When in the Valley, Thrive not Survive

I can vividly still remember three of the toughest days I have ever had as a leader with IP.  The first was some twenty years ago when I was part of a management team that had to inform 850 employees that the mill was closing.  Ten years later, I would stand before approximately 140 people, some of the finest folks I have ever worked with, and tell them our plant was being close as a result of an acquisition (with better assets) in the same market area. Several years later, I would stand in front of about 80 people in a new acquisition located in my home town and inform them that the plant was closing due to a lack of volume in the market area.  I knew many of those folks from high school, and I was quite frankly the only IP person they ever saw or met. 

Those were tough moments.  I can tell you though that in each case, those employees would work the rest of their time injury free, take care of the customers through transition periods with no issues, and maintain productivity levels at or above normal rates.  They also did an outstanding job of prepping the mill/plants for dismantling.  Those were outstanding folks to say the least!

Now, I hope you don’t have to go through any of those issues in your future as a leader.  You are currently though going through some challenging times right now.  Raw material shortages are severely impacting your ability to run productively and take care of your customer base.  You are dealing with ongoing pandemic related issues.  Customer demand is unpredictable from week to week.  On top of that, we are understaffed (hard to hire folks right now) in every facility and absentee rates are higher than normal.  You have your hands full! 

Whether you are leading a shift or a multi-plant complex, let me share just a few thoughts on how to not only lead through tough times, but come out of the “valley” better than before.  I used some of these concepts in those challenging times noted above and actually using some of these right now as well.

  1. Simplify the focus to what is essential for right now.  Work safe and take care of customer base.  By focusing on these two areas, we take care of our people.  We take care of their physical well-being, and we take care of their long term job security (customers drive jobs). 
  2. Communicate these two priorities to everyone in your area of leadership.  People need to know what our top focus is and why it should matter to them.  By understanding why it matters to them, they are much more likely to engage and help!  (no guarantees, but much more likely)
  3. Shorten the increments of time you manage within.  When uncertainty grows, we have to scale down and focus on the “right now” to ensure we execute at a high level on what’s most important today.  I am not saying big picture doesn’t matter, but if we don’t execute today, the month won’t make any difference.  The question is what do we have to do today to keep everyone safe and take care of our customers.
  4. Utilize this opportunity to streamline your operation to what really matters.  Refine the customer base to what “fits” your plant identity and capability.  Drive reliability focused efforts every chance you get (after people and customers are taken care of for the day).  Don’t just wait to come out of the “valley” better equipped for long term success, make the most of your time in that valley as you work your way out.  Don’t miss this unique opportunity to refine, reform, and realign your operation. 

You are no doubt leading in some tough times.  Embrace it and lead well.  Real leaders come to the forefront in tough times.  That’s when you are needed the most.  Simplify the focus.  Communicate why it matters. Shorten your time focus.  Finally, utilize the opportunity to thrive not just survive. 

Where’s Your Clock

I came to IP from the world of public accounting approximately 30 years ago.  I took a controller job at a multiwall bag plant which operated adjacent to a paper mill at that time.  One of the primary directives that I was given by the corporate finance group (along with the plant manager) was to improve the financial results and get the internal control system and financial reporting in order.

I recall one of the first observations I had during my time in the plant was this long line of employees at the time clock at 2:45 with a similar number of employees hanging around outside the building waiting to go in until around 3:15 or so.  After observing this issue on different shifts for several days, I asked the HR manager what was going on.  He explained that there was some old language in a union contract that allowed for a 15 minute grace period before and after shifts that was misunderstood and resolved years ago, but no one ever dealt with it on the floor with the workforce. 

So, this facility was in effect losing 90 minutes of day of potential production time each day because no one wanted to deal with the matter.  Now, don’t get me wrong.  The management team and supervisory group in this plant were some great people.  Most of them worked their way up to these levels from entry level jobs over the years. I grew to enjoy working with them so much for the five year period I was there.  Also, I got to know many of the hourly workers and found them to be a terrific group of people as well.  We didn’t need to implement more rules or change the contract.  We didn’t need to replace anyone.  We just needed to address an issue with all parties involved and get that production time back for the benefit of everyone in that plant.  You see, the plant was not servicing customers on time (working a lot of weekends), was not performing well financially, and there was questionable job security for that business.  There was a clear “win” for everyone involved.  

