Prioritize Prioritizing


A friend who owns a small business complained to me recently that her company didn’t achieve all its goals this year.

“We’re a startup so everything is a priority,” she said. “It’s just total chaos trying to deal with so much.”

This is an annual ritual with her: Establish lots of goals at the beginning of the year; complain that there were too many competing priorities at the end of the year.

Sound familiar?

The old “competing priorities” frustrates many business leaders.

I get it. But I don’t buy it.

Most business leaders, including my friend, establish a big, messy, unorganized pile of goals, without prioritizing them.

Then they dabble in a little bit of everything without focusing first on what is most important. By definition, “prioritizing” defines what is most important.

Whether you lead an organization, community, or board, nothing significant gets done if you don’t prioritize. Without priorities, goals and initiatives trigger chaos, not progress.

How do you prioritize when everything seems like a priority?

  1. Begin with a clear vision of what success looks like:It’s important to start with a vision, then set goals and work to achieve them. As Yogi Berra once said “If you don’t know where you’re going, you’ll probably end up somewhere else.”

  2. Force rank goals:Let’s face it, “everything” is not a priority. A goal that addresses a threat to your organization’s mission or existence takes priority. The former retailer Blockbuster Video either didn’t perceive streaming as a threat to their business model… or they didn’t prioritize jumping on the streaming bandwagon.

  3. Break down goals into strategies to achieve them:BHAG’s (Big hairy audacious goals) can be daunting. Break down your goals into a series of smaller action steps with reasonable timelines.

  4. Review last year’s goals to help position you for success this year:If you set goals last year, take a look at what worked, what didn’t, and why. If you were successful, how can you repeat that? If you didn’t achieve your goal, what got in the way and how can you avoid it this year?

Everyone has too much on their plate. Plan to get things done this year by staying focused on your vision and disciplined about working towards your goals.

What NIMBYs Can Teach Us

When I was Mayor of Clayton, MO, we sometimes locked horns with residents when we proposed development projects in their neighborhood.

These were the residents who wanted no change at all… EVER…

…The residents were referred to as NIMBYs (Not In My BackYard).

Sound familiar?

Dealing with NIMBYs is a major challenge for government officials. I hear it often: “We have a great plan, but the NIMBYs are fighting it.”

I recently presented a workshop called “UrbanPlan for Public Officials” for a group of mayors.

The workshop, developed by the Urban Land Institute, engages public leaders in a case study about the challenging issues, complex trade-offs, and economics that influence land-use decisions and commercial real estate development.

One of the challenges we discussed was, of course, NIMBYs.

I shared lessons learned from my fourteen-year career in office which included more than a few battles with residents who said, “Not in my backyard.”

Here are those lessons:

    • Government officials must listen and ask the right questions.
    • Residents who oppose your plan are not the enemy. They are stakeholders in a shared community.
    • If you listen carefully, ask the right questions and encourage respectful dialog, you may identify ways to work together and reach a workable compromise for all.
    • Participatory policymaking sparks community input and results in more innovative solutions. Citizens who would otherwise be uninvolved in their community are more apt to tune-in when their neighbors are discussing important issues. More participation means more satisfaction with the ultimate decision and fosters the public’s support for this and future initiatives.
    • Grassroots participation and respectful citizen protest can stimulate community interest and help elected leaders make better, more informed decisions.


It doesn’t always end with happy consensus. But when you respectfully treat opponents as fellow stakeholders, not “dreaded NIMBYs,” the process is less heated and difficult.

Instead of the negative stereotyping, perhaps we should be thanking the NIMBYs for promoting positive change in our communities.


Here’s a link to book a 30 minute call to discuss “UrbanPlan for Public Officials” or any of our services:

Redefine BHAG to Achieve Big Goals

I once knew a CEO who was fond of BHAGs — big, hairy, audacious goals.

He encouraged his employees to think bigger. He prodded them to fill strategic plans with one BHAG after another.

Then, he asked me why those plans collected dust.

Because, I told him, there’s a difference between “audacious” and “achievable.”

Those responsible for implementing plans will stall, delay, divert or flat-out quit when they think they’re pursuing something they can’t achieve. Setting the goal too high causes a person not to try at all. People will lose their motivation and quit before they even start.

