get things out of your head to free up mental space, 2) collect all issues and questions in one place, so you don’t miss any, 3) have a way to systematically “burn down” the number of issues until you are ready to launch, and 4) see a glide path that lets you predict if you are on-track or off-track.

Add to your Worry list – This process is ongoing until the end of the project (and usually into the sustain phase afterward). If you discover a new issue, challenge, or question for a project, you add it to the list. No curation, no prioritization, no nothing – just capture the thought before it eludes you. Have one place and one tool where you do it and just drop things in right when they come to your mind. I like Microsoft To Dos, others use OneNote or paper, and if you want to go fancy, you can build an Excel issue tracker. The most important piece is that you keep your tool simple enough so that you will use it consistently. If you add too many bells and whistles, the maintenance effort will be too high, and you won’t follow through.

Burndown – This is the fun part. Instead of wondering what you need to take care of next, you look at your list and pick the most important or most urgent question or action. You solve it. You move on to the next. You can prioritize your list ahead of time or pick what is appropriate for the moment. This is “burning down” the list of issues (or bugs if you are in SW development).

Glide path – Looking at the glide path lets you determine if you are on-track or off-track. If a plane is within the prescribed glide path during landing, it will smoothly touch the runway. If it’s off the glide path, bad things could happen, and the pilot needs to take immediate action. The same is true for your worry list: if you solve 5 issues per day, have one week to go until launch, and 40 remaining items on your worry list, you know that you need to take action and change course. A glide path can be mathematical science (linear or polynomial regression) or just a rough temperature check (oops, still ten issues left for the week) – it’s up to your preference. In either case, it’s critical to know if you will be ready in time or not.

Punting – The hidden secret for shipping any product or project is to determine what not to tackle when you are running out of time. Some things must be done before launch, but others can wait until after. Solving issues is not the only way to burn down your Worry list – you can also decide to punt some issues for later. SW companies do that all the time and for good reasons – see this famous (and misleading) article on Windows 2000 https://www.zdnet.com/article/bugfest-win2000-has-63000-defects/. When launch day comes close and you run out of daylight, decide what really needs to get done and what is nice to have and can wait for another day.

Get your worry list started now! You will see that you will worry much less once you have it (you effectively delegate your worries out of your brain and into the list).


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Lessons from Amazon, a global pandemic, and other crazy times
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Get something on paper first – only then start talking

There are three types of meetings and interactions with people (I’m sure the official literature has more, but for me, it comes down to these three critical archetypes):

  1. Brainstorming – You have no idea what to do, and you need as many ideas as possible from everyone.
  2. Making decisions – You have a plan or are pretty close to a plan and just need to get over the final step of making a decision.
  3. Informing – This is presenting out. All options have been evaluated, and now it’s only about reporting out on those.

…and then there’s the fourth variety: the unstructured “let’s just talk it over” meeting where you go wild across all types, everyone talks, and no one listens, and with all likelihood, the group will spend most of the time in a deep rat hole on a minor topic, completely missing the bigger picture (while 90% of the attendees tune out).

Let’s not have that last type of interaction; it’s not fun.

We all know how to run “Informing” meetings: you collect all the facts you can remember, organize them into a logical story flow, and build a nice PPT to walk folks through the evolution of thoughts that got you where you are. Bonus points if you make it look good (design matters) and throw a fun joke or two in there to lighten up the mood.

Most of us also know how to do “Brainstorming” meetings: you need a lot of Post-Its, a big white wall, a framing question, and off you go. Make sure to collect inputs and avoid getting locked in any one of the ideas – you want to go quick to gather a wide perspective instead of dwelling in deep details. Also, make sure that you proactively include quieter participants. Easy peasy and always fun as no one needs to make any commitments at this stage.

But how about “Making decisions”, when we do need to get people to make commitments?

This is harder as most people would much rather talk about inconsequential ‘What-ifs’ than making a decision that will lead them to commit and being accountable for outcomes. In the “making decisions” phase, meetings have a high propensity to be derailed by semi-related questions that come out of the blue or by digging into very deep discussions on very small subjects until all available time is spent.