We took care of that issue with no real scars.  My question for you is where is your time clock?  No, not the actual time clock on a wall, but where is the issue that you are not addressing?  Where is that issue in your plant, your shift, your department that has just been ignored and needs to be dealt with by the leader?

You see, you are building a culture in your plant/shift/department whether you realize it nor not.  What you allow, ignore, or put up with will eventually become the norm, the standard, and ultimately the culture of your operation.

If you talk about safety in a meeting, but don’t enforce those expectations on the floor, then your culture is that safety is just something we talk about, not something we do.  If you rely on others to be the safety police for your people, then your cultural reflects that you really aren’t the leader that they are accountable to, but rather just a supervisor/manager in title only.  If we talk about the importance of machine cleaning and reliability, but don’t make sure it gets done correctly, then our culture will reflect that misrepresentation as well.  I can go on and on about taking care of customers and other operational issues, but I think you get the point.

You see culture reflects more than just what we talk about.  It reflects what we expect, what we enforce, and what we execute on.  Our actions do speak much louder than our words! 

So I ask you again, where’s your time clock?  Take ownership of your area of influence and responsibility.  You need to own it!

A February to Forget

Typically, I write a leadership message based on prior experiences and key learnings that I have had in the past.  This month, I think it is appropriate for me to be fully transparent with my current challenges to help you with potentially similar issues as you lead others.

You see, February was a tough month in many respects.  We had a serious injury in one of the plants, and I hate to see one of our folks seriously hurt!  This injury was also given a severe designation which brings on a host of issues which can create a challenging experience for months to come. 

We experienced severe winter weather that resulted in almost the entire region of plants losing a complete week of operation.  This weather also caused severe damage at one of our warehouses, and we lost a significant amount of finished product.

If that wasn’t enough, we continue to face operational challenges which are driving our manufacturing metrics the wrong direction and placing burdens on our plant folks that I wish they didn’t have to bear.

So, if one were just focused on pure metric results, it would be easy to just give up now.  We aren’t going to be able to make up for these events this year!  Any leader could easily get discouraged and just write this year off.  Many of you have been there before and some may be there now.

That very fact is why we must look at our roles as leaders in a different light.  I am going to share a few things for consideration to help reshape your thinking, to provide meaning/purpose to your role, and to help you with that discouraging burden you may be feeling right now.

  1. We are in a business with an ultimate goal to go beyond just a calendar year.  Think of it as an infinite game.  While we are given annual goals and annual reviews, the business hopefully goes on well beyond that year end date on a calendar.  I am not diminishing the importance of performance, I am just encouraging us to broaden our view of what we are doing beyond some finite time frame that quite frankly doesn’t coincide with the ultimate goal of business.  The principle here is to lead today and not be defeated by the past!
  2. Leaders always need to stay focused on purpose.  We manage process, systems, and even results, but we lead people.  I spoke to James, the injured employee, this week.  That discussion was awesome.  It reminded me of my purpose and helped me refocus on people.  If our purpose is to lead people, then we are not deterred by obstacles, performance challenges, or setbacks.  The principle here is to stay focused on your purpose!
  3. As we work through difficult times, there will be a lot of negativity in a variety of forms.  We can’t get drawn into that vacuum. We have to further narrow our focus, filter out things that aren’t helpful, and provide a positive approach to those we are leading.  I have quit looking at YTD report summaries, ranking reports, and will not forward such information to others.  It’s just not helpful right now.  I am being very strategic and targeted with communication efforts to address current issues and provide a positive approach to what we are currently doing.  The principle here is to eliminate negative distractions and become laser focused on what’s important now (WIN)!
  4. Lastly, don’t go through challenging times alone.  Discouragement often sets in when one feels like they are alone in the effort.  I suggest we get that core group of folks around us that we trust and can depend on.  Challenging times can solidify a team!  The key principle here is we need each other whether we want to admit it or not. 

