Choose Joy

By: On November 23, 2015
Emptiness or Joy?

Emptiness or Joy?

I don’t know about you, but some days I hate my job. I wake up to a calendar full of meetings – or worse yet, a day with few meetings at all and a deep sense of smallness as I wonder why no one wants to spend time with me. I feel pressure to swing the day’s events in my direction. I look around me and see climbers, people who are going up and up and up. Just seeing them out of the corner of my eye makes me feel a jolt of anxious energy to get going, to not fall behind.

I can’t help but hear all of the voices of our culture shouting insistently that I have to run faster, go farther, be smarter. That standing still is falling behind. That no one else is going to look out for me so I’d better get busy with self-preservation.

So I go to those meetings but I’m preoccupied. I feel impatient when someone in a meeting takes a little too long to get a point across or influences the agenda away from my interests. As soon as topics move away from what I care about, I’m tempted to check my email or plan for  the next meeting. I try again to redirect the conversation toward what I want, things that will make me happy. I categorize people in my day in terms of their ability to influence my personal self-interest. I completely miss or willfully ignore people who don’t directly advance my self-centered agenda.

I think my motives throughout the day are invisible to everyone around me, that I’m a splendid actor fooling everyone into thinking I’m actually a good and noble person.

I come home exhausted and cranky, because no matter how many wins I got, no one wins them all. And I’m not satisfied unless I win them all. I slouch through the evening at home, trying not to engage too deeply with my family and friends. I slink off to bed grumpy, only to start the cycle over the next morning.  Bottom line: I’m empty.


I don’t know about you, but some days I love my job. I wake up to a calendar full of meetings or perhaps a day where there are wide open spaces. I remind myself that good days aren’t about me anyway. That the big questions in life – whether I matter, to whom I matter, whether it will all work out OK – are settled and done with.  And that good days are about living in that reality.

I look at my scheduled appointments and sense a quiet whisper asking me a simple question: “How can you love and serve these people today?” I know it’s a countercultural question in the marketplace where I work, a place where competition and self-preservation rule. I choose it anyway, not because I’m morally superior but because I know it simply works better. I do better work for people and I’m more tuned in. Others react better to my contributions. We all end up happier.

I walk through my day looking for opportunities to be of deep service to those I encounter, whether they know it or not. I make eye contact with people often overlooked by the movers and shakers in our world – the admins and custodians and the security person who signs me in at the front desk. I smile at them and exchange a pleasant word, maybe even a simple act of kindness.

I wave at the cranky people on the highway as they veer past, cutting me off. I try to be sure I’m using more than one finger as I wave. I imagine all of the valid reasons they could be in such a hurry and wish them the best.

In meetings, I try to attend to the other participants. I quiet the voice in my head that wants to control the meeting only for my own gain. Instead I try to see how I can serve the others as well. If my agenda is not truly in their best interest, I release it. If my agenda is truly in their interest, I pursue it – but gently, respectful of their freedom to choose even if they choose a way I see as less advantageous.

I come home tired but full of joy and peace. I have connected with those around me during my day and I enjoy the afterglow of that connection. I can listen to the stories of my family and enjoy them. I have teenage boys, so these stories may be short on details and long on grunts. I smile inwardly since I was there at one time. I have empathy for their plight as not-fully-baked young men. After all, I can be gooey myself sometimes.

Bottom line: I’m full.


Looking at the calendar and external circumstances, these days are virtually identical. But one is marked by the emptiness that comes from following a path of foolishness. We hate that word, but it applies to a life consumed by climbing ladders and chasing self-aggrandizing dreams. The other is marked by joy that comes from following a path of wisdom. We feel skittish about that word, but it applies to a life that is focused on descending ladders and serving others.

Many will think I’m crazy to aspire to live in the second scenario. I don’t blame you. Our world screams at us in ways obvious and subtle that the only way to happiness and wholeness is by getting ours, by taking care of #1, that living the second scenario is a mark of laziness or limp ambition. The problem is that our world is plain wrong. In fact, taking care of #1 is the root of most of our troubles. Nothing could be more ambitious than becoming the kind of person who can live full of service and humility and goodwill toward others without a heroic act of the will. Because it’s who they are on the inside, not a pose they’re striking on the outside.

We’re entering a season where the buzz of consumption is confused with the joy of self-giving. It’s a mistake not limited to one month of the year. We make that mistake all year round, usually in our everyday work.

Choose joy.

