Learning to prioritize is a huge part of coming into your own as a leader of any group, organization, or company. Without getting your priorities sorted, chaos descends upon whatever it is you're doing, and you end up getting much less done. Melanie Parish is joined by Liane Davey, a New York Times bestselling author and the Co-Founder of 3COze Inc. Together, Melanie and Liane emphasize the leadership benefits of learning to prioritize. This is an absolutely essential leadership skill and quality, so don't miss out on this conversation!
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Learning To Prioritize With Liane Davey
I'm here with Liane Davey, who's a New York Times bestselling author of three books, including The Good Fight: Use Productive Conflict to Get Your Team and Your Organization Back on Track and You First: Inspire Your Team to Grow Up, Get Along and Get Stuff Done. She's known as the Water Cooler Psychologist and she's a regular contributor to the Harvard Business Review. As the Cofounder of 3COze Inc., she advises on strategy and executive team effectiveness for companies like Amazon, Walmart, TD Bank, Google, 3M and Sony. She has a PhD in Organizational Psychology. We're going to be talking about teams and leaders, how to inspire and also how to grapple with uncertain times with COVID-19.
Liane, I'm excited to have you here. Thanks so much for being here.
Thanks, Melanie. I'm thrilled to be here.
I want you to tell me a little more about what work business you have and all the things that you're doing.
Years ago, my husband and I founded our company, 3COze. We had the mission before we had the name. We knew we wanted to transform how people communicate, how they connect and how they contribute, so that they could achieve amazing things together. We're a company focused on improving the way we collaborate and co-create. We had that mission statement and we were trying to come up with a name. It was very funny. We were sitting in Montreal at my in-law’s kitchen table and googling for what URLs were available and coming up with name ideas and we were struggling.
At some point, I got frustrated and I said, “I want something that plays off of the fact that it’s these three Cos: Communicate, Connecting and Contribute.” My husband looked at me and said, “How about 3COze?” “That's a good idea.” He and I have been working with organizations to improve primarily looking at executive team effectiveness and making sure that executives are getting the right strategy for their organizations, creating the right dynamics in the executive team. Building out the leadership, both culture and capacity that they need to execute on their strategy. We're having great fun. He and I are a good combo. We met years ago on the first day of graduate school. We're both psychologists. He's a neuropsychologist. He works with members of the team to optimize their performance, looking at decision making and cognitive styles. I am an organizational psychologist and I love the group dynamics and the interactions. Our joy in the world is to help people achieve amazing things together.
It's interesting and you have some books out. Tell me a little bit about those.
My first book was published many years ago with a couple of co-authors, David Weiss and Vince Molinaro. We were looking at building a reference manual for people who had to build out the leadership capacity of their organization. Since then, I’ve done a couple of books on my own that have a slightly different feel, more self-help for the business thing. The first one I wrote on my own is called You First: Inspire Your Team to Grow Up, Get Along, and Get Stuff Done.
It looks as if you're a member of a team that isn't what you wish it were, how do you change your team for the better, even if you have no one else to help you? It did well and became a bestseller. One of the chapters in You First was called Embrace Productive Conflict. It was about the importance of conflict in having healthy teams. Over the time when I was rolling out You First giving keynote speeches, doing all sorts of work with that, it became very clear that people wanted more content and more help with this notion that conflict could be a good thing. My most recent book is called The Good Fight: Use Productive Conflict to Get Your Team and Your Organization Back on Track. It goes deep into the importance of conflict and how to think about conflict as something that can make us more productive and improve trust in our teams and make us less stressed out as opposed to most of us who think about conflict as the opposite. It's been great fun for the past years getting to speak, build programs, and help people have an entirely new relationship with conflict.
It's so interesting to hear how you responded to the marketplace. You put out something and then one chapter got a little more attention than the others and that's the one you elevated for the next book. That's an interesting way to amplify the message that you get traction within the marketplace.
