top of page
Podcast Transcript

High Performing Teams Obstacles

Wendi McGowan-Ellis  0:11  
Welcome to "Your Authentic Path to Powerful Leadership" with Marsha Clark. Join us on this journey where we're uncovering what it takes to be a powerful woman leader. Well, Marsha, welcome back again to part two of our three part series on building and leading high performance teams.

Marsha Clark  0:30  
Thank you, Wendi. And yes, today we are diving into the second episode in the series. And this is where we're gonna focus on the leader's role in removing obstacles for their team.

Wendi McGowan-Ellis  0:41  
Ah, well, in case some of some of our listeners didn't get to hear last week's episode kickoff, will you provide a high level explanation of what's going on in this series and what inspired it?

Marsha Clark  0:53  
Yes, you bet. You bet. So the series is a breakdown of a framework for building and leading high performance teams. That's the big headline. And I've adapted this over the years based on the framework and the work of Gallup, and in collaboration with a dear colleague, Jerry Magar, and the framework includes five components. The first one is building trust, and that's tied to the psychological safety, building psychological safety in teams, setting clear expectations, removing obstacles, providing feedback, and celebrating successes. And two weeks ago we focused on the leaders role in creating psychological safety in the team in order to build an environment for trust and belonging. And then last week we unpacked the framework even further as we explored setting and communicating and aligning clear expectations. And I'm thinking, Wendi, in hindsight, we probably should have set this as a four part series.

Wendi McGowan-Ellis  1:54  
Well, good point, the topics are all definitely linked and aligned. And another point of alignment is that all of this content is covered in your upcoming book, "Expanding Your Power: A Woman's Opportunity to Inspire Teams and Influence Organizations". So, this is a perfect way for us to introduce that content to your listeners in anticipation of this book's eventual publication. So, for our listeners who did to tune in last week and for those of you who didn't go back and listen to last week because you're gonna need that as a foundation for this episode on setting clear expectations. Well, the last week's episode was on setting clear expectations, and it was a jam packed discussion. But this week, we have a slightly lighter agenda but no less important or impactful to your role as a leader in, you know, removing obstacles.

Marsha Clark  2:50  
So, I think that was you just now setting clear expectations.

Wendi McGowan-Ellis  2:53  
Yes, exactly. Yes, I was. So, I say I'm always listening and learning here. So, okay, let's dive into today's topic, removing obstacles. And as is our our custom, we like to create a common understanding of terms by pulling in a definition that can help us get aligned in our conversations. So Marsha, I know you offer a definition for the word obstacle in the new book. What did you find?

Marsha Clark  3:20  
You know, that is true. And I just want to say one of the reasons I do this is to get alignment, to have a definition because words can mean different things. So, I opted to use the definition from the Oxford Languages Dictionary. And what it tells us is that an obstacle is a thing that blocks one's way or prevents or hinders progress. So, other words, that's the definition, "a thing that blocks one's way or prevents or hinders progress". Another way to think about this, in words or phrases we often hear that are akin to obstacle, are roadblocks, challenges, barriers, issues. So, so so we'll use those, you know, somewhat interchangeably here.

Wendi McGowan-Ellis  4:08  
Excellent. Okay. So I think it's important to add here that all teams face obstacles somewhere along the way especially if they're stretching, growing and adding value to the organization. You know, I think sometimes people mistake the definition of a high performing team as a team that doesn't have any challenges or obstacles and they all get along all the time. And I think it's really the opposite. The team members do face challenges, and maybe even more so because they're performing at a high level and pushing the limits. But they work through those obstacles effectively and efficiently.

Marsha Clark  4:47  
That's right, Wendi. It's a great point. So, high performing teams absolutely face their fair share of challenges, and maybe even as you said, more than their fair share because they are out on the edge doing the work and going above and beyond what's needed to be done for the organization, their client, their stakeholder, whomever, and they don't settle for status quo assignments or even mediocre results. And for those listeners who were with us last week, we started the episode with a reflection question, thinking about a great team you worked on and I think we can revisit that here.  For our listeners who missed it, you can still play along. We asked everyone to think of a high performing team they've been on, either currently or in the past. And then to identify what was it that made that team so special. And I will tell our listeners based on my experience as a leader and coach, I would say that most people would say one of the things that made the team special is how it did handle those obstacles, those challenges, those roadblocks.

