Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Preventive medicine for culture and behavior


On Thanksgiving we have a tradition of going around the table for each person to say what they are thankful for.  We do it before anyone can take a bite of the food, so everyone has to chime in.  This year my second grader daughter's contribution was, "I am thankful for shots that keep us from getting sick."  Yes she did.  Really.  Sure, I considered it a parenting victory that she could see it from that perspective, if only for the sake of acclaim from extended family members.  But how many people avoid the little sting - even if it means they won't get sick later?

There is preventive medicine for your company, too - and it's called employee development.  If  I and coaches who do similar work to mine do our jobs well it doesn't even sting.  OK, it may hurt a little in the time schedule and there might be a bit of an ache in the wallet, but both of those symptoms are temporary.  The negative impact of human relations disease, however - it can rob a company of its energy, its productivity, its creativity and its top performers.  And when it extends to customers, human relations disease can kill - kill future sales, kill profits, kill a reputation, even kill a company.

It might seem easier to wait.  You might not have a problem.  Why not settle for being watchful, at least for now?  The behavior that signals human relations disease, if caught early, can be cured.  But sometimes the signs are so subtle, or not in plain view, that significant damage can occur before you catch it.  In addition, the longer this cancerous situation is allowed to spread, the more resistant it becomes to treatment.

It is possible to create such an outstanding work environment that these destructive cells won't feel like they fit it, so they will leave on their own. But in order for that self-selection to happen, the work environment - the behavioral expectations, the role models, the structure, rewards and the supportive processes - needs to be intentionally engineered to align in order to make your company organism resistant to the effects of human relations disease.

If you want your company to thrive, make a commitment to take your developmental vitamins.  Immunize your staff against mean bosses and backstabbing colleagues.  Help your leaders and employees learn how to create a healthy, productive, innovative, loyalty-generating work climate.  Any company (even yours) is at risk of contracting human relations disease.  The risk to your business is far too great for you to take chances.

Monday, November 29, 2010

Oh, the stories you tell!


Andersen's Fairy Tales
Originally uploaded by micky the pixel

Except on television or in movies, there's really not much in the way of "Just the facts, ma'am."  You and I and every other person is interpreting the facts and putting them together based on our respective frames of reference into stories.  The stories reflect your view of yourself and of other people, they reflect your values, they reinforce your perspective on events.  To what extent are you noticing your stories and choosing the ones that will help you thrive?
  • "Ain't it awful" stories are the ones you tell to elicit moral support from other people.  You list another person's transgressions in graphic detail, seeking affirmation that yes, you are indeed being put upon, taken advantage of, etc.  These stories are sometimes helpful in that they help you process your feelings, but a steady diet of them creates a scenario where it's hard to tell which is the cause and which is the effect - does the story help you understand, or does the story only serve to fuel more negative feelings?  Not to mention that your listener might grow tired of hearing them and not seeing you do anything to improve your circumstances.
  • "Who I am" stories can be wonderful tools to help other people know you.  You can use them to reinforce for yourself as well as others the attributes or the personal history that make you uniquely you.  These are best when they are chosen consciously rather than pulled from habit, because some of your stories are not reflecting the you that you want to become.  Some of them have been given to you by other people, and when you repeat them you are choosing to wear their hand-me-down perceptions.  Obsolete stories like "I'm stupid," or "I'm not very coordinated," or "I have a really big nose," can keep you prisoner in the past.
  • "My ideal day" is a story you might not automatically take time to consider, but it can help you define the kind of work and the kind of lifestyle that you would like to create for yourself.  It can help you uncover your purpose by approaching it from a tangential point of view.  What would your day be like?  How early would you get up?  What would you eat for breakfast?  Who would be there with you and what would you do during your ideal day?  Is your ideal day only one day, or is it the kind of day that you would like to have all of the time?  Most importantly, is it important enough to you that you want (need) to do something differently today in order to get closer to it?
  • "What I learned" is an important follow-up to the "How I messed up" story.  Without the focus on learning from events that didn't go your way you might allow the "How I messed up" to morph into a "Who I am" story, and that can be destructive to your confidence, your self-image, and your willingness to take the action necessary to achieve the results you want.  Sometimes there is a time lag between an event and the learning that comes from it.  Sometimes the learning comes from more than one event - it's the result of a pattern of behavior that you see emerging.  You create results, but you are more than your results.  You can create new and better outcomes in the future as long as you don't languish in your stories of past mistakes and thereby neglect to take beneficial action in the present.
Listen to the stories that you are telling yourself and other people.  Do they reflect the person that you want to be?  If they do- retell them, and let them work like affirmations for you, as reminders to support you when the going gets tough.

But if your current batch of stories are not nourishing you, it's time to choose better ones.  Stop yourself from repeating the same old self-critical or cynical tales.  You are the author of your own stories - you can exercise your power to create.

Friday, November 26, 2010

Deer hunting, Grampa Martin and the guys' week out


Even as the last bits of turkey are being scrubbed out of the roaster pan, the men in my extended family are packing up their gear for their annual trek to the Lucky 7.  The hunting camp was founded by my grandfather, his brothers and a few friends (totalling 7 guys, of course) in Sullivan County, Pennsylvania after they all returned from WWII and Korea.  They built a simple, low-slung cabin out of concrete block and furnished the loft bunkroom with Army surplus beds and the downstairs with offcast rocking chairs, a long picnic table and another table for ping-pong.

I grew up with my dad heading for the mountains with Grampa Martin on Black Friday, the day after Thanksgiving.  They headed up to the woods for a weekend of socializing and deer spotting, card playing and hanging out.  Neither my dad nor my grandfather were drinkers, but I'm sure that there was some of that going on too among some of the other hunters.  Grampa's way of hanging at the cabin was to set food up for the guys and puff on his pipe with the custom blend tobacco.

A lot of the weekend was about cooking.  Grandma and some of the other wives would prepare pans of lasagna and other entrees to make it easy for the hunters, but Grampa was pretty good with the griddle.  He'd crank out slabs of bacon and eggs by the dozen.  The hunters had to hang their outerwear outside the cabin so they wouldn't spook the deer with the intense scent of cooked smoked meat and coffee.