Then your plan sits on a shelf.

I’m all for big thinking. Big, hairy goals? Go for it.

Just make sure those goals are achievable.

Here’s how…

  1. Conduct a more thoughtful SWOT analysis.  Take the time to discover all possible obstacles facing your team. There may be one or dozens. When all possible obstacles are addressed, you are actually left with a strategic plan, not a list of goals or a pipe dream.
  2. Hire a facilitator.  Sometimes only facilitators can get to the truth.  An unbiased third party can ask “forbidden” questions and get honest, direct feedback that some team members might be afraid to communicate to their boss.
  3. Have a more detailed action plan Define the steps needed to achieve the goal.  This will help you cull the un-achievable from the plan. It will set the stage for successfully achieving the achievable.
  4. Give people the authority to achieve the vision and goal.  Responsibility and accountability without authority is not only meaningless, it’s frustrating and demoralizing as well.

Strong leaders should still ask their employees to think big and pursue stretch goals. With the help of a planning facilitator, they can avoid those dust-collecting BHAGs and launch their organization in pursuit of big, hairy, achievable goals.


How to Keep Your Team Focused and Productive in Challenging Times

With the possibility of a recession looming over us, global warming threatening the future of our planet, and mass shootings horrifying us way too often, who isn’t more than just a little distracted these days?

Leaders have always had to lead amid some level of uncertainty, but the stakes for today’s issues are higher and create more stress than usual. In troubling times, the need for strong leadership is particularly important. Beyond the basics of having a clear vision, a high functioning team, and the right culture, what is the secret sauce for success when your team is facing an elevated level of anxiety?

Many of you remember the Good Friday tornado that hit St. Louis in 2011. I was heading up a commercial flooring company at that time and had several crews working at Lambert Airport that evening installing new flooring and providing floor maintenance services.

Lambert was hit hard and suffered significant damage, and I heard harrowing stories from my employees. One of the men installing ceramic tile in the baggage claim area was blown across the floor and slammed into a wall when the wind blew through the glass doors. To this day, I’m thankful that he was “just a little banged up and sore, but not really hurt”.

My crews and countless other workers went back to Lambert as soon as it was safe and their extraordinary efforts enabled the airport to return to a full flight schedule less than four days after being devastated a tornado. As the airport’s Director said, it was “miraculous”.

Floor installers and other construction personnel always work hard, but what inspired them to perform a “miracle”? After experiencing the trauma of living through a tornado, how were they able to focus on cleaning up the wreckage? Where did they find the physical and mental reserves to work such long hours?

To a person, their answers reflected the feeling that their job wasn’t just replacing damaged floors. The purpose of their work was to get the airport functioning again…and they were passionate about making that happen.

Purpose and passion kept them going during this challenging time.

The most productive condition of all is when team members are aligned behind a shared purpose and passionate about achieving their collective vision.

In “The Little Prince”, Antoine de Saint-Exupery writes: “If you want to build a ship, don’t drum up people together to collect wood and don’t assign them tasks and work, but rather teach them to long for the endless immensity of the sea.”

A good leader has mastered the basics of clear vision, the right people, and positive culture, but a great leader knows how to inspire people to go beyond what is ordinarily possible.

In other words, great leadership inspires people to perform “miracles”.

Encourage Your Team to Have a “Good Fight”

In a 1995 interview, Apple co-founder Steve Jobs was discussing the importance of teamwork and shared the following anecdote to make his point:

“When I was a young kid there was a widowed man that lived up the street. He was in his eighties. He was a little scary looking. And I got to know him a little bit. I think he may have paid me to mow his lawn or something.

One day he said to me, ‘Come on into my garage, I want to show you something.’ And he pulled out this dusty old rock tumbler. It was a motor and a coffee can and a little band between them. And he said, ‘come with me.’ We went out into the back and we got just some rocks… some regular old ugly rocks. And we put them in the can with a little bit of liquid and little bit of grit powder, and we closed the can up and he turned this motor on and he said, ‘come back tomorrow.’

And this can was making a racket as the stones went around.