Wendi McGowan-Ellis  5:52  
You are so right, Marsha. I mean, that's definitely one of the attributes of the teams that I thought of immediately in my personal experience. It wasn't just that we all got along, or that the team was packed with talented, dedicated people. I mean, yes, we had that, too. But it was really in how we solved problems together and how we worked through that conflict, how we tackled those challenges. That's what really made it special for me.

Marsha Clark  6:21  
You know, and I would dare say that I think many of our listeners and people that we know have shared that experience, Wendi. And the reality is that almost every major project has obstacles because you can't anticipate everything. And it's the job of the high performing team to manage them, to remove them or to figure out how to work around them.

Wendi McGowan-Ellis  6:42  
Yeah, you just said something key there, Marsha. You said it's the job of the team to manage the obstacles, remove them or work around them. I'm not sure if our listeners caught that because I think most people assume that it's the job of the leader to manage, remove or work around those obstacles.

Marsha Clark  7:00  
Well, that's right, good catch for, you know, enabling us or queuing us up to be more specific about that. I want to be really clear. As the leader, it is your job and your responsibility to see that obstacles are removed. It is not, however, your job to in fact remove every single one of them because the most effective leaders coach others on how to remove them. In our foundational elements we talk about it's a leader's responsibility to create additional capacity in others. And this is a part of increasing that capacity to handle, manage, work around, solve for those obstacles.

Wendi McGowan-Ellis  7:41  
Well, and I know that you touched on this a little last week when we talked about the expectations menu, which is now a new favorite tool of mine. And as I'm thinking about that list, your suggestions around project management seems especially relevant here in terms of how to help guide and coach the team to manage potential obstacles. So will you share some examples of how you set up expectations with a team to help them enhance alignment and avoid those obstacles?

Marsha Clark  8:13  
So, I see where you're going with this, Wendi. And I'd say it's a combination. And we may have heard the phrase, a combination of an ounce of prevention, which is what expectations can do for you, and the pound of cure to solve for whatever that problem might be. And that's the obstacle. So when I'm working with a project leader, or even the whole team, we're establishing expectations early on. And one of the first things I guide them on is making sure that the projects are aligned with organizational and team strategies and priorities. So don't go off on, you know, tangents or distractions. Clarifying project alignment like this up front will help to avoid some of those obstacles from the outset. And it also allows the team to anticipate where there might be some challenges or roadblocks along the way. So the 'preparing for' is the ounce of prevention. And, you know, anticipating we can be more prepared to offer that pound of cure. And, you know, one of my expectations that I have of my team, and I share it with them, is that if there are priority conflicts, because that can be a big challenge, discuss them with me as soon as you identify them. And then again, as there leader I can either help them potentially reprioritize, negotiate priorities if the conflicts are with another team in the organization, and even reallocate resources if necessary to meet all of the priorities.

Wendi McGowan-Ellis  9:46  
Exactly. So, conflicting priorities, whether internally or externally and whether it's with another team or the end user, customer, vendor, you know, all of these. Conflicting priorities are a huge obstacle. And I can see where getting clear on expectations up front can also help to address that challenge. So what else can help here?

Marsha Clark  10:09  
Yeah, as I work with the team or the team leaders, I set the expectation that they will develop a work plan and they're going to walk through that work plan with me at the start of their projects. And as part of that plan, I'm going to encourage critical thinking, I'm going to ask the team or leader, you know, what obstacles they might anticipate because they're out there closest to the work and they know who they're going to be working with. So, let's talk about all of that. And this can be based on their own experience, or, quite honestly, just the deeper understanding of the project and perhaps the relationships with the stakeholders. And then I also set the expectation upfront that when a team or leader does hit an obstacle, that they're going to tell me what it is, they're going to tell me what they've done to overcome it, and they're going to let me know what they need from me. I'm not going to just volunteer and jump in the middle of it. I want them to think through what the problem is, I want them to ensure that they've done everything they can do to overcome it, and then get clear about what it is they need from me.

Wendi McGowan-Ellis  11:13  
So what's an example of what they could need from you to deal with the obstacle?

Marsha Clark  11:18  
So, it could be something as simple as brainstorming ideas, problem solving ideas, it could be either one of those, even conversations we need to have, what it whatever it might be. And it could be more complicated like needing me to step in and use either my personal influence and even my positional power, where I fit in the hierarchy, to talk to an upper level leader or even appear who may not be making themselves available to the team for either making decisions or providing resources.