A few of the hunters would bag a deer, but it certainly wasn't an "every guy, every year" proposition.  The deer was the icing on the cake of a guys' week out.  Nobody to tell you to pick up your socks (or to take a shower for that matter).  My dad never brought home a deer, but I'm thinking that it had to do mostly with the cellophane that covered the food he'd take into the woods with him.  He claimed that he did have a shot one time, but that the rifle (a Japanese rifle that Grampa brought home from the war) jammed.  It's just as well that he didn't bring a deer home, because then we would have had to eat it.

I know that my dad enjoyed his time with the guys and with my grandfather.  My husband also went up there one time, for the trip that turned out to be my grandfather's last.  Grampa has been gone for about a dozen years now, and the cabin has moved on to other hands, some related to the original lucky seven (like my uncle Skip) and some not.  I'm thinking that the trip now is more about playing cards and hanging with the guys than it is about being a successful hunter and outdoorsman.  The bonds are not as tight as they used to be.  I miss the old Lucky Seven,  and on the day after Thanksgiving I miss Grampa too.

Thursday, November 25, 2010

The Valley of Abundance


The Valley of Abundance
Originally uploaded by Stuck in Customs

This photo was taken in New Zealand, but we all live in a valley of abundance, no matter our address.  We have been given gifts of healthy and delicious food, shelter from the rain and snow and heat, clean water and electricity that is available whenever we turn a handle or flip a switch.  We can travel 100 - even 1000 or more - miles in one day to be together with our family and friends for special celebrations like Thanksgiving and Christmas and the birth of a child.  We have clothing, and satisfying work, and fine arts that help us share our human experience with one another.  Heavens, we even have football!

Even though we live in a valley of abundance we sometimes fret about the view.  We want to see beyond the hills that block our vision, we want to dig tunnels so that we can move beyond the valley more easily and with less effort.  We wonder and complain about why we're sitting in a valley rather than on a mountaintop.  We sometimes have trouble being right here in the moment and appreciating it as it is.

Living in a valley of abundance is a matter not of having what we want, but of wanting what we have.  It is about looking around at the birds at the feeder, at the glorious sunsets, at the faces around the table and valuing them for what they are, just as they are right this minute.  Living in a valley of abundance is about spreading the abundance to others, about giving hugs and listening without judging and doing acts of kindness.  It is about focusing on what is right about the view, then expanding it.

Today is about being thankful - about seeing the abundance that is right here, right now.  Embrace it.  Bathe in it.  The valley of abundance is a beautiful place in which to create your life.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

You might not be awake yet, but it's good for you


Lauren mid-butterfly
 It was quite dark this morning at 5:00 a.m. when my high schooler and I backed out of the driveway.  Today is the first morning practice of her high school swimming experience.  "This early morning practice business is not going to agree with me," she muttered, trying to wake up.  "I could be getting another hour and a half of sleep.  And it's not going to be good for me staying awake during third period."

My daughter is a diligent student, very responsible in doing assignments, participating in class, the whole nine yards.  I doubt that she'll actually risk falling asleep in class.  But this early morning swim training will take some getting used to.  It will kick off an already busy day - morning swim practice, school, after-school swim practice, quick dinner, then clarinet lessons.  So when you're so busy already, why add another thing to the schedule?

Two-a-day practices are customary in high school and college swimming.  Athletes make great gains when they have the opportunity to combine their in-the-pool activities with dryland workouts like weight training. (This morning they are starting in the weight room.)  One of the swimmers from last year's team told me that she was disappointed that the team only had a couple of early morning practices.  Besides the conditioning benefit, she liked the feeling of being at the school before anybody else - she and her swim compatriots felt like they owned the school.  So my lucky girl is going to have the benefit of many more early a.m. starts.

There's a bit of a moral victory associated with enduring hardship to achieve a goal.  I told Lauren this morning that she'll be able to use this experience when she has children who think they have it hard.  You know how it goes, when Dad tells you he walked 2 miles to school and back, uphill both ways in four feet of snow while carrying his brother.  Waking up early is a hardship for a teenager, but conquering it is a confidence builder, and a character builder as well.  You can do it and you will do it because it's what's needed to achieve a goal - in this case swimming faster and stronger.

My daughter has the advantage of having a coach who requires her to rise and shine and jump into the pool.  Even though she wants to swim faster, I'm not sure that she'd do a two-a-day schedule on her own.  How willing are you to do that on your own - to rise and shine to accomplish the things that you say are important to you?  How willing are you to stretch your training in order to be better at what you do - to challenge your schedule in order to improve your results?

This isn't about abandoning life balance - it's about putting your energy where your goals are.  It's about choosing to take action now to see a better result later - in a few days, a few weeks, or a few months.  It's about delayed gratification in order to make the ultimate payoff bigger.

You might not be awake yet.  Your work might not be perfect yet.  But right now your path to improvement might be all about showing up and doing the drills.

Monday, November 22, 2010

How I became Summit and Summit became me

I suppose the first indicator that someday I'd be self-employed was my first grade report card from the infamous Mrs. Clough, where the comment read, "Julie is sometimes bossy on the playground."  To this day I believe that the other kids followed through on my ideas because they wanted to, not because they were forced.  (Don't ask my husband about this.)


Seeing my future!
Saying (or singing) my piece
Yes, even as a kid I was a talker and a singer.  It wasn't so much about being the center of attention as it was about wanting to express myself.  Beverly Harry and I created glamorous lives with our Barbies quite a bit back in North Hills, and later with the help of the Landis kids and a stereo that belonged to Bev's older brother we acted out The Sound of Music in the back yards.  Must have been thirty times that I sang Liesl's song about being "Sixteen going on Seventeen" and hopped picnic bench to picnic bench like she did in the gazebo in the movie.

I learned to play the piano and would sing along with myself at the top of my lungs as long as nobody was around.  I told you it wasn't about being the center of attention.  The opportunity to express myself through music got me through a lot of the usual teenaged angst, and the transition to college, and even the end of significant relationships.  

