Monthly Archives: May 2012

Building Competencies for Strategic Thinking

My attention was recently brought to an article written by Paul J.H. Shoemaker that was published a while back in Inc. Magazine entitled, “6 Habits of True Strategic Thinkers“.  Dr. Shoemaker is the founder and Chief Executive of Decision Strategies International, a multi-national strategy firm.  As a former executive strategist who achieved consistent success in both corporate and startup settings, I found this article to be the most concise and spot-on list of the attributes that contribute to adaptive, strategic thinking I’ve ever read.

As I began reading the article, it was readily apparent Dr. Shoemaker was describing the habits and orientation of Transformational Leadership as well.  This isn’t a coincidence.  Transformational Leadership is the visionary, highly inclusive and strategic leadership necessary for successfully navigating the ambiguity and rapidly changing landscape in today’s complex business world.  The habits identified in the article are, in my opinion and extensive experience, immutable.  But how does one go about embracing a shift in perspective to cultivate the competencies necessary to ensure these habits are engrained and embodied congruently?  I’d like to take the habits one-by-one and explore how one might go about developing this modality of thought and perspective in developing both today’s and tomorrow’s leaders.

Anticipate ~ The risk of myopic vision, of being so focused on what’s directly in front of us, keeps us from seeing what may be occurring on the periphery of our awareness.  You’ll quickly catch the theme here; awareness, both of one’s authentic self and an awareness and sensitivity to the needs of others.  Dr. Shoemaker recommends peering to the periphery in search of game changing information.  He also recommends the creation of broad networks to expand your scanning range.  This speaks directly to elevating diversity and inclusion initiatives to the strategic level.  It also speaks for the need for a degree of open mindedness I call spherical thinking.  Of taking divergent thinking, a key phase of the distinctly non-linear creativity process, to a three dimensional level.  The other thing I’d add here is to follow your intuition first, then validate it with your research.  It’s always worked for me.

Think Critically ~ I know this sounds obvious, but it goes beyond challenging the conventional wisdom, industry dogma, and value assumptions of others.  It means challenging your own perspectives and beliefs in order to uncover any hidden biases or blind spots.  To do this requires a journey inward to what Carl Jung called the Shadow of our unconscious mind.  Again, it is our ability to discern between how our mindsets, beliefs and cultural orientation have been conditioned versus what truly is at play…at the crux of the matter.  Research from the field of Applied Behavioral Economics demonstrates we’re not as rational in our economic decision making as we once liked to believe.  Thinking critically also means feeling critically.  Emotions matter in business.  Seventy percent of economic decision making is emotionally based…even in B-to-B transactions!

Interpret ~ Here Shoemaker advises the leader to hold steady during times of ambiguity and not jump to a short-sighted conclusion just to alleviate insecurities.  Seek patterns from wide sources of information and research.  We do this to this day, often finding valuable insights for program development in unanticipated places (i.e. we discovered excellent materials for cultivating creativity in business from research that was intended for a program we’re developing for parents with children with autism).  He goes on to encourage the concurrent testing of multiple hypotheses.  I couldn’t agree more.  An approach I helped develop some years back, called Dynamic Parallel Targeting®, facilitates this very approach.

Encourage others to divergently explore as well and most of all, encourage lively debate!  This rarely happens in organizations that are governed by transactional leadership.  Why?  You got it…it’s about authentic self-awareness.  When we cannot differentiate how we’ve been conditioned to associate our identity with our job title, rather than knowing who we are, as well as what we do, we can have a tendency to take things personally when our professional perspectives and ideas are exchanged.  It’s why nobody wants to challenge the boss and tell the emperor he’s not wearing any clothes.  It is disengaging, and thus destroys creative thinking.  On the other hand, if you encourage people’s core emotions, of their desire for seeking, inclusion, purposefulness and acknowledgement you’ll get open, creative debate and discourse.