A good – if not the best – way to keep decision meetings focused, structured, and moving forward, is to bring written content to the meeting. The written word has gravity, and seeing a document keeps everyone on topic. Of course, you need to share this document in the meeting so that everyone sees it on the screen as you guide through discussions, and everyone can also see how decisions get added to the document as the discussion progresses. That visibility and documentation allow you to keep people moving forward and to dwarf any attempts of going back to things that were already decided. It takes time and energy to prepare a strong written document, but the effort will pay off many times in decision-making meetings.

If you want to convince, you need to start writing!

A word of caution: this approach and this type of meeting are focused on narrowing down an information funnel and coming to decisions. Employ them at the right time(s) of a project. It’s not an effective way to gather as many ideas, questions, and concerns as possible – for that, you need to have a brainstorming meeting, and you need to hold yourself back from the temptation of providing initial ideas.

A blank page creates ideas. A written (draft) plan focuses discussions.

Widen the funnel with brainstorming meetings, shrink it with decision-making meetings. Never mix up the two!! You cannot do both in the same meeting.


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Thriving in High-Pressure Environments
Lessons from Amazon, a global pandemic, and other crazy times
By Alfons and Ulrike Staerk
ISBN 9798718017663

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Leadership styles and developing agility in how you lead

Last week, we discussed how important it is to develop communication agility and to pick the right communication modality for the situation and intended outcome.

It’s equally, if not more important, to develop a similarly broad range of leadership techniques and styles. Specifically, your leadership style should look very different, depending on its direction in the hierarchy.

The sad story is that most people got it backward: they ask their management what to do and prescribe their reports what they want them to do. – This is WRONG!!

As a leader, you need to ask the people closest to a topic for options and solutions. You need to take their inputs to weigh decisions, not the other way around. Likewise, as a team member, you should not ask your manager what to do for a situation where you have more information than they do.

Of course, some decisions are better made top-down, specifically if they require a broad view and understanding that goes beyond the project owner (i.e., dependencies to related projects or higher-level organizational priorities. However, those are rather the exception than the rule.

As a general rule, if you communicate upwards, you should communicate initiative and solutions. If you communicate down the chain, you should communicate curiosity and desire to learn.

Managing your manager (communicating upwards)

You have the most complete, accurate, and detailed knowledge of your area. You will have more ideas on what to change and how to improve the status quo than anyone else. Bring that forward, don’t hold it back!

If you ask your manager what you should do, you will get direction all right, but it might not be based on the most robust foundation of facts. Instead, it is your job as owner and leader to provide direction and proposals!

You know your stuff – go lead and tell your management what needs to get done!

Engaging your team (communicating downwards)

If you are a manager and leader (people management or project) it is easy to think that you know all the answers. That’s what got you into the position in the first place, right? Wrong!!

You might have been the smartest IC (individual contributor) on the block, but that was before you got one or several levels removed from the actual work. You’re not the one who has the most facts anymore. Your decisions are at risk to be more gut-based than what your team would recommend – listen to them!!

Hold yourself back and trust your team. Encourage them to bring their ideas forward and listen to them intently. The less you speak, and the more you listen, the better off everyone will be.

If you apply the same style all the time – regardless of which one it is – you will fail to lead efficiently 50% of the time. You need to adapt your style, and critically, you need to do it the counterintuitive way:

Tell your boss. Ask your team.


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Thriving in High-Pressure Environments
Lessons from Amazon, a global pandemic, and other crazy times
By Alfons and Ulrike Staerk
ISBN 9798718017663

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If you like what you’re reading, please consider leaving a review on Amazon. If you don’t like it, please tell us what we can do better the next time. As self-published authors we don’t have the marketing power of big publishing houses. We rely on word of mouth endorsements through reader reviews.

Communication agility

Being an effective communicator is critical for being successful in today’s world. Gone are the days where we lived alone on our farms – everything is interconnected today and requires collaboration and with that, effective communication.

The key to such effective communication is to know how to communicate when. We talked about making the content of your communications relevant before – now let’s talk about the tools of communication.

It’s imperative to have a diverse portfolio of such tools at your hands and to know how and when to use them. Don’t be a one-trick pony! Instead, you need to pick and choose the best method of communication deliberately based on the circumstances and on what you want to achieve.

