People who plan tend to develop an organized course of action, setting clear expectations and deadlines.
The alternative is to improvise – figure things out as you go, without much planning and preparation.
I used to teach jazz. I assure you that I was nothing like the guy from “Whiplash“. But improvisation is important. And I wanted to have an authentically open-ended experience with my students – real free-wheeling jazz.
I made up a system with my students for one song in which we began playing without any idea what would happen; instead, I had hand signals for things like “play the melody”, “YOU play a solo”, “add the backgrounds”, “go to the bridge”, and other elements that make up a jazz tune.
I’d give them about 4 bars, or 16 beats, or about 30 seconds warning for the next part. It was improvised chaos, and mentally challenging, but I prided myself on the “authentic” improvised experience.
After we’d been stumbling through that for a few weeks, I brought in Al Naylor, a professional trumpet player and jazz educator. I was quite proud to show him what I’d done – the authentic in-the-moment execution of that tune.
Al played ball with us for a while, then said, “You know, Alan, this isn’t all that authentic. Yes, jazz groups will play around with the order of a tune, and have people play solos and all that, but professionals will always plan that order out ahead of time. It’s the only way you can have true freedom – to know the structure heading in. What you’re doing puts them on edge, and takes them out of the music-making.”
Turning to our positive example of the Work of Leaders, Elana Rueven talks about VP Sam Coloumbe, “She’s great when we have a lot of balls in the air. Sam can set the deadlines and create the plan to ensure they’re met by using internal milestones. She’s so proactive.”
Small Business Saturday has a very rigid deadline – the Saturday after Thanksgiving. Everything needs to be done in time for the day, including deadlines involving printing, client approvals, content creation, and more.
Elana says, “Sam can manage those deadlines with all of our partners – many of whom are small business owners or start-ups themselves and have lots going on.”
It’s not exaggerating to say that just one element of SBS could have dozens of deadlines leading up to a big one. This can seem quite overwhelming for M Booth’s fast-paced corporate team, who always have a lot of balls in the air. “But that’s why we need Sam”, says Elana, “because she can plan, manage it, and keep us on track.” Partners may be brought on as early as August, even though the results aren’t seen until late November.
Elana invokes the influence of knowing personality styles, “I’m an i and she’s a C. This works so well because she encourages me to slow down when needed”, says Elana, referring to DiSC.
“I’ve also noticed that our SBS clients really respond to the chit-chatty fun-loving spirit that I bring. Sam knows this is effective, and that’s why we tag-team in client meetings. Once the chatting is done, she is able to get down to business and move the projects forward efficiently.”
Structure is needed when leaders execute with their teams, and Sam is a great example of someone who can analyze in-depth and plan effectively.
Next week, Sam will serve as our example again when we talk about analyzing in-depth.
Planning is a leadership behavior that helps drive Structure during the Execution process of the Work of Leaders.
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This is the fifteenth post in an 18-part series. Throughout the series, I’ll be providing real-world negative examples from a variety of settings.
For positive examples, we’ll look at one specific case study: the Small Business Saturday initiative from American Express. Small Business Saturday has become part of the holiday shopping lexicon (positioned between Black Friday and Cyber Monday) and reminds us to “Shop Small” and keep our dollars local. It’s been tremendously successful and is a huge initiative, but there’s a behind-the-scenes story that lifts up best practices in leadership we can all adopt; not every leader or team member involved is a high-level executive at American Express. In fact, much of the effort was a product of the work of a specific team at M Booth, a mid-sized award winning PR firm. Follow along to learn more. To start at the first post in this series, click here.