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shutterstock 175659365We’ve probably all seen the adventure movie scene where the main protagonists suddenly find themselves surrounded by hostile armed forces, encircled, and not sure how they are going to find their way out.

At that point, typically, everyone has their weapon out, and everyone is at high alert.

There are some very carefully worded conversations between the surround-ers and the surrounded. A negotiation happens, with the surrounded party trying its best to find its way free (or at least not dead), and the surround-ers not necessarily buying it.

What happens next, of course, depends on the plot of the movie. Sometimes they are captured, sometimes they are rescued, sometimes they join forces, sometimes they are robbed of valuables, and so on.

But there are two things that no one does in these situations:

  1. They don’t just start swinging wildly, or shooting at random, hoping to hit something.
  2. They don’t just freeze up, not doing anything, hoping that they’ll somehow get away without too much loss or damage.

We often face the feeling of being surrounded – with our forces and resources overwhelmed – as a part of leadership. Multiple critical business decisions have to be made at the same time, and we end up feeling stuck. Taking a crack at one thing prevents us from being able to deal with another, it seems. And oftentimes, the things we are dealing with all interconnect in a way that prevents us from really seeing a way forward.

And yet, despite being the protagonists in the story, when we find ourselves overwhelmed by a large, surrounding force of critical decisions, we often take two very different actions than our adventure movie compatriots.

shutterstock 1049412674Frank came to me and told me that he had "downsized" his bookkeeper. She hadn’t balanced the checkbook more than once a year in who knows how long. And there were a lot of checkbooks. You see, Frank ran a nonprofit and his board had, long ago, been worried about the stability of banks, so they’d invested about $100,000 in pretty much every bank in town to stay under the FDIC limit at the time. The monthly financial reports for their 7-figure nonprofit were about 50 pages thick, and despite that no one could really tell how much they really had, or where they were headed. Spreadsheets upon spreadsheets were used to analyze and distribute financial information, but none of it was clear – and some of it was inaccurate.

Full of financial frustration, Frank came to me with three main questions:

  1. Can you help us see what we have, and where we are going?
  2. Can you simplify our system?
  3. Can you lower our overall cost of financial operations?

And we did.

Frank’s problem, though perhaps extreme, isn’t rare. Financial frustration happens in business, government, nonprofit, and even in corporate settings. The fact is that most of the underlying challenges that cause financial frustration also cause other business measurement problems. It turns out that numbers are numbers, whether dollar signs are on them or not.

Why We Want Our Numbers to be Right

Leaders with “number problems” typically have one or more of six motivations for wanting them to be right:

Businessman in dark suit and red tie as hostage hands tied by thick hemp ropeOver and over again, I talk to business owners who feel trapped inside their own businesses. Recently, one of them described it as feeling like he was “held hostage” by his business. Why would he say that?

In this case, he felt trapped putting out fires all the time caused by staffing issues. People would just not show up – which meant he had to scramble. Every day was another fire he had to put out, and yet he was under contract to finish a job with a specific deadline under certain conditions, and so he had to just roll with it. But he hated every minute of it.

Another business owner got trapped in a different way in his business. He grew his business from a staff of five to a staff of 28, but his profitability was slipping. He was working harder for less money. What to do? And yet now, the momentum was growth – he didn’t exactly want to stop that, but he knew he had to do something, so he didn’t keep working more hours for diminishing returns.

Still yet another business owner wanted to sell his business. He had a number in his head of what he wanted, and potential buyers had very different numbers. If he sold at what people were willing to buy, he would essentially lose his retirement. So, he kept working in the business, hoping to find a way to make it sustainable. But the value kept coming back too small. He began to ask himself if he would die in the shop.

Fire ExtinguisherIf it’s one thing I hear from business owners and leaders all the time, it’s that they’re busy. While “busy” is, for some of us, a badge of honor, for most of us it’s just reality. And despite being in leadership, being our own boss, or at least having quite a bit of latitude, we start to feel like our business holds us hostage. We can’t get away because of how busy we are.

In fact, despite the fact that we often want to get away, we find ourselves more in the role of crisis manager than anything else. We often find ourselves running around putting out fires.

“Dave dropped the ball.”

“This customer says the new product failed when they installed it. What do we want to do?”

“We keep missing deadlines and customers are going elsewhere.”

“We have a revolving door at the administrative assistant position in accounting.”

“The pipe froze and our tenant’s space is flooded.”

“The contractor didn’t show up.”

“We missed our sales numbers three months in a row. What should we try next?”

And there are other things we would rather be doing.

Matt Presenting at CCP CroppedIn our last article, we began a conversation into the orientations and practices of adaptive leadership. We focused on the first two of the five orientations and practices: inner quiet and curiosity. In this article, we will talk about three more orientations and practices:

  • Respect
  • Delegation
  • Learning

Let's dive right in where we left off last time.

Respect

The third practice is respect. Intentionally approaching people believing that they are resourceful, creative, and whole creates a respectful relationship - as far as it depends on us. Respect equalizes the helping relationship. Someone asking for help often feels themselves "one down", as Edgar Schein puts it, so respect allows the relationship to come back in to balance. Respect keeps the relationship personal, making sure we do not lose the living people amidst the results we are trying to achieve.

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