Decide ~ Dr. Shoemaker resonates the lessons of a favorite strategist and transformational leader I’ve long admired…Winston Churchill.  Simply put, and to paraphrase Winston, don’t let the better be the enemy of the good.  Make a decision, even under imperfect circumstances.  My military training resonates with this message as well.  Break down your options and plan for contingencies, but you’ve got to take accountability, trust in your gut and decide.  Trusting intuition, even knowing how to attune and listen for it, are skills that can be taught.  It takes a quiet mind to hear this clearly.

It also reminds me on an anecdote I read about Gen. George Patton’s thoughts on picking a leader from young officers.  Patton would issue an ambiguous order, say, to dig a ditch here, and leave.  He would then go to a spot where he could observe the young men without being seen.  Inevitably, the men would quickly toss down their shovels and begin debating what Patton wanted from them.  How deep?  How long?  Why?  Eventually, one of the men would just say, to hell with it, pick up a shovel and start digging.  That was Patton’s next leader.

Align ~ Dr. Shoemaker states, “A strategic leader must foster open dialogue, build trust and engage key stakeholders, especially when views diverge.”  He goes on to discuss the soft skills necessary to build trust to this level.  This speaks directly to the social awareness and relationship management competencies that are present in emotionally intelligent leaders.  It’s about how we connect, engage and motivate others congruently, with positive intention, and support.  Remember, engagement is a pre-requisite to the diverse, creative thinking needed today.  And an open dialogue is an inclusive dialogue.

Learn ~ The good doctor recommends being honest with yourself and learn from both your wins and losses.  This is key to our entire approach to Transformational Leadership development as well.  Coach, mentor, teach and continue to stretch those neural networks in our prefrontal cortex!  Learning, and what we’ve observed from the feedback from our experiential learning workshops, introduces the novelty necessary to spark spherical thought.  It opens us up, first to our selves; and only then to others.  It sparks the emotional and cognitive agility leaders require for success going forward.

Again, I just thought this was a great article and I wanted to share it with you.  I sincerely hope you take Dr. Shoemaker’s observations to heart.  I hope my thoughts are worthy of some reflection as well.  Cultivating these skills is a journey, not a destination.  Yet the journey is the accelerant, in and of itself.

Dynamic Parallel Targeting® is a registered trade mark of SalesForce4Hire®, LLC.

© 2012, Terry Murray.

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Terry Murray Discusses Leadership Development with Horses on The Career Clinic Show

I recently had the opportunity to appear on The Career Clinic Show with Maureen Anderson.  Maureen’s program is nationally syndicated on 25 terrestrial radio stations around the country.  During the interview we explored how our approach to experiential learning, called Transformational Horsemanship℠, cultivates the critical, relationship-based competencies leaders require in today’s multi-cultural, multi-generational, global business environments.  We had the opportunity to discuss the neuroscience, emotional intelligence, core mammalian emotional system, psychology, applied behavioral economics and quantum physics research that we integrate into our custom, professional development programs we deliver experientially through ground-based exercises with horses.

What we’ve learned over the past four years is how a person connects, engages and motivates a 1,200 pound sentient being without the use of touch, language or dominating, coercive behavior reflects the exact same way a person connects, engages and motivates fellow associates.  This mirror effect, when experienced first-hand by an executive, reveals our hidden biases or what Carl Jung called our shadow self…that part of our self we are not necessarily aware of but those around us may see clearly through our behaviors.

Much like the Gen X and Gen Y knowledge workers in today’s intellectual property-based economy, horses require congruency, authentic intention and clarity in order to join up with a leader.  Leadership in herds of prey animals differs dramatically from leadership in packs of predatory animals.  With predators, the leader is the one who dominates.  In herds of prey animals (like horses) the leader is the one who is watched and watches.  They are the sentinel that looks out for the well being of the herd.  This models the transformational leadership approach needed in today’s complex, rapidly changing world…leading from a perspective of service to those we are charged to lead.

Transactional leadership, the command and control approach honed during the Industrial Age, no longer serve us, as we can see by the endemic employee disengagement crisis (more than 70% of employees feel no connection or loyalty to their company ~ Gallup and the Chartered Management Institute) and the recently reported drop in worker productivity.  Each report that discussed the lower productivity numbers referenced the fact that companies may have squeezed all they can from their employees.  Squeezing workers on an assembly line in 1947 may have been representative of good management, but squeezing knowledge workers whose creativity, team cohesion and innovative thinking are key drivers of value creation in today’s world is anything but inspirational leadership.

