Lessons on Leadership Transition from Game of Thrones Episode 5

*** Article includes spoilers

Episode 5 of the Game of Thrones (GOT) was a case study on transitioning into a new leadership role. The lessons presented are absolutely NOT practices that should be followed and are couched in a cliché conundrum. “Do I want my people to love me or fear me?”

A little background, GOT documents a battle for ultimate power and control of the Iron Throne. There are seven kingdoms and a bunch of people who believe that they have a claim to the throne. Now that we have arrived at the final season, it is more of a smattering of contenders.

Last night, we witnessed Daenerys Targaryen’s approach to leading the kingdom. In deciding how she would transition into what she believes is her rightful place on the throne, she presented the false option of being loved or feared. Her real decision was whether she wanted to seize power despite the cost to the citizens of her kingdom or earn the loyalty and respect of her people.

Believing that the latter would take too much time or was unachievable, she chose to snatch power and establish a culture of fear through callous actions which in essence define who she will be as a ruler.

In the GOT realm, this type of brutality is pervasive and in some cases necessary to achieve an end goal.  What lessons however can we apply to real-world workplace situations?

Let’s be clear, stepping into a leadership role with an inherited team and constituency is challenging and necessitates decisions about how to manage and engage your people, however, whisking around the sky like the Wicked Witch of the West; committing war crimes in broad daylight is never the right way to command.

Instead of leveraging a title to wield authority and power, I opt for engagement and establishment of rapport to manage change and the shift of leadership.  In doing so, there are a few questions that guide me.

What are my assets?

As a new leader, an often overlooked asset is your leadership team. After several instances of transitioning new leaders into organizations and serving on several leadership teams, I see many benefits and uses for leadership teams. 

First, people on this team often know the community, staff, and board best. They also understand the key competitors of the organization and other relevant external and internal challenges. Their longevity, experience, and perspective are valuable. 

Unlike Ms. Targaryen, an effective leader listens to their leadership team and keeps them apprised of significant updates. Leaders help their advisors make informed decisions that benefit the organization.

It is not, however, enough to have a leadership team, convene them weekly, and even listen to their opinions. These teams have to be effective with validity defined by the leader and aligned with organizational goals. 

In my experience, there are a few fundamentals of useful leadership teams.

1. Effective leadership teams have a clear purpose and focus on clear objectives.  

2. These teams are diverse and represent essential perspectives of the organization.  While various views are present, organizational goals are the driving force behind these teams. 

3. Their time is well spent with leadership meetings resulting in clear takeaways and deliverables.

How do I build rapport and relationships?

Before we talk about how and even why building rapport is necessary, let’s understand that identifying stakeholders in your success as a leader is crucial.  Reaching out to staff is obvious but who else? Who are your partners? Who are your sponsors? Who from the community can you use as an advisor and mentor?

Dany Targaryen was an unknown commodity to the people of the North and King’s Landing. She knew very little about them or their pain points.  A lack of shared understanding is undoubtedly a challenge to a successful transition.

I am looking for insight into the organization, the community, and the field (past, present, and future). I like to format these discussions like an unofficial SWOT analysis. Inviting a team member for an afternoon coffee to get to know them better and understand what opportunities they see for the organization or their specific program is a typical method I’ve to initiate a conversation.

Whatever your style, it is crucial that you identify the right people to talk to and gather needs and perspectives from people integral to your success.

What is the foundation for working with my team and stakeholders?

The core of any working relationship is a purpose? People don’t follow leaders or support organizations just because they like them. They don’t stage coups simply because they hate the leader.

Individuals invest in contributing to the mission. Establishing and communicating that purpose is the job of leaders.

Choosing between leading by fear or love makes no sense.   Garnering the love of teams or making employees fear you are not sustainable methods for governing. Neither will last.

Engaging your team around a common purpose and defining associated objectives helps to identify what contributions are necessary and what roles teams members can play in the success of the organization.

In a medieval, fictional world, using a dragon as a key part of a leadership transition seems perfectly logical. In workplaces in the real world, it is better to avail ourselves of the power of communications and planning. Ensuring that people understand how they can participate in the shift and contribute to the future of the organization bolsters the likelihood of success.

What tactics have you used during a leadership shift?

Leadership Lessons from Episode 3 of Game of Thrones

***May include spoilers

I am still on an incredible high from last night’s Game of Thrones episode. Knowing that some of my favorite characters lived to fight another day brings me great comfort however I would like a full survivors list in order to confirm.