I'm one of the few keynote speakers that routinely includes a Q&A section in my speech. When you're giving a speech to 2,000 people, it adds a little bit of vulnerability to put in a Q&A section, “What if nobody asked anything?” There is nothing more humiliating as a speaker than having a Q&A section and having empty microphones. “What if my answer off the spot is not great,” or all those sorts of things? For me, Q&A is how I stay connected to the real issues in any given moment in a team and real organizations. Every time I do a speech, I do a Q&A and I learn a little bit more about which ideas pique people's interest, which ideas resonate, which ones are not yet tangible enough for people to act on or where are they left with more questions? The conflict space was one where one chapter wasn't enough to dispel very deep-seated views about conflict as being unhealthy. That's why I write a blog. It's why I do podcasts. It’s because I want as much feedback and interaction as possible with the people who I'm trying to serve to know, “What do you want me to think about next? Where do you want me to put my research and my attention so that I can do things that are as useful as possible?”
One of the questions I always ask leaders is, how are you experimenting in your work?
I am having great fun. I do a couple of exercises when I'm working with clients and an executive team. These exercises are focused on improving team effectiveness by getting teams in the first exercise focused on the unique value that each team needs to add. What I tend to find is that most teams are wasting their time together, meeting endlessly about low-value stuff. I do an exercise to focus the team on the unique value and then I do a second exercise focused on improving the quality of our conflict and understanding the tensions that are supposed to exist. I’ve had these two exercises. I’ve been doing them with the top 100 leaders in companies for years and I’ve been getting questions saying, “This is great. How do we roll this out and cascade it in our organizations?” Until Coronavirus and weeks of isolation, I hadn't invested the time to sit down and figure out how we build what I'm calling eFacilitation.
I'm excited about this idea, which is to somebody who's been through the program with me in person, how do we then give them an entire video-based online system with videos of me facilitating, tools, templates and all sorts of good stuff? They can cascade this into their organization in a way that they don't need me. They don't need to spend the big bucks on consulting and they can get this idea out to their teams. It's a domain I’ve never used before. I'm an in-person girl and to translate all of this knowledge that I’ve had in my head for many years into something that can then live on without me, it's complete experimentation.
I’ve had a few beta testers starting to use it, but it's so invigorating to try something new and to realize how many threads I can pull. I was working on one where there's a facilitated session where we're talking about, “Now that you understand your unique value as a team, if you look at how you're spending your meeting time, how well do those two things match up?” The answers are almost always, badly. That immediately got me on, “I have a whole bunch of materials on building more effective meetings. I can pull that in.” It's been great fun to have the dedicated time to codify what's been twenty years of doing this work into something that can then live on in a format that leaders can share with their teams. It's such fun experimentation and I’m loving it.
As you're experimenting, these are uncertain times, what are some of the things you worry about as you put this together? You're in a new space, you're trying something that you never had time for. It's invigorating. What's scary about it?
The scariest thing is that, on the one hand, people are going to try it and it's not going to replace having me there in person. The people who've had me there in person, they're going to say, “This isn't as good. It's not right.” If we're honest, the other side is just as true. What if it does replace me? What if I am superfluous? It's as with most fascinating challenges in life both things could be viewed as an issue, but in some ways, I'm trying to view both as an opportunity. It's not going to be as good as having me there in person. This is for situations where they can't have me there in person. I'm only one of me. The global companies I work with, if I work with 100 leaders and they each have teams of ten, I cannot be with 1,000 leaders and 100 teams. It's not going to be the same. That's okay that it's not the same. If it replaces more of my sessions than I originally thought, great because that's more time I can spend at home and inventing the next thing and figuring out what's the next problem that people need my help to solve. I'm trying to see it as an opportunity, but if one were looking through a negative lens, it's easy to see peril on either side.
I love what you're saying because so often when we step into the unknown, we have this feeling that maybe we should be a little bit scared. I love that in this case, it's like, “What if it's good? What if it's not good?” It's all things. We're doing that in real-time all the time. How will you collect data on whether or not your experiments are working?