If you are going through a discouraging, trying time, I really hope you will give some consideration to the above comments.  I don’t share these as suggestions.  I share these from what has worked for me and what is working for me! 

Oh by the way, I failed to mention that on top of everything else noted, I dealt with mean kidney stone for three weeks in February.  Oddly enough, it left on March 1st.  It was a February to forget!

Attitude Reflects Leadership

My favorite all time movie is “Remember The Titans”.   Based on a true story, the movie is about a couple of football coaches in Virginia that successfully navigate through desegregation in the early 1970’s to bring a group of high school football players together to change not only their school, but a community.  While I think coach Herman Boone, portrayed by Denzel Washington, is a modern day hero for what he led in that school and community, it is an interaction between two players that I will forever remember.  The interaction takes place during a volatile period where the team is divided along racial lines and the two “leaders” confront one another.  “Gary – the team captain” tells “Julius” that his attitude is terrible and that is the main issue with the team. “Julius” responds that attitude reflects leadership. 

That comment is not only a powerful point in the movie, but a great reminder to all of us that lead people.  It causes me to stop and self-evaluate how my attitude or demeanor may be impacting others.  I too often want to just blame others for their attitude, but I wonder how I might be impacting those folks; either by causing their current attitude or by not leading in a manner that would help that individual.

Rather than just suggest that we all be more aware of the “attitude reflects leadership” comment, let’s take a look at some ways that our leadership effectiveness could be impacted by circumstances and how we can navigate through those challenges to be a more effective leader:

  1. The Frustrated Leader:

Sometimes things don’t go as you want and you find yourself frustrated.  That’s definitely happened to all of us at one time or another.  I would suggest to be sure we are asking the right questions and working on the right things.  Frustration often comes from not seeing the results we want over a period of time and that oftentimes can impact not only our leadership, but the attitudes of those we are leading.  Let me illustrate it in this manner:  Before we keep running that same play trying to get that first down unsuccessfully on possession after possession, let’s stop and be sure everyone is blocking the right folks.  Sometimes just asking the right question can change the approach and relieve the stress.

Be sure you are asking the right questions

  • The Worn Out Leader

Sometimes leaders can just be tired and find themselves running on empty.  I know we have found ourselves to be more irritable and short with folks when we are tired or mentally/emotionally drained.  Leadership is tough and can be wearing on anyone at times.  The more responsibility and level of influence, the greater the potential to suffer burnout, fatigue, or just wear out.  You have to take care of yourself first.  You can’t lead others if you are running on empty.  Let me illustrate it in this manner:  We have all heard the flight attendant explain the oxygen bag process of taking care of yourself before taking care of small children or those needing assistance.  Can you imagine how hard that would be for a parent, but how essential it would be to follow those directions.  We can’t be helpful to others if we aren’t taking care of ourselves first.  We lead and influence others out of the overflow of our lives.  Plan time to get rest.  Listen to folks that inspire and encourage you.  Get away when you need to, get some rest, and build yourself up regularly. 

Be sure you take care of yourself.

  • The Overwhelmed Leader

Finally, aren’t we all prone to lose perspective at times?  We lose sight of our true focus because of outside influences and challenging circumstances.  Those issues can no doubt lead to frustration.  That frustration impacts everyone around us.  To combat this loss of perspective, we need to ensure we have clearly defined purpose in our lives and that purpose needs to be focused on “who” and not just “what”.  If we can stay grounded in that purpose, we tend to maintain focus and not lose perspective.  The proper perspective in leadership allows us to remain calm, stay on course, and provide solid leadership even in the midst of a “storm”.

Be sure you stay focused on your purpose

While I agree that attitude is the one thing everyone has complete control of every day, I do agree with Julius that leaders can have a great deal of impact on the attitudes of those they lead.  The more engaging we are as leaders, the more the culture changes in the plant, and the better the overall attitudes are in the plant.  While we are engaging, be sure we are aware of the above factors as those can undermine our efforts if we aren’t careful.