Wendi McGowan-Ellis  11:54  
Got it. Okay. I remember reading another suggestion you make in the section on setting expectations around project management that could actually help with overcoming obstacles. And that was the idea of setting clear timelines and managing them. So will you say more about that?

Marsha Clark  12:13  
Sure. So, that would be especially important if a team or team member realizes that they're gonna miss a deadline due to an obstacle. One of my expectations for project management is that I want the team or leader to set that clear plan. And it's not just the putting a plan in place for the sake of satisfying this checklist. It's a plan and I want them to monitor that along the way. Without a plan or some oversight to that plan, you might not even realize you're gonna miss a deadline or a deliverable due date until it's too late. That's why the plan is so important. And when we have any advance notice that we've hit a roadblock, there's like, that often results in a delay. And we want to look for solutions on our end, potentially re-allocating staff, managing stakeholder expectations, if changes are required. And this is where the team or leaders need to be proactive and recognize that if a timeline needs to change, I expect them to bring me the implications of changing it and their recommendations for moving forward. And we're going to work out the solution together. But the problem solving doesn't fall fully on my shoulders, the leader's shoulders, to figure that out. And these are all examples of how a leader who is intent on building capacity in their team members, quite honestly, in encouraging their autonomy or independence, their critical thinking, their problem solving skills, basically, the fundamentals of high performing teams. One way to do that is to be clear upfront with the expectations of what to anticipate, and then be ready to manage your way through those inevitable obstacles.

Wendi McGowan-Ellis  14:00  
I can see how this level of autonomy and accountability can be invigorating for some people. But I know some people might also be intimidated by that level of responsibility.

Marsha Clark  14:14  
Yeah, and you know, Wendi, being on a high performing team does require commitment. And some people don't even realize what is required, commitment or otherwise, until they get on a high performing team. And they see what's happening around them and what is expected of everyone. And it does remind me of one of my favorite sayings that I picked up years and years ago when I was at EDS and that is "Run the company so the best people love it."

Wendi McGowan-Ellis  14:44  
Oh, I've heard you say that before and it never really clicked how it relates so perfectly to the idea of building and leading high performance teams.

Marsha Clark  14:55  
It is all about high performing teams, building them, leading them and insisting on being on them even as an individual contributor. Because if you're spending most of your time with team members who aren't meeting what you would consider acceptable levels of performance, you want to challenge yourself on whether that's, in fact, the best team for you to be on or the best use of your time. And we don't always have choices, and you know, choices that aren't rather extreme in those cases, but as a leader, you're going to get a greater return on the investment of your focus and energy by making decisions that are going to benefit your best team members. So, if I have a complainer who complains about everything, I can spend a lot of time trying to solve for that. And the minute I solve for one complaint then there's another one versus the people who are best team members are saying, 'What can I do for you?', not 'What can you do for me?' And if you're a leader, I always tell this to whether this is a coach, a leader, a consultant role, whatever, if you as the leader are working harder than the team member is to improve that team member's performance, that's a problem. So, I just want to remind that you can't be working harder than the person to help them improve their performance. So, at the individual contributor level I'd offer similar advice. If your team isn't operating at the level of performance that you want to be associated with, ask yourself whether this is the highest and best use of your time and talent and if you want to continue on here, how can you help contribute to making it a high performing team because sometimes I know peer conversations can have more weight than leader to team member conversations.

Wendi McGowan-Ellis  16:46  
This whole conversation is reminding me of something you say in the book about different kinds of obstacles, or how obstacles can be internal or external. And as I'm listening to you now, I'm thinking that even the situations you just described are are packed full of both internal and external obstacles. So, will you elaborate on those differences for our listeners?