The survival of humanity was in large part due to the #WomenofWinterfell. Arya is clearly the MVP and Lady Mormont should get employee of the year at the very least.

What many of us witnessed last night was a master class in leadership. Here are a few leadership takeaways.

  1. Leaders lead with or without a title
    It goes without saying that Jon is reluctant to embrace an official title but most of the warriors on that battlefield fight because of Jon Snow. Tormund and the Night’s Watch have willingly served under Jon Snow because he demonstrates his willingness to stand up for them and leads with integrity. Whether Jon takes the Iron Throne or not, his ability to mobilize people is undeniable.
  2. Leaders inspire other leaders and breed loyalty
    In addition to Arya’s epic moment during episode three, her willingness to fight to the end lit a fire under the Hound. When he was paralyzed with fear, seeing her continue to push inspired him to rejoin the fight. The Hound’s crisis of confidence (mixed with a little PTSD about fire) almost took a very needed warrior out of the struggle. People work harder for good leaders who demonstrate the behavior that is desired.
  3. Leaders cultivate other leaders
    The #WinterfellWarriors had an advantage over the Night King and his army of White Walkers and wights. Leadership in the Night King’s operation is centralized at the top. He and the White Walkers are the thinkers. The wights rise, fight, and fall based on what he instructs them to do. They have one or two thinkers.
    Winterfell however, had a common goal but multiple leaders working to achieve it. They were able to think independently and mobilize their teams as the situation changed. They were agile and able to collaborate to achieve a big goal. Successful organizations encourage thought leadership at all levels and encourage responsibility for overall success.
  4. Leaders identify gaps and help to increase team capacity
    Melisandre or the Red Women is a mystery to me. I am not sure if she is a good witch or bad witch however, during episode three, she was a leader. Her role was to build the capacity of the warriors. She sensed their needs and provided them with fire for their swords. By the way, being in the first wave of a battle formation is really a bad idea no matter how magical your swords seem. She also reminded the MVP of the night of her power and what she was meant to accomplish. Melisandre was not slaying wights but she kept that team viable and ultimately successful which is an essential part of leadership.

Career Hack: How to Use Research During a Job Interview

If you are preparing for an interview, be prepared to hear “Make sure you research the company”. I make the recommendation ad nauseam to clients and friends.

On a few occasions, however, my advice has been met with a bewildered look and a few obvious questions. Why should I research the company? What am I looking for? What information is most important for me to know going into an interview? How can I use the research during the interview?

Understanding what a company does is key to successful interviewing. It is such an obvious reason to research a company that I won’t say much more about it.

Spending some time on a company’s website can help you dig deeper and understand what an organization stands for. Are corporate values posted on the website? What is its mission and vision for the future of the organization? Do they have a public diversity statement?

How is this helpful to you when preparing for an interview?

Understanding how the role you are applying for fits into the direction of the company is essential. You can tailor some of your responses to highlight experience that speaks to that direction and the work that will be necessary to accomplish those goals.

This is also time for you to prepare for the inevitable interview question, “Do you have any questions for us?”

Asking about how your role contributes to the strategic goals referenced on the website demonstrates that you are interested in a long-term engagement with the company.

Most importantly, researching the company at this level also serves an opportunity for you to vet the organization. Do the corporate values align with your purpose and the impact you want to make in this world? If you don’t have a clearly defined purpose, I encourage you to spend some time teasing that out.

What else should I look for?

Company reviews

In addition to scouring the company’s website, Google the company and read employee reviews. This is once again, me, encouraging you to recognize your power in this process. Interviews are an opportunity to decide if this is the right place to spend at least eight hours a day.

Reading employee reviews can provide some insight into the culture of an organization? Red flags are subjective because we all thrive in different environments but hearing from employees digitally could prompt you to ask to meet with a few employees before you accept an offer. Yes, you can do that!

Company reviews can be easily found on a host of sites including Glassdoor and LinkedIn.

Meet your interviewers

Why walk into an interview blind? When the meeting is scheduled, ask who you will be interviewing with and get to know them by checking out their profiles on LinkedIn.

It is not creepy, it is practical!

Knowing how long they have been with the company and what work they did prior to becoming decider of your fate will help you better communicate during the interview.

It also never hurts to know what the people look like before you walk into the room. I find it comforting and it helps me relax a bit.

Prepare for questions

When people say, “Everything is on the internet”, they mean it. Many companies have a preferred interview style (behavioral vs performance; panel vs individual). Sometimes this information is on the company’s website along with tips for preparing for an interview.