A Year Worth It

I recently watched a movie over the holidays titled “The Secret – Dare to Dream”.  That movie had several scenes and statements that were pretty profound.  One of these statements from a main character was, “I am not asking for life to be easy, but I do want to know that it’s worth it”.  You don’t have to know the plot of the movie to relate to that comment. 

We have all just come through a very difficult year and have many of those same challenges facing us in 2021.  I know my list of concerns that I reflect on early every morning just seems to get longer!  So life is not easy right now for any of us, but that’s not the point.  The point is to ensure, in light of what we are going through, the impact we are having as leaders make it worth it. 

With that framework in mind, here are a few thoughts for all of those in leadership roles to consider as we start a new year:

  1. Do something hard every day.  Several years ago, I started getting up at 5AM to workout.  Those workouts have a predefined objective to ensure I push myself to be uncomfortable every day.  You see, not only do I want to get the benefit of regular exercise, but I want to continue being comfortable with being uncomfortable.  That hard task every morning sets the tone for the rest of the day.  Your focus may be something other than an early morning workout, but there is benefit for a leader to embrace hard things daily to develop the habit of addressing challenges!  You pick what you do, but do something hard daily!  Be uncomfortable in 2021.
  2. Encourage someone daily.  Several years ago, I put a list of people in my phone that I thought might need encouragement in a specific area of their life.  I review this list daily to see who I can call, text, schedule a meeting with, etc. to be an encouragement for them.  I have added to that list over the years, and it is quite extensive today.  As a leader, make a point to encourage someone every day.  That single act alone may lead to that day being worth it.  Be an encourager in 2021.
  3. Invest in yourself regularly.  I try to read, listen to podcasts, or find some ways to continue to learn and grow as a leader each week.  We don’t ever need to quit learning or growing.  If we stop growing, we are losing ground.  Nothing stays the same; we either grow or die.  Think of it this way:  We lead and benefit others out of the overflow in our lives.  If we are running on empty, we have nothing to share and nothing to impact others.  Fill your tank regularly this year.  Be an investor in 2021.

As you can see, this message is really for anyone, but I do want to focus on the leadership aspect as that factor enables us to impact others.  Life will bring challenges at times.  Life and work will not be easy.  The real question we have to ask ourselves:  Is It Worth It?  Let’s make sure we can answer that with a yes for 2021!

Don’t Quit

Today is Pearl Harbor Day if you don’t remember; the day the US was forced to engage in WW 2.  I recall reading the account in history and watching the movies  depicting that attack on Pearl Harbor.  However, one of my favorite movies relates to a battle that occurred six months later; the Battle of Midway.  That battle was a huge turning point in WW2 (a terrific example of strategy and execution working together), and I have watched both the older and newer versions of movies about that battle several times.  One line I recall from the movie is the  admiral of the US Fleet, when learning the exact coordinates of the enemy fleet, giving the order to turn the carriers into the wind and prepare to launch the planes.

While I am not an expert on carrier takeoffs, I understand that in WW 2, flight decks on carriers were not that long.  To ensure the planes got the needed lift required to clear the edge of the flight deck, they needed the wind pushing against the wings to generate the necessary lift.  Today, even with advanced catapult systems, carriers still turn into the wind for takeoff.

Think about that comment for a moment.  Carriers turn into the wind, to face resistance, to enable the plane to take off safely.  The planes must face resistance to do what they were made to do.  The planes must go into that headwind to achieve their purpose.

Isn’t that also true of leadership.  The need for leaders comes to the forefront when time get tough, when the headwinds are against us, and when the pathway is no longer clear.  It’s these challenges or headwinds that enable leaders to do what we are called to do. 

I can’t think of a time where leaders were needed more. Regardless of your function, there are more challenges now than I have ever seen before.  We need leaders embracing that calling and meeting these challenges!  Just three quick thoughts on embracing the challenges:

  1. Calm the situation
  2. Clarify the focus
  3. Communicate the plan

When times are tough and the challenges seem overwhelming, calm everyone down and ensure we are under control.  Make sure we all are focused on the right things and not letting the distractions of the obstacles cloud that view.  Cleary communicate what needs to be done.  That’s leadership. 