Are You Critical Thinkers… or Just Critical?

By: On September 22, 2015

You’ve probably been in a meeting where someone floats an idea that’s imperfect, maybe even half-baby calf
baked. They do it tentatively because they know the thought is emerging like a calf out of the womb, wobbly and likely to crash land onto the floor of the barn. It rests there, helpless, soaked in afterbirth, looking around the room with big brown eyes behind long, innocent eyelashes.

And then someone in the meeting gets up, walks over to that young idea, and smacks it across the face .

We call this critical thinking. We praise it. We hire for it. We promote it into the C-suite. We put it into a group of like-minded leaders and call it a strategy session.

And we wonder why strategy sessions and leadership team meetings often feel sterile, dull, and tense all at the same time.

Maybe it’s because we mix up critical thinking and having a critical spirit. Here’s the difference:

  • That idea might end up in here someday...

    That idea might end up in here someday…

    Critical thinking listens to an idea. It holds the idea up to the light like a gemstone being evaluated by a skilled jeweler. It tests and probes. It tells the truth but with an eye toward discovering potential. When it sees a flaw, its first impulse is to try to polish it, to take what’s good about the idea and improve upon it. It resists the urge to demolish and discard too quickly. Crucially, critical thinking is at least neutral toward the person who brought forth the idea. On good days, it is generous toward that person, perhaps even grateful that they had the courage to bring their idea out into the open. It not only allows the calf to stumble around. It puts its hands under the calf’s shoulders and helps it walk.

  • A critical spirit is different. Rather than focusing on the potential of the idea, it focuses onCynic its flaws, just waiting to pounce on it and destroy it. Worse yet, a critical spirit evaluates the person who brought it forth through the lens of the unfinished idea. Inwardly, a critical spirit says, “I have way too much to do to bother listening to this clown. I never thought she/he was so bright. That half-baked idea just confirmed my suspicions. I can’t wait until they stop yapping so that I can point out the flaws in the idea.” Outwardly, the answer to every question is no. Period. End of story.

Fill the room with critical spirits and you can watch the creative oxygen leave the room. At the very least, no one is really listening. After a little while, no one is really talking either. They’re just waiting for your so-called strategy session to be over so that they can go back to work.

Fill the room with critical thinkers and well, watch out. You can sense the creative energy buzz into the room. There will probably be laughter and curious looks and shy smiles. Confidence will grow in the group’s potential to crack through their collective mental barriers.

If work is a laboratory for the soul, then here’s your next experiment: shift from killing ideas to nurturing them and see what happens.

Noonday SunBe bright.

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Four Temptations of Teams Under Pressure

By: On September 15, 2015

You’ve been in this meeting: Your leadership team is facing a whole bunch of bad news. What seemed like a plausible plan just a few months ago now seems in jeopardy. Maybe worse, it seems like a pipe dream.

You look around the room. The team has the usual characters: the three people you naturally gravitate toward; the guy who rubs everyone the wrong way but doesn’t know it; the little cluster who sees the world very differently from you, who you’ll never get; the peace-maker who is always trying to smooth off the rough edges of any disagreement; the individualist who was never really into this team anyway; the person who must be the smartest person in the room.

You bring your eyes back to the deck placed in front of you by the CFO, whose unenviable job is to communicate in a professional monotone that you, collectively, are screwed. The competition is ramping up. Customers are defecting. Regulators are rattling their keys on the door.

For a moment, you feel yourself slipping into despair, like the Dilbert character who offers to die an hour earlier in exchange for the freedom to skip this meeting.

Right then, stop. Take a deep breath and realize that your team is normal. Under pressure, every team faces four great temptations. It’s your choice whether you give in to them or go another way.

  • It's 70 and stuffy in here...

    It’s 70 and stuffy in here…

    Temptation 1: Denial – It’s easy to turn a blind eye to the realities facing a team under pressure. If you’ve always been successful because of your focus on service or price or innovation or whatever, you double down on that historical strength. You ignore the pressure. Despite the raging storm outside your windows, you make believe it’s sunny and 70. As a leader, you’re tempted to engage in willful denial so that fear doesn’t invade your team. Which leads to…