The good thing is with this particular eFacilitation, it's all in an online platform that has this amazing analytics. I'm going to know how many people come out of the gates hard and do the first three modules and modules 5 and 6 never get touched. I’ll know how long did they spend on each of them. I'm building it so that after each of these virtual sessions, there's a reflection worksheet. I’ll know how many people send it in, how many people submit the assignment. It's great to have these modern tools and platforms that give you real-time data and analytics about how it's working. What I want is to know that those hundred leaders that I have met and worked with face-to-face, I want the emails from them to say, “My team loved it or the material was so good that I felt confident facilitating this with my team.” Some of those qualitative things that are going to mean the difference for me. I'm going to have both of those ways of understanding, “Is this hitting the mark? If not, how do I need to adopt it?”
If you were to talk about the leaders that you work with, what should they be doing right now in this crazy time?
The best they can. If I were to pick one thing that I feel like leaders are terrible at in good times and that's going to bite them in the butt even more so now is prioritizing. Leaders suck at prioritizing, primarily because it tends to require a conflict that tends to get avoided. They have seventeen strategic priorities because they couldn't have the fight about which ones were actually priorities. That's a big issue anytime. It dilutes resources and creates burnout. It tends to reduce the return on investment of any single thing because you're trying to do so many things. Now, take that in a time when many people are working from home. They are trying to go about their day, maybe having to share a computer or to share bandwidth.
One of my friends posted on Facebook. She has her own company that is very innovative, The Future of Libraries kind of company. She said, “I have something important to do and my kid walked into the middle of me working on this and said, ‘How was I made?’” I’m like, “Can we wait until the afternoon coffee break?” In this world, most of us are less productive and there is less time, less energy, less focus. If as leaders we've been poor at prioritizing even in normal times, it is going to be even more problematic now. There's a huge cost to it. First of all, if everybody's diluted trying to do everything, the most important things get neglected and that's a huge risk. You want to make sure that the things that are most mission-critical are happening and there should be a lot of stuff you're ignoring.
I think about it like the way my kids are being homeschooled. We're doing language, science, and math. You're going to get three months behind on everything else, we'll figure it out. History will still be history when we come back in September. That prioritization is so important. If you're not doing that, you're abdicating your responsibility and you're adding to the stress and anxiety of people who feel like they're doing a terrible job not accomplishing what they need to at work and a terrible job not accomplishing what they need to for their families and that's cruel right now. As a leader, if I could pick one soapbox, do a better job of prioritizing. If you are down to three priorities, great. Figure out how to make it down to two. How do you get more and more focused so that your team can feel a sense of accomplishment again, feel the sense of calm that comes from knowing at least the most important thing is looked after? That is the gift as a leader you can give to your team.
It made me think of Eliyahu Goldratt who once said that management attention is the biggest bottleneck in North American business. I fully agree with you that prioritization doesn't get better under stress.
I have a speech that I’ve been working on for the past year that'll probably be my next book. The speech is called Change Has Changed. It looks at how we've all learned change management under these Kotter Models and these seven steps and discrete go from this step to this step. It's so outdated because we're now living in this time of perpetual change. The speech is focused on how the brain gets into this paralysis mode when it's in perpetual change. We're very well-built creatures to deal with acute stress and acute change and terrible at dealing with it over the long haul. The speech is all about how we've spent so much energy focused on managing performance. What we need to manage is attention and anxiety. This was my old speech. All of a sudden I'm feeling like, “It’s much more true than it even was months ago.” How you are managing attention and managing anxiety as a leader, the performance will follow.
What would you say to leaders who are coping with teams that have a lot of anxiety right now?
First of all, anxiety is managed through managing attention. That's why I picked prioritization. People will be getting whipped into a froth, worried about, “There's this and this and I haven't fed my starter deer feeder,” all the things that people are worried about. The first thing, if your team is stressed, go back to this issue of prioritization. I love the idea of having themes for the week or themes for the day. As a leader saying, “If this week could be focused on this theme, that's the most important thing for the week,” or “If you can't have a theme that will last you all week, have a theme for the day. Here's my morning email or a quick Zoom huddle in the morning. Here's what you need to pay attention to. Here's the theme for the day.”
