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Zoom in and Zoom out

My daughter and I have recently visited the butterfly house in Vienna, where hundreds of colorful flying creatures were causing lots of “AH” and “UH” amongst the handful of visitors. We used our cameras to zoom in and zoom out in order to see the detailed structure and the beauty of the wings. In the next moment we had to zoom out so we could catch a group of wonderful bright blue butterflies enjoying the morning sun high up in the air. It’s not a big deal to zoom in and zoom out on any camera – just using 2 fingers on your phone, right? And both perspectives are essential for me and my daughter in the butterfly house to catch the beauty of the moment – in small detail as well as high up in the air. 

From BIG to small

“Zooming” is not a skillset that recruiters currently look for actively, but it’s my personal synonym for being able to adapt, being agile and nimble, yet not overlooking the beauty of the moment and the bigger picture. To go from “big” to “small” just with a tiny move – like 2 fingers in case of our camera – will allow you in the volatile world to investigate the latest little detail on bites and bytes level and with the blink of an eye change perspectives and see the bigger connections.

We need that type of thinking that allows us to detect patterns, networks, cycles, symmetries on all levels. It’s those dynamic, vivid structures and relationships of people as well as data that play a key role in our digital future. The one who is able to recognize these patterns has a huge advantage to navigate through a fast-paced, complex world. Because this ability does not only help to have guidance in whatever you are doing it also allows to create new, simple, sustainable yet viable solutions on all levels.

There is so much power in this interplay – to zoom in and zoom out with the blink of an eye. Unfortunately, we have been trained to be consistent. To start in one way and not switch right in the next moment. We’ve been encouraged to study 1 subject and become an expert. We’ve been advised to stay with one employer at least for a certain time. We teach our kids to “decide what you want” and stay with their decision. It seems we are constantly tempted to play around with the zoom-factor whilst we are being told to decide for one over the other. 

Right? Wrong! 

The more perspectives you can have, the higher the chances are to discover even more impactful patterns. It’s about sharpening your awareness for the big differences as well as the most obvious commonalities, in the “big” and in the “small” world. In a disruptive environment the one who is able to use the zoom in both ways will be the one ahead of the game. What’s easy to do on a camera for catching the beauty of butterflies, is in the real world of business an art, a true skill that you need to start practicing if you haven’t done so. Give it a try in the next hour: whatever task or challenge comes your way, try to zoom out for a moment to check the perspective and then zoom in within the next minute and see what if you did a deep dive to uncover the underlying patterns….it’s worth a try and both perspectives will be attractive, just like the colorful pattern on the butterfly’s wing as well as the group of butterflies dancing in the air!

The beauty of leaders with a beginner’s mind

You are about to read an article that’s been created for a true leader like you. For a person with significant experience and hundreds of success stories – big and small. For someone responsible for a group of people, maybe 10 maybe 1000. It’s an article for people, who are used to making decisions based on what you know and the information you get from your direct reports. This is for senior people in any organization, who get asked by many next-generation leaders for being their mentors because you seem to know how business works.

But what if things are needed upside down? What if you had to change perspectives completely for continuing your success story as a leader? What if your perception of how much you “know” and how much you “don’t know” has a tremendous impact on your performance as a leader – tomorrow more than today? This calls for the need to try a different approach. 

There is an ancient story about a ZEN-master I was told lately by a very wise woman: A long time ago, there was a wise Zen master and many people would seek his advice and guidance because they valued his experience and wisdom. Many would come and ask him to teach them the way of Zen. One day an important man came to visit this Master and asked to teach him about ZEN. His voice was very direct and decisive, like the voice of a man who used to get what he wanted and get things done “his” way. The Zen master smiled and offered to discuss this over a cup of tea. Whilst the Master was preparing the tea, the important man started to brag with all his knowledge about ZEN and all his experiences, all his success stories and how everyone valued his skills about ZEN. Finally, the tea was ready, and the master poured his visitor a cup. He poured and poured and didn’t stop, the tea rose to the rim of the cup and began to spill over the important man’s trousers and shoes. The visitor got angry and said “He stupid ZEN-master, don’t you see what you are doing? You are spilling the tea all over me – don’t you see the cup is full?” The Master smiled, stopped pouring and answered “You are like this cup of tea, so full and convinced of your own expertise, that nothing more can be added. Come back when your cup is empty because only an empty mind is ready for filling.”

The moment you say “I know” you stop your ability to learn more.

