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Leadership Moments

Your Productivity Jumps in a “State of Flow.”​ How Are You Helping Yourself?

October 23, 2019

Work can feel at times like a relentless grind. That creates a particular challenge for leaders, who are always being watched carefully by their employees, as their energy, positive or negative, can be infectious. Karen Vander Linde, a colleague at The ExCo Group. who was a global practice leader at PwC, shared her insights on the importance of staying in the flow zone, and other crucial leadership challenges.

Q. What were some early influences for you?

A. The biggest influence in my life was my mother. I was in a home that was plagued by mental illness and domestic violence, and my mother was a victim of it, as was I on occasion, but my mother much more so. And she never lost her optimism for life. She never stopped being there for other people.

She did divorce my father, which I wish she had done many years before, but she didn’t do it until she knew she could support four kids on her own. And then she ended up finding the love of her life in her 50s and lived the rest of her life in a very happy relationship.

Her ability to work through all that – to suffer and then rise above it – really taught me the beauty of both resilience and risk-taking. That helped form who I am in terms of always wanting to be on the edge in business. My approach is to “design, develop and disappear” because I like to be there to design and develop something new and then leave it in good hands to manage while I go on to the next thing. My mom is one of the reasons I am that way.

Q. What are the themes that come up most often when you’re advising senior executives?

A. People are much more conscious and more overt in their discussions about culture than they used to be. Getting people to align in terms of the behaviors you want is critical because of the disruptive environment we’re in. If you want to drive innovation and you’re a highly analytical, data-based company, you have to make sure that taking risks is encouraged.

People have to feel free to think differently and bring up new ideas, and not always think like their boss. You need to have the processes that will drive innovation forward and cut it off when it’s not working. For teams in this environment, even one renegade who does not want to adopt to a new way of working can cause a lot of problems.

    “Treat innovation tracks differently than you treat traditional business tracks.”

You also have to treat innovation tracks differently than you treat traditional business tracks. If you are measuring them on the same expectations of return on investment, you’re going to be shooting yourself in the foot. Even the accounting of how you deal with innovation has to be different. It’s about getting the balance, with the right amount of structure while not being over-structured.

Q. What are some other themes that come up?

A. One thing that’s really important for leaders at all levels, particularly those who are moving up into a new leadership role, is managing your mindset. If you get into the flow state, the zone, you can be 500 percent more productive than when you’re not in that zone, according to one study I read.

This is important not just for productivity. Leaders often forget they are on stage, with people analyzing their facial expressions and body language. They can so easily give people the wrong impression that they’re angry or out of step with the conversation. That’s not something a leader can afford.

You have to be aware of how you’re projecting yourself. Am I in the right state of mind and how do I keep myself in the right state of mind? Often executives get so overworked that they easily fall out of their zone. It’s really important for a leader to say, when I’m in my zone, how do I look, how do I feel and how do others feel around me? When I’m out of my zone, how do I look, how do I feel and how do others feel around me?

Then they need to ask, what can I do for myself to keep myself in my zone as much as possible? Often it’s about good physical and mental health and taking a break once in a while to do things outside of work that give you pleasure, so that you show up with your best game.

Q. So much of that starts with self-awareness, and people do have their blind spots.

A. That’s why you have to be open to getting feedback from those who are closest to you. You need to have confidants who will tell you, “Hey, that didn’t work out so well. This is the impression you gave. I know it’s not what you wanted, but it’s the impression that you gave, and it’s time for a redo.” You can recover from that type of thing easily.

Q. I can imagine some people saying, “That sounds great, but I’m drowning in work and constantly putting out fires, and I don’t have the time or energy to stay so centered.”

A. So the message is, what changes do you need to make? How do you manage your time differently? What do you need to drop? People often struggle with time management. They’re not spending their time in the right ways, and that leads to a sense that they’re drowning.

Q. Other themes?

A. This one ties into the fact that we’re not a command-and-control environment anymore. Leaders can sometimes underestimate the power and importance building a coalition among your leaders to drive an idea forward. Titles give you status but they do not create the power of influence.

You have to work at getting people to see your perspective. Another benefit in forming coalitions is that your ideas will change and get richer and better because you get other perspectives in the process. That makes the next step of driving the change a lot easier because you’ve had a lot of input, and the coalition you have in the end is a much stronger coalition.

Q. What about you? What have been the most powerful leadership lessons in your career?

A. I made a huge mistake earlier in my career. I was leading a multimillion-dollar engagement over a short period of time, and I did not dig into the weeds enough regarding the financials. It turned out that multiple things had gone wrong, including the initial prediction of the profitability of the job, and the work was going to be far less profitable for my firm than it should have been.

It was not enough to explain the mistakes. I had to address the emotional elephant in the room first. I had to say that I messed up. I did not look behind the initial numbers. I had to admit that I disappointed myself and others. Then I had support for recovery, learning, and future prevention. Plus, once others saw my willingness to be vulnerable, rather than defensive, they too stepped up to own what went wrong and became part of the solution.

    “Bad news early is good news because we can do something about it.”

Because of that lesson, I established for myself what I call my paranoid check. I will not trust initially that something is right. It doesn’t mean I do not trust people, but I make sure that I and others dig into the details enough so that we feel we have conducted a paranoid check. I’m not a finance person, but I became a wizard about always making sure I knew exactly where we were from a financial perspective.

You have to make sure that things are going as planned because surprises can happen, and you don’t want to be surprised late. I’ve always said to my teams since then that bad news early is good news because we can do something about it.

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