The next right thing, into your purpose
By: David Kidder, Co-Founder + CEO, Bionic
Since the start of the year, I have had more than a dozen conversations with executive leaders and their teams. All of them have told me the same thing: Our people are already depleted. The energy on our teams has bottomed out. Everyone is running on empty, and it’s only March.
Many of us assumed that when the holidays rolled around in December, the time off would restore and rejuvenate everyone — myself included. Most of our partners went pencils down on December 15, starting off their holiday break earlier than usual. But the time sped by quickly, and now we’re entering spring. The break was a blink.
March marks a full year into the pandemic, and for some leaders and teams, 2021 feels as exhausting as last year. That’s a big problem. When we are again asking our teams to dig deep for the second time, first building through the pandemic, and now building out new strategies, but the tank is already empty, how do we re-energize and refill the tank? How do we lead when our teams started the year off without fully or even partially recovering from last year?
Do the next right thing.
The evidence for “doing the next right thing” is grounded in extreme leaders who specialize in surviving crises every day: Special Forces. They have the ability to force rank the next right thing to do in the most critical situations, in the absence of certainty. Take, for instance, the Navy SEALS BUDS program and “Hell Week,” the toughest, most brutal test for aspiring SEALS. They run for miles with sand in their shoes, struggle underwater to untie knots in their scuba hoses, swim in icy water while handling M-60 guns. Srikumar Rao, a brilliant leadership guru and former business school professor, examined the research around this program and used it to explore how we should challenge our mindsets for optimal leadership: Give up the myth of control. Once we realize that control is an illusion and we never actually had it, we are liberated to relentlessly focus on doing the next right thing. The SEALS know that their path is beyond their control, so they have to focus on the actions that just get them to take the next step and make the next decision. When under extreme stress, Dr. Rao explains our only option: “Put all your emotional energy into the actions that you can take. Do it because it is what will save you.”
How do we determine the next right thing to move forward for our business? Navigate towards the North Star — Purpose.
As business leaders, while we’re not enduring hours of icy waters and underwater knots, the survivalist mindset from the Navy SEALS is the key to ushering our teams through a once-in-a-lifetime (we hope) pandemic. During and post disruption, past performance is not a predictor of future outcomes, and today, when we search for certainty, we struggle. Do not waste time seeking certainty; surrender the belief of control.
A clearly defined purpose — the North Star — for our impact or outcome, and for our customer, market, or for the world, will correct misalignment when we get lost. In the absence of the ability to plan for perfection, set goals that are anchored to your purpose to stay on track, despite the conditions of the path, so then you will be able to focus on the next right thing. Guided by the North Star, we are directed through high impact steps to re-energize the team.
So, how can we put this into practice?
1. The Box: Recognize and align on the knowable and controllable.
Pre-pandemic, we operated inside a “knowable” and “controllable” box — we made our decisions based on what was historically true and what we could control. We always had plenty of challenges, but we knew where we were headed based on plannable futures, supported by past evidence.
Now, the boundaries between the unknowable and knowable, and the uncontrollable and controllable, have gotten extraordinarily tight — and that has been disorienting for people both personally and professionally. Most everyone is suddenly staring down hard truths to figure out what to do: Am I in my purpose? Are we solving the right needs in the world? What are our proprietary gifts? What should my life look like? What will work look like? What matters now?
We now all see the quality of our work and life, without distractions.
Organizations have extraordinarily high-performing employees who are now confined to these small boxes, both personally and professionally. How do we lead them? How do we lead through our own lack of knowables and controllables?
The answer: Take a really hard look into the box. Can we determine what’s actually knowable and controllable? If not, we need to set it aside and monitor our ability to influence change. From there, we need to accept those boundaries and focus on the knowable and controllable, then we will be in a position to determine and act on the next right thing, each day.
The box has changed. Align and recognize what that box is today.
2. The Truth: Figure out what is true. Accept it. Lead into it. Lead towards it.
As CEOs and leaders, we need to ask for the truth and accept it. I’ve run into obstacles in my own career when I didn’t ask for the truth from my team. I didn’t necessarily want it: I was determined to drive the company forward, even in the absence of commercial truth. That was a mistake. And it’s an even bigger mistake in today’s upside-down markets.
As Elon Musk said in The Startup Playbook, “wishful thinking is the enemy.”
What was true in the past will not be true in the future. As leaders, we must revalidate the box and look at the markets with the lenses of first principle logic. Ask for the truth from the team and accept the truth. Be clear with them that you want to hear the truth.