Marsha Clark  17:12  
Yeah, I certainly will. And you're right about the situation I just mentioned being a great example, if you will. As a leader, you need to identify if the performance obstacle is internal and external, because your strategy for helping that team member manage the obstacle will look different based on which one it is, internal or external. So, let's break down the difference so that it can make a little more sense and listeners can relate to it. So, internal obstacles, and what I mean by that is that those obstacles are internal to an individual. So, it can be that I lack skills, I lack knowledge, I lack experience. It can also be my negative or limiting self talk, which is what I often find. And I'm going to say, I know I work with a whole lot more women, but women bring this up a whole lot more than the men I work with, that inner voice that's saying I could never follow up with that vice president to get back to me with his response to my email. Because one of the obstacles may be I'm waiting for an answer or an approval, input of some sort. And I don't care if that means me missing my deadline, I can't talk to a vice president, you know, that kind of thing. Or who am I to speak up about this potential problem? Everyone else in this meeting is so much more experienced than me. So I quiet my own voice, my own concerns, my own perspective. And if the obstacle is internal, then your strategy is going to be centered on figuring out if this can be addressed through do I gain skills, knowledge and experience through training? Do I want to shadow with another person who has more experience knowledge and skills than I do? Do I want to ask for some coaching? Do I need additional clarity or information? Do I want to, again, encourage feedback as I'm, you know, kind of learning my way through this this assignment? Or it could be some combination of all of those things that I just mentioned. And is the person lacking the actual information and or skills or is this a confidence issue where that negative self talk is the obstacle because it can come out as I don't have the skills, knowledge or experience like everyone else in the room, but what's really happening is I don't have the confidence to say, I have my own experience, right. And it may be valuable here. And one of the things I learned in my master's program is that if it's in me, it's in the room. So, if I'm thinking it, I guarantee at least one other person's thinking it, too. But we're, we're not willing to speak up or step up. And so, you know, we as leaders can send someone let's just say to a presentation skills class to learn skills, but it's really the lack of confidence. So, it's not going to really address the specific challenge.

Wendi McGowan-Ellis  20:08  
Right. This is, that's a great distinction to consider that the solution, if you will, needs to fit the root cause of the problem.

Marsha Clark  20:17  
And that requires us to know what the root causes are. We have to take a look at that. So, I've watched so many organizations, I would say, basically waste valuable time and money sending someone to a workshop who actually needs more hands on support or individualized coaching to truly address that internal challenge. And that, you know, again, becomes even more important when we're talking about the difference between internal and external obstacles. And I also want to say to you, Wendi, I have laughingly said for years that I think a lot of organizations have outsourced leadership to coaches like me because they don't know how to give feedback on this. They don't think they have the time, the skills or experience to coach a person through. And I mean, when I think about I know I had a coaching style of leadership so coaching comes pretty naturally to me, and not everybody has that style. And yet, as a leader, that is such an important tool in your toolkit, to know how to help others learn and to coach them through unfamiliar or new or hard or complex situations.

Wendi McGowan-Ellis  21:30  
Right. Well, go ahead.

Marsha Clark  21:33  
Yeah, so, before I get further on this, I want to also take a moment to explain what I mean by external obstacles. And we'll see if our listeners can also figure out the distinction on their own. So, external obstacles are things that will block progress and that can include lack of equipment, lack of resources. And whenever I talk about resources, I'm talking about people, time and money. Those are the big three. Could be antiquated policies or processes, the 'we've always done it this way' kind of thinking. It could be ineffective or dysfunctional relationships. And here's going to be the mirror moment which is, I could be, as the leader, I might be the obstacle, the external obstacle. So, let's go back to the premise. You think you're dealing with an internal obstacle. Say a team member comes to you and says, I don't know how to, I don't have negotiating skills or maybe I just don't have the confidence. And the way that can show up is 'what do you think I should do, what do you think I should do'. 'What do you think I should do' is how lack of confidence can sometimes show up. And when in reality, you're sending them in to negotiate with someone who's been given strict orders by their department head not to budge one inch, one scooch, one millimeter on any aspect of the project. So, this isn't an internal obstacle that needs training or coaching. It's an external obstacle that may, you know, be turf wars or ego challenges or competitive, I've got a win thing or conflicting policies or priorities across departments.

Wendi McGowan-Ellis  23:13  
And this happens all the time in large organizations, doesn't it?  You know, the sales team argues for more features on a product because they're losing out on potential sales, but the product team has been told to slow down on r&d expenses. You know, in that situation, this isn't about who's the most skilled negotiator at the individual level, it's about a higher level strategy decision for the top leaders to work out.

Marsha Clark  23:40  
That's exactly right. And getting clear on where the actual obstacle is will have a huge significant effect on my approach to trying to manage it or solve for it or lead you to solve for it. And I see it all the time. You know, I'll get a referral for a coaching client or a workshop for team building. But that it's not the people, the individual issue, or even the team that is at play. Any intervention that I offer for the individual or the team is more like a band aid, you know, at best. And at worst, it's demoralizing to those who are being tapped on the shoulder because it feels like they're failing or they've got to you know, that they're going to detention when it's not an issue that... my listeners, longtime listeners have heard this. You have to solve for the problem with the right intervention at the right intervention level, individual, interpersonal, team, organizational, market.