I also wrote  - poetry for my own fun, and in high school won an essay contest that provided some scholarship money and allowed me to meet the likes of Colonel Harlan Sanders, Jim Nabors, and Ray Charles.  Here I am still, only at my keyboard now instead of writing in my 5 x 8 spiral bound notebook.  I'm still thinking by getting it down in print.  So far an e-book and one paperback for work have been published, and I fantasize about doing a novel for fun sometime. 

Communication has been hugely important to me personally, and a help to me in my career, so now through Summit I can help other people do it - individually and in groups.  It's not about telling them my answers - it's a process of helping them get the answers out of their own heads.  It's about helping groups get onto the same page with one another so they can move forward together.


Pat and Larry Gibbble
 Creating the life of my own choosing
My mom and dad were my role models here.  When we kids were young, my dad took the traditional breadwinner job while my mom stayed home with us. 

Dad was a bootstrapping kind of guy, willing to learn whatever he needed to learn to get better at his job and to progress.  Actually, it went beyond being willing - he was (and still is) always wanting to find out about and to use new technology.  He messed around at home in his learning process.  We kids and our Playdoh Fun Factory helped him to do the experiments that were the foundation for two patents on the cold extrusion of metal.

Although he would probably still bleed the company colors if hit by a truck, my dad chose to retire at age fifty-five - now eighteen years ago.  He saw where the industry was going, and where the local plant was going, so he decided to take a fork in the road.  He's still at his computer at the crack of dawn, and his schedule is still so busy that you practically have to make an appointment.  My company name, Summit, is an homage to my dad's last name, my maiden name - Gibble.  The German root of it means mountain peak, or summit.

Mom always had a thought about being a nurse, even though her early married life was completely consumed by we three kids.  She had a part time job or two along the way, but mostly she was the PTA mom, the driver to sports practices and music lessons, and the sanity keeper in a very busy household.  Once we were grown and out on our own, though, Mom decided that it wasn't too late to do the thing she always wanted to do.  She graduated with a BSN in her fifties, and worked as a nurse for a number of years before she decided that it was time for her to have more time to travel with Dad and to be a grammy to my girls.

A long time ago Betty Friedan said, "You can have it all - just not all at the same time."  My parents helped me see that.  They went through seasons in their life stories, and with each one they made choices to create the life they wanted.  In my own life I've worked hard to juggle the demands of work with the jobs associated with being a mom and a daughter, a wife and a sister.  My life in Summit has helped me to do that - to consciously choose the ways that fit us the best.

When I left the corporate cocoon of financial services to start Summit, my driving force was the idea of creating my own life story while helping other people do the same.  It still is.  Sure, sometimes the storyline throws the hero or heroine some curves, but we all still have the opportunity to prevail and to write the next chapter.  So here I am and here is Summit, more than twenty years later.  We are still talking, and we are still striving to learn new ways to help people live the life they want to live and become the persons they want to be.

Friday, November 19, 2010

Practices for creative reinvention


Those of you who are regular readers of this blog know that I am a jazz fan - both of my brothers play regularly (trumpet and trombone) and my 14-year daughter is in the beginning of her participation in the idiom (tenor sax).  One of the key components in jazz is the incorporation of improvisation - of taking the structure of a song and creating a solo with it on the spot, then handing off to another player who will do the same.

Theater has its own practice of improvisation, and this was the topic of Michelle James of The Center for Creative Emergence, one of the speakers I have heard during the Reinvention Summit.  The idea behind Michelle's webinar is that you can use some of the principles used in theatrical improvisation and apply them to the reinvention or refinement of your business.

If there is something scary to people about the idea of improvising, it's the intensity that comes from being put on the spot to come up with something good.  There is security in having something already scripted and, as Michelle says it, "value in what is known, but engagement comes from the pursuit of the unknown."  So here are some of the improv principles she shared that may be beneficial to you to try:
  1. "Yes, and..."  In improvisation it's a no-no to revise what a prior player said - that contracts the possibilities and detracts from the relationship among the team.  Instead you say "Yes, and..." and then add your element to the scene.  You say yes to the current reality, add new information, and move the story forward.
  2. Make everyone else look good.  This means that you need to give them space to express themselves, even if it's not exactly what you would choose to say or do.
  3. Heighten and explore.  Sometimes the newest element in the story doesn't quite make sense.  What would happen if, instead of passing the information by or discounting it, you would go there with both feet?  Exaggerate reality for a bit and see what information you can extract.
  4. Justify - Make a reason for it to make sense.  Force fit it.  Why in the world would someone be walking down the street in 90-degree temperatures in a parka and Ugg boots?  Figure it out - or come up with number of possible rationales.  This can expand the story.
  5. Mistakes are opportunities - Remember "yes, and...?"  You start from whatever place you find yourself.  They might appear to be missteps at first, but you might learn something or see some scenery that is delightful, even if unplanned and unexpected.
There are a bunch of pattern-breaking techniques you can use to heighten your creative thinking. You can
  • Point to a random word in the dictionary and consider how it relates to the situation or problem at hand.  (Remember that the idea behind Velcro was discovered by seeing burrs on a dog's fur - otherwise dog walking wouldn't typically make you think of fasteners.)
  • New choice.  OK, you have come up with one option - what is another one?
  • One hundred answers.  According to Michelle James, when you challenge yourself to develop this many you'll probably hit the wall about 30 or 40.  It is beyond the wall, though, that you will find your greatest creativity.  Keep going.
James says, "Sometimes we don't create new stories because we don't see the how.  The how unfolds.  Let go and respond, adapt as you go - choosing in alignment with your new story."

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Mind the Gap in Your Brand Story


Mind the gap... by Claudecf
Originally uploaded by Claudecf


I heard Sharlene Sones, founder of Brandstoria, talk on "Mind the Gap," a webinar about the difference between your desired story and the one(s) really being told about you.  Her presentation was part of the Reinvention Summit.  First, some foundation -

Sones sees storytelling as a core brand strategy.  You deliver a promise, your brand meets the public's expectations, and the result is "a living, vibrant business."  There is value created - both economic and social.  Sones says stories are how we connect to the world - despite logic, despite reason, people buy based on how well your product or service fits with their story.  Your story becomes their story and vice versa.