  • Temptation 2: Panic – We should expect action in teams under pressure. But there’s a big difference between action and panic. Panic looks like scattered energy without clear thought. Unless that thought is, “Holy $%#&^$.” There may be a lot of ideas in the team, but most of them are pretty unhelpful.
  • Temptation 3: Retreat to Self Interest –  Under pressure, it’s easy to lose confidence in the team, to believe that no one else has your back. You’re tempted to retreat,  to think If I don’t take care of myself who will? One of the great acts of faith on any team is that the team will watch out for my interests. In this moment, we’re tempted to recant our faith, to implicitly say that we’re unsure anyone else gives a rip about us. And if no one else is going to watch out for me on this team, I’ll have to watch out for myself. So I retreat to my own area of responsibility and hunker down. I know that this won’t help the team succeed. But I’ve given up on the team at this point. Now it’s about self-preservation.
  • Temptation 4: Blame – Put any team under pressure and the natural temptation is to blame others. We blame corporate. We blame regulators. We blame competitors. Yes, we even blame customers. But mostly, we blame each other. If someone else would just do their part, we’d be out of this mess. If we stopped long enough, we’d know that it’s not fair or helpful to be that cranky but that doesn’t stop us.

While bad enough when faced by an individual, these temptations accelerate when they’re in a team. They’re contagious. They gain a momentum all their own. Left unaddressed, they can quickly destroy months and years of hard work in building your team’s momentum.

Like any temptations, these can be avoided but only if they’re replaced with something better.

  • Replace Denial with Reality: It’s not always sunny and 70. Everyone knows that unless you happen to live in southern California, but I have nothing to say about that. Many leaders are worried about stating the truth because they don’t want to spook the troops. But what really gives confidence to your organization is when you acknowledge challenges, even acknowledge failings, and show positive steps forward. That reassures them that your head isn’t in the sand and that you’re fully invested in the solution side of the problems.
  • Replace Panic with Focused Action:  I have a client facing tough times right now. One smart guy on the leadership team has reminded us frequently of the famous scene from Apollo 13 when Gene Kranz, the flight director for the doomed mission, gathers his team and says, “Let’s work the problem, people. Let’s not make things worse by guessing.” This is what teams need under pressure: structured activities aimed at constructive outcomes to replace the frenetic and random actions of panic.
  • Replace Retreat with Partnership: Scattering is easy and reflexive. It’s also depressing because you know deep down that you’ve given up on the team and on your teammates. You’re not the colleague you’d wish for in tough circumstances. You’re normal, but in a bad way. How much better to look around and ask yourself, who can I help on this team right now? As I do my normal work, how could I do it in a way that brings value and extra energy to the person right next to me in the team? It’s amazing how taking your eyes off yourself can raise your own spirits.
  • Replace Blame with Ownership: Shouting at the wind is easy and therapeutic in the short term. But it’s a dead end in the long run. Sure, you can’t control everything that happens outside your team.  The question is, what can we control or influence? The same applies with blame within the team. I can’t be sure that everyone will own their part of getting the team moving again. But I can be sure that I will do my part.

Just as all of these temptations can spread, so the replacements can build their own kind of momentum.  A few people take ownership. A few others make quiet but useful contributions to the success of others. Denial or exaggeration is replaced by the clarity of the truth. People get to work on useful projects to address the core issues. Spirits slowly start to lift as team members look around and say, “Hey, we’re doing something real and productive together. Maybe we can pull through this!” It’s usually slow and fragile, but the tide can turn.

Ending this post now would be convenient, but trite. The truth is that you may choose to replace these four temptations with the virtues of reality, ownership, partnership, and focused action – and your situation still may not improve. This is the real world we live in. Sometimes best efforts and noble responses yield limited results.

And yet…

If work is about more than results, if it also acts as a sort of laboratory for your soul, wouldn’t you rather walk away from even a circumstantial failure with the clear sense that you had grown as a person?

Wouldn’t you be better prepared to be an exemplary teammate and contributor during the next challenge thrown your way?

Wouldn’t it improve the chances that you would view those on your team as great people on whom you’d call in some future crisis?

Wouldn’t that be worth it?

In that case, even a superficial failure just might provide you with long-term benefit that defies calculation.

Noonday Sun

Be Bright.

The Moments You Live For

By: On September 7, 2015

My friend Amy tells of a woman who runs a company that makes architectural stone. She has many moments during her days – meetings, specification reviews, logistics strategy, customer visits. Those are all good moments, part of the joy and challenge of leading a company.

But they aren’t the moment.

She tells of the moment when her team is finished building a beautiful stone fixture for a customer. Something they envisioned together on a whiteboard or a PC screen has become reality, beautiful and durable and functional and tangible.

