By: Laura Fay and Kevin Cuthbert

To say that this past year has been rough would be an understatement. Most of us are ready to happily close the door on 2020, and welcome 2021 with gusto. The prospect of viable vaccines, an economic rebound, office returns, and some semblance of life as we once knew it are enough to motivate us to leave everything from this year in the rearview mirror.

But has it been all bad? We don’t think so. Nor do many of our clients.

As leaders, we’ve had to navigate the white water of too many disruptions to count. It’s required letting go of some our go-to habits and, in many ways, making up new things to help manage the turmoil. For many, this has been a matter of necessity. But that doesn’t mean that it happened by accident, or that it should it be temporary. We often talk with leaders about silver linings emerging from the pandemic, about the new habits they have adopted and see value in continuing.

To that end, we’ve identified a list of the best habits for leaders to hang on to as we head into the “new normal.”

These habits fall under three themes: Balance, Connection, and Effectiveness

  1. Balance: It’s about finding new ways to create, reinforce, or re-create boundaries – in order to hang on to our sanity.
  2. Connection: It’s about influencing and managing around the virtual watercooler. Figuring out how to maintain key relationships that used to happen more naturally.
  3. Effectiveness: And no doubt for all of us, it’s about staying productive and focused in this virtual reality.

We’ll cover these themes and habits in a series of upcoming blog posts.

Finding Balance: Get Your Oxygen Mask

The first habit we will talk about is Balance, and we call it the oxygen mask.

While air travel may feel like a distant memory, most of you know what we mean by this. Road warriors and casual travelers alike could recite the (important, but ever consistent) safety spiel you hear just prior to take off. Put on your oxygen mask before you help others.

Why does your oxygen mask matter? If you can’t get your own head on straight, there’s not a chance you’ll be able to effectively lead your team, inspire your employees, hit your growth targets.

It’s about taking care of yourself and having the self-awareness to know when you need to slow down, take a break, and disengage.

To be fair, this first habit may be one that many of us haven’t yet mastered this year. In this “always on” virtual environment, we find ourselves somehow in more meetings than ever before. We’ve experienced a blurring of lines between home and work. It’s harder to shut down and step away when work is literally right around the corner. For some, it may be even simpler than that – it’s the tendency to ignore the things that could derail your day, your energy level, your focus, and your patience.

But it’s not too late, and it’s not an insurmountable challenge. Consider these examples, and how to pivot your thinking.

1.   Learn to track your triggers to slow the boil to a simmer

We have been working with a leader who in non-COVID times travels more than 50%. The time away was taxing on him and his family, and he was spread too thin. Rather than being more effective, it left him without enough quality time to spend with his peers, directs, or himself – reflecting, planning, preparing for future demands. The time constraints started to build up, and the client was known to fly off the handle on more than one occasion. Enter 2020: Zero travel.

We talked with him about how to use that newfound space to become a better leader. The client landed on embracing a calmer, more composed approach to work and relationships. Together, we developed a “Trigger Log” to identify the circumstances and events that most often would lead him to fly off the handle. Every time the leader recognized either the physical (heart racing, shallow breath) or verbal (lashing out, curt tone) signs, he would capture it in the log. Over time, that self-awareness and documentation exercise led to fewer outbursts, and fewer line items in the log. A little bit of space and reflection, and he was able to completely shift his leadership style and importantly – how his team responded to him.

So you know what sets you off…. Then what do you do? We recommend a tool called ABCD/D to help you manage your response.

Take one (or more) of these five steps:

  • Ask: Pose a question or two to buy yourself time rather than blurting out your opinion.
  • Breathe: Take a few seconds to breathe—concentrate on slowing your breathing and heart rate.
  • Count: Count up to 5 or 10, allowing time to consider how to respond constructively.
  • Drink: Take a sip of water to buy a little more time, think up a question, or get your thoughts (and emotions!) together.
  • Defer: Delay your response until later. If you’re worked up by an email, don’t respond to it before you have taken a walk or talked it through with a colleague. If someone pushes your buttons at a meeting, tell them that you’ll get back to them later with your thoughts about it.

2.   Take aim at your calendar to clear a path to effectiveness

Sometimes balance isn’t about managing the emotional response, but simply managing your calendar. One of our clients was facing time management challenges driven by excessive meetings. In her case, 71 meetings – in ONE WEEK. Even if she were able to attend all of them, who in their right mind would be able to function effectively with that schedule, let alone contribute meaningfully?

Together, we talked through a concept Bates consultant Elizabeth Freedman highlighted in a recent Forbes article: the ‘meetings car wash.’

  1. Audit your current meeting schedule: Do you need to be there for all of them or can you delegate? What would you lose if you stopped going? Does the meeting have a clear, necessary purpose? What would it be like if you cut your number of meetings in half?
  2. Make small improvements: Tighten up the list of participants, meet less frequently, designate “non-meeting days” to catch up.
  3. Focus on meeting excellence: Have guidelines for how you’ll operate in meetings – such as set agendas, time constraints, meeting minutes – to keep everyone focused on the stated objective of the meeting.

3.   Set yourself up for success: How to avoid needing your oxygen mask in the first place?

Here’s the thing about the oxygen mask – if you’re hearing that message over the loudspeaker – literally or figuratively – you’re already in crisis mode, planning for the emergency. So how do you avoid needing the oxygen mask at all?

By consistently assessing how you approach life and work and setting yourself up for success.

Lack of planning, poor time management, and an inability to head off derailers can shake us off balance. Particularly in this environment, we try to go from one thing to the next, and often don’t do any or all of them well.

Here are some key things to consider – professionally AND personally:

  • Commit to specific goals: Have a target for what you need to accomplish – for the day, for the week, for the month. Be specific. Figure out what needs to be done to hit those goals, write them down, and refer to them daily. Otherwise, you’ll spin your wheels trying to navigate conflicting demands.
  • Prioritize ruthlessly: Apply a weighting or ranking to those activities. Start with high value/high impact/time sensitive work and adjust as you check those off the list.
  • Get bold and creative to manage interruptions: Recognizing you have limited availability, practice techniques to use that time wisely. Invite “Office Hours” to avoid constant drop-ins. Learn to say no to requests and projects (as long as you explain why). Keep another log – are there particular frequent interrupters or topics? Preempt them with upfront communications.
  • Disarm the procrastination enemy: Apply a little psychology – what is the real reason why you push things off? Is it boring? Are you afraid of failure? Is it complex work? Once you know what gets in the way, you can adjust. Reward yourself for completing the project. Have an accountability partner. Eliminate distractions.
  • Master your scheduling domain: Be realistic about what you need to be effective. Now is the time to be selfish. Schedule time in your calendar to prepare for meetings – not just attend them. Make time for reading emails, so you don’t multitask. And importantly – schedule in personal time: for meals, stretching breaks, time away from the computer.

If we’ve learned nothing over the past 8-10 months but that times are a changing, that alone makes the case for us to shift how we plan for what’s ahead. Keep the good habits, drop the bad ones. Our advice? To be the most balanced leader you can be, put on your oxygen mask. Find ways to demonstrate restraint, revamp your meeting demands, and take control of your calendar. Prioritize your projects. With some self-awareness and space for reflection, you’ll have renewed energy to connect with others – the topic of our next blog post! Stay tuned.

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