Think about the things that you choose to buy.  Why do you choose them?  Because they fit with your story.  It means something to use what you use and wear what you wear.  Think about why you chose the brand of car you drive, or why you wear clothing with certain logos.  You have bought the story, not merely the item.

If you take the story away, what's left of that brand?  Not much.

Now think of your company.  The people who work for you are your brand.  They are how you deliver on the promises you make to prospective and current customers.  You know the story that you want to be told, but do they believe it?  Are they able to tell it?  Sones says that "Culture eats strategy for breakfast!"

How do you know whether the story reaching customers is aligned with the one you want to tell?  This is one of those "be careful what you ask - you might find out" situations.  You can go blindly on your way, unaware of the gap and risk your company (it can be a fatal flaw,) or you can brace yourself to hear the truth.  It takes courage and some emotional disengagement to choose to truly take in the information and take action based upon it.

If you are not seeing the performance you want to see in your company you are seeing the impact of a gap.  Sones says there are several types of gaps:
  • In your narrative and how it connects with the customer's story
  • In your visual elements
  • In customers' actual experience with you
  • Internally, in your stakeholders' stories
  • On the front lines
  • In the numbers
Sones ended with a few tips:
  1. If you have to sell the need, beware.  The story has to be a narrative that the customer can share.  If it connects you won't have to sell - they will buy.
  2. It is personal.  Don't believe anyone who tells you that it's not.
  3. Make listening an art form.  Take note of commonly used words, because word choices matter, and they will help you gain clarity about what the other person is thinking.
  4. Get a reality check often.  Check your story and examine the gap that might exist.
  5. Make the link to your clients' core business objectives, and talk in your clients' language.  (Remember that word choices matter!)
You might find that you need to fill the gap in your story by reframing, repositioning, even by reinventing.  This starts from a strategic level, but then has to filter down into how your staff behaves on a daily basis, and into the processes through which they deliver on your company promises.  A great logo won't tell the whole story of your brand - it's only the opening sentence.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Living a story

Yesterday's Reinvention Summit featured a session by Jason Seiden titled "Screw Your Career - Live Your Story."  Jason is author of several books, one titled (tounge in cheek) Self Destruct - How to Make the Least of What's Left of Your Career.  He also authors a website called Fail Spectacularly - Live a Better Story

What does it mean to live a story?  Jason talks about the components of stories as they appear in literature:
  • The action and excitement begin when the state of normalcy is broken.
  • Rarely is the inciting point within the control of the protagonist.
  • Heroes make tough choices.
  • Twists and truns are expected.
If you are truly living a story it's probably to be expected that you will face threats, dangers, outside circumstances that impact you, and the like.  But Jason says that if you don't choose to leave your current story, then embrace the story you're already living.  (You might be a hero in the making.)

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Johnny B. Truant and the personality brand

Johnny B. Truant (not his real name) became Johnny B. Truant when he realized that he could be freer with his writing and with his online persona untrammeled by the concern about fitting in or being judged.  His nom de plume gave him license to show himself in all of his humorous glory. 

Johnny's character is intentionally over the top - he sprinkles his language liberally with humor and four-letter words.  He said recently that he made a conscious choice to bring swearing into his brand, "because swearing makes things funnier."  Reading his website content is like being out with a buddy for a beer - not just any buddy -the buddy that you know from experience might say something crazy to the biggest, scariest dude in the place before the night is over, and you are ready for anything.

He used to be normal.  At least he used to write articles for magazines - he was a more mainstream guy.  But for the mild mannered guy who became Johnny, mainstream didn't really cut it.  He wasn't earning the kind of living he wanted, and he wasn't having any fun.  So Johnny B. Truant entered the picture and changed everything.

A big part of his success Johnny attributes to his ability to tell a story.  He went from being financially down and out, one step away from bankruptcy, to earn a six-figure income within one year.  Now his services include web and blog design, "classes, courses and quasi-coaching on the cheap," and Ninja coaching, which in another person's world could be called storyselling and personality brand coaching.

It was a fascinating hour listening to Johnny B. Truant.  He gave all of us an assignment to develop our backstories - to lay down on paper (or in electrons) how we came into our respective mythic powers.  I'm really thinking about it.  I don't think I'll go so far as to develop an "Emmajane Wildbutt" online persona like Johnny did, but it's interesting to consider how I would show up differently if I took all of the editors off.  Who would you be?

Monday, November 15, 2010

The step just before reinvention


Dew drops on Crysalis
Originally uploaded by Undy Bumgrope

I was listening to Annette Simmons, author of the book "Whoever Tells the Best Story Wins," on the topic of reinvention during the Reinvention Summit.  She talked about how we don't start anything from scratch.  There is a process of destruction that has to precede creation or resurrection.

She used the example of the caterpillar-to-butterfly transformation that has become the symbol of reinvention, of rebirth.  But Simmons' next comment took me aback for a moment:  "The caterpillar spends a lot of time in the cocoon.  While we're in there we're bug soup and we need to acknowledge that." 

Bug soup.  I had never thought about it that way before.  The caterpillar enters the chrysalis looking sort of cute in a caterpillar-ish sort of way, then emerges beautiful and flying in its refined state.  I never considered the detail of what happens behind the walls of the chrysalis.  Bug soup.  What an apt description for how it feels sometimes when the going seems really hard.  There is a time of languishing unattended, feeling destroyed with no re-emergence in sight. 

Simmons says that sometimes in the process of reinvention we might need to take time to back up and take another road.  "Backing up is not a waste of time.  Sometimes you can't go forward without examining the past."  One of her other points is that we need to experience our feelings fully, however uncomfortable they may feel.  "Emotions buried alive don't die," she advises.   You have to be in them, experience them, acknowledge them, before you can move on from them. 

She told a story about a teambuilding exercise she was supposed to do with a group of military folks just after the WMDs weren't found in Iraq where they were expected to be.  The group couldn't even consider going through her planned activities to build the team until they had the opportunity to discuss the elephant in the room - "Why couldn't we find them?"  They were devastated, haunted by the feeling that they had failed in their mission.  They had to deal with that first in order to free themselves to move forward.

I suppose that we want change to be more like the removal of an adhesive bandage - one quick rip that hurts a bit, but then it's over with - quickly - and we get on with our lives.  Real transformation isn't like that.  Bug soup has to happen to us first if we're going to emerge and fly someday.

