Always Have a Pen

“A good officer always has a pen with them” is one of the first lessons I remember from my time at Naval Officer Candidate School. Since I was fresh from college and pretty confident in my ability to remember everything I needed to remember, I initially ignored the lesson.

While I managed to avoid getting caught without a pen in those first few days in the Navy, I did watch many other officer candidates receive a verbal assault of ridicule and criticism when they were not so fortunate.

I quickly took note of the ridicule, and I began to make sure that I always had a pen so that I could avoid that fate. At the time, I thought the whole situation was rather ridiculous and arbitrary.  Still, I did not want to bear the brunt of a verbal assault from one of my superiors, and I always had a pen with me.

It has been 28 years since my summer at Naval Officer Candidate School, and I still carry a pen nearly everywhere I go. In fact, my “pen compulsion” sometimes becomes a small joke in my family and with my friends. I almost always have a pen in my shirt, in my pocket, or in a bag. I work to have a pen with me at all times.

Even though I initially thought the “A good officer always has a pen with them” statement was a little silly, I now see it as a vital leadership learning point. I eventually realized that the point was not about the pen. The point was about personal responsibility and accountability.

As a young engineering officer, I frequently received more requests, tasks, and information than I could possibly remember. Nonetheless, I was expected to remember it all, keep it all straight, and to complete every task. Without a pen – and paper as I eventually learned – with me at all times, I could not remember it all.  My pen and paper eventually became my “paper brain” that allowed me to keep track and to act responsibly. They became my personal accountability system.

Now, as I work with my many business partners, colleagues, clients, potential clients, and family members, I still have far more to remember and to act upon than I can effectively hold in my mind. I continue to rely on a pen and paper to keep me on track, to live up to my commitments, and to meet my responsibilities.

It’s a simple concept with big implications for leaders.

Leaders have too much to do and too many responsibilities to cover to miss important details or to overlook commitments they have made to their team, their peers, their customers, and their families to try holding it all in their heads. Get it on paper so that you can remember, and then act on your commitments.

Always having a pen with you is not about the pen. It’s about having a way to make sure that you are both accountable and responsible for your commitments.

Remember: A good leader always has a pen.

Your Now Step: Think about your system for living up to your commitments and responsibilities. Is it working? If not, find a way to fix it.

Quit Looking for “The” Right Answer

In my work with clients and workshop participants, people often start to tell me about a situation they faced as a leader with something like: “Maybe I didn’t do this right, but…” Then, they generally end the story by asking me if there was a better way to handle the situation.

I frequently respond by asking if they got a good result from their approach.

Before I offer advice, I want to know if their solution applied in their context and with the people they know worked. If it did, it was a good solution. If it didn’t, we can talk about ways to improve the odds of success the next time they face a similar situation.

As far as I am concerned, the quality of the outcome is the standard by which to judge the quality of a solution.

As I listen to the stories and questions, I have a mixed reaction. On one hand, it’s nice that people value my input and are actively seeking better ways to solve the problems they face as leaders. On the other hand, it tells me that they might be in search of “the” right answer for a complex problem.

Simple problems – like writing checks or fixing pumps – generally have single right answers. Complex problems – like fixing the accounting system or creating a maintenance training program – usually have many possible right answers.

As a leader, very few of the significant problems you face will be simple. Many of them will be complex.  Searching for “the” right answer to a complex problem can hurt you in at least three ways:

  1. Limited thinking. When you are looking for a single solution, you narrow your thinking before you identify all of the possible solutions. This search for a single, perfect answer to a complex problem hurts your creativity and your ability to see alternative solutions.
  2. Indecision. As you seek “the” right answer, you might fall into over-analysis paralysis. Searching, researching, and analyzing can be productive parts of the problem solving process. And, they become a barrier to effective problem solving when they shift from analyzing to agonizing.
  3. Inactivity. Agonizing and indecision lead to this third problem. When you fail to make a timely decision, you fail to implement. When you fail to implement, you fail to move forward.

Before you were a leader, you probably dealt with many problems, both large and small, that were ultimately simple problems in that they had one correct answer or solution. In fact, your ability to solve these problems likely contributed to your promotion to a leadership position. Now you are in a role that calls for you to solve or to empower other people to solve complex problems that involve a number of variables and many possible good solutions.

When you are solving problems, quit looking for “the” right answer. Instead, keep your mind open for the full range of possible right answers.

Your Now Step: The next time you have a problem to solve, quickly decide if it is a simple or a complex problem. If it is a complex problem, write down at least three possible solutions before you implement your chosen solution.

Change Management Lessons: Surprise Breeds Inaction

Life lessons sometimes hit me in a delayed fashion. Reflecting on two experiences in my life – separated by about two years – reminded me of a valuable lesson for leaders of organizations facing change.

Situation Number One:

About two years ago, I was walking through a convention center with my friend, colleague, and co-author, Kevin Eikenberry, and we came upon two people standing at the top of an unmoving escalator. As we approached, we expected them to start walking down it. They didn’t. They just stood there and stared at the unmoving steps.