It was a fun and lively interview…you’re more than welcome to listen to the podcast.

© 2012, Terry Murray.

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Filed under Experiential Learning, Health Care, Leadership Development, Organizational Culture, Sales Training, Team Building

Getting Out of the Box and Into the Round Pen ~ An Innovative Approach to Creative Thinking in Leadership

Key Concept ~ I frequently speak about the strategic imperative of expanding creative thinking throughout every touch point of an organization in today’s business environment.  Adaptive challenges, challenges in which we do not currently have the answers, confront our society beyond the business world as well.  Our firm recently conducted a series of workshops for therapists and counselors from the Veterans’ Administration, the Department of Youth Services and a shelter for abused women in rural Missouri.  An economically challenged area that endemically leads the nation in meth amphetamine lab seizures.  These highly motivated professionals, from resource-constrained agencies, are facing unprecedented challenges.  I’d like to share some of their feedback from their experience of getting out of the box and into the round pen.

We recently returned from an extended engagement with a client in Missouri who brought us in to provide a series of training workshops in our approach to Equine Facilitated Learning/Therapy for their greater community.  Our primary objective was to create a foundation for the expansion of our Warriors in Transition program for veterans and their families. Rural America has borne a disproportionate burden in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars and the VA was simply not prepared nor positioned to suddenly handle two million veterans returning home once these conflicts have wound down.  PTSD and/or PTSD/TBI is effecting upwards of 400,000 combat veterans returning from these conflicts.  Truly unprecedented challenges the VA will be dealing with for the next forty to fifty years.

The societal challenges, exacerbated by the recent economic shift and downturn, extend deep into many of our communities.  During one session with teenage boys from the county detention facility, I found myself facing an eleven year old boy.  An eleven year old, sparkling eyed, intelligent and engaged boy incarcerated with seventeen year old, multiple offenders.  The counselors from the department shared their frustration and seemingly impossible task of trying to get these young people onto the right path and then returning them to the environment that has set their downward trajectory.

Now, our approach to Equine Facilitated Learning isn’t what one would necessarily call conventional.  It is however, based in peer-reviewed, scientific research that points to what is occurring within us neurologically, biochemically and psychologically during our ground-based exercises with the horses.  Most importantly, it is efficacious in creating a powerful, experiential shift in perspective.  By integrating novel, scientific concepts that are then experienced first-hand with a horse in a round pen delivers an immutable response in participants.

In doing so, we open the door for rational cognition that enables the experiential learning exercise to imprint a kinesthetic lesson with the client.  Our novel, yet grounded approach, empowers people to get off the dance floor and into the balcony, opening them up to exploring creative ways of approaching adaptive challenges.  The discovery of one’s ability to co-create and achieve a goal with a 1,200 pound, sentient being, simply through the use of one’s presence, intention and self-regulation typically makes a lasting impression as to what we are truly capable of creating and becoming if only we first bring ourselves into alignment.

Here are some of the comments from the licensed counselors and therapists that attended our workshops:

“Information was useful and presented some different, creative ways to approach therapy.  I expect several clients will be responsive to this type of workshop…”

“He [the co-facilitator] made me feel comforable and open to learning new information.  I think this workshop would be very beneficial for the clients I serve.  I think many of them would benefit greatly from it”

“Don’t know if that its ‘the’ answer for everybody, but I can think of a number of people for whom this would be really relevant, really helpful and for whom I would highly recommend it.  It hits all the right notes for so many people who come through my office.”

“Very good for relaxing, creating an open atmosphere to learn intellectually, emotionally and spiritually.  I was surprised at the intuitive understanding that emerged without the use of words being necessary.”

“I think it would be a great experience for the youth and help build their confidence.  I loved that the approach is nonjudgemental and very de-stressing.”