Wendi McGowan-Ellis  24:40  
Exactly. Your example is like being sent to the principal's office because you mentioned that you smell smoke but the building is actually on fire.

Marsha Clark  24:50  
Yeah, that's a good analogy. That's right. So, leaders can be blind to what are sometimes systemic obstacles. And sadly, they jump to the assumption that the performance problems of the individual are almost always the root. And what can be even more frustrating is when the actual obstacle preventing top performance is the leader, him or herself.

Wendi McGowan-Ellis  25:13  
Okay, tell us more about that.

Marsha Clark  25:16  
So think of it. If someone isn't performing at the expected level, it could be because the leader hasn't communicated and aligned expectations. The leader might not have removed other obstacles soon enough, or maybe not provided feedback and coaching so that the person knows what they're doing that is productive and effective or not. So, it is those cases in which the leader is the obstacle.

Wendi McGowan-Ellis  25:44  
Ouch. Ouch. So, what can a leader do if they all of a sudden recognize that they are the obstacle? How do they even know that's happening?

Marsha Clark  25:54  
Yeah, well, if the leader has established mutual expectations for clear, honest, and I would say transparent and timely feedback, then whatever mechanism that you've put into place for that to occur would be the logical place for that information to be shared. So, I've got to set up that two way communication, be clear about expectations, be providing feedback, and that can be done either through regular one-on-ones and in some cases, companies and organizations have an open door policy where issues or challenges can be surfaced when they arise and team members, the desire would be that they feel safe enough to ask for clarification or any possible information that may be impacting the successful completion of projects. And this is where it gets hard and tricky because they may not know what they may not know, and that blind spot. So, that's where we as leaders have to really be on our toes. And this is why setting up and committing to those general communications expectations that we talked about last week can be so vital. And you know, my expectation is that you'll bring your issues and challenges to me with recommendations. If it turns out that it's my lack of information, feedback, support, or whatever that I'm not providing that's critical to the project success, then I would want and even expect to be told that. So, this is a vulnerability moment for leaders.

Wendi McGowan-Ellis  27:26  
That feels like it could potentially be a catch 22. You know, if I, as the team member don't have all the information, and the leader hasn't shared it, but should have, then how would I even know to check them on that? I mean, I don't know what I don't know, right?

Marsha Clark  27:42  
That's right. That's the blind spot, right? I don't know what I don't know. And that's one of the reasons that I recommend tools like the checks and balance tool which I included in the first book, "Embracing Your Power" in chapter six. And, you know, we're back to being clear with my expectations for project management. And that doesn't mean I'm in a project manager role. If I'm leading a project, it can be, you know, some objective that I have within my team, and so on. And so part of what I expect that the team and leader that they would follow a consistent process for monitoring progress on projects. And this particular check and balance tool also prompts critical thinking in four areas. And I break these prompts, if you will, into four quadrants. And again, for our listeners who have the book "Embracing Your Power", we're on page 196. So, the quadrant one, imagine a one pager, you know, section into four, top left, top right, bottom left, bottom right, so quadrant one top left, what did I accomplish in this period? If you're doing weekly one-on-one meetings with your boss, what did I accomplish this week, if it's bi weekly or so on? Quadrant two, top right, what are my objectives for the next period, the next week, the next two weeks, the next month? What are, in quadrant three, bottom left, what are my challenges, issues or obstacles? And then quadrant four, bottom right, what are the key metrics? Remember quantitative metrics being an important part of performance management, and what is my progress to date? So, the process of reviewing the prompts in each quadrant with your leader can eliminate, or not eliminate, illuminate blind spots where the leader thought they shared key information with the team only to realize that there are gaps.

Wendi McGowan-Ellis  28:46  
So, I can also see how this tool can be used to gently introduce the idea in quadrant three that the obstacle or issue is delayed or missing information from the leader and the impact that had with the overall quality or success of the project. And I guess in that case, it's more of a post mortem conversation, but it certainly could set a new standard for better check ins moving forward.

Marsha Clark  30:12  
That's the point, right? And no one and no team is perfect. And there will be times when you're gonna get blindsided by an obstacle that you just weren't prepared for. So then we got to go full circle back to the idea that trust falls in the center of all these elements for building a high performing team. And so placing blame or fingerpointing, any of that kind of stuff, whether it's individual team members, external factors, you know, as you, as you as the leader, that's counterproductive and it can even be potentially toxic.