And I came back the next day, and we opened the can. And we took out these amazingly beautiful polished rocks. The same common stones that had gone in, through rubbing against each other, creating a little bit of friction, creating a little bit of noise, had come out these beautiful polished rocks.

That’s always been in my mind my metaphor for a team working really hard on something they’re passionate about.  It’s that through the team, through that group of incredibly talented people bumping up against each other, having arguments, having fights sometimes, making some noise, and working together they polish each other and they polish the ideas, and what comes out are these really beautiful stones.”

“Having fights” is inevitable when people with different perspectives, experiences, talents, and opinions work together. We often feel that conflict is something to avoid but, when it comes to team effectiveness, the combined effort of teams whose members challenge one another’s thinking far exceeds what a group of like-minded individuals can accomplish.

But how do we keep productive conflict from degenerating into interpersonal conflict?

Here are five tips for managing conflict and setting the stage so your team can have a “good fight”.

  1. DATA:
    Use data to keep the discussion grounded in reality and focused on the issue instead of personalities or opinions. If team members have to speculate on what the facts might be, their discussion is just a waste of time and energy. Having the facts leads to a healthy debate and good decisions.
    Generate multiple options for the team to consider. Discussing only two options forces the group to choose sides, but having multiple alternatives inspires creative thinking and results in better solutions.
    As Yogi Berra said, “If you don’t know where you’re going, you’ll end up someplace else”. If the team is not united by a common goal, members will start blaming each other when they end up “someplace else”. Team members don’t have to think alike, but they do have to share a collective vision.
  4. HAVE FUN:
    Humor lessens tension and creates a psychologically safe space. Research shows that people in a good mood are more creative; they’re also better listeners, which helps them understand other’s perspectives.
    Encourage everyone to speak up and ensure that everyone participates equally in the discussion. If people understand how a decision was made and feel the process was fair, they’re more likely to accept the decision even if they don’t agree with it.

A lack of conflict means apathy, not harmony. Effective decisions are most likely to be made by teams that engage in healthy debate.
But remember…preventing interpersonal conflict is key.


From Campaigning To Governing: Advice For Newly Elected Officials

“It’s easier to run for office than to run the office.”

Former House Speaker Tip O’Neill

Congratulations, you ran for public office and won!

Campaigning and getting elected is a great achievement and you should be proud of your new status.  The people have spoken and they’re confident you are the best person to tackle the community’s challenges.  But if you are like I was after reality set in, you’re asking yourself “Now what?”

As someone who spent fourteen years in public office, I assure you that you’ll eventually be comfortable in your role as a public official.  There is definitely a steep learning curve though, so here’s some advice to help get you through the transition from campaigning to governing.

  • Know Your Role: You need to understand the responsibilities, chain of command, and legal limitations of the elected officials and staff in your city. Your primary role is to set policy and direction, so focus on big ideas. The voters elected you because of your vision, not because they want you to micromanage the day-to-day operations of government staff.
  • Be a Team Player: Remember, you’re only one vote so delivering on your campaign promises depends on teamwork. Another reason teamwork is key is because governing bodies whose members work together as a team get more accomplished for their community…and making your community better is why you ran in the first place, right?
  • Define Success: At the end of your term what do you want to be remembered for? If you develop a vision of what you want to accomplish and a plan to achieve your goals, you’ll stay focused on the big picture instead of just reacting to others’ priorities. As Yogi Berra said “If you don’t know where you’re going, you’ll end up someplace else.”
  • Remember Who You’re Working For: You work for the citizens who voted you into office. Pretty obvious, right? You would be surprised how power can transform some dedicated public servants into self-serving egomaniacs. Always make the long-term interests of your community your top priority, and keep your constituents informed and engaged.

Serving in public office is a wonderful honor and big responsibility. As a community leader you’re always in the public eye. Remember that how you behave and what you say affect your fellow elected officials, citizens, and community.

Here’s wishing you much success as you embark on this incredibly rewarding journey!

Lessons from the SNL Writers Room: How to Build an Effective Team

I recently saw a hilarious video clip from the third season of Saturday Night Live (SNL). Producer Lorne Michaels asks the Beatles (all still living at the time) to reunite and perform on the show…

…for $3,200, a laughably small sum, even in 1977 dollars.