Not all communication mechanisms are equal. Each one of them works marvelously in certain situations, and fails miserably in others. For example chat and texting is effective in ‘interrupting’ someone for urgent information that needs to be acted upon right now. Do it to me for too many times in non-urgent situations and you will be muted for good. Similarly, email is great to asynchronous communications that require thought and time. However, don’t expect me to respond to an email within the hour.

Don’t be a one-trick pony. Have a rich toolbox and know which tool to use when.

You can ask yourself three questions to determine the best communication method for a given situation:

What does the topic require?

Is my request urgent or is there some time to get an answer? Do I need synchronous (right now) or asynchronous (when the other person has time) communication? Must I interrupt the other person, or can I let them answer at their leisure? Does the topic need explanation?

If your topic is not urgent, grant the other person the control over when they want to answer. Let them plan their time and set proper expectation by sending your request or information over email.

If on the other hand you need to solve an urgent matter and time is off the essence, use a more real-time and synchronous communication channel like chat, text, or a phone call. What channel that should be depends on your organization’s culture. However use them sparsely and only if needed. Synchronous real-time communication interrupts the other person, disrupts whatever they were focused on at the time. Use it sparsely or you will piss them off over time.

Lastly, if your topic requires more explanation, it is likely better to talk in person. Schedule a meeting to discuss the topic in detail. If it is urgent, send a chat first and ask for a good time to schedule a meeting in short time.

What best serves the relationship?

Know the communication preference of your partner. If they are more introverted they will prefer written communication, if they are more extroverted they will appreciate the opportunity to meet and talk. Try to accommodate that preference if you can – sometimes that might require you to give up your preference.

Quick information and updates can be well served over email, which also saves time for all involved parties.

Building relationship and a foundation for partnering can only be done in person.

Know your tools and use them wisely!

  • Email – Great for asynchronous information sharing that saves time for everyone.
  • Chat/phone call – Interruptive but ensures quick attention and turnaround. It disrupts the other persons so use it wisely!
  • Meeting/video conference – Great for more complex discussions and building relationship. Plan ahead and respect times that are already blocked for the other person.

Did you like this post? Want to read more? Check out our newest book!

Thriving in High-Pressure Environments
Lessons from Amazon, a global pandemic, and other crazy times
By Alfons and Ulrike Staerk
ISBN 9798718017663

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If you like what you’re reading, please consider leaving a review on Amazon. If you don’t like it, please tell us what we can do better the next time. As self-published authors we don’t have the marketing power of big publishing houses. We rely on word of mouth endorsements through reader reviews.

Developing mechanisms and turning them into culture

Have you ever been in a situation where you discovered a problem, found the root cause after some investigation, determined corrective actions, and fixed the issue – only to see the same or a similar problem creep up again a few weeks later?

What happened? You fixed the problem, but you didn’t make the learning and fix a part of your operations moving forward. It’s all too easy to get distracted by the next issue at hand and thus not turning the fix or change into sustained improvement.

Create a mechanism

The way to make a change sustained is to create a mechanism.

Mechanisms can be many things: an updated process description, a recurring reminder on your calendar, a check-in meeting cadence with set agenda topics, or a scheduled report that you review on a regular basis.

The important common quality of all of those is that they remind you to think about the previous problem, its fix, and future prevention on a regular basis. Each of those mechanisms ingrains the learning into your operational processes and memory. They make it stick.

For example, if you want to make sure that system changes that impact multiple teams are reliably communicated to everyone, you cannot just send out an email to all groups and tell them to please do so in the future. That email will stick in their memory for about a week – if you are lucky. Instead, if you have a recurring meeting with that stakeholder group, you should make it a standing agenda item for those meetings to check for any planned changes that need to be communicated. That way, you transformed the one-off issue, fix, and learning into a repeatable process. You change the operations – and eventually the thinking – of the team.

If you want something to stick, you must develop a mechanism for it.

From mechanisms to culture

While a mechanism will help you achieve the desired outcome, it is not where you want to end up.

Mechanisms ensure that things get done the right way. However, they are also crutches for doing the right thing. Mechanisms require you to handhold and micromanage a specific behavior because it is not yet the natural behavior of the group.

You really want to achieve that the behavior becomes natural for the group and doesn’t need constant reminder through the mechanism. You want to achieve culture change.

Culture doesn’t change because you tell it to – culture changes through repetition, role modeling, and shared expectations. However, mechanisms can help you change the culture as they provide repetition (muscle memory) and remind everyone that a certain behavior is important (expectation setting). Over time mechanisms can evolve into culture.

