Dead in the wild — It’s what happens when you don’t look up

When was the last time you took a hike in the woods? If you haven’t lately, I highly recommend it, even in these December temperatures. You’re likely to notice a variety of sights and experience things that aren’t possible in the office. Pretend you’re 5 years old again, kick through that pile of fallen leaves on the trail or make snow angels in the prairie field. (Really.  It’s very therapeutic.) Call out what shapes you see in the clouds. Check out the stunning contrast of the white of the birch trees against a crisp blue sky.

When we are young, noticing these things comes naturally. As adults, we can miss them. For us, noticing these wonders depends on two things:

  • You look up and around, and
  • Your mind is open to discovery.

A Facebook post by Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources showing a winter landscape that I discovered on Yahoo highlighted this phenomenon to me.

The image was posted as a promotion for the Snapshot Wisconsin program, which allows schools and the public to participate in research by hosting trail cameras that help the state monitor wildlife activity.

The post is a fun “Where’s Waldo” type of game, challenging the viewer to find the two bobcats that are in the picture. Bobcats are sneaky little buggers. They use their coats as camouflage and remain stock still until they pick their moment to strike. In the picture, their camo is working well.

Before reading further, can you find them?

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I found the first bobcat very quickly. Finding the second one took a little longer. Had I been a rabbit in the picture, I would have been lunch.

When I found it, it struck me like a wicked branch on the path. Duh, of course. There it is.

Why did it take me so long to find it? I was operating in my default “trail mode.” When I’m on the trail, I spend more of my time hiking looking down at the ground, watching for evil roots or rocks, than I do looking up and around. Ironically, I did the same thing with the picture. I didn’t look up. My mind wasn’t open enough to remember that cats love to be up high, which in the wild means being in trees.

How often does this happen in your world? Probably every single day.

Think about work and your company.

We all get caught up watching for hazards waiting to trip us. We miss the power, beauty, and opportunity around us. We don’t step back often enough to take in the entire scene and see what unfolds. We miss out. Then we’re honked off when we realize that we missed seeing that cool bobcat in the tree or, if you were the rabbit, being invited to lunch.

I’ve encountered some recent examples in my work with companies:

  • Heather, who’s looking to retire, is hurt. The offers to purchase her company are lower than she dreamed about. She could have averted her hurt and frustration had she “looked up” three or four years ago to understand how buyers look at the company.
  • Pat is frustrated that employees are dumping on Sam. Sam is, with approval, working from home. Most everyone else is conditioned to being in the office. Pat goes into defensive mode when confronted with, “Sam’s never in the office,” rather than cheerleading the new framework and guiding people through the change.
  • Frank, the patriarch of a family business, is extremely upset with one of his kids because she has the audacity to not want to be a shareholder any longer. Dad only hears the rejection of his favorite child, the business, when the real message is that the daughter wants her family back.

The antidote to all of this is making a commitment to take time in discovery. What does that mean?

  • It is healthy for every company to have an annual facilitated conversation where the leadership team examines what the company is doing well and what it isn’t. (This is traditionally referred to as a SWOT analysis, although I often frame it in terms of maximizing rewards and mitigating risks.) This would be followed by a reaffirmation of the company’s mission, vision, and goals, and crafting of its plan of action.
  • A discovery process facilitated by a skilled exit advisor would inform Heather about what makes her company attractive or unattractive to a future owner. The information would allow her to work with her advisors to unpack how it relates to the business valuation and what steps to take to improve her outcomes. Had she undertaken that effort three to five years before she wanted or had to retire, she would’ve managed her own expectations and had a runway to potentially improve the valuation. Simultaneously, discovery helps the company, regardless of her exit plans. Her leadership team’s experience of going through discovery and planning process strengthens their ability to run the company in the future when she may not be there. The organization has a plan for growing and achieving its goals.
  • For Pat, who’s struggling with implementing changes in policies and workflows, discovery is more contained and situational. Sometimes, we need to stop and remember what the goals are. Pat needs to adopt a WFH model that attracts and retains employees in this bat-bonkers market and do so with empathy for both individual roles and demands. Successful implementation requires Pat to step back and not be defensive. The priority is retaining staff with the new model. Pat should understand the sources of frustration, help everyone work through it (without throwing Sam under the bus), and reinforce the reasons and benefits of the initiative.
  • Frank and his daughter’s discovery begins with recognizing that there are three different systems dog-piled and at play — the family, the ownership, and the leadership of the company. Like a ball of yarn before knitting the scarf, the systems must be untangled. Frank and his family will benefit from a family retreat to learn and discover more about these systems and themselves as individuals and a family. Their work starts with the family — discovering and affirming its values, codes of conduct, and governance framework. Only then can meaningful decision-making and understanding come in resolving the ownership questions.

Discovery is about awareness and mindset. It is a launch pad for new experiences and better outcomes.

Isn’t it time you took a hike in the woods?

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