I will close with an excerpt from a poem I recall from my teenage years titled “Don’t Quit”.  I recall the beginning and end of that poem:

When things go wrong as they sometimes will

When the road you’re trudging seems all up hill

When care is pressing you down a bit

Rest if you must, but don’t you quit.

And you never can tell just how close you are

It may be near when it seems so far.

So stick to the fight when you’re hardest hit

It’s when things seem worst that you must not quit.

I know many of you are tired right now.  Don’t give up on leading.  We need you now more than ever.  Be what you were called to be!

From Tenant to Owner

My wife and I had been married a little over four years when we purchased our first home.  We had rented various apartments and condo’s through several moves prior to that purchase.  I still remember that first house.  It was built back in the 1940’s and had been renovated at least one time.   We painted every room in that house during the first few months we were there.  I would eventually paint the kitchen cabinets, build a fence/gate to the backyard, rework the flower beds, and so many more things.  We really took pride in that house.  We addressed things timely that needed to be done with the money we had available.  

That experience was so different from our rental years of letting things go because it wasn’t our responsibility.  On larger things we would just call the owner and turn the problem over to them; that’s what renters do!  We knew we would only be there temporarily, so we never really got too  caught up in long term commitment type discussions about those places.

I share that story because our workplaces often have the same feel to them.  If we have employees that come in every day and view themselves at tenants, then you can get a picture of how they respond to the work environment.  They come in, wait to be told what to do, meet the expectation, but never really get fully committed or fully involved.  Maybe they view themselves as just passing through until something better comes along.

However, if we can lead people from that tenant mentality to owner view, then we start to see the real capability of a team working together.  People that view themselves as “owners” take a different level of pride in their work, their workplace, their view of customers, and their interaction with coworkers.  Safety awareness and overall involvement is heightened.  Quality of work and the product produced is more closely monitored when ownership is established.  Machine care and reliability are taken to a different level when people see themselves as “owners” of the equipment.

So how do we lead our employees from tenant to owner when most naturally come to work thinking tenant?  Here are five quick thoughts for you to consider as you lead your team:

  1. Communicate: share information openly about what’s important, how we are doing, and how everyone can be a part of making a difference.  Always get it back to why it should matter to them.  It’s not about the Company in this discussion, but rather why it matters to the individual.  Remember, you are leading that individual to be part owner with you.  (what’s in it for them)
  2. Ask Questions:  get input from your team and include them in the decision making process as much as possible on things that involve them. You can’t always do what they suggest, but do what you can to bring them further into the decision making process; even if it is just small stuff.  When we start valuing what people think and not just what they do, we are on our way!
  3. Use the Right Pronouns:  When talking about the plant, talk in terms of our plant, what we have to accomplish, our customers, etc.   Stay away from “I”, “me”, “their”, etc.   Inclusive conversational focus is the key.  Don’t talk departments in the plant either.  It’s all about “we” and “our”.
  4. Take and Defer:  The leader takes responsibility (publicly) for the team not doing well and defers (publicly) the recognition to the team when things do go well.  The leader builds credibility here.  People follow leaders that have credibility and will likely take on more ownership when that happens.
  5. Empower:  Last, but certainly not least, is the need to give people an opportunity to make decisions, work independently, and assume responsibility.  Hey, we may have some short term setbacks along the way, but the long term benefits of ownership (if done right) far exceed the momentary setbacks.

I am essentially talking about what the company and industry refer to as employee engagement.  That’s just a fancy word for taking ownership. 

As you think about how we wrap up a very challenging year with so many obstacles in the way, give some thought to how we can create a culture of ownership in our plants and our teams.  We sure need more owners now more than ever!

Leading Safety – Less is More

I started this communication process back in 2016 and save the messages to a blog posting site just to keep a record in the event anyone would want to refer back to one of them (59 messages).  That site is open to folks outside IP.  I noticed a while back that the message most read (by far) was a message several years ago entitled Leading Safety.  In fact, I think this message might have been read as many times as all others put together.  There must be a strong interest in that subject matter.