A word of caution: think carefully about what your organizational priorities are and what you want to focus on. If everything becomes a mechanism, nothing matters at all. I’ve been in organizations where we had so many mechanisms that everyone lost track. In the end, none of them mattered, and their utility evaporated.

If you never make it to culture change, if you don’t change thinking, if you don’t role model the right behavior, you will spend a lot of time and energy to make sure the right things happen (aka micro-management).

Culture is the end goal. Mechanisms only compensate for culture.


Did you like this post? Want to read more? Check out our newest book!

Thriving in High-Pressure Environments
Lessons from Amazon, a global pandemic, and other crazy times
By Alfons and Ulrike Staerk
ISBN 9798718017663

Find it on Amazon: PaperbackKindle

If you like what you’re reading, please consider leaving a review on Amazon. If you don’t like it, please tell us what we can do better the next time. As self-published authors we don’t have the marketing power of big publishing houses. We rely on word of mouth endorsements through reader reviews.

Achieve your desired outcome!

How much time do you spend in meetings? For me, it’s currently 57% of my working time (yes, I do track how I spend my time as I make it a point to be intentional about where I put my time and energy). Even if it’s not quite as much for you, I’m sure you spend a LOT of time in meetings. As that’s the case, we better make that time count, right!?

How many times have you been in a meeting where folks talked for an hour, but at the end of the allocated time, you were just at the same point where you started from. It was unclear who was doing what next, and after a few days, the memory of whatever was discussed in the meeting faded away as well.

In our roles as meeting organizers or meeting attendees, we are all empowered and responsible for changing that – to make meetings effective, actionable, and worth the time we spend in them. Instead of wasting your time in a meeting that doesn’t drive change and action, you would better spend that time with your kids, puppy, or taking an office nap. Seriously!

Hold yourself and others accountable for more effective meetings, regardless of whether you are the organizer or ‘just’ an attendee. It’s your’s and everyone else’s time – make it count!

You need to make two fundamental changes to get more effective meetings: 1) move from agenda-driven to action-driven and 2) track decisions and progress and don’t let people slip back.

Here is what we all need to do to get there – if you are the meeting organizer, you need to build this into the meeting; if you are an attendee, you need to hold the meeting organizer accountable for these.

  • State the desired outcome at the beginning – Most meetings have agendas (don’t even get me started about large group meetings without an agenda). However, agendas only tell us what we want to talk about, not what we want to achieve. And in many of those meetings, there is a lot of talking but not much achievement. Drop the classical agenda and instead list desired outcomes for your meeting. Don’t call out what topic you want to talk about but instead what the group must have achieved by the end of the meeting. If someone submits an agenda topic to you, ask them: “What do you want to achieve with your agenda topic?” Instead of “Discuss project plan.” add “Agreed on and locked milestone dates for Phase 1 tasks.” to your meeting plan.
  • Allocate time – Allocate time and manage time for each of the desired outcomes. Drive to and force decision and closure on the desired outcome within the allocated time. Be really, really, really resistant against not achieving a desired outcome in the given time. It should pain you personally. Sometimes it happens, but it should be the rare exception, not the norm. If you didn’t achieve the outcome, you wasted everyone’s time. Having allocated time for desired outcomes will help you reign people back in if they go on a tangent or enjoy themselves on rat-holing or side-conversations on a topic that’s not material for the desired outcome.
  • Take action notes – Take action notes during the discussion and share them with meeting attendees in real-time as you take them. Let them watch you type. Action notes are different from verbatim notes – they focus on the critical outcomes of the meeting, not what everyone has said. Focus your action notes on: 1) decisions and decision reasons, 2) action items, 3) follow-ups and open questions, 4) risks and concerns, and 5) critical facts and findings. If you want verbatim tracking, record the meeting. If you want to drive progress, make and share action notes. Always remember: “She who takes the notes controls the meeting!” (trust me, it’s true).
  • Close by summarizing action items – Summarize all action items at the end of the meeting. Remember that it’s only an action item if it has an owner and a date. That means one (!) owner and a specific date (not a quarter or month). If an action item doesn’t have a date and owner, it’s not an action item – it’s wishful thinking.
  • Make it real – Send out notes and action items right after the meeting. Like culture eats strategy for breakfast (Peter Drucker), timely raw notes beat well formatted but delayed minutes every single time. Remember that it’s not about beauty; it’s about driving action! As a matter of fact, in most cases, less well-formatted notes are more effective than pretty ones in sophisticated templates (however, don’t make them ugly and hard to read either!). You can thank digital marketing for that – it has trained us to ignore emails that look too pretty as they remind us of marketing newsletters and sales pitches right away. If you want to drive action, have your notes and action items directly in the email instead of an attachment and have bullet points for what needs to be done right on the top. You can still add a nicely formatted template attachment if you want, but know that what will drive action is what you put in the body of the email. Also, don’t underestimate the importance of timeliness – to be honest, I never even skim notes for a meeting that has occurred a few days ago – it’s just not relevant to my current context anymore.
  • Check back in – All throughout life, the difference between success and failed attempts lies in the follow-through. The same is true for action items – if you don’t follow through on them, you teach people that you are not really serious about them, and they can safely ignore whatever task was assigned to them. Make it a point to revisit project deadlines and action item progress at the beginning of every meeting. If you don’t, you might as well not assign them in the first place. If you have a well-functioning and high-performing project team, everyone will feel accountable for their own action items, and you might not need to check-in anymore. However, be aware that it will take a long time for the team to work together to get to that point.