No really, make sure you review the human resources page for any tips and prep materials the company provides. 

Googling the company or specific interviewer can also show results about interview styles and go to questions that they like to ask. I definitely have a few “favorite” interview questions that I ask candidates.

Has researching a company prior to an interview helped you land a job?

Six Low to No Cost Ways to Maximize your Executive Time

Staying up to date on trends and issues in your industry is imperative to effective leadership. Setting aside time in your schedule to listen, read, and think is a great justification of #ExecutiveTime and below are a few ideas about how to maximize this time.

I get emails about free webinars all of the time and I am sure you do too. I register for them knowing full well that I will not be glued to the screen during a live webinar but counting on the fact that producers will send a link to the recorded version. The only flaw in my plan is that I never have time to listen to the archived content.

I admit that some of my favorite podcasts cover true crime and political scandals but there is a podcast on every topic. They are everywhere and accessible on almost every device and make for great listening during executive time or while trying to stay calm in traffic.

Published Articles
Reputable articles published by established leaders or associations are free and zipping across the internet. Registering for newsletters from industry associations or simply following thought leaders on LinkedIn can ensure that information is delivered to your inbox.

Conferences and Seminars
Last week, I received notification that registration for a national conference that I typically attend is now open. This year, they are offering a variety of virtual attendance options that make attendance cost effective considering many target participants work for small nonprofits. These virtual options make it possible for me to attend the keynote address and designated workshops from within the glorious white walls of my office instead of the loud and raucous convention center in New Orleans.

Of course, I would prefer to attend the conference in person but virtual options allow me to tap into the knowledge and future direction of the work for $1500 less than traditinal attendance will cost. For those of us who believe that being frugal is a virtue; the a la carte participation options provide a bonus.

It is a weird acronym for one of the best, free, development mechanisms to ever be invented. MOOCs or Massive Open Online Courses are free (typically) online courses available to the public. Courses include videos, readings, and discussion forums on various topics.

The thoughts captured in e-books can be innovative, controversial, and sometimes even bizarre. In most cases, they are free in exchange for a little contact information and can challenge your thinking.

Staying Strategic During Times of Crisis

I love a plan. I like to work within a plan. Plans make chaotic situations that are inevitable more manageable. There is nothing revolutionary about this thinking.

People who rely on planning are NOT immovable barriers, married to the status quo. I find change exciting. Change paired with a well-executed implementation strategy equals elation. Am I alone on this?

The COVID19 era has destroyed the solace that many of us get from strategic, mid-term plans. In some workspaces, each workday feels like a rapid-fire, scramble to roll out COVID responses. Asking questions like “How does this proposed intervention lend itself to the longer-term strategy?” results in the stare of death from colleagues.

We’ve developed euphemistic phrases to these questions such as “We just have to live in the unknowns right now”; which really means, just be quiet and react. If you are hearing these and many other responses designed to shut down questions, you are not alone.

It has been a struggle, but it is possible to work strategically during this and other crises. It is actually more important during uncertain times. “But how?”, you ask?

Avoid Mission Creep

This is simple. Minimize the number of new initiatives started solely for the funding. Many of us in the nonprofit world are facing a grim reality. Individual, corporate, and foundation dollars are being directed at COVID19 relief and associated causes. Organizations without a long-standing history with donors are either shut out or having to reinvent themselves.

Reinvention can be good for the soul but has to be authentic and mission-aligned in order to be sustainable. Be careful. Survival is essential but mission alignment is key to thriving.

Delegate “Rapid Response” to Others 

Responding to current events or in the case of 2020, a crisis, is necessary but does not have to be owned at the tactical level by every senior leader within your organization. In fact, it can’t be. Refocusing the attention of the entire C-suite on the microlevel, in the moment, responses will result in a lack of attention to macro-level strategy.

Instead, think about how to use the talents and strengths of the entire team. Can someone from middle management do research and align your organization’s policies and procedures with industry standards? Can the communications associate draft messaging that conveys the organization’s COVID19 policy and operating status? Small organizations that take a top-down approach and fail to involve the full team will result in your highest-paid employees focusing on a series of tactical, short term implementations.

Expand Your Plan, Do Not Abandon It

My organization started a strategic planning process at the beginning of our fiscal year. Beginning strategic planning in October 2019 and responding to a global pandemic in March 2020 was confusing. This is of course an understatement and true. What do you do?

First, take a breath. Next, ask yourself and your team a few questions.