With that in mind, I want to revisit that subject, but from a very different perspective.

You see, over the years, I have learned that simplicity and execution make a huge difference in anything I get involved in.

Let me give an example outside of our basic job function.  I have followed Texas High School football for years.  One coach that I keep up with due to his longstanding success is Todd Dodge.  Dodge has won state championships at Southlake Carroll in Dallas and more recently Westlake High School in Austin.  He is known for his high powered offenses that throw the ball all over the field.  I talked to one of his former players a while back and learned that although Dodge has a very thick playbook, he and his staff only select 8 passing plays each week based on what they see on film and think will work the best.  They work on these 8 plays each day of practice leading up to the game and focus on precision execution.

If that isn’t the picture of strategic simplicity and focused execution, I don’t know what is.

Now let’s take that same concept to leading safety with three key focus areas that really drive safety:

  1. Environment:  Do we have a safe working environment for our people?  That question entails guarding, gates, energy control processes on machines, walking surfaces/handrails, and anything else that would inherently provide layers of protection for our people while they do work.
  2. Equipping:  Are we effectively teaching our people how to do work and how to recognize and respond to hazards?  You likely call it training; I call it equipping.  As we introduce people to the work environment, we have to prepare them to work safely.  We give them knowledge, PPE, and processes to do their work safely.
  3. Engagement:  Are we ensuring everyone maintains focus (all the time)?  Leaders engaging employees and employees engaging employees is the most effective way to maintain focus.  With any initiative involving people, fatigue, distractions, complacency, frustration, etc. can impact focus.  For leaders to overcome these challenges, we not only need to engage others, we have to develop a culture of engagement where everyone is engaging all the time.  Part of that engagement is a culture of personal accountability as well.

If we could build our strategy around those three key things and execute them with extreme precision, we would see lasting change in leading safety.  Our tendency, if we aren’t careful, is to just keep throwing more activities at the challenge.  Sometimes, less is more. 

How does this work for you leading your team; Strategic simplicity coupled with precision execution as our focus?

When to Quit Pushing

The summer before my junior year in high school, I got a job at an apartment complex.  It was just down the road from the apartments that we lived in.  The complex was very large and had a lot of grass to mow.  The manager of the complex was a retired Air Force colonel and was very specific in what he wanted done.  My job was to clean the pool every morning from 7 to 7:45 and then to mow/edge/trim for the remainder of the day.  He wanted the grounds mowed every 7 days and said it would take me that long to finish one round.

I was given a green Lawnboy push mower and a gas weedeater that first day and went to work.  Near the end of day two I had finished mowing and was starting on the edging and trimming.  The colonel was not sure of my getting everything done and made a trip around the complex in his golf cart to inspect.  When he got back he asked me how I was able to get all that done in two days.  Using the same mower, the same amount of grass to mow, and having no special skills, I just said I am not sure, I just keep pushing.

Now there’s a lot to be said of that comment for all of us.  There’s a trait there that we all need.  We all need to persevere at times and just keep plowing through tough times and obstacles.  However, I have overused this trait at times and made some big mistakes too.  You see, there are times, after we have “pushed” for a while and not seen the results we need or the outcomes we are looking for that we need to stop and ask two very basic questions.

  1. Are we doing the right things (strategy/plan)?
  2. Are we doing the things right (execution)?

Those two questions have the exact same words, but totally different meanings.

When we stop and evaluate if we are doing the right things, we are really challenging whether those things (if done correctly) will lead us to a successful outcome.  I have worked really hard and persevered on things in the past and failed because the strategy/plan was just wrong.  Success had nothing to do with hard work or perseverance.

Think of it this way, a football coach develops a game plan (set of plays) that he thinks will work against the opponent.  That’s the strategy for the game.  As leaders in any business, we deal with strategy/plans too.  We have sales plans to target the right business.  We have operating plans to take care of equipment, to run efficiently, and to ensure quality.  To ensure you have the right strategy/plan, forget pride.  Ask people with experience and/or proven success in the area you are struggling.  Your  job is not to figure it out on your own as a leader; rather your job is to use all the resources possible to get the results needed.  So before “pushing” any more, ask that simple question:  Are we doing the right things?