Wendi McGowan-Ellis  30:45  
Yeah, exactly. I can see how the framework is starting to come together and why trust and psychological safety are so important for being at the center of this. And setting clear expectations is completely linked to and impacts how leaders and teams can effectively identify, anticipate and address obstacles.

Marsha Clark  31:08  
Yeah, and add to that next week's topic of providing feedback and celebrating successes and it all starts to form this cohesive picture or framework of why and how all of those components are critical to building and leading high performance teams.

Wendi McGowan-Ellis  31:23  
Well, it's coming together in my mind. You know, one thing I think would cement all of these great suggestions is if you would walk us through a scenario using the process of coaching a team member through a conversation where they are facing an obstacle. Do you have an idea, you know, an example that you can share?

Marsha Clark  31:42  
Yes, and I'll use one that I included in the book so that people can have that as a reference. So, we'll set this up kind of as a case study, so put yourself into this story. So, everyone, imagine that you're a leader and you're having a weekly one-on-one update meeting with one of your team members. And they're giving you a status update of the project or the assignment and they fail to deliver on a commitment. And they're explaining what obstacle they encountered that prevented them from making the progress or meeting the commitment they made. So, based on what we've covered today, what would be your first question to the team member? So, listeners, just think about that a minute. What would you be asking the team leader? And Wendi, what are you thinking might be the first question?

Wendi McGowan-Ellis  32:34  
Well, I would, I'm gonna go back to the expectations menu and ask what have you done to overcome this obstacle?

Marsha Clark  32:42  
I love it. Love it. Love it. Yes. And why is that an important question to ask?

Wendi McGowan-Ellis  32:47  
Do you want me to answer?

Marsha Clark  32:48  
I want our listeners to think of that. What happens when you ask that question?

Wendi McGowan-Ellis  32:54  
Well, I think two things happen. First of all, I'm reinforcing the message that I expected them to manage or overcome more obstacles. And I also think that it's a question that it may not be taken this way but it should be. I'm going to should on my team member. It should be taken as I have enough trust in you to figure this out for your own.

Marsha Clark  33:20  
That's right. I'm teaching you root cause analysis thinking, which is a critical thinking skill, right? And so, I want to prompt our listeners to start thinking about root cause as well. That's the why this obstacle exists. So, you know, remember that you're building capacity. And so, you know, why else is it important? What do you learn from that question as a leader? And you're discovering what steps they have or haven't actually taken to address or overcome the obstacle. And that's helpful not only to get to the core of the issue, but it can also help you determine if they have the thought process. And look, if I'm young in my career, this is so new to me, something that I've never done before. It's a lesson in it is still fundamentally your responsibility to manage or overcome these obstacles.

Wendi McGowan-Ellis  34:17  
So once the team member responds to that first question about what they've done to overcome the obstacle, then what?

Marsha Clark  34:25  
So, you usually end up with two practical options and maybe a hybrid of the two to form a third. So, option one contains one of my favorite questions to help people get unstuck if that's what's happened. If you believe they have not done everything they can do, you can now coach them on how to further follow through. This develops and deepens their critical thinking skills. And when you ask them, "What have you done?" they say, "Well, I don't know what to do." And so they're still expecting you to give them an answer. I then ask "If you did know, what would you do?"

Wendi McGowan-Ellis  35:04  
I remember this so much in the Power of Self class. If you didn't know, what would you do? I mean, that's, that's a hard one.

Marsha Clark  35:11  
Well, it's, on its face sounds silly. And yet, I'll tell you that in most situations, because I've used this many times, the person knows what needs to get done, or they have a pretty good idea. And yet, the reason they're not acting on their own is to address this obstacle could be the fear of doing the wrong thing. They don't think they have effective skills to address managing obstacles, what would I say? You know, is it an email or a conversation? You know, do I do it now, do I do it later? They also may not have the positional power or the authority, (Remember that? We talked about that in expectations.) to address the obstacle with the appropriate person. And as the team member's leader, you need to try to determine which of these reasons is the culprit. So why, because this is about, again, creating psychological safety, or creating capacity in them. So, you can coach the team members accordingly. And I want to remind you, this is like me, you know, kind of beating that dead horse, your job is to create greater capacity in others, and that's coaching them to manage or overcome most obstacles that they encounter. And it is your role to see that problems get solved or obstacles are overcome rather than being the person to actually manage or remove the obstacle yourself.