I addressed this in my book, New to Big, in discussing a company that tacitly agreed to ignore the commercial truth and continued with a project they know will fail. CEOs are shielded from the truth because their employees have been trained to live in fear of making mistakes, so they tiptoe around leadership. No one wants to disappoint the leader, the team, or the ambitions of the company.
I think about it this way: When faced with a complex situation, a leader and her team are divided by a river, and that river represents uncertainty. Each bank represents a different set of complexities that the team is facing, and as such, both the leader and her team are looking at the same river of uncertainty, but from different perspectives. The team does not have the same vantage as the leader, so there is a lack of contextual safety, while the leader sees the whole picture, and has facts and understandings that the team simply won’t and often can’t. Great leadership respects the team’s position across the river, as they know they are on the ground with a deep understanding of the greatest challenges.
Great leadership doesn’t demand that the team build the bridge across the raging river of uncertainty to the leader’s side, great leadership builds the bridge of truth — to the team. The bridge of truth, constructed with humility, context, facts, and open partnership, will engage the team to join the leader in solving fatal challenges. We are responsible for the bridge.
Our teams want the truth, so they can solve the most important problems and opportunities. It’s our teams that most often have the solutions, but if there is no bridge of truth, with safety and partnership, we will be divided. As leaders, you need to build a bridge of truth, and ask your teams for theirs.
3. Build Backwards: Set the desired impact and outcome for your year, and navigate back into it.
In this moment, with outside forces greater than any brand’s balance sheet or team could manage, we must define our goals differently. They must be impact and outcome driven. And when we set these goals for the year, we must think beyond traditional measurements.
By defining impact, we need to have both hard and soft metrics on the table as one of the outcomes that we are driving the company toward. Not only does it connect us with the purpose of the company, it also realigns the customer with that purpose.
Building the year backwards means that we have measurable goals for the impact and outcome we want to have on our customer and market. These are almost as important, if not equal, to the economic goals. This is where our teams will re-energize, knowing, beyond the unknowable and uncontrollable, we are winning.
4. Perform The Pre-Mortem: By imagining the worst, we find acceptance and a plan.
At the beginning of the pandemic last March, when our teams shifted to working from home, our leadership team organized a virtual offsite to address a difficult conversation. We started by putting this statement on the white board: December 31, 2020: “Why did Bionic fail?”
We stared down the hard truths of this moment — the box that we had, and what was in it.
We listed all the reasons why we would fail this test — for our purpose, for our customers, and in the world. It was a long list. We force ranked it. We picked the five most important things to get right, and then we built teams around each of them until they were solved. Because we knew the solutions would not come from the leadership, it would come with the team. We as a company had to own the solution, and get the truth in the room. We were asking: How do we keep our customers? How do we deliver the promise of our offering? How do we gain new customers?
We couldn’t fix everything in the absolute absence of certainty, but we did uncover the absolutely fatal reasons we would fail. And we attacked them.
We borrowed this idea from stoicism philosophy. We thought through a catastrophic lens and asked what was the worst thing that could possibly happen to us. And then, we came to peace with it. The point is to be able to accept. By imagining the worst thing happening and then accepting it, we took the fear and power away from that idea. When we saw the truth of it in the worst-case scenario, we were able to manage against it.
Performing a pre-mortem should be anchored in purpose, so we anchored in our impact and outcomes and then reverse-engineered our year by examining why our plans could be defeated. There’s plenty of evidence for pre-mortems: Amazon has done them and so has Apple. Imagining the worst-case increases the ability to correct future outcomes by 30%, according to Harvard Business Review.
5. Do The Next Right Thing: Set, Then Reset, Everyday
I start and end each day with a five-minute journal. I take five minutes to play, then replay, each day — like a movie in fast forward, then rewind. It’s a simple, but profound exercise that allows me to become an observer of myself. What am I grateful for? How did my day go? What three amazing wins happened? What / who depleted my energy? What brought impact? What distracted my focus from my purpose? What daily truths do/did I need? How did I leverage my time? What are my asks of God/The Universe? The answers always impact me.
This practice allows me to identify and attack the next right thing, and tune out the distractions.
Every day is a chance to start fresh. Each morning, I rewrite my to-do list, using my reflections. The high-priority items on that list often change, because scenarios change overnight. This is my survival tactic: I know there is no foundation of knowable and controllable holding me down, so adaptation is an achievement. Each day, I have to be able to leverage something new from the prior day, and compound the interest of my intent. My purpose leads to the next right thing, this habit keeps me on course. This is not limited to time, mornings or evening, in fact, you have the power and choice to start over your day, at any time. When in doubt, always reset, this is an idea that I shared with Fred Wilson ages ago.
As Albert Einstein said, “The most powerful force in the Universe is compound interest.” The compound interest is the intention of your choices.
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