Walk away from meetings that are not action-driven. Yes, really do! Don’t just pretend to be there while doing something else on the side – that would just encourage the bad meeting behaviors.

In closing, I want to be honest – I’m an introvert, so I really don’t enjoy large groups where everyone is just talking for talking’s sake. That makes me a little biased with regards to meeting efficiency. Just saying…


Did you like this post? Want to read more? Check out our newest book!

Thriving in High-Pressure Environments
Lessons from Amazon, a global pandemic, and other crazy times
By Alfons and Ulrike Staerk
ISBN 9798718017663

Find it on Amazon: PaperbackKindle

If you like what you’re reading, please consider leaving a review on Amazon. If you don’t like it, please tell us what we can do better the next time. As self-published authors we don’t have the marketing power of big publishing houses. We rely on word of mouth endorsements through reader reviews.

Evolve your leadership style

Today I’m going to dive a little into one of my favorite topics: leading people, teams, and project groups.

As I’ve said many times before, we are all leaders in one capacity or another. Leadership, like so many others, is a skill that needs to be developed. Usually, people go through three stages when trying to get other folks to do something for them:

Stage 1 | Supervising | Task-oriented

This stage is all about telling others what to do, when to do it, and then auditing the outcomes.

It’s where we all start, but quite frankly, it’s not very effective. For once, it requires you to know exactly what needs to be done. As you take on more responsibilities, new areas, or problem spaces, that will not be the case anymore – others will know much more about specific areas than you do. It also requires a LOT of time and handholding from you, meaning it’s fundamentally not scalable. Finally, it only works if you have authority over the other person – why else would they care about what you tell them to do?

New managers with small teams usually show that leadership style.

Stage 2 | Managing | Process-oriented

This stage moves the focus away from telling people what to do and towards establishing goals and processes.

The leader moves away from the tasks and towards defining the way in which things need to be done, as well as the specific outcomes that need to be achieved. This stage is somewhere in-between – hopefully, it’s a transition stage and not where you’ll settle. It’s still directive in nature but moves the focus from tasks to outcomes and processes. It still requires lots of auditing and falls short of genuine trust for the team.

This model provides relief for the manager as teams start to grow from the initial small group. However, it still falls short of unlocking the true potential in your team as it depends a lot on you setting the goals and processes and then monitoring and enforcing them.

Management is halfway down the path to leadership but not quite there. The next step is the hardest as it requires giving up control and ego.

Stage 3 | Leading | People-oriented

This is where the magic happens. It’s all about the enablement of others, not about what you do.

Instead of knowing everything, this stage acknowledges that the wisdom lies in the team and n unlocking that wisdom. Instead of defining the ‘what’ and ‘how’, leadership at this stage is much more about developing shared purpose, team values, and rules for collaboration.