You might think that’s the moment, but not quite.

One moment: celebrating a job well done...

One moment: celebrating a job well done…

The moment this leader lives for is when her team members, gathered around the final product,  spontaneously pull out their smartphones and start taking pictures of the new installation. That’s the moment she feels the peculiar joy of a leader that comes from the intersection of making something beautiful for a customer and making great work for employees.

In addition to my consulting work, my family and I have a side business called Noonday Bread. Our model is unique: We bake two different varieties of bread most Saturday mornings. Our customers (aka Bread Fans) pre-order their bread and pick it up between noon and 3:00 p.m. at a local gourmet shop. Over the past several years, our little venture has helped us meet hundreds of people in our community and has provided excellent life experience for our boys. We use some of the proceeds to support micro-enterprise efforts in the developing world. Unlike a consulting practice, this venture is super-local and super-tangible. My kids can explain it to friends without getting that glazed look a description of my consulting job can evoke.


Converting a gorgeous hunk of dough into Bundles of Joy…

At Noonday Bread, I love a lot of moments but there are three I live for more than others. The first happens when we’re all in the kitchen shaping bread. A great big beautiful hunk of dough sits in the middle of the table. Upbeat music is playing in the background. Playful banter mixes with the sound of dough sighing as the air is pushed out of it and bench scrapers whack the table. It is a choreography of movement as we work in concert to turn 120 pounds of dough into 100 loaves of deliciousness. I love that moment.

But that’s not the moment…

Next comes what we call the “feeding frenzy.” We bake our bread to order, so most of our bread is sold before we put any ingredients into the Hobart mixer. But since it’s impossible to make exactly 102 loaves, we always make a few extra so that we’re not short. Once we know how many extra loaves we have to sell, we post a message to our Facebook and Twitter accounts announcing to our Bread Fans that we have extra loaves. We invite them to text us if they want to claim one.

Then we wait.

It takes only a few seconds for the phone to explode with life. We usually sell out within minutes. I love that moment.

But even that’s not the moment…

noonday-bread-no-bgAt our pick-up point, customers amble to the back of the shop where we’re set up. Many have a look of anticipation on their faces. We chat for a moment. We confirm their order on our customer list. They enjoy samples of that day’s bread. Then we hand over a super-fresh loaf, peeking out through the small plastic window of the paper bag. Usually, it’s still warm. Many of our customers do something instinctive: they cradle the bread in their arms, a smile of contentment creasing their faces.

That’s the moment I live for. Joy from our customers radiates back on our team. It’s why we call our loaves “Bundles of Joy.”

Light Bulb

The birth of an idea…

I’m lucky enough to have moments I live for when I consult with business leadership on strategy and building effective teams. There’s nothing like the moment when an insight flashes into the mind of a client in a strategy session – when something that was murky is suddenly clear allowing people to turn passion into action. Even better is when that insight helps the team connect their business success with doing something remarkable for the world. It’s a birth of sorts, full of potential and promise and wonder.

Ask your friends and colleagues about the moment they live for. I’ll bet it’s not when they get their paycheck, as good as that moment is. I’ll bet it’s not even when they get personal recognition, though we all like a pat on the back or the chance to walk across a stage. I’m pretty sure it’s not that quarterly review unless they happen to be masochists.

I’d put my money on this as the common denominator behind most moments we live for at work – and elsewhere for that matter. They’re the moments where we’re most connected to service, to contributing to a process that benefits others.

If you’re trying to figure out how to rally your troops around a cause, ask yourself these simple questions:  

  • What are the moments your company lives for?
  • What turns your people on beyond all reason?
  • Whom do they love serving?  
  • How do they contribute to a process that benefits others?

Figure that out and you have a bond that’s stronger than any financial incentive can create. Make it your mission to figure out how to manufacture more of those moments. And by all means, make them for yourself. That’s what will keep you charged up to face the tests that life and work so often serve up for us.

Noonday Sun

Be Bright.

Integrity Test

By: On August 11, 2015

CrossroadsI was in a meeting recently where a leadership team was grappling with their long-term direction. They’re doing what many leadership teams must do – trying to discern how to kick-start growth in their business. It complicates things that they work in the healthcare industry where there’s enough upheaval to make anyone feel queasy.

This has led the team to consider all kinds of growth ideas. In this particular meeting, they were exploring an idea about reaching a particular market segment, one that is super price sensitive. For a company that built its reputation on personalized service, this would be a departure.