The idea of an empty brain is neither something that’s been valued in the past in any leadership position, nor does it make a leader feel comfortable. Whether you are a baby-boomer or a young millennial in a leadership position, chances are high you have never been incentivized for saying “I don’t know, I need to find out”. You’ve probably been hired for or promoted to your current position because of all your experience and expertise and not for asking so many great questions. That’s not a bad thing at all, it just won’t pay the bills for navigating any organization in the complex future, where any great leader must feel comfortable taking on a beginner’s mind. 

Children, for example, are masters in asking the big Why-questions: Why is the sky blue? Why are birds able to fly? Why is it dark at night? As adults, we most likely pretend to know the answers in any given situation. Even if we don’t, we make sure nobody finds out. We try to come up with a quick solution rather than taking time to investigate, trying to find out what’s truly going on or what results in the best possible future outcome. 

Especially as a leader, you are always expected to know the answer. You are expected to get things done and not waste too much time because hey, we are in a hurry! There is no room left for trial and error, for scenario planning, for making mistakes and learning from them, for discussion with your teams which options are available and then taking the time to try a few before deciding for the master-plan to move forward with. 

Maybe it’s time to try a different approach. It is perhaps the time to change perspectives. Maybe it’s okay if you start saying more often “let’s think this through for a moment”. Maybe it’s time to reward teams and people who try out new things rather than giving them kudos for repeating what they’ve done well in the past. 

Maybe it starts with YOU, emptying your very own “cup of expertise” as a leader for a second to allow for some “new tea”….? Where can you take on a beginner’s mind right now?

Can You Lead the Age of Agile?

In this age of agile, all companies seem to be embarking on their digital transformation journey. When I talk to clients on C-level, most of them proudly present their latest automation-project and they talk about starting to look at AI or big data analytics stuff. Many still proudly present their industry 4.0 project they are doing in the production plant right now….but only a handful are truly aware of the importance to prepare their talents with equal attention and effort for the digital change. 

The digital transformation journey with all its corresponding technologies are difficult for most people who grew up and were educated in an industrial-age-type setting. There are 2 dimensions that can be observed these days, where great leaders have an eye on whilst bad leaders just ignore them successfully.

The first dimension is Vision and Clarity: being at the starting line of the digital era, it’s time to focus less on the organization’s but finally more on the individual talent’s vision and clarity. When organizations look at their market and their customer avatars, it’s crystal clear to address their needs and pains on an almost individual level. You would never say “the people in the Chicago metropolitan area all need xyz”. Rather you would cluster them in different buying groups according to their fears, frustrations, wants and desires. But inside the organization itself, we barely look at the perspective and the vision for each individual but we tend to “just” define the big picture on an organizational level and treat all employees – regardless of function, hierarchy, educational and cultural background – more or less the same. We don’t break down the big picture vision into their personal north star!

The second dimension is on mindset: to succeed in the digital buzz, we need to have an entrepreneurial mindset and most importantly a growth mindset. The challenge though is, that we are neither used to nor trained for that! Just taking my daughter as the perfect example here: she is in primary school and every time she gets an exam graded, she has 1 mistake, she never has 19 out of 20 right. So she’s been trained in early days on a fixed mindset but we need talents with a growth mindset, willing to learn and willing to get familiar with all the new technologies over the course of their life and career. 

So which skills do successful leaders need in order to navigate the organization of the future and lead the age of agile?

One would assume the educational system, especially in the western world, should equip us with the needed skills to succeed in our business world. But it doesn’t. Even worse, the skills needed to succeed in the organization of the future are so basic, that we all initially had them, we were born with them, but over the course of our “education” we were taught how to get rid of them. So let’s have a joint look at the top 5 skills needed to lead in the age of agile 

1) visioning – we need to understand that we do not derive from the past what will happen in the future but being able to construct some new future on a canvas and focus your mind on that. Everything starts with a thought but hardly anyone is strong enough to understand the power of that, nor turn that thought into words and these words into a first draft of a vision. And this visioning work has to be done on company, team and individual level.

2) growth mindset – we need to train ourselves, our kids and our co-workers on a growth mindset according to Carol Dweck. It’s about being willing and hungry to learn and to see a challenge as an opportunity to grow, rather than a judgement about yourself. Some refer to this skill as the often-quoted “trial-and-error” or “fail-fast-and-fail-forward” skill

3) collaborative problem solving – we need to learn strategies how to solve problems, how to approach them from different angles and how to solve them collectively with others. I teach at an Austrian university and every time I ask my students to collectively solve the exam questions they are absolutely puzzled – and sometimes they struggle more with the challenge of how to collaborate successfully than with the question itself! 