Friday, November 12, 2010

Go back and fetch it


Sankofa
Originally uploaded by Heart of Áfrika Designs

I've been attending a Reinvention Summit online, which is a series of webinars over the next two weeks to focus attention on stories and storytelling - rewriting your own personally, and looking at the business applications for the process of reinvention and renewal.  I was drawn to the summit partly because of the content, but also because I wanted to learn more about some of the more operational aspects of running an event of this sort.

Michael Margolis, founder of Get Storied and one of the organizers of the summit, talked about the west African legend of Sankofa.  The story stuck with me, and so I'm sharing it here with you.

Sankofa was a bird who had a stick.  He was flying on a journey, and in the process dropped the stick.  As he progressed on his journey, Sankofa realized that he needed the stick.  So he went back to fetch it, and then proceeded on his way.

The point of the Sankofa story is this - sometimes there are things in the past, in the "former you" that still have value.  There may be things that you learned, traits and talents that you have forgotten you have, or relationships that used to nourish you.  Consider what was good about the past and take it with you into your future.  Going back to fetch it does not mean that you are not moving forward.  Assemble the resources you need for your journey, even if it means that you have to backtrack temporarily to gather them, to shore them up.

Notice in the image of Sankofa above that the bird's body is pointing forward (toward the future) while he turns his head backward so his beak can retrieve the egg.  The egg symbolizes life force or lifeblood that will help Sankofa on his continued journey forward.

You might have circumstances in your business or in your life that are requiring you to retool or even completely reinvent yourself.  But remember Sankofa - take with you the good things of the past that can help you in the future.  You are not starting from scratch, from ground zero.  You are already on your way.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

The commands you hide in the words you say...


pink pocket pants
Originally uploaded by littlegirlPearl

An aunt of mine went with us to the beach when I was just a little kid. She was a young teenager at that point, and the group decided to rent bicycles. She was not a regular cyclist, and to this day she’d tell you that athletics are not her forte. Anyhoo, they were riding their bikes down the streets in Wildwood, NJ and she was saying to herself, “Don’t hit the parked cars, don’t hit the parked cars, don’t hit the – “ when you know what happened. Bam! She t-boned one smack in the middle of the rear bumper.

Story #2 – I was old enough to remember my mother telling my grandmother, the inveterate Christmas shopper, “I could use some new slacks. But whatever you do, don’t get pink – I have enough pink.” Guess what Grandma bought and wrapped for Mom’s Christmas present. Yep. Slacks the color of a tropical sunset – oh, were they ever pink.

My aunt in the first situation and my mom in the second were exasperated. But they weren’t aware that they had inadvertently hidden the wrong commands in their language. They told themselves and others to do exactly what they didn’t want them to do. If you repeat “don’t hit the parked cars” your brain hears everything but the “don’t.” So you create conditions where you’re more likely to hit those cars.

If you're a parent, this concept is revealed in your disciplinary efforts.  Have you said any of these things to your children?
  • Don't jump on the bed!
  • Don't leave your toys laying all over the floor!
  • Don't talk back to me!
  • Etc. (the list could be endless Don't!)
The result of the don'ts is simply that they DO it anyway.

You can choose imbed positive commands into your language. For example, if you would say to a loved one, “You can relax now,” you’re giving them a command embedded in a comforting statement. Or you prompt a friend to talk by saying, “Tell me what you were thinking about that person.”

Embedded commands can help prompt a response from a person just as well as a direct question, but they can have a softer touch. This helps you in situations where the person you’re talking to might be feeling sensitive, or where the topic might be emotional.

If you think that someone has overreacted to a “simple” question you asked them, think about whether you asked a question with embedded commands. Your commands might be making assumptions that aren’t valid, or might imply judgment. “Does that outfit make you feel fat?” sends the message that feeling fat is relevant to the situation – in other words, might suggest that you think the outfit makes them look fat. If, on the other hand, you want to be supportive of that friend’s weight loss efforts you could choose to embed a positive command, “Does that outfit make you feel sexy?” Or if you want to choose to be neutral a preferable question would be, “How does that outfit make you feel?”

Your language holds so much information of which you’re not conscious, but that impacts your emotions and the quality of your relationships with others. If you choose to be more aware of how things are expressed to you and by you, you can have so much more insight into what’s really going on. You are better able to use your critical thinking to separate fact from opinion. It makes you more capable of choosing to relate to others in a win-win manner. And that benefits everyone.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Whatever you do, don't look!


Hide and Seek
Originally uploaded by Gabriel Plata Stapper

What are the things you’re hiding from yourself and others? A friend of mine doesn’t like the way she looks, so she simply doesn’t look in the mirror. A colleague of mine doesn’t want to think about the fact that she’s significantly overweight so she stays away from the scale – she won’t even step on the scale in the doctor’s office.

We all have our defensive routines of one sort or another. But is my friend changing her looks by avoiding seeing her reflection? No. Is my colleague any less overweight because she’s not willing to know the number? No, and as a matter of fact she’s putting herself in danger because the lack of weight information impacts the safety and effectiveness of medications she’s prescribed by her doctor. If she can’t identify trends in her weight she will miss some potentially lifesaving cues that she’s in need of medical care.

What is it that you hope nobody will discover about you? Are you defining your life by the things you don’t want?

Let’s say you’re worried that someday someone will discover that you’re not too bright (whether it’s true or not.) Your defensive routines might consist of talking a lot about all of the things you know – you might be causing your audience’s eyes to roll up into their heads with boredom, but at least they’ll know you know something.  You're trying to camouflage your authentic self, and in the process are creating other effects and consequences that might be far worse than those to be had when you face up to the thing that you are keeping under wraps.

How would your life change if you shifted your focus to what you DO want? What would you do differently if you were so committed to a particular intention that you wouldn't be so worried about how others would react to you? Would you be more open to valid feedback? Would you be willing to admit what you don’t know? Would you seek data that tells you how you’re doing rather than avoid it?