Wendi McGowan-Ellis  36:36  
Completely fascinating. I'm definitely raising this one up to the top of my list in my toolbox. Okay, so that was option one. What's option two?

Marsha Clark  36:46  
So, option two comes in the form of if you think your team member has done everything in their power, so in the first one you don't think they have, this one you believe that they have done everything in their power to effectively manage or overcome the obstacle. And so in that case, you ask them, "What do you need from me to manage or overcome this obstacle?" And again, you're teaching them critical thinking and problem solving skills.

Wendi McGowan-Ellis  37:15  
So, you're offering to be more involved, but it still doesn't absolve them from their responsibility.

Marsha Clark  37:21  
That's right.

Wendi McGowan-Ellis  37:21  
Okay. So, all right. And the third option is a mix of these two?

Marsha Clark  37:26  
Yeah, so it's a hybrid, I would call it, of options one and two. And there may be things your team member needs to do and there may be things you need to do as well. So, this is when both you and your direct report, your team member, have a homework assignment.

Wendi McGowan-Ellis  37:41  
Exactly. Okay. So, in "Expanding Your Power", the second book, you bring back your favorite learning agility questions in this section as a way to tie up the process for, or tie together, I'm going to use that word, tie together the process for managing and overcoming obstacles. And I really love how you use these questions as a holistic way to synthesize and cement the team or the team member's experience. So, will you share how you use those questions here?

Marsha Clark  38:11  
Yeah, I'd love to. And as a review for our listeners, the three learning agility questions are: What did I do? What did I learn? And how will I use this learning going forward? So if I'm, my job is to create capacity in others, it's all about learning, right? So, that's why we're going to use quote, unquote, "learning agility questions". So, in this situation, first question, "What did you do?" and so you want them to describe the obstacle to you, and what they did specifically to manage or overcome that obstacle. You know, so and so did not give me information on time in order for me to do with that information what I needed to do in order to meet my deadline. Okay, question, learning agility question number two, "What did you learn?" because, you know, shortcomings and downfalls are worthless if we don't learn something from them, right? So, in that case, the person is going to describe some skills that they developed, some courage they displayed and perhaps even that the relationship with that person who did not give them the information was strengthened or maybe I didn't have much of a relationship before and I'm doing the foundational building blocks of that relationship. And as the team member's leader, you can also help your team member see what occurred as a part of their developmental experience. So, rather than them seeing it as I failed, I failed short, you know, I fell short or whatever it can be, we call it learning, right? And then the third agility question is, "How will this learning help you going forward?" And here you're looking for thoughts such as I'm gonna start earlier in communicating the reason behind or the urgency of the deadline. I wasn't clear about that. I just said, Joe, can you get me this by Tuesday? You know, another learning, I'll be more clear on my expectations on the front end. I'm not going to ask you for information that I don't really need and I'm not going to set arbitrary or artificial deadlines. It might be, I'm going to do more research to understand better how long it takes to perform some of these tasks or produce some of these deliverables. Because it's often, you know, more complicated or more complex than what I anticipated. And another's, I'll be more aware that because something is important or priority for me, that others have their own list of important priority tasks. And I think that's such an important one.

Wendi McGowan-Ellis  40:44  
Yes, it's such a good list of questions. I mean, these questions can be used for so many different situations, but they're extra powerful here.

Marsha Clark  40:52  
Yeah. I agree. I think stopping to reflect just quite simply solidifies and deepens my learning.

Wendi McGowan-Ellis  41:00  
Exactly. You know, Marsha, I said at the opening of this episode that this was a slightly lighter agenda. But in hindsight, I'm thinking this one is just as powerful as last week.

Marsha Clark  41:11  
Yeah. And I think it's one of those topics that as soon as you start, you know, start to unpack it you see it goes deeper, and you peel back another layer, and it gets deeper and you peel back another layer and down we go.

Wendi McGowan-Ellis  41:22  
Well, we really are about to wrap up here. But there's one other thing that you've said you have in this chapter in the book that I wanted to be sure that we share today. And that's the reflection questions at the end of the section on removing obstacles. And I know our listeners would benefit from hearing those questions, and taking some time to consider them for their own teams. So.

Marsha Clark  41:46  
Well, I think you're right, and I hope our listeners do find this valuable. And you want to share that first reflection question?

Wendi McGowan-Ellis  41:53  
I will ask the first one. It's very straightforward. Number one is "What obstacles exist on your team?" And so, this question is all about getting clarity around those obstacles and what types of obstacles currently exist. And I will also want to add, you can't you know, you've got to name it to address it.