First, managing that attention so that people know the one most important thing will help to manage the anxiety. Second, managers often try and keep things level, unemotional and logical. I would say that if you're doing that, you're probably causing the steam to be building up and you should probably expect some venting, some ugly release of pressure at some point. Instead of that, find small opportunities for people to let off the steam. Be open to the emotional reaction. Ask questions that allow people to share how they're experiencing things, and then help them to pivot like, “I hear you. This is what you're experiencing. I got it. Where from here? How can I help? What can I take off your plate?”
Start with the prioritization and rather than this, “Let's all have the stiff upper lip, keep calm and carry on approach,” where a lot of those stresses will be building. Instead of that, find tiny little spots throughout the day and the week to have releases of that pressure and places where it's safe for them to say, “I feel like I'm doing a terrible job in every aspect of my life right now. I’ve lost my mojo.” The chance to hear them, let them say that and say, “I get it.” Share your own experience and all of those sorts of things so that we aren't creating this situation where the pressure's building up to the point is going to be dangerous.
I'm so fascinated by this piece that you've articulated a couple of times which is the overlap that's happening between personal life and business in the prioritization. I'm seeing this with my clients as well. It’s like, “What's your goal for your team this week? Did you manage to buy ice cream for your family? Is your nine-year-old using your laptop so that you can't do your work because they didn't have a laptop before they had to go to school?” There's this crossover that I'm quite fascinated by around how our prioritizations used to be divided between work and home.
It's interesting how that whole false dichotomy of work-life balance we used to talk about, I haven’t heard that in many weeks. It is complete work-life integration often right onto the video call. I'm facilitating a strategy process for a big global high-tech company. There's twenty of us in our homes all over everywhere, all around the world and I’m loving it. One of the things I’ve seen a lot, I don't know if you've seen this, but people's partners, their kids delivering a cup of coffee to them while they're on a Zoom call. I love it.
I had a coaching client who's a leader in healthcare. The drive-through COVID test, she's in charge of making sure there are docs on that program, like a frontline. Her high school-aged son walked in, sat down in front of the screen and chatted with me for a while.
I feel like this particular client I'm working with, the bond is going to be so much stronger. I noticed myself thinking about the client more often, thinking about little extra things I could do that are useful because I feel like I know them. I'm in their houses. I know who's got knickknacks and who doesn't have knickknacks. I know who wears a hoodie all day. Who's the guy putting on the shirt like the proper dress shirt and why? I'm a psychologist. This is fun for me. I'm loving that we are understanding people's realities much better now. We're also understanding, who's the person who's got the kids walking through the back of the video call. Who is the person who is single or whose kids are already grown and they're doing this alone? Where's my empathy for them and their experience? How do I notice that?
Normally, they're the ones who've been taken on a lot of extra workloads because they feel like their time at night, “I got nothing else to do.” How do I feel about that? Is that fair? Shouldn't they be bingeing Netflix? I'm thinking about people more holistically because I'm seeing them in their natural environment, their natural habitat, and I love it. I hope that's one of the things that remains after. The other thing is we're getting a higher and higher percentage of people turning their cameras on as each week goes by. Because you can see it's a much better experience when you have your camera on. We're getting those higher-fidelity interactions over virtual. There are lots of things that I hope to stay with us after. I'm a hugger. I want to hug people, I want to travel. I want those things back, but there's a lot that I don't want to go back to how it was.
I have a question for you since you mentioned that you're a psychologist. I’ve seen a few people on my journey that isn't doing so well at home. There might be a parent with a special needs kid or a kid who has a hard time being at home that is compromised in their work-life because of that. I also have some single clients who are at home alone 24/7. They're super driven. They were used to having full lives and all of a sudden, their mental health is suffering. What would you say to those people?