We had a few outside experts in the room with extensive healthcare experience. As the meeting unfolded, one expert shared what another company had done to grow profitably in this price-sensitive segment. As she shared the details of the business model, it became clear that this other company had achieved its remarkable growth partly be being a li
tle less than forthcoming with customers. Was it downright dishonest? No. But in the immortal words of one of our past presidents, it may have been truthful but not very helpful.

The punch line of the story was simple: “That company made a ton of money in this segment.”

I sat in the back of the room watching faces, starting with the leader of the business. Curiosity turned to surprise and then to… discomfort? Disgust? It was hard to put a precise word on the facial expressions, but it wasn’t good. It was the same look I see on some face when Donald Trump says how “incredibly proud” he is that he made a lot of money by taking advantage of bankruptcy laws. When someone pulls back the veil on their success and all we
ee is naked ambition, many of us recoil. We ask that person to please grab a towel and cover themselves.

The facial expressions in the leadership team told me one thing for sure. I knew we had stumbled on a core value. People post corporate values on walls all of the time. Usually they’re lies or wishful thinking. You know you’ve hit a true value when you’re willing to walk away from profitable revenue because the business model doesn’t fit with who you are.

My client’s company has a long history of building trusting relationships with clients and partners. They care deeply about serving others. They aren’t naive. They know that a lot of organizations and people are willing to cut corners with the truth. They know that in some cases – like the one they were hearing about in this meeting – those who are willing to make those compromises have an advantage when it comes to generating certain kinds of results. But they can’t bring themselves to conduct business in that way. It would be false. Unlike Donald Trump, results at all costs would cause them discomfort when looking at themselves in the mirror.

This is an Integrity Test. Integrity is about being truthful and upright. It’s about not fudging your expense report even when no one’s looking.

But it’s deeper than that.

Integrity is knowing what you truly stand for. It’s about grasping your real values – not the motivational posters on the wall – and living by them. Even when it costs you. Maybe especially when it costs you.

In a recent Fast Company interview, Rose Marcario, the CEO of Patagonia talked about the ad her company put out during a holiday shopping season several years ago. “Don’t Buy This Jacket,” the ad blared, showing one of their high-end parkas. Of course Patagonia wants people to buy their jackets. But this wasn’t a clever piece of reverse psychology. Instead, the CEO talked about how the ad reflected the company’s core value of asking each person to have as small a footprint as possible on the Earth. That’s why they repair clothing for customers instead of simply offering replacements. That’s why they get behind low Earth-impact causes even when they have no direct benefit to Patagonia.

Ask yourself and your leadership team:

  • What would we stand for, even if it cost us in the marketplace? Usually those deep values come from somewhere in the organization’s history or the personal stories of founding members. I know of a university with roots in a religious tradition that emphasizes humble service. To this day, they’re drawn to preparing students to serve. They can’t help themselves. And I’m thankful for that.
  • When is the last time we took that sort of stand?  When did you reject a path that may have led to superficial success but would have violated your deepest beliefs? Ironically, Donald Trump is probably facing one of these moments right now. Staying true to what appears to be his core values – including achieving results at all costs within the letter of the law – will likely cost him a bona fide shot at the Republican nomination for President. This is integrity of a sort, though I wish Donald would go to the mat for something more noble than being a good Machiavellian.
  • Where can we demonstrate more integrity? There are few things more galvanizing to a team than the tangible expression of deeply held values. Look for those gray areas you’ve been avoiding, the ones that nag at you because you know they don’t really fit with your highest ideals. Search for the scary opportunity that would truly embody your company’s beliefs but carries risk or makes you stick out.

Noonday Sun
Be Bright.

Reappearing Act

By: On June 10, 2015

Magic Hat“Where have you been?” my friend Jeff asked recently. “I haven’t seen a post from you in like… months!?!”

Fair question. Where do I begin?

My last post was dated September 3, 2014. When I posted that piece, I knew it might be some time before I resurfaced. My dad had just been given the diagnosis we all dread, in his case as a perverse gift on his 84th birthday. The news was that his 15-year battle with cancer was coming to a close and that he was weeks away from finishing his life here on earth. Thirteen days after my last post, he died while in hospice care.

We saw this coming. In fact, I had anticipated the season of letting go of my dad for years. We felt fortunate to have had as many years with him as we did since doctors had given him pretty grim odds as far back as 13 years ago. He got to know