4) agile way of working – The age of agile means acknowledging that most of us were raised and trained in an order-and-command type of world where we were given a task or responsibility over a process and were expected to stick to the rules, the handbook, the process guidelines. Now it’s time to be incentivized not for 100% compliance but for challenging the status quo, for adopting quickly, for short development cycles, for agile way of working, for changing our mind and procedures if the market changes. This is what will make or break the team success in the digital transformation.

5) business model thinking – we need to foster the skill of thinking like an entrepreneur, constantly looking at what’s going on from a business model perspective and potentially identify new ideas quickly. Many R&D people or innovation department people are used to this type of thinking, but it will be critical that it is installed in every department – from HR to sourcing and all the way to finance as well. 

Being in a leadership position and guiding teams or entire organizations always came along with a high level of responsibility and with having a certain skill set. It’s not any different for the Age of Agile, apart from the fact that current leaders are not used to the tools, nor have they learned the right skills at school. So it’s time now for the truly great leaders who understand how to use their full people potential and who are brave enough to focus on the human dimension rather than the technology. 

Giving myself permission to “Be Me”!

If there is one thing for certain for me in these uncertain times, life is not only extremely complicated, it has become horribly complex. I deal with a whole plethora of different demands these days, but my personal resources available – my body and my mind – remained more or less the same for the last centuries: My fingers are the same, but need to do fast text messaging now instead of doing manual work. My brain – by medical definition – is still the same, but needs to juggle virtual meetings, augmented reality and distance learning instead of interacting with others face-to-face.

Interestingly enough, what remained constant over years though is the advice I have received from the people around me in order to succeed and handle all this complexity: family, friends and colleagues keep telling me I need to try harder to make it to the top – which “top” they are speaking of remains unclear. I am told I should learn and practice more in order to achieve – what to achieve is not being discussed. They tell me I should be grateful for what I have and bring passion to my work – if I’m really clear on my true passion is not being asked. They never talk about how important it is to have the permission to be yourself. To me that sounds like a whole lot of well-intended pieces of advice. However, I am not seeing any gamechanger moves here! Do you?

Getting back in the driver seat of my life and finally getting to where I feel I deserve to be is what I truly want! I do not believe it is a question of age, gender, personality, experience, income or education. I believe it is a question of having the right structures, the right mindset, and the right habits in place. 

It is about giving myself permission to simply “Be Me.”

Starting with myself first does not feel like it has been very in vogue for decades. People say it is considered selfish, egocentric, self-obsessed. But, Hey! How can I possibly hope to guide and lead teams, or entire organizations for that matter, without fully understanding myself first?

As an experienced leader I have mastered the arts of achieving goals, getting things done, and motivating others to follow and to perform. The better I become as a leader, the more I find on my plate. This is mainly because the more I accomplish, the more I am given

The question though is not, if I can do what is being put on my plate, but if it is the right – the most important things – that move the needle for ME? Giving yourself permission to be focus on your things first is simply one aspect of self-care. 

“Be Me” is a call to action for rearranging my focus-laser on me and my life. – It is for you too!

I know – now – that I do not have to deal with all the grins and bear it in order to achieve what matters most to me. I have found this hidden, beautiful trail aside from stressful hustle, overwhelm, and burnout. It is a path where I can trust my resilience and self-confidence muscles, instead of going through painful distraction, fatigue, and frenzy.

I know – now – that there is no trading in health for success because it simply does not work in the long run. It is a rather clear roadmap, which I found that allows me to feel energized, not only on a physical, but also emotional and mental level

I know – now – that I can take on challenges that do not cause any self-doubt or give me the FOMO (*fear of missing out) feeling. I can trust in my abilities and feel confident that I will figure out the best way going forward towards my personal Northstar. 

I know – now – that I can be in a state of true happiness without having my favorite chocolate-cherry-therapy-cake or signing big deals for my business. It is not about working for some illusive monetary trophy or a super-achiever badge. I am now “in it” for the meaning and the impact my work has. 

I know – now – that my role as a leader is for sure not about outperforming my personal past achievements as a lone expert. It’s primarily about adding value to all the other talents around me – guiding them to their own success stories. 

I gave myself permission to “Be Me”. I consolidated all my findings along the way in a Rulebook of Structures, Mindsets and Healthy High Performance Habits that I’ve implemented in my life and that are being constantly fine-tuned. I now share these with talented individuals who can hear their own calling to “Be Me” and it’s one of the most rewarding things seeing others making this transformation themselves. 

Rearranging my personal focus laser on me and my life first was most certainly not a sign of selfish and egocentric behavior. Instead it truly allows me to care better for others now.

Where are you? Have you given yourself permission to “Be Me”? The permission to be yourself is the actual gamechanger that will bring about inevitable positive results.