After you are convinced we are doing the right things (or made changes to the right things), then evaluate if we are doing those things right (execution).  Take an honest assessment through observation, evaluation, and questioning.  Are we really doing what we are supposed to do without compromise, on a consistent basis, all the time, and executed properly?  Going back to the football coach example of game plan being strategy, execution is running the plays correctly during the game (all 11 players carrying out their assignment, on every play, to the best of their ability, throughout the entire game).  Great plans fail without solid execution.  Good plans succeed with solid execution!

Don’t get frustrated if you aren’t getting results.  Stop and ask those two questions.  Get some wise counsel.  Observe what’s going on around you.   Make adjustments as needed.  Leaders have to consistently ask those two questions and make adjustments.  Yes, there are times to keep pushing, but there are also times to stop and ask!

Yes, this message applies to individuals, groups, leaders, etc.  You pick any area of life, and this message is applicable.

Oh ya, my reward for finishing that mowing so quickly was the opportunity to help apply hot asphalt roofing to the complex’s flat roofs.  Nothing like pulling those buckets up three stories with a rope onto the roof and spreading that liquid in 100+ degree sunshine!   Fun Times!

Leading in a Pandemic – Finish Strong

For the last five years, I have gotten up at 5AM to work out during the week. On weekends, I start a little later and tend to go a little farther on the running portion. I distinctly recall a run several weeks ago that I tried to stretch out several miles farther. For me, that was a stretch. Coming back with about one mile to go, I was out of gas. I was struggling, tired, ready for it to be over and just wanted to stop.

That last sentence probably sounds a lot like the way many leaders feel right now dealing with a pandemic and trying to lead through all these new obstacles, on top of all the normal challenges.

As I approached that last mile, I saw a muscular looking guy standing on the side walk, buzz cut, and wearing a marine corps t-shirt. I spoke first, as my normal custom, but his response is what I remember. He said, “Finish strong brother”. Now, I have run that route for five years and have never seen him before. I didn’t know him, and have not seen him since then. But you know, after he said those words, I picked that pace up, lengthened those strides, and pushed through that last mile at a pretty good clip. Here I was not wanting to disappoint someone I didn’t know that merely spoke three words to me.

Encouragement to finish strong is a powerful message. I don’t know what you are finishing, but I want to encourage you to finish strong too. Whether you are trying to finish the day, the week, the month, the year, or the pandemic, finish strong!

Here are some ideas on how to do that:

1. Narrow the focus and simplify. In times of added pressure, new obstacles, or too many variables, narrow what you are focused on and simplify the messaging to the people. Safety focus, Covid focus, and taking care of customers (reliability is huge piece of taking care of customers) is the essential focus right now! These are the three basic focus areas for any business. Communicate that message, lead in that manner, and execute those areas at a high level.
2. Take time each day to stop, assess, reflect, and re-engage. Many leaders are too busy being busy and not effective. Be more intentional with your focus and more impactful. More time doesn’t make you a better leader. Rather, more impact makes you a better leader.
3. Utilize all the resources available to you when needed. Ask for help, get support, throw pride out the door, and stay focused on your team’s success and not personal agendas.
We don’t need leaders operating on an island trying to be a hero. Get a break from the action when you need it.
4. Once the basics (#1 above) are in place, identify where you can improve something each week. Maybe it’s improvement in the work environment for your people. Maybe it’s something operational that would really improve business results. Keep it simple, but don’t ever stop improving things; even in challenging times. Our people need to see us moving forward and not just surviving.
5. Be a great communicator and encourager daily! People need to hear from leaders at all levels now more than ever. Be open, transparent, honest, and always leave them with hope.

Hey, I don’t know if that dude on the side of the road was a real marine or was an angel. What I do know is that this random encounter sure impacted how I dealt with pain and fatigue. We all need to finish strong in whatever we are doing!