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Contextual Intelligence

Tuesday, May 13, 2014

In this super competitive, lean and mean business environment I find myself working with clients all the time on how to make the most of situations in order to advance and succeed.

You have to get to know how you lead – What are your strengths? What are your blind spots or deficits? Only then can you begin building your leadership toolbox, adding to the skills you already have.

I think simple, memorable frameworks help so I created one. I call it Leadership: Inside, Outside and In-Between. Leading from the INSIDE are those internal characteristics necessary to lead. I define IN-BETWEEN as our interactive leadership skills. And, finally leading OUTSIDE, is about how we relate to the larger world outside of us, or the totality. 

The other day I was speaking to a client. She was exploring how to best approach a career opportunity. This led us into a lively conversation of the context surrounding the opportunity.

Why? Because without an exploration of the context she can’t be clear about which moves would result in better outcomes.

So many people make the mistake of thinking that the most important issue in weighing whether something will succeed or not is if they can do what it takes to accomplish the goal. Sure, it’s important; but it’s not the most important determining factor of success.

Knowing if something is possible takes more than just knowing if you can do it or not. You have to know if the context is stacked to support your success. Understanding context is a critical OUTSIDE leadership skill.

What’s context anyhow?

According to BusinessDictionary.com, the context includes “the background, the environment, the framework, setting or situation surrounding an event or occurrence.”

Think of context as the difference between what you would choose to wear to a business luncheon on a bright, sunny spring day verses on a dark, rainy autumn day. All the circumstances of those two different days would go into your choice. Those surrounding circumstances are the context.

Another recent example of context is the ever evolving and changing economic business environment since the crisis of 2008. No matter how strong your resume, how well educated for several years there was little or no job opportunities. Even when there was an opportunity you had to weigh the risk of being short-listed for lay offs if you took a new position. All these circumstances are the context.

Taking the OUTSIDE into account

This method of determining the options for advancing a situation, looking at the context, is standard operating procedure for a company’s executives, teams and boards. It’s how risk is assessed, how opportunities are weighed against potential for success and how leaders determine whether to put resources behind any particular option.

I am someone who believes that we all need to be better at evaluating the broad economic, social and business environment we are all functioning within and pinpointing its relevance to our individual life and work decisions. Defining these surrounding conditions is critical to our ability to be agile, seizing opportunities or knowing best when to hold.

How can it help me?

Whether you’re trying to decide on a career move, buying a house, the timing of starting a family or any of the many, many decisions you face – assessing the context within which your decisions are being considered can be quite critical to how, when, whether and what you do to achieve your goal.

Imagine how powerful it would be if your decisions were not only based on your personal or professional desires, but on whether they would be met with support, welcomed with stakeholder buy-in, you were provided the resources you needed to succeed. Moving your goals forward would be so much more effortless and fulfilling.

Photo Credit: Sculpture by Antony Gormley, Lost Horizon I
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