It’s easy to get ingrained in defensive routines. They can become so much a part of your landscape that you don’t even notice them any more. But there’s a fine line between protection and imprisonment.  Your desire to hide that whatever-it-is may be the single biggest obstacle that stands between you and the future you want.

If you want something new and better in your life you’ll need to do something different than what you’re doing right now. Take a look at what you’re hiding and/or from whom you’re hiding and you might find a good first step toward better results.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

What happens when they mess up?


Spilt Milk ACEO Collage
Originally uploaded by dadadreams

The fact that mistakes are going to happen from time to time is inevitable - mistakes are a fact of life.  The manner in which you face the potential for messing up, or the fact of a mistake already made, has tremendous impact on your ability to produce positive results.  The techniques you use for mistake management in the workplace or other groups sets a significant tone - and right now your mess-up management might be interfering with your success and that of those around you.

I suppose you could characterize yourself and your work climate in one of several categories where mistakes are concerned:
  1. Mistake repeater - This is the person who seems like an exile from the movie "Groundhog Day."  They walk the same path over and over, and sometimes it seems like they will never figure out exactly what the mistake was, much less how to correct it.  Some things are hard to learn, and some people are quicker studies than others.  Some issues have a lot of variables that can come into play.  The key is whether the same unsuccessful remedies are applied even once proven ineffective.  There's something to be said for tenacity, for perseverance, but ultimately your business doesn't survive on good intentions and effort.
  2. Mistake avoider - The mistake avoider believes that no action is better than the wrong action.  They will analyze an issue half to death, certain that the perfect and definitive answer is right around the corner.  The problem with this approach is that timing will eventually become a key issue, and if they don't do anything they will fail just as surely as they would doing the wrong thing.  Besides, sometimes you don't know what the "right" action or decision is until you do something and see the results it creates.
  3. Mistake preventer - The mistake preventer does his or her due diligence ahead of time.  This person thinks about the obstacles and contingencies, and plans for them up front.  The preventer's actions provide him with an elevated probability of success, with one caveat:  at some point the preventer can morph into the avoider if she spends too much time planning and not enough time implementing.
  4. Mistake handler - The handler is great at sweeping up the messes, at responding to crises.  They are quick to develop and implement alternative remedies, and they sometimes even enjoy the adrenaline rush that comes from responding to an emergency.  Errors create the opportunity for them to stretch their mental muscles, to ride to the rescue.  In some cases the handler doesn't have enough motivation to prevent mistakes - what would be the fun in that?  In the meantime, cost, time and customer satisfaction might be placed at risk. 
  5. Mistake prosecutor - The prosecutor is like the detective in the old movies who assembles all of the suspects into the study and keeps them there until he interrogates each and determines who killed the heiress.  The prosecutor finds great importance in accurately assigning the blame.  A good pep talk, lecture, or browbeating snaps the offender into line and assures that the mistake will never never happen again.  This sets a hostile tone in the workplace, and increases the likelihood that the next murder to be solved will be his - and there will be numerous suspects with adequate motive!
If you want to produce a consistently high quality work product you need to engage employees at every level in solving and preventing problems.  You have some leadership choices to make along the way, including the manner in which you communicate about mistakes, and whether your approach is to fix it for now or fix it for good.  It's often quicker and cheaper to apply spit and bailing wire rather than it is to implement a full-scale solution, but if you do it this way you're choosing to wear the hat of the mistake repeater.  Ultimately it will catch up with you and you will be handling the same problem again.

Mistakes only grow when they are covered up, and if you have played the role of the prosecutor for too long you are probably already experiencing the negative consequences associated with problems discovered only once they have grown to 800-pound gorilla size.  People will only readily admit to errors when they have no fear of retribution or unreasonable censure.  It is more important to solve the problem than it is for every participant to feel the full weight of the blame.  They will feel bad enough about it on their own without having the prosecutor pile on.

Problems are best solved at the closest point to that at which they occur.  This means you need to involve your staff in solving them, and also in preventing future repeats.  Use describing words rather than judging ones to keep an adult-to-adult tone in the conversation.  Sure, talk about the ramifications of the problem, but also talk about the benefits associated with solving it.  A mistake is an opportunity to improve.

It is said that we should not cry over spilled milk, and we shouldn't shout over it either.  Let's wipe up the milk together, straighten up the cup and get on with our day.

Monday, November 8, 2010

"Let me do it by myself!" - why you don't want to be a helicopter boss


Gordon and Jerry
Originally uploaded by Smerples

When my daughter was small her abbreviated version of this was "Myself!  Myself!"  As a toddler she was in rapid learning mode and didn't want any interference with her discovery process, even if she risked bumping her head or skinning her knee.  Over time I have gotten a bit better at standing near enough to prevent too drastic an injury (literally or figuratively) but no so close as to prevent her some autonomy.  She has to learn her own lessons - and sometimes the experience won't be too comfortable.

Parenting and leading people in other situations have some similarities in this regard.  Of course you don't want to risk significant company resources or personal safety.  You know that you can't un-break an egg.  There are sometimes long-term consequences - even if many of them unexpected or unintended - associated with experimenting.  But let's get some perspective - to quote a wise woman (my mother), "You can't wrap them in bubble wrap."  Even if your intentions are loving, not controlling, over-protecting can be just as damaging as a more laissez-faire approach.

A typical scenario in the workplace is that a new person is hired to do a job.  They are hired because the company is stretched and they need to fill the opening NOW.  The company may or may not have a formalized training process, but either way, the need for an immediate increase in productivity often shortens the ramp-up period for the new employee.  The supervisor doesn't feel quite comfortable with the person's ability to perform effectively, so they hover.  They check every little thing.  They might even step in before the new person has a chance to make a mistake and correct it before the result has time to materialize.

Certainly someone new in his or her developmentl process warrants more close monitoring than someone experienced.  But sometimes it's hard to know when to loosen up on the reins a bit, to give people the opportunity to make mistakes.  If you are not allowing your employees to mess up, you are robbing them of an opportunity to be motivated by the sense of achievement that comes from personal mastery.  And if you're going to step in every time instead of allowing them to do it themselves, why have an extra person to do the job anyway?  You're costing the company money when you are constantly intervening or doing it for them.