They didn’t move, and we couldn’t pass them.

As I stood behind them, I grew frustrated with their inaction.

After 10 or 15 seconds that felt like 10 or 15 minutes to me, they looked at each other, shrugged, and began to walk down the “stairs.”

Situation Number Two:

Driving my car into the neighborhood where Kevin lives, I came upon road construction vehicles that slowed me down and partially blocked my view of the frontage property. Pulling to the left side of the road and slowly passing the paving equipment parked on the right, I had a fleeting thought that I had entered the wrong neighborhood. Despite having entered this neighborhood many times over the last few years, it suddenly looked wrong, and I briefly questioned whether I was in the right place or not. In that moment, I quickly considered turning around at the first opportunity.

Both situations reveal a common problem leaders face in times of change. When confronted with uncertainty or unfamiliarity – when a situation or surrounding looks different from what they expect to see – people freeze. They lock-up, stop moving, and impede progress.

Many leaders see this initial response, and grow frustrated with their team like I grew frustrated by the initially unmoving people at the top of the escalator.

The key point, though, is that the people in the escalator example eventually moved without prodding or prompting from me. Once they evaluated and understood the situation, they moved.

Wise leaders recognize, understand, and anticipate this response. Rather than push changes quickly and get angry with people, they make allowances for this normal human reaction. They do everything in their power to reduce uncertainty by communicating more often, more thoroughly, and more personally. They also give people as much time as possible to understand the change before resorting to “do it or else” strategies.

Twenty-seven Years and Lots of Relationships

Looking BackAs I write this post, I am sitting in a hotel in the suburbs of Chicago getting ready for an afternoon session with a client I have known for several years.

I am also reflecting on the fact that today marks the twenty-seventh anniversary of my commissioning as an ensign in the United States Navy.

Many things have happened in that twenty-seven years. I…

  • Completed my service as a submarine officer.
  • Married my amazing wife.
  • Became the father of two fantastic daughters.
  • Worked in research, technical service, product development, and process development in both the plastics and coatings industries.
  • Launched a consulting, training, and coaching business.
  • Edited and contributed to several books.

Along the way, I have met and worked with some incredible people. More than my experiences, it is the people I have met that come to mind today as I reflect on the last twenty-seven years.

As a result of these relationships, I have the opportunity to do what I do today. For example…

  • I am in the Chicago area because of a relationship that began about seven or eight years ago when the contact I have with today’s client worked with a different company.
  • I co-authored a book (From Bud to Boss), co-created two workshops (Ultimate Communicator and Bud to Boss) that will be delivered across the country in more than fifty cities next year because I had a cup of coffee with my friend and colleague Kevin Eikenberry almost ten years ago.
  • I have enjoyed dinner aboard a yacht in Seattle harbor because of friendships I formed in the Navy.
  • I have traveled across North America, parts of Asia, and Western Europe because of personal and professional relationships that created business opportunities.

I could continue this list with other opportunities and experiences I have had over the last twenty-seven years because of people I have met and relationships I have developed over time. I won’t do that because the list is long, and I run the risk of leaving someone out in my rush to move to my next task.

As I reflect today, I see that technical competence has been a part of the opportunities I have had, and that relationships are the bigger part. It has usually been a relationship, not my skill, that got me “in the door” for an opportunity.

I also see that, in the rush of daily activities, it is easy to move quickly from task to task without investing the time to honor and acknowledge important relationships.

Today, I encourage you to remember the value of relationships in both your personal and professional lives, and to do something in the next 24 hours to honor and acknowledge at least one of those relationships.

The ABC’s of Life: Forgive

While forgiving often seems like something that you do for others, it is, in reality, something you do for yourself.

Forgiving benefits the person who receives forgiveness, and it benefits the person who forgives even more.

Many times, the person that has not received forgiveness has forgotten the event while the person who refuses to forgive continues to harbor anger and bitterness. Holding on to anger and bitterness harms the angry person more than it harms others.

I have heard many people say that they have experienced events in their lives that they cannot forgive. I suggest that line of thinking makes two common mistakes:

  1. Confusing forgiving with forgetting, and
  2. Confusing can’t forgive with won’t forgive.

You can forgive someone for their actions without forgetting what happened.  If the harm really is severe and you believe that it will come back again in the future, you can choose to let go of the anger and negative thoughts about the other person without forgetting that they cannot be trusted in certain situations.

If someone has harmed you, you can forgive them in order to move forward and remember that you do not feel safe trusting them in the future.

Choosing to let go of anger implies an act of will. It is a choice, and most people (with only a few exceptions) really are free to choose how they think.

Initial anger might be beyond control, and that moment is temporary. Continuing to be angry is a choice.

To free yourself to build healthy, happy, productive personal and professional relationships, choose to forgive.

This article is from the ABC's of Life series. Use the links below to read more from this series.