Published in The Attention Architect, a newsletter on LinkedIn, June 28, 20 22
Body language is everything to me. How someone stands, sits, walks, breathes, and even blinks tell us so much about how they’re feeling, what they’re thinking, and what specific triggers light up their eyes with delight or flush their faces with silent anger or fear.
But what about their clothes?
Can someone’s clothes express their feelings, indicate stress levels, and act as a visible mood ring?
I’ve spent my career around remarkable leaders who run big international companies with thousands of employees and regularly undertake risky multi-million-dollar initiatives. Most of my clients are cool as a cucumber in the public arena, on the job site, or in my office. But when I go with them to their offices, this strange chemical reaction happens as soon as they walk in the door: their expensive, fresh-from-the-dry-cleaner shirts start to wrinkle into hundreds of Shar-Pei folds. And like a Geiger counter readout, the closer we get to their main conference room or desk, the more their shirts radiate distress signals via the shirt-wrinkle meter.
So what’s going on with this shirt-crinkling phenomenon?
Despite their incredible superpowers on the streets, whenever my clients walk inside their office, they are instantly reminded of all the problems to solve and unresolved issues to address. Their bodies react so strongly to these triggers that they transfer the tension from their nerve endings into the fabric of the shirt fibers.
What’s plain for me to see in these shirt-wrinkling moments is how many big and small problems leaders must carry on their backs and how many rapid-fire decisions and risky bets they need to make to keep their operations running smoothly.
Despite the mythologies of the superhero leader, the amount of stress most executives carry is beyond the limits of the human body and mind and is probably why so many CEOs lose what little remains of their gray hair and are prime candidates for heart attacks.
As a consummate, neurotic problem-solver, my job is to help my clients take some of the load off their shoulders while not losing their shirts to competitive disruptions. Although I don’t have any magic anti-wrinkle spray to keep their shirts and lives perfectly neat and tight, I have found that these three strategies help my clients from shriveling up into a ball of wrinkled stress.
BUILD A COMPREHENSIVE PROBLEM MAP
You can’t be in business long and not encounter problems; it comes with the turf. The more successful you are, the more problems you’ll encounter. Leaders often feel like these problems are coming at them from all sides, leaving them with no time to think clearly, let alone strategize how to solve them.
The first thing my team and I do to help clients get their chaotic lives under control is to clarify the specific targets for where they want their companies to land and then define the obstacles, hurdles, and problems preventing them from getting there. While most companies do a good job describing the targets as opportunities, they don’t spend nearly enough creative time developing strategies and tactics to overcome and work around the problems they continually confront. For this reason, my team and I spend substantial time upfront extracting, defining, and articulating the obstacles and putting them into a comprehensive list of problem statements that are so profoundly simple that they give our clients an ah-ha moment of revelation.
Armed with this master list of problem statements, we place them into specific categories with an assigned hierarchy and priority that indicates which issues to tackle first and where to allocate an organization’s limited resources.
While this problem statement map sounds obvious, you’d be surprised by how many executives are running around without a full accounting of their problems or a proactive game plan to get these monkeys off their backs. Instead, they have to react to these problems randomly, which is no way to run a business.
Something as simple as having a visual map of problems to solve reduces my clients' stress levels because it allows them to view their challenges in one hierarchical overview.
However, without this map, these problems will continue ricocheting around their heads in a terrorizing manner.
FOCUS YOUR EFFORTS ON ADDING ONE GREAT PERSON TO THE TEAM
I’ve spent over three decades in strategic war rooms with clients, helping them assess competitive maneuvers and survey the ever-changing consumer terrain. I have watched them contemplate elaborate and costly battle plans that usually entail purchasing new equipment, investing deep into technology, and getting large capital expenditures approved by skeptical boards. But despite what most consultants say and sell, not every problem in business can be solved by building more battleships or throwing more platoons of soldiers at them.
When I think back to my clients that have made the most significant gains in achieving their business goals and growth plans, it’s almost always because they found one great new person to add to the team, often by accident. While one person can’t win the game entirely, one exceptional individual can bring a much-needed skill set, expertise, and awareness to the table, setting a new pace and standard for the organization to hit. For evidence of this, look around your leadership table and think about how much better your organization performs today versus before you found and built the right team.
While adding one more great person may sound obvious, companies often chase too many initiatives and try to solve too many problems simultaneously—without the right captain on board—which leads to mediocre results. Like fielding a baseball or football team, focusing your efforts and resources on finding one stellar player can transform your organization’s batting average and overall win rate.
Instead of hiring 5 to 10 average players, focus your limited time and resources on finding one extraordinary (but humble) team player that can help take your organizational game to an entirely new level of performance.
ACHIEVE THE SMALL SUCCESSES FIRST BEFORE TACKLING THE HARDEST ONES
While coming up with a great idea and innovative solution is critical to achieving breakthroughs, the one factor that plays a more significant role in a company’s success is whether the client’s organization has the confidence, will, and stamina to invest in ironing out the wrinkles of a new, unproven innovation effort.
It’s not uncommon for great ideas to die before they’ve even had a chance to exist in the marketplace because the managers got nervous and lost their faith, courage, or patience with them.
I recommend leaders focus on achieving the small victories before tackling the Herculean ones for two reasons. First, small successes help leaders develop the courage and confidence to make the tough calls to end institutional business practices and preservationist protocols that no longer add gains to the enterprise. Second, once an organization sees a new idea's potential rewards and benefits, the support for pursuing it spreads like a contagion within the organization.
Success breeds success!
However, when things start to fail, slip, or feel overwhelming, nobody wants to be part of it. Therefore, managing the sequence of innovation steps and the perception of progress is paramount to long-term success.
If you want to help your clients or bosses not look like they're coming apart at the seams, do the following:
- Build a visual map of problems to solve.
- Focus on the goal of adding one stellar individual to the team.
- Execute the small successes first before tackling the tough nuts to crack.