It’s a tough stage, as it requires you not to be the smartest kid on the block and rather take a backseat. However, the impact is enormous as that approach opens up space for others to step up and contribute. The more you trust the team and have them lead the path, the bigger the overall impact will be. You have to check your ego at the door, and not every manager is ready to do that, but once you do, things will really take off. (If you don’t you will be stuck in the manager stage for the rest of your career.)

This might sound a little theoretical and maybe not applicable to your current situation. It’s not. We all apply leadership styles all the time – dealing with coworkers, running projects, leading teams, or just trying to manage our families and convincing our kids to make better decisions. You will achieve the best results if you can shift your interactions from supervising to leading. Sometimes you will need to start at supervising and go through managing to lay the proper foundation, but your goal should always be to get to leadership.

As you tackle new challenges, turn around the typical approach that you have been taught and instead follow this sequence to solve the problem:

People first, then process, tasks come last.

Engage the people you’re working with first. Then define processes together. Lastly, let them drive tasks the way they deem most appropriate.

Here’s a little back of the napkin drawing that I scribbled to visualize the difference for myself:

Managers prescribe, leaders encourage.

Managers are anxious, leaders trust.

Managers need to control, leaders look for positive surprises.

Be a leader in your interactions with others!

Once you’ve tried a leadership approach, you will find the other two pretty limiting and boring.


Did you like this post? Want to read more? Check out our newest book!

Thriving in High-Pressure Environments
Lessons from Amazon, a global pandemic, and other crazy times
By Alfons and Ulrike Staerk
ISBN 9798718017663

Find it on Amazon: PaperbackKindle

If you like what you’re reading, please consider leaving a review on Amazon. If you don’t like it, please tell us what we can do better the next time. As self-published authors we don’t have the marketing power of big publishing houses. We rely on word of mouth endorsements through reader reviews.

To lead means to ask good questions

I had several discussions this week about dealing with conflict situations or getting someone on board with a plan. It’s funny how similar leadership issues seem to cluster at certain times. Those discussions all ended up in exploring the importance and power of asking questions. So let’s dive a little into why asking questions is so critical and so powerful for us as leaders – and we all are leaders! We lead projects, we lead (virtual) teams, we lead families, we lead partnerships, and many more…

As a leader, asking good questions that guide deeper understanding is a critical skill. Of course, it needs to be paired with the patience and desire to ‘listen to understand’ (instead of listening to identify an opening where we can jump in with our own monologue). You don’t ask questions to show off – you ask questions to understand.

As a matter of fact, what usually marks the transition from a manager to a leader is the change in how they interact with their direct reports, peers, and bosses:

A manager gives direction; a leader asks questions and guides understanding.
A manager (thinks he) has all the answers; a leader knows what questions need to be asked.
A manager is the superstar; a leader develops everyone around her into superstars.

There are many benefits in asking guiding and insight-seeking questions instead of rambling about your opinions. Here are the three most important ones:

I. You broaden your understanding (Decision making)

Let’s start with the hard truth: You don’t know everything!

You may be as smart as they come – you still just can’t know everything. You won’t know all the details, you will miss the specific context, and you don’t have the specific perspective that others bring in based on their personal experience and background.

As a leader, your job is to make good decisions. So ask questions and LISTEN! Gather as much diverse data as you possibly can. Listen to what you hear, then think about the next good question to ask. Don’t try to shine as a superbrain by asking tough questions – listen, digest, and then ask for what additional information and perspective is needed.

Your goal is to gather diverse data that challenge your opinions and biases. Ask the right questions to gather that data and listen to what you are given back in return. A good answer is a gift that you should cherish!

At some point, it will be you who needs to make the call – try to gather as much unbiased information as you can before you take that step. However, once you do, it’s your call – allow for new information as you go along, but  don’t allow second-guessing of your decision based on the existing information.

II. You encourage thinking (Coaching)

By asking questions, you guide critical thinking. You point out areas that might need further investigation or reflection, or you draw out important additional information and insights that weren’t shared yet.

By doing so, you walk your partner through your thought models. You help them think about their own opinions from a different angle and more holistically. You help improve their thinking and decision making, leading to better plans and strategies.

Best of all, if you only communicate your grand plan, you will not teach your partner anything. They get a black-box solution and won’t understand what led to that solution. If you lead them to the rigth solution with your questions, you share your thought process and let them experience and practice it on a concrete example. Instead of giving an answer, you have taught a thought model. You showed how to fish, instead of just handing over the fish.

