Staying Cool Under Pressure

The work that I do as a school leader is often very exciting and demanding. Being responsible for  children, adults and high stakes results, requires me to tap into a wide range of skills I've accumulated over the years from setting a clear vision to motivating others when they're lacking confidence. Though I seldom have to explain why I do the work I do, many people are often curious about how I manage some aspects of my role that can be challenging.The question I'm most often asked is, "how do you stay so calm?" Years ago when I found myself in difficult situations, I would hear a little voice whispering "don't ever let them see you sweat."I don't hear that voice much these days, but my sense is that the mentality is baked in. The underlying mindset I hold onto is that appearing stressed seldom makes things easier. It's my responsibility as a good teammate and leader to remove barriers and sources of stress for others so they can focus on what matters most. Having played enough sports, I know that when a coach looks overwhelmed or worried, it impacts the way the team feels about the game.

Though the mindsets I hold are fundamental to the way I operate in difficult times, there are some actual technical/skill-based moves I repeatedly pull that help me stay "75 and Sunny" even in the midst of an unexpected hurricane.

1) Keep things in perspective: Whenever I find myself in the middle of stressful situation, I try my best to be mindful of the fact that there are 24 hours in a day, 7 days in a week and 365 days in a year. The situation I'm handling begins to look small with respect to time and energy when I keep in mind that it's only one event at one point in my entire career.

2) Rallying my team: I have seldom dealt with a difficult situation alone. Even when I have final decision rights on the best course of action, I am never hesitant when it comes to pulling in thought-partners and key players who can help me remain focused on resources and options at my disposal. I know that my work is demanding and I can't do it without my team behind me. I also recognize that I'm not always the best person to handle critical steps in resolving complicated situations so I leverage the strengths of my team to get things done.

3) Finding the appropriate release: Experiencing stress and appearing to be stressed are not synonymous. I'm not a robot! I don't hide my emotions ad infinitum, but I find the appropriate time to release in a way that does not add fuel to the fire I am trying to extinguish. When I recently handled one of my most challenging crisis in the last year, I stayed focused on being logical and rational in the moment while mobilizing my team to take the best course of action to contain an isolated event that could have mushroomed into a nightmare. But trust me, immediately after the smoke settled, I went into a private room, ate several chocolate chip cookies and prayed. Once I was calm, I took a few minutes to chat with a teammate and mentor about the experience and how I was feeling.

4) Striving to achieve the best possible outcome: Being a leader requires you to strive for excellence in everything you do. You may drop the ball occasionally, but you always push yourself to learn and grow and to serve as a model for others. This can be dangerous though if you lose perspective and ignore reality while becoming obsessed with a vision to the point that your perfectionism hinders your ability to get things done. When you're trying to manage stress during a difficult situation, you can't be concerned about how far off the reality is with respect to what you would imagine in your ideal world. I don't have any survey results, but I'm willing to bet that no one who has ever been responsible for passengers on a sinking cruise line has worried about how much their guests would miss out on the wonderful five course dinner available in the dining hall. Your primary concern needs to be doing the best you can with the best you have in the moment even when that means good trumps great for the day.

As the old saying goes, "Keep Calm, and Carry On!"

 

3 Ways To Own Your Email

I don't know about you, but the overwhelming email culture in both the non-profit and business sector (so I hear from friends) is out of control. Three weeks ago, I became ill and spent two days away from my email prior to returning to work after a weekend. Though I knew for sure that I would have some unread email to filter through, I did not expect my total unread emails to reach what I considered a depressing 387 on a Monday morning. Granted some of these messages were from the previous week, but too much damage had been done in my short absence for my own comfort. After spending more than half of my day responding to these messages I did something I've never done before. I courageously declared email bankruptcy.  Highlighting all of the messages in my inbox that had not yet been filed I calmly and cautiously pressed delete and held my breath for a few seconds waiting for a helicopter to suddenly appear outside of the window and a tactical team to sweep into the office and detain me for violating some complicated unknown law regarding national security. It never happened... To my surprise my world did not suddenly come crashing down and I exhaled releasing one of the heaviest work related burdens I carry, email overload.

Feeling good I then took my war against excessive  email one step further. I posted a permanent automatic email response  message with three fundamentally radical ideas that I hope will spread like wildfire among my colleagues.

Do you find yourself sometimes being owned by your email? Well you don't have to suffer anymore. Turn the tables around and begin your personal journey toward owning your email with three suggestions for all of those dear friends and colleagues who just can't seem to avoid reaching out to you.

1) Abandon the body and use the subject line. Suggest that task related messages focus solely on the task. Tell your colleagues to skip the inquiries into the quality of your weekend and get straight to the point by simply stating what they want from you in the subject line of the email. They don't need to write anything in the body of the email itself. When possible suggest they be as short as possible and simply state "Send updated project plan."

2) Phone a friend. Unless you're a part of that microscopic segment of our nation's population who don't believe in modern technology and suspect cell phones are just another way for the government to keep tabs on us (which they are by the way), you have a phone and that phone allows you to have quick conversations that avoid the back and forth steps one usually has to take to facilitate a conversation over email.  Ask that when feasible your colleagues simply pick up the damn phone and give you a ring.

3) The 200 Character Challenge. Twitter gives us 140 characters. Be nice and throw in an extra 60 characters. When the message can't be summed up in a subject line, ask your colleagues to be as short as possible and send you "tweet like" emails. To accomplish this they may need to cut out some words and write incomplete/improper sentence (Ex: need to analyze data for upcoming meeting. would like your assistance. send times of availability.) Come on! This is our chance as adults to keep it simple and stick it to that mean, rigid English teacher we had in high school.

These steps are easy and while they may not cure the problems you see with your own email culture, I can assure you that my own experience tells me that they're a step in the right direction. Best of luck!