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?

Life Hack: 3 Great Ways to Use a Planner

I decided to go into 2018 with an actual planner. Yes, an old-school, physical planner. I have to say, my planner is very cute and stylish. Her power pink says “this lady has it together!”.

Did you pick up on the fact that my planner is a “she”?

2018 begins and I have a snazzy planner that makes me feel sophisticated but I struggle to make her useful. I am reliant on my virtual calendar for almost activity that I am committed to so how do I use this planner?

After several planning sessions focused on ways to use my planner, I have three great implementation ideas to make a planner relevant in day to day life.

1. Turning “To Dos” into Scheduled Activities
I have an ever-expanding list of things that I have to do, should do, and would like to do. I use my planner to turn these into action items. Now my to-dos are scheduled and become “to-did”.

The key to scheduling, however, is making sure you don’t try to accomplish everything on your list in one day or even on the same day. Prioritize in order to avoid setting yourself up for failure.

2. Offering small High 5’s
The best thing about having a to-do list is being able to check items off. You feel accomplished. Using my planner to document large and small achievements is motivating.

3. Chunking
We all know that goals are only dreams unless we make them actionable. Even short-term goals need to be chunked out and approached in intervals. I use my planner to establish my goals for the month and schedule activity that contributes to the goal throughout the month.

The most important thing about my planner is that she needs attention. I have to spend time with her. At least once a week, I check in with her to monitor my progress toward what I said I was going to do for the week and what is coming up during the next week.

Whether it is a physical planner or some other method, you have to have a method of logging your goals and holding yourself accountable.

Career Hack: Preparing for a Job Interview

You can run interview questions all day long with experienced professionals but understanding what interviewers are actually trying to gauge with their questions is truly preparing yourself.

How do you prepare to respond to this question: How do you feel our company/organization could be better?

The only way to respond to this type of question is to have actually done research about the company? You have to know how the company or organization operates, what the main products or programs are, information about the industry overall, and who the target audience is.

In your response:

  1. Be honest but don’t be overly critical of the company. Remember, you want to work there.
  2. Provide actionable recommendations in your response. Think about highlighting talents and skills that you will bring to the position.

Career Hack: Remove Useless Lists of Job Skills from your Resume

I know it feels super gangsta being the only one in the office who has mastered using the fax, printer, copy machine combo (if you don’t get the nod to Office Space, do better and watch that movie on whatever streaming service has it immediately).

Before you embark on your search for the movie, ask yourself two questions.

  1. Have you only included relevant, 21st-century skills on your resume?
  2. Does your resume convey who you are as a professional and all that you have to offer?

You are wasting space on your resume if you are listing your ability to use  Microsoft Office or be a team player. These are skills that are expected of any professional in the workforce today.

Use the valuable space on your resume to demonstrate your ability to be a leader or provide excellent customer service (inside and outside of your organization) using professional accomplishments that required those skills.

Check your resume for these out of date job skills that may be clogging your resume and adding no value.  Contact me for help to refresh an old resume.