There is another angle on this to consider - you might not know best.  If you are not the person doing the job every day it is likely, even probable, that you don't have all of the information necessary to make an accurate determination of what action or remedy is required.  You, as the manager, are only seeing the tip of the iceberg.  The things that are below the surface, observable level are the things that can sink your ship.  Only the person doing the job knows what the underwater view looks like.

Yes, it's a good thing to train people.  It's important to measure the results they produce - that's how you know whether the company is on track.  But you need to give them room to learn.  You need to provide the opportunity for them to contribute their respective IQs to the challenges that the company faces.  If you can resist the urge to be a helicopter you can create a workforce that is knowledgeable, accountable and engaged.  And that's the kind of organization that will produce the results you need and want to accomplish.

In the next post - what to do when they mess up.

Friday, November 5, 2010

Are you wearing too many hats?


Never Too Many Hats (287/365)
Originally uploaded by WeeRobbie

We have just gone through a pretty extensive decision making process with our high school freshman.  She's been a competitive swimmer for 8 years and a budding musician for about the same amount of time.  Now that she's in high school she's faced with the need to make a decision - which part of her life is more important to her?  This is necessary because the schedules are colliding and she can't be all places at once.

As of this moment I think she has made a choice:  one activity for which she immediately and impulsively signed up is going to have to go, and another just won't be in the cards, at least not for this year.  She is not enjoying this weeding-out and prioritizing process.  It's coming down to two things:
  1. Rather than make a choice in concept, let's look at the specific requirements for each, and see where they knock heads, and
  2. What do you really want?
Problem is, she wants to do it all.  But where the proverbial rubber meets the road she has a responsibility to whichever activity she commits.  She can't be on the high school swim team and miss a bunch of practices to play her instrument.  She can't play her tenor with the Saxy Santas while treading water in the swimming pool.  So something has to go.

When you're trying to wear too many hats it might be painful to choose.  You might be the sort of person who loves to be involved, who becomes intrigued with new opportunities, people to meet, and things to learn.  Ultimately, though, if you continue to add and add you'll find yourself falling short on your commitments.  And that's not the kind of behavioral message you want to send if you are trying to expand your sphere of influence, your leadership.  That's another kind of pain - one that can have long-term implications for you.

When you take off one of the many hats you're wearing, you'll become more free to commit fully to the things that are most important to you.  You might think that you don't have a choice, that you have to wear them all.  But I'm willing to bet that if you really think about it, one of the hats that you choose to put down will fit somebody else (almost) as well.

Thursday, November 4, 2010

How to become an effective thermostat


Review: Lux TX9000TS Touch Screen
Thermostat
Originally uploaded by Victor Lombardi

I'm speaking figuratively about the thermostat, of course.  Yesterday's post discussed the role of the thermometers in your workplace, people who reflect the prevailing temperature by gossiping, complaining, and nitpicking.  Thermometers are followers.  But thermostats are leaders.  They regulate the temperature.

Would you like to be the person who sets the tone, who controls the climate in your workplace - or at home for that matter?  Right now are you intentionally influencing the temperature in the direction that you believe is the most productive, the most positive?  Or have you ceded that to somebody else?

You don't have to be the top guy or gal to have an influence on your environment.  Of course it's helpful to be the one with the authority to allocate resources, to hire, to fire, etc.  As the top hondo you can do your best Captain Pickard imitation and say "Make it so!"  and your authority will help to convince people to behave in certain ways.  Overuse of your authority will, however, bring a chill into the air around you.

Becoming a thermostat is a matter of broadening your sphere of influence, and then using your influence for the purpose of spreading a climate conducive to creativity, self-development, open communication, fear-free action-taking and teamwork.  Influence is created by a combination of purpose, credibility and relationship.  Influence is earned.  You might decide to become a thermostat today, but it might take some time for you to build the relationships that will increase the size of the zone in which you can set the temperature.

If you already have authority and/or influence and you don't like the climate around you, look in the mirror for the solution.  You might be showing up to the workplace in ways that send waves of chilly air, or inconsistently so that the climate blows hot and cold around you.

If you want to become a thermostat, or a more effective one -
  • Uncover your purpose, articulate it and communicate it.  You are more likely to attract followers when you know where you are going and why.
  • Find ways in which you can serve.  Relationships are built through processes of reciprocity, and your best means to get the ball rolling is to be the first to extend a helping hand.
  • Look for common ground.  You are connected to other people in a multitude of ways, some easy to see and some that might not immediately come to mind.  You can build all sorts of relationships by identifying and strengthening the connections of commonality.  The best teams are formed when the team members stand side by side looking outward - together.
  • Focus on solutions and action.  Anyone can identify a problem and lay it on someone else's desk.  The thermostat looks for alternatives and possible remedies and takes action to test them.
  • Demonstrate your trustworthiness.  Do what you say you will do, and within the timeframe to which you have committed yourself.  Keep confidences.
  • Share.  Share information, share resources, even when you don't have to do so.  Generosity in substance and in spirit attracts others.
  • Choose your stories.  Your attitudes (habits of thought) affect your interpretation of events all around you, and the same goes for the other people by whom you are surrounded.  You can choose to frame even the bleakest of situations in the form of opportunity and challenge.  People rally around the potential for a win.
  • Engage your values.  Even when you are angry or frustrated or threatened, perhaps especially then, when you choose the high road in the way in which you show up you build the trust and confidence that strengthen your ability to set the temperature.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Confessions of a Thermometer


What is the temperature
where you are sitting?
 You know what a thermometer does - it sits on the wall (or is applied to your body) and shows you the current temperature.  Whether it's digital or the classic mercury tower, the thermometer has one job - to react and display.

I've had thermometer moments and I'll bet that you have had them too.  Thermometer moments are not the result of the flu or some other viral malady - at least not in the physiological sense.  Earl Nightingale, in his classic speech "The Strangest Secret, " labeled the condition "SNIOP" - susceptible to the negative influence of other people.