1.    Are the established objectives still relevant? 

2.    Are they broad enough to accommodate the necessary short term, crisis planning? 

3.    What strategies and tactics need to be added to address COVID19?

The best pieces of advice I can give in this situation is:

1.    Don’t forget that you have a plan for the future.

2.     Review your plan and make sure the team has been as innovative as the time calls for.

Learn, Innovate, and Iterate

Last year, I wrote about updating legacy programs but never have I ever managed a legacy program during a pandemic and been thrust into sudden change because the program cannot operate in its traditional format. Thanks, 2020 for the gift of mandatory change and innovation.

For many of us, the portal opened as a necessity and a means of survival but nevertheless, the opportunity to innovate has arrived. 

Try piloting a couple of new ideas that need to be refined in order to be adopted long term. Avoid expending time and energy on one-time activities, but don’t be afraid to try new things that you want to be a part of your long-term implementation plan.

Most importantly, remember that decisions made out of fear or extreme caution have very little sticking power. Balance logic with boldness.

Top lessons learned about implementing executive time

The past couple of days has made executive time a topic of discussion. What is it? Who has a right to it? How much time is allowable? The simple response to all three questions is, “who knows”. It is a nebulous concept with little connection to organizations’ bottom lines.

I have set aside executive time for years and find it creates necessary space for me to plan and prepare.

What is the purpose?

Early in my career, I was in my boss’ office discussing an event we were planning. She went to reference something on her computer screen, and I caught a glimpse of her calendar. I noticed that two to three days a week there was a block of time reserved for sacred time.

Okay, I admit it was more than a quick peek.

My inner Judy Bloom compelled me to figure out what sacred time was. What does she do during this time? Would she disappear? Was she plotting something that would affect me? 

For a week, I observed her during these periods, trying to figure out exactly what it was. I quickly began to feel like the worst detective ever. There were no clear clues that something was amiss.  She was in her office. Sometimes at her computer screen. Sometimes sitting at the small round table, reading.

The first phase of my investigation got me nowhere, so like any mediocre detective, I decided to move to phase two. It was time to interrogate and get a confession.

I basically asked her about sacred time. She happily and simply explained that it was her time to prepare for and regroup after meetings. Mystery solved.

How can it be used?

As soon as I took my first role leading a team, I felt that I had a right to sacred time. I reserved an hour and a half each day for me time. My initial attempt to create space to prepare for the day and the work ahead of me was a fail. It was not useful for a couple of reasons.

First, I did not have a clear plan for how I was going to use each block of time and second, I allowed meetings to be scheduled during the time. While it was sacred to me, it meant nothing to anyone else.

I quickly corrected. I was working in a meeting heavy culture and managing four team members. I pondered, “how can my scheduled me time help me grow as a professional and better the work that I am responsible for?”

Once I answered those questions, I set specific actions for each block of me time.

I used the time to explore topics and concepts that I was unfamiliar with. As I took notes during a discussion, I placed a little question mark next to concepts that needed further exploration. During my me time I reviewed those notes and increased my understanding of this information. 

Me time gave me space to research. I am a better leader and contributor when I have a grasp of what the important issues are right now as well as trends for the future. These dedicated intervals provide an opportunity to investigate information and result in being able to elevate conversations and provide expertise that may not be possible if I am just running from place to place.

It was also concentrated time to plan. How do I make sense of all of the knowledge and material that has been presented during the week? What is actionable? What is good thinking but needs to be placed in a parking lot? How do I turn theory and dialogue into a workable strategy for my organization? 

Finally, I was transparent about the blocks on my calendar. I wanted my team and other colleagues to understand the importance of this time.  I started denying meeting requests that interfered with the time and following up the decline with a face to face conversation with the meeting organizer.

While it did not eliminate all of the proposed conflicts, it did ease some of the pressure.

How much is too much?

When I started utilizing me time, I scheduled an hour and a half, for the same time each day. As my role and needs changed, my dedicated time-shifted. Now, the time I carve out changes from week to week and while I have a daily goal for me time, it certainly cannot be scheduled for the same time each week.

Telework has provided me with a wonderful opportunity to observe me time in a fairly untouchable chunk. Unfortunately, there are days when I snag my time by sitting at a fast food restaurant researching while I savor chicken nuggets. Thank goodness wi-fi is now accessible in most public spaces.

The question of how much time can only be answered by you? What issues do you need time to address and what time do you need to address them? It completely depends on your organization and the work that you do. 

Four to four and a half hours a week is realistic and helpful for me. Do you use executive time? How much time do you dedicate per week?