One of the key indicators I’ve observed in excellent and effective leaders is their ability to anticipate. Whether it’s a timeline of events or evolving reactions or seeing problems that lie far ahead, an effective leader is able to detach from the present challenges to see what’s coming. Of course there are still surprises and anticipating what lies ahead doesn’t necessarily mean a leader has their team ready for everything, but that ability to anticipate, think strategically and plan in the present, sets leaders apart from those that are constantly reacting or focused on fixing things that are already broken. Being able to anticipate frees a leader to take decisive action in the present and proactively resolve problems.
Like all leadership skills, the ability to anticipate is trainable...but how? How do you train someone to look at what hasn’t happened yet and make decisions now? Here are a few ideas:
If you’re on your own fine-tuning your anticipation skills, look at the calendar data. Do certain things always happen at certain days/months/seasons/times of year? Collecting schedule information from everyone involved can clarify some “surprise” peaks or valleys in the calendar that actually happen regularly. Are the conditions for some events consistently favorable (or unfavorable) on a known schedule? Do the street floods happen every fall but only after the leaves clog the gutters? Does the Friday afternoon meeting get canceled 80% of the time because people lack the energy to meet on a Friday afternoon? The calendar data can give you clues that make some surprises not at all surprising. Trend data plus a root cause analysis can be illuminating. If you’re on your own as a leader, collecting calendar data is a good place to start looking for trends to anticipate.
If you have a coach, mentor or role-model, look where your mentor is looking. I was training a newer leader once and I asked how his training was going. We were in the midst of doing our work together and I felt like I hadn’t given his training extensive explicit attention. He told me things were going very well and he was learning a ton by looking at whatever I was looking at. From this he was gathering information on priorities for information gathering and relevant factors to consider when making decisions. Since that experience I’ve included “focus on what the best leaders are looking at” as a part of my training flow for new leaders. This gives the leader-in-training a direction for their energy when they’re not sure what to be doing and also leads to rich conversations about assessment and decision making. Does the tone of conversation during team lunch universally indicate simmering problems? Or only when certain individuals are involved? When a team leader is left off of a team communication is that signaling a lack of oversight or a mutiny? When I don’t get to work as closely with a learning leader, I take the time to talk through how and where they should be focusing their attention to learn the most about anticipation.
In either case, the key is identifying patterns. Collecting calendar data and focusing your attention on the most relevant factors is only as useful as the conclusions you draw from that information. Anticipation is about patterns - what are the recurring events, expected effects from expected causes, precursors, tipping points, inescapable forces, leading indicators….etc. Sometimes we miss the front-end information and are left with a reflection on past events. While it’s easy to say something was unexpected, a deeper look can reveal patterns. Do new team leaders in a particular department tend to regularly leave after 4 months? Does an annual schedule change increase defensive anxiety behaviors? Identifying patterns is the crucial step in training anticipation.
Whether you’re on your own building your leadership skills or you are lucky enough to have a coach/mentor or mastermind group to support your journey, effort toward building the skill of anticipation will pay off down the road. Being better at anticipation will result in leading with more ease, proactive decision making, smoother flowing processes and happier teammates. You can anticipate it.
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