I said 3COze is about communication, connection, and contribution. Don't forget the first two. These people, especially these high performers, have been on contribution mode, “If I can just contribute and contribute.” It's how do you reach out? How do you find a connection? You might find it in places you never expected. The thing that I remember and it harkens back for me to my first maternity leave. I had finally found this group of other moms who had kids all within four weeks of my daughter. We used to meet up once a week and go for lunch, take the babies for a walk, and all those kinds of things. I remember two or three days after that, I would be feeling so isolated and so alone again. I would be crying my eyes out. I would feel like, “We've already had our once this week and I'm sure everyone else is fine. I don't want to bother them.”
At some point a few months later, I admitted that this is what had been going on and multiple have said, “You too? I was lost sitting at home crying too.” I would say if that's you, assume there are others in the same boat and reach out. I did this with my best friend. I hadn't heard from her in a while. She has a very busy job and a very busy family. I texted her and said, “Time for a tea and FaceTime this week?” She said, “Of course.” We hadn't been thinking about it. Reach out, ask for what you need, seek it out. It may be with different people than you thought. It may be somebody from work who you know when you see into their Zoom is in the same boat as you. You can do something innocuous to start like, “I'd love to follow up with you on the ACME proposal.” Schedule a time.
You may find that fifteen minutes on the ACME proposal turns into an hour just shooting the breeze or talking about their experience. Find ways of creating connection. If your mental health is suffering, invest in your mental health. How do you get more fresh air? How do you get out in nature if there's a safe place for you to get out in nature at the moment? Access helplines. If you need access to those sorts of supports, there are amazing resources popping up. I know in Toronto, The Centre for Addiction and Mental Health is putting out webinars and resources for people. Don't suffer in solitude. Reach out and find ways of connecting. It will make all the difference.
Liane, I'm so happy to have you on. Where can people find you?
The easiest place to find me is LianeDavey.com. That has a link directly to my email. On the blog page there, there are about 500 articles, resources, downloadables and all sorts of things to help you with all the messy people stuff that gets in the way of building a high-performance organization. I would love for all of your readers to have access to those tools.
Thank you so much. That's exciting. I’ll check it out as well. I'm very excited that we got a chance to chat. It was fascinating and thanks for being here.
It’s my huge pleasure. Thank you so much, Melanie.
I loved talking with Liane Davey about leaders in real-life situations. What I'm most curious about is how the leaders’ home lives and business lives are crossing. As we combine the work-life that we have and our home life together, we have a whole new set of priorities and they're not very linear. We're used to that work-life balance and separation and all of a sudden, prioritization has a whole new nuance to it. We have to shift in the way that we think about ourselves, our families, and our work and they've become way more integrated than we ever expected. I'm curious about how we can experiment to hold our focus, how we can make priorities that are separate, and when we make priorities that are integrated. When my child has a need during the day, do I push my work or do I ask my child to wait?
I, like others, have children who are doing school at home while I am running a business at home. How do I integrate my life into my priorities, my home life, into my work-life priorities? This is something that everyone is grappling with about. These are not simple times. I do think that if we try something, it’s going to be 24 to 48-hour experiments. We can try and experiment on how we prioritize. We can collect data. We can see how it worked and then we can adjust and try another experiment in another couple of days. We don't have to find one plan that's always going to work. Something that works tomorrow may not work a week from now. We can keep experimenting and keep trying new things rather than to force things into a very solid structure. It's a great way of being an experimental leader in our whole lives. Go experiment.
About Liane Davey
Liane Davey is a New York Times Bestselling author of three books, including The Good Fight: Use Productive Conflict to Get Your Team and Your Organization Back on Track and You First: Inspire Your Team to Grow Up, Get Along, and Get Stuff Done.
Known as the Water Cooler Psychologist, she is a regular contributor to the Harvard Business Review.
As the co-founder of 3COze Inc., she advises on strategy and executive team effectiveness at companies such as Amazon, Walmart, TD Bank, Google, 3M, and SONY.
Liane has a Ph.D. in Organizational Psychology.
A public speaker, consultant, workshop leader, author, and Master Certified Coach through the International Coach Federation, from whom she received the Prism Award, Melanie is an expert in problem-solving, constraints management, operations, strategic hiring, and brand development.