It made me wonder how SNL and Michaels did it. How are they still going strong 42 years later?

At SNL, the cast and writers room is comprised of ambitious individualists, all with different agendas, all competing for the spotlight. Some of them are temperamental and hard to manage. That seems like a recipe for disaster.

It reminds me of city councils and boards after an election. Politicians are independent of their Board and its leader, rely on their own supporters and constituencies to maintain their position, and recognize themselves as leaders in their own right. Like entertainers, they consider themselves (or at least strive to be) the lead attraction.

I’ve seen conflict and ambition create dysfunction in city government. Often though, I’ve seen it work.

As I pondered SNL’s success, I discovered that SNL succeeds for the same reasons that functional boards work.

How? By fostering a “safe” environment for all to participate productively and constructively.

Business author Charles Duhigg (“The Power of Habit” and “Smarter Faster Better: The Secrets of Being Productive in Life and Business”) has studied SNL’s success and credits Michaels:

“Lorne Michaels has this very unique way of running meetings. He sits down and the meeting starts. And what he’ll do is he’ll make everyone go around the table and say something. And if someone hasn’t spoken up in a little while Loren Michaels will actually stop the meeting and he’ll say Susie, I notice that you haven’t chimed in. Like what are you thinking about right now? And if somebody looks upset, if an actor looks like he’s having a bad day or a writer sort of sees like they’re pissed off Lorne Michaels will again stop the meeting and he’ll actually take that person out of the room and he’ll say look, it looks like something’s going on that’s bugging you. Like let’s talk about it. What’s happening in your life?”

This is not just touchy-feely Kumbaya stuff for whacky comedians. This reflects best business practices.

Duhigg’s quote comes from a video called “What Makes a Winning Team? SNL and Google Have the Formula.”

Duhigg tells us that Google began a massive research project in 2011 to understand how to build high-functioning teams.

They began with the premise that teams function best when you put the right people together.

But after years of study, “(Google) couldn’t find any correlation between who was on a team and whether that team was effective or not,” according to Duhigg.

So Google began to explore how teams interact. Google’s study revealed that, “Teams in which people all speak up and where there’s high social sensitivity where people pick up on each other’s nonverbal cues, those according to the data are the most effective teams.”

Google spent millions of dollars and collected reams of data to figure this out. By the time Google completed its study, Lorne Michaels had been running teams at SNL this way for decades.

I’ve served as a Mayor who runs a city council and as a consultant working with councils.

I, too, learned over the years that “psychological safety” is the single greatest contributor to a group’s success. A safe environment fosters a sense of togetherness that encourages members to speak up. Everyone participates about the same amount and fellow team members actively listen. By welcoming new ideas, the team becomes more innovative and collaborative.

When a group of individuals learn to interact in a more effective way, they develop a collective intelligence and achieve more than a team of individual superstars.

But this doesn’t happen accidentally. This happens when a strong leader, like Lorne Michaels, controls how team members interact.

A leader sets the stage, acts as the example, provides resources and breaks down obstacles. Then we get out of the way and let the team succeed.

In addition to “psychological safety,” Google’s study, cited four other keys to success to help your team become as cohesive, collaborative, and high performing as Saturday Night Live.

I’ve summarized those factors here.

Barking Up the Wrong Tree: The Power of Surveys

How Stakeholder Input Can Keep You and Your Team on Track

If it hadn’t been for accurate data, I wouldn’t have realized I was barking up the wrong tree.

Most people are motivated to run for political office because they want to make a positive difference.  I was no exception.  So when I was approached by a group of citizens shortly after I took office, they easily convinced me that “everyone” wanted a certain vacant lot to become a dog park.

What a great opportunity, I thought.  I would become the dog park champion and make my mark early in my public service career!

But suddenly that underused parcel of land on the border of a commercial and residential area sparked intense public interest.  I had heard from the citizens who were lobbying for a dog park, but I soon learned that there were other citizens who wanted a community garden and that the local retailers wanted the green space paved and turned into a parking lot.

Clearly, some sort of improvement was long overdue, but what was the “right” choice?

