The Chief Executive of a well known Australian enterprise engaged me last year to coach him through a difficult period. Unplanned changes to the Executive Team, misfiring technology implementations, and slow growth in a new channel were creating a lot of 'noise' for the CE across the organisation and with a somewhat divided Board.
There were many technical challenges (structure, processes, financials), but the real issues were the complex adaptive challenges (Board confidence, strategy execution in a tough environment, developing a new team), which required the CE to engage and communicate widely, have some tough conversations, deal with an enormous amount of data and range of opinions, and then make strong decisions where there were no right answers, and plenty of opposing views and critics.
We decided to adopt one single theme for his personal performance plan: Clear Mind in the Moments that Matter.
The reason was straightforward, because like most high performers the Chief Executive had the technical skills and knowledge to do a good job, the challenge was for him to bring his best self to the big moments such as high stakes conversations and interactions, presentations and decisions.
Accordingly, we co-created a program of mindful practices and 'in-the-field' activities (based on a performance psychology model) to support him to achieve his personal and business aims.
Here is a brief run through of the four elements of the model and how he worked to make each of them a contributor to performance in those big moments.
My view from many years preparing and debriefing athletes and others who need to perform in key moments is that a clear mind is built on four components or principles: Composed, Focused in the Moment, Simple Plans, and Adapting Quickly.
Take a moment and reflect on the mindset you bring to your best moments. Can you see those four principles at play? Perhaps you can also see what happens when they're not working for you?
The reason we prioritised a clear mind as the foundation for sustainable high performance was because clarity is the key to being the best you can be in just about any important situation.
The Chief Executive settled on three key ways that he wanted a clear mind to benefit and amplify his leadership effectiveness:
How important is a clear mind to you? For most people it is valuable for business, and is also a life skill with benefits for sport, learning and any aspect of life.
Let's briefly explore the four principles and examples of tools and techniques which can help to create clarity.
Composure is many things. It’s calmness and poise in tense moments, it’s patience to deal with frustrations and setbacks, and it’s accepting the ups and downs of business and life.
There are many performance psychology techniques and tools to help build composure, and the most effective are generally based on mindfulness practices which help to reduce the enemy of composure which I covered in the previous blog. Emotional Reactivity.
With the CE we focused on three approaches over a three month period. First was a basic stillness meditation on a daily basis, second a centered breathing method popular with Olympic athletes to use in the middle of action, and third a reflection activity which addressed and toned down his rather too active inner critic.
Minds go to what interests them, which means we’re often not giving full attention to the moment. At the heart of mindfulness is the skill to patiently bring your distracted mind back to the present, which is the only place where you can be present in conversations, and to make effective decisions.
To develop focusing skills the CE continued to practice the stillness technique (so he strengthened the way he regulated his attention), and we used some of the work by Greg McKeon from his book Essentialism, to help address priorities and tradeoffs. (This book is the one I have most recommended to clients in the past year).
Simplicity is knowing and doing the basics, playing to your strengths and leaning into the pressure. “Simple” consistently delivers under pressure; complicated doesn’t.
For a Chief Executive or any leader, there is great power in using a Go-to-Plan as described in an earlier blog. This means asking yourself three questions in any situation:
Leadership Teams (and sport teams) benefit from the ritual of creating Go-to-Plans whenever they are facing disruption and uncertainty.
Adaptability is the key to playing in unpredictable and fast changing conditions. It’s thinking on your feet and using “learning loops” to Align, Collaborate and Learn (ACL).
The Chief Executive realised that he was too slow in spinning the ACL loop in many of his key relationships. For example, he needed a fast ACL loop with the Chair of the Board so there were no gaps in understanding of decisions and impacts of execution. His Executive Team also lacked a disciplined cadence to have frank debriefs which are essential to responding at pace and with quality to volatile conditions.
You don't need to be a Chief Executive to benefit from a clear mind. We all face important moments in our daily lives. They can be the high stakes conversations, presentations or difficult decisions. That's why I strongly encourage everyone to put in a deliberate effort to bring a clear mind to the moments that matter.
For the Chief Executive our end of year debrief was very positive, and highlighted the great progress he'd made as a leader, and in the position of the business.
If you are wondering what specific actions you might take after reading this blog, I'd suggest considering the principles of a clear mind as something like a chess game. Composure is the king and focus is the queen. With those two in place you are better placed to keep it simple and adapt fast.
Recently the CE recontacted me to explore how forging the same 'Clear Mind Strategy' that we used in 2019 might help his leaders deal with the complexity of the recovery phase of COVID-19.
Like any group of potential high performers, the leaders can likely benefit from bringing a clear mind to the challenge. However, one aspect to address is a shared definition of what it meant by a clear mind, because based on an initial teleconference with the group it seems that some team members (probably the more task-focused people) think it's just about having a well organised things to do list.
That's part of it but as we've explored in this blog, a clear mind is a combination of composure, focus, simplicity and adapting fast.
That's going to be even more important as we head through the recovery phase of COVID-19 and seek to rebound to a better place. Is there value for you and your team in also committing to a Clear Mind Strategy?
To learn more about how to create a clear mind for you and your team please feel free to enrol in our no obligation course Leading Through Disruption, which features the five key steps to sustaining performance and psychological wellbeing in challenging times.