“This would be an amazing workshop to conduct with my clients.  Meeting the herd, boundary exercises and round pen exercises were/would be very helpful.  I think this would plant a seed of hope for my clients!”

The adaptive challenges we face in business pale in comparison to the challenges these remarkable professionals are wrestling with every day.  If our approach was this powerful for them, just imagine what it might deliver for your organization!

© 2012, Terry Murray.

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Searching for Effective Team Building? Approach the Process One Team Member at a Time

Positive and adaptive team dynamics emerge one relationship at a time.  Over time, we can get locked into well worn habits of interaction.  These habits literally become engrained physically in our brains as neural pathways of thought that lead to habitual, reactive behaviors.  Behaviors that are then reinforced through our cognitive and emotional exchange with our colleagues.  For better or for worse, the more often we activate these engrained neural pathways the more accessible and easier it is for us to do so.  Thus great team cohesion promulgates even greater team work and poor team interaction begets worse team interaction.  The causation of how we perceive and interact with the world around us is physically imprinted within us.

This is why change is so hard for most people.  The brain consumes the majority of its energy processing recent cognitive thought (our short-term memory) and by the visual cortex.  When our firm shoots a High Definition training video the camera records gigabytes of information.  Even an HD video camera pales in comparison to the amount of visual data our eyes continuously deliver to our brain to sort out.  Because of the energy demands of these two dominant systems the brain is very miserly in its use of energy for everything else it is processing.  Well established neural pathways consume far less energy than developing new ones.  From the brain’s perspective of energy management it is cheeper to continue to think and react using the well established circuitry.  Perspectives and thoughts roll just like water down the path of least resistance.

This is a significant, contributing factor as to why traditional team building activities rarely, if ever, deliver tangible improvements in team dynamics.  Events such as ropes courses, competitive games, the building of boats in resort swimming pools or the assembling of bicycles (i.e. the recent GAO event in Las Vegas) are incapable of cognitively framing the neurological and biochemical fundamentals of human interactions while delivering a positive, highly emotive experience for each team member.  If anything, the more competitive and physically oriented team building events continue to reinforce dominant, exclusive behaviors that are quite likely at the very root of the current team dynamic the event is intended to address and improve.

While our firm was canvasing the peer-reviewed research for a new program for parents with children with Autism Spectrum Disorder we made an interesting discovery.  The most innovative and promising early childhood intervention strategies for cultivating social communication skills are relationship-based.  The competencies necessary to successfully support this developmental approach are the exact same competencies we see in high performing teams.  Co-regulation of emotion, joining, conscious use of emotional affect, support of independent thinking and support of reciprocity.  These competencies develop through the cultivation of new neural pathways in the pre-frontal cortex that result in emotional intelligence skills (self-awareness, self regulation, social awareness and co-creative relationship).

Scientifically-based, relationship oriented approaches to team building that focus on the inclusion of each individual, that build the emotional intelligence competencies through the experiential event with each individual, is the foundation for creating highly adaptive, optimally performing teams.  The pre-requisite of exceptional team work lies in the emotional agility of its members.  We continuously witness this in our Equine Facilitated Team Building workshops.  The approach introduces a scientifically-based, stretch concept of neurological, psychological, emotional or relational importance and then lets every team member experience and experiment with the concept in relationship with a horse, first hand.  Novel, yes, and remarkably accelerating to the professional development process.  As each individual begins to experience a slight shift in perspective, we bring them together as teams to co-create various goals with the horse.  All without the use of touch, language or dominating or coercive behaviors.  The team members learn first-hand, from their interactive experiences with the horses and each other, how our intention, presence, non-verbal communication and emotional self-regulation impacts every relationship we experience throughout our lives.  How we choose to show up matters and has an emotional contagion affect on others.  When we are told this we may believe it, but when we experience for ourselves in round pen with the horses and our fellow teammates we come to know it to be true.

A well intentioned, positive invitation to join another in co-creative relationship is the essence of how we must learn new, adaptive ways of working together to navigate our complex, rapidly changing world.  This is where team building must focus going forward.

© 2012, Terry Murray.

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