III. You are in control of the flow (Negotiating)

While the first two scenarios and reasons for being the one who asks the questions are more focused on finding a solution, this last one is more about being effective when you have a plan and just need to get it done against resistance.

Our typical reaction when we run into resistance is to defend our plan and thinking. The more resistance we encounter, the wordier we get. We get into the defense and dig a deeper and deeper hole for ourselves. As we are trying to explain our position, we are always a step behind – it’s easy for the other person to just question our opinion and keep us on our toes, explaining and defending until we doubt ourselves.

Asking good questions instead allows us to get out of the defensive position and take control of the flow of the discussion.

Instead of saying “…but I really believe that we should do X, as I said, we have looked at all the data…”, start asking, “Well, I would like to understand better why you think this won’t work. Can you walk me through the challenges you see and how you think we could overcome those challenges.”

Asking good questions and genuinely listening to what you hear are some of the most powerful tools to make you more effective and a better leader and collaborator. Practice and sharpen those tools whenever you can!

And here’s a quote from Jack Welch in closing:

When you are an individual contributor, you try to have all the answers. When you are a leader, your job is to have all the questions.” – Jack Welch

PS to the quote above: I actually don’t think YOU have to have all the questions. Your job is to make sure all the right questions get asked – no matter whether they come from you or from your teammates. You foster those questions. You don’t have to provide all of them.

More great quotes on the importance of leading with questions: https://leadingwithquestions.com/latest-news/my-top-ten-favorite-leading-with-questions-quotes/


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Thriving in High-Pressure Environments
Lessons from Amazon, a global pandemic, and other crazy times
By Alfons and Ulrike Staerk
ISBN 9798718017663

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Ownership

One of the things that define how Amazon runs its business is what they call the Leadership principles. These principles are treated like religion. They define daily business processes, project priorties, how decisions are made, and apparently, they work really well for the company’s success. Those leadership principles are also widely regarded as operational blueprints for many startups. Over my time with Amazon, I learned to love some of them, see the value in others, and realize that a critical one was missing (I’ll tell you that secret over a beer if you’re interested).

Since those Leadership principles are universally applicable and useful, I will pick a specific one every now and then and share its official description as well as my personal take and experience. As always, I would love your thoughts, feedback, and differing point of view.

Ownership

Ownership

Leaders are owners. They think long term and don’t sacrifice long-term value for short-term results. They act on behalf of the entire company, beyond just their own team. They never say “that’s not my job.”

To me, ownership is probably the most important one of the leadership principles. It is so important because it defines how we approach our jobs. Are we just in to tick off hours and collect a paycheck, or do we deeply care about what we’re doing and want to positively impact our field, our customers, and our co-workers?

For that reason, in my mind, ownership is also closely linked to the three pillars that drive job satisfaction (purpose, autonomy, and mastery). If we don’t step up and take personal ownership, we will not feel any control over these three pillars either.

Ownership means caring about what we do. Ownership means not waiting to be told what we should focus on but proactively assessing our space all the time and moving forward with the things that matter most. Ownership is the difference between looking at the clock ticking away versus looking at your customers and thinking through how you can improve their lives.

Ownership is also about being in control, which again, is one of the key drivers for job satisfaction as well as one of the key things that cause burnout if it’s lacking. If you don’t show ownership and take control, someone else will fill the void for you and tell you what to do.

Always remember:

Ownership is taken, not granted!


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Check out our book for more thoughts and a week-by-week guide to make strategic changes to improve your health, career, and life purpose:

Put on your oxygen mask first - book cover

Put On Your Own Oxygen Mask First
A practical guide to living healthier, happier and more successful in 52 weekly steps
By Alfons and Ulrike Staerk
ISBN 9781077278929

Find it on Amazon: PaperbackKindle

If you like what you’re reading, please consider leaving a review on Amazon. If you don’t like it, please tell us what we can do better the next time. As self-published authors we don’t have the marketing power of big publishing houses. We rely on word of mouth endorsements through reader reviews.

Effective communications – The Why, What, and How

Effective communication is one of the most important skills as we advance in our careers and lives. The more senior we become, the more we need to achieve things through others. To do so, we first need to convince them to follow our lead. Even if we’re not on the brink of a CEO promotion, we need to convince our peers, managers, or spouses of our ideas.