I relied on data to make important decisions in my business, so I asked the city to conduct a survey of the residents and businesses located within a half-mile of the property.

Surprise: the dog park was ranked 18 out of the 20 possible uses for the land.

The statistically valid survey indicated that the stakeholders wanted a landscaped park with picnic tables, public art, and open play space for children.  That’s what we did, and it’s the pride of the neighborhood to this day.

In order to make good decisions you need to have accurate data and understand what that data is telling you.

Why is data-driven decision making so important?

  • Decisions are based on objective information. I had heard from a handful of stakeholders, but unbiased survey data gave me the information I needed to address the real preferences of the majority of stakeholders. The survey results allowed me to focus on what was truly important to stakeholders rather than waste time and resources on options of no interest.
  • Asking for input shows stakeholders you care. Taking multiple perspectives into consideration results in the best decisions. I demonstrated my motivation to do what was best for the community by delivering the outcome desired by the majority of stakeholders.
  • A strategic, organized outreach plan can be developed. Because stakeholders were engaged early in the process through the survey, I was able to encourage their continued involvement throughout the entire project. The end result was a win for the entire neighborhood.

They say that a dog is man’s best friend, but in this case it was data that came to my rescue. In fact, I guess you could say it was a citizen survey that kept my political future from going to the dogs.

Overcoming Cultural Conflict

During my years in the commercial flooring business, my company acquired one of our competitors with a very different culture than ours.  My organization was predominately women and we marketed to the architectural and design community; the company we acquired was a typical construction firm…all male.   

There was such a huge difference in cultures that we jokingly referred to the acquisition as “the wine and cheese ladies meet the beer and pretzel guys”. 

Big differences, no question about it!  But we decided to forge ahead anyway, firmly believing that we could blend the two cultures and be more successful together than we could be separately.

Some of the “culture wars” were humorous.  The first time we had a joint company meeting, we supplied our usual fresh fruit and granola breakfast.  By popular demand, subsequent meetings also featured an enormous box of donuts and pastries (delicious, I have to admit!).

Other differences, however, were more significant.  For example, our definition of a business contract was a signed, legal document; their definition was a scribbled note on a cocktail napkin and a handshake over a beer. 

The company had been a success despite some of their unorthodox operating practices, so we kept what worked but also instituted some important changes.

Working with managers, individuals, and cross-departmental focus groups, we moved slowly to blend cultures, share our respective company’s best practices, and create a collective vision for the future of our new business. 

By integrating our two vastly different cultures, we actually did become stronger together and our new company moved forward successfully.

In other words, we learned that wine and pretzels was indeed a very good combination. 

Whether you want to create a positive culture between diverse individuals on your board or team, break down silos between departments in your organization, or orchestrate a successful merger here are three keys critical to success:

1.    Focus on people and understand that they are the most crucial factor to your success.  Have strategic conversations with individuals and seek to understand them.

2.    Communicate early and often and instead of lecturing, ask questions. Involve and invite contributions from individuals and the group, and make sure everyone gets an opportunity to participate.

3.    Develop a shared vision of the future and strategies to achieve that vision.  Don’t impose a new vision from the top…a shared vision is more important than your vision.  Create energy, focus efforts, and connect people to the vision and goals by giving them a voice in the process.

As a business owner I used these principles to blend two very different cultures and move my company forward.  As mayor, I used the same approach to create a cohesive Board and to move our community forward.

Today, I work as a consultant who applies lessons learned to help municipalities, nonprofits and for-profit businesses build stronger teams that accomplish more with less conflict and discord.

Team Building is a Process, Not an Event

Recently I was invited to meet with an elected Board because, as one member said, they “needed a little team-building.” 

After some preliminary discussions, I arrived at City Hall ready for the first session, which was scheduled for two hours.  I expected this would be a multi-session team-building process.

My contact greeted me and said, in an apologetic tone, “We’ve had an emergency and you have 45 minutes.” 

That’s how much time the Board had allotted for team-building. 

Tick-tock. Tick-tock. 

The session was a flop for several reasons — the same reasons many team-building processes fail.

If you want stronger teams, if you want to disaster-proof your team-building process, here are three principles to embrace: 

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