Even the most intentional person can find himself or herself being sucked into thermometer land, involved in such detrimental behaviors as
  • Gossip - Spreading information (rarely positve) about other people, whether or not it's true.  Whole websites and television shows are devoted to the purpose of exposing supposedly powerful, rich, or famous people brought low in various ways - cellulite, debt, divorce, drug abuse, or bad wardrobe.  Gossip reinforces sociological norms, but it does so by creating the creepy feeling that everyone, even you, has a target on his back.  Leave the room at your own risk.
  • Complaining - Sometimes there are legitimate problems that need to be resolved.  Complaining can be a productive way to start to fix things - by identifying an issue and then talking directly to someone who can do something about it.  Thermometer behavior is a bit different - it's when you pick up on the complaint "Ain't it awful!" and pass it around, often never telling the person who can resolve the issue.  In a similar fashion to gossip, complaining can be a rallying point for groups.  It's detriment is that it doesn't improve anything.  It just circulates and grows, dragging morale into the gutter.
  • Group Nitpicking - Sometimes it is morbidly satisfying to look for the flaws in something and someone and then call attention to it in a group setting.  This is different from gossip in that the subject of the conversation is in the room and listening to the comments.  They are presenting a completed project, for instance, and one observer thinks that it shows intelligence and discernment to call attention to a typographical error.  The typo nit becomes only the first in a hailstorm of criticism over minor details as person after person follows suit and piles on, leaving the presenter feeling bruised and battered and unappreciated.
There are all sorts of thermometer behaviors out there, but the thing they have in common is that thermometer behaviors are follower behaviors.  They don't set the temperature, they reflect it.  Do you really want to be a follower?  Or would you rather serve the function of a thermostat and SET the temperature?

It requires a choice not to engage in gossip or empty compaining, or in feeding frenzies of nitpicking.  But one of the reasons you are a leader is that you want to choose, right?  Your working environment starts with you and the environment you are creating inside of your own mind.  Thermometer behavior is poison - not toxic enough to kill you with the first swallow, but over time it will sap your inner strength and your influence. 

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

It's easier to give than to receive...


The North Circles the Wagons
Originally uploaded by Fred_T

No, it's not a typo.  The proverb says that "It's better to give than to receive," but today's post is about what it's like to be on the other end of the transaction.

Has anyone ever circled the wagons for you?  Have they been there just when you needed them, giving generously and without question?  On those occasions how have you felt?  Have you joyfully accepted, with a grateful heart, or were other things bouncing around in your head?
  • Pride - You may be asking yourself, "How did I arrive in the position that someone else would feel the need to help me?"  Pride prevents people from asking for help when they need it, and pride spoils gratitude.  Excess pride causes you to feel one-down as the receiver rather than thankful for the help.
  • Worry - This is sometimes an extension of pride.  How will you ever reciprocate?  How will you ever find the resources that you can bring to give back - not just to repay, but to demonstrate your own caring by being generous?  Not all giving goes back to the original giver - at least not from you.  Sometimes you will pay it forward, to someone else who needs the thing that you are able to give.
  • Shame - When you receive a compliment, can you say thank you, or do you feel the need to discount the nice thing that the person just said?  "This old thing?  I've had it for years, bought it for ten bucks, and see?  It has a little stain on the left lapel..." 
It's a wonderful thing to be able to be there for someone else.  Let it be equally wonderful to discover the circle of care that surrounds you every day.  True generosity is not earned - release yourself from the need to deserve it.  Without questioning, without discounting, without protesting - say thank you.  Allow unqualified gratitude to wash over you.  There is something you've done, or there's someone that you are that has attracted that generosity.  It's OK  - it's good - to receive.

Monday, November 1, 2010

Bringing your company out of the land of blame


JoA in an argument
Originally uploaded by Anders V

When a department or a company is storming (in ongoing conflict,) one of the most common defensive reactions that arises is the pointing of fingers to blame somebody else for whatever’s going wrong. One department thinks they’re just fine “if only those $%^%&^%$ down the hall would get their acts together,” and vice versa.

In an ideal world we wouldn’t be blame seekers – we would be problem solvers, but the interpersonal dynamic often doesn’t work that way. It's easier for people not to look too closely in the mirror.  All things considered, if you had the opportunity to create a company (or department) that is less focused on the problem and more focused on the solution, how would you go about it?

The fact is that an employee storming situation often isn't about only one thing, or one thing at a time. Conflict and blaming can result from additions to staff, promotions, demotions, industry upheaval, new technology, or a new direction by senior management. But if you want to get to the bottom of it and get the canoes paddling in formation, here are the major, interdependent pieces:

Strategy – If the company doesn’t have a formalized and widely communicated direction, an established agenda, it’s likely that all of the players are going to be working toward their own purposes. They might be acting in what they perceive to be the company’s best interests, but they are unlikely to be operating in alignment with one another without an integrated plan. The resulting environment becomes one of ongoing conflict and either scattered or wasted resources. On what basis are effective decisions to be made when the desired outcome has not been defined clearly and communicated to those accountable to achieve it?

Management Systems – There are a host of factors to include in this piece of the puzzle - reward and recognition, hiring and promotion criteria, communication methods, company structure, even dress code, etc. This is where the written and unwritten rules governing employee behavior originate. In many instances unless the company undertakes intentional employee development they’re going to have to cope with a broad mix of motivation, interpersonal skills, and greater than desirable impact from a few “bad seeds.”  Even with development opportunities, it's still each employee's choice whether or not to get on board.  But without attention, this component will create a substantial quantity of gray hair.

Operational Systems – You can have the best employees in the world and eventually they’ll be beaten into a pulp by broken processes. The methods by which work gets done have a huge impact, of course, on cost, speed, quality, customer loyalty and resulting profitability. They also have an impact on employee morale, productivity, absenteeism and turnover. Operational systems don’t necessarily have to receive a huge infusion of cash and technology to improve dramatically. Often creativity on the part of the people doing the work can achieve better results than the company does when it decides to throw money at a problem.

So strategy creates the foundation, management systems create the internal operating environment, and operational systems get things done. It’s like a giant bowl of Jell-O – when you poke it in one spot the rest of the gelatin will start to wiggle. If you take unilateral action without considering the interrelated nature of these three components you can expect to see reverberations.

If you take a balanced approach – and this doesn’t have to be simultaneously – and attack each of these three areas with the whole picture in mind you have the best shot at sustainable improvement and reduced conflict.