Marsha Clark  42:13  
That's right. That's right. And that's huge. And our listeners may have thought about individual challenges or something like that as kind of one off scenarios versus thinking about these are things we need to anticipate, be prepared for, be on the lookout for. And this even gives some language to it. Right? So, some consistent language. And that takes us to question two which is "What will you do with your team (not you alone, not you solve it for them) to identify the obstacles so that you can better manage or overcome those obstacles?" And I really want to add what I think is an important note to this question. As I've done this exercise, over many years, in the classes I teach, it's really easy to identify people or teams as an obstacle. And I want to be very clear when you're identifying obstacles, focus on the obstacles that you are responsible for and that you can control. And focus on the behavior of the person, the actions of the person, the results of the person and yet also focus on what is within your control to change. Because I often tell my classes, remember that when you're in a room pointing fingers at everyone else, be assured there's another room of people pointing fingers at you and your leadership team. So, we already covered how fingerpointing solves nothing. So, clean up your obstacles first. That's the real, you know, it's keep your own house clean. Don't live...what is it, glass houses, throw stones, all that kind of stuff. So, also be honest about yourself as the obstacle and what do you need to do to not be the obstacle.

Wendi McGowan-Ellis  43:48  
Yeah, this is a little 'remove the speck from your own eye' philosophy happening.

Marsha Clark  44:11  
That's right. Yeah. And nothing undermines trust and credibility if you don't have your own house in order before you start running around all over the organization with pitchforks and torches.

Wendi McGowan-Ellis  44:20  
Yeah, now there's an image for corporate America. Okay. Okay, so, the last question, reflection question is "What first steps do you need to take?" and I love the action orientation in this reflection question.

Marsha Clark  44:36  
You know, my reflection questions always end with a call for action. So, removing obstacles, let's just be real. It can sometimes just feel overwhelming. They're so big, complex, involved. And if that's the case, for now just focus on the first three steps, five steps rather than trying to solve for the entire obstacle because in many cases you've got to do the first three or four steps before you can really figure out what the steps five through eight are. And then you got to get to eight before you can decide nine through 12, or whatever. And you're going to learn along the way and will likely gather information that's going to continue to help you make progress.

Wendi McGowan-Ellis  45:15  
Well, Marsha, thank you so much for guiding us through this section on removing obstacles in your chapter on building high performance teams. Definitely have a couple of key takeaways from today's conversation.

Marsha Clark  45:29  
Yes. So, first, I recommend to our listeners that they use the check and balance tool to give adequate and focused space for acknowledging the obstacles, not either just letting them fester or ignoring them or hoping they'll go away. We have to first acknowledge that they're there, and this check and balance tool allows you to give space to that. Then two, coach others to manage obstacles for themselves, and know when you need to step in. And three, reflect on what you learned so you can avoid or minimize certain obstacles, similar obstacles, in the future.

Wendi McGowan-Ellis  46:11  
Well, next week we're going to be wrapping up this three part series on leading high performance teams. And next week's topic will be elements of providing feedback and celebrating successes. And that's going to be another jam-packed, power-filled show.

Marsha Clark  46:29  
Well, it's all good stuff. I love sharing it. And this is one of my favorite topics to teach because I think so many of us can relate either as team leaders or team participants because all of this is good for all of us. So, you know, I look forward to next week.

Wendi McGowan-Ellis  46:47  
Absolutely. Well, thank you, listeners, for joining us today on this journey of authentic, powerful leadership. Please continue to download, subscribe and share this podcast from wherever you like to listen. Visit Marsha's website at We'll have some links on things that we discussed today, resources. Subscribe to Marsha's email list so you can stay up to date on everything going on in Marsha's world.

Marsha Clark  47:14  
Well, and I again, as always, encourage our listeners if there's anything that we can do to help you, we want to hear your thoughts. If you have content or experiences that we can add, let us know about it. We're always open to receiving and making richer and more robust whatever it is that we're offering. And if you have a certain issue that you're challenged by, you know, my website, you can you can go in, send me an email, you can tell me what the issue is, we can set up a call, like we can exchange emails, whatever might be appropriate. But use us and think of us as a resource. So, thank you, listeners, for joining us today. We hope you'll join us next week as we do wrap up this series on building high performance teams. And as always, "Here's to women supporting women!"

Transcribed by

bottom of page