Communication happens in many different channels, in writing, in meetings, or in 1:1 conversations. The principles of effective communication are always the same: 1) active listening, 2) maintaining a laser-focus on the topic, and 3) a clear thought structure that our partner(s) can follow along.

Today I want to talk about 3) – structuring our thoughts and communication in a way that makes it easy for the recipient to digest, follow along, and buy into our logic. The magic is to always explain the Why, What, and How – in that order!

The Why, What, and How are critically important to convey any idea or suggestion. In presenting ideas, we need to remind ourselves that while we have all the context, causation, and details, our communication partners most likely don’t. Don’t assume everyone has as much context on the topic as you do! – If they did, they would have brought up the idea to you, not the other way around.

If you don’t re-create the full thought context with your communications partner, you cannot expect them to come to the same conclusions that you came to or to agree with your proposal.

The Why

This is also affectionately called the ‘So What’.

Everything starts with this. Tell me why I should care to listen and follow your thoughts. Why does this matter? Why does it matter to me? Why is it important, and why should I care?

If you can establish why a particular topic is important or why a problem needs to be solved, you have already won have the battle. On the flip side, if you don’t have a Why it will be hard to gain support for your idea – there are so many things that already have a strong Why established and thus will take priority.

The What

Ok, you got me with the Why. I know that I need to pay attention, now tell me what needs to be fixed or created.

Don’t get ahead of yourself; don’t jump to solutions. I’m not yet ready for that. I’ve signed up for your cause. Now let me know where I need to direct my attention. If you can get me focused on the right what, you have practically won, and I will crave to learn what I can do for you.

The How

NOW is the time to get to what you wanted to start with. Not a second earlier. For you, this is a long build-up to something that is crystal-clear to you – for me, it’s essential for being able to follow your thoughts.

How can we solve the issue we identified in the What and established as a priority in the Why. Tell me what you want to do and where I can help. What is your plan, where do you need input, where can I help. Be specific, precise, and concise.

Well…?

Let’s put some meat to the theory with an example. Let’s say you want to sell the idea of establishing a weekly metrics review meeting for Ops tickets (totally made up).

A bad communication would be:

“Hey, I want to identify key metrics for the ticketing systems. We should change some of the ways we measure them and then have a weekly review meeting with the Ops team.”

Most likely, my (unspoken) reaction as a recipient would be either “???”, or “sure, now leave me alone, I have important work to do”.

A better Why/What/How approach could be:

“I noticed that we are really slow with certain tasks while onboarding new employees. Often they don’t get proper access to their systems for more than two weeks. That delays their onboarding, and we’re practically wasting their resources for the first month.

I looked a little closer at the process, and it seems that Ops tickets are a key contributor to those delays. However, we don’t have good metrics for tickets right now, and so we can’t really diagnose where the problem lies or how to fix it.

What I would suggest is to establish a consistent way to measure the performance of such tickets. With that, we can identify key bottlenecks, brainstorm potential improvement areas, and measure if those improvements have the desired impact over time. What do you think about establishing key metrics and reviewing them with Ops leaders every week?”

You would have caught my attention on the second one, as no one likes employees who are eager to contribute but are constraint by systems or processes.

Bonus tips for emails

  • Spend time and energy on formatting – White spaces and paragraph breaks emphasize the structure and flow of your thoughts! Nobody wants to read a solid blurb of text and re-engineer the logical structure.
  • Re-read your message twice – Put yourself in the recipient’s shoes. If you have no context at all, does what you wrote still makes sense?


Did you like this post? Want to read more?

Check out our book for more thoughts and a week-by-week guide to make strategic changes to improve your health, career, and life purpose:

Put on your oxygen mask first - book cover

Put On Your Own Oxygen Mask First
A practical guide to living healthier, happier and more successful in 52 weekly steps
By Alfons and Ulrike Staerk
ISBN 9781077278929

Find it on Amazon: PaperbackKindle

If you like what you’re reading, please consider leaving a review on Amazon. If you don’t like it, please tell us what we can do better the next time. As self-published authors we don’t have the marketing power of big publishing houses. We rely on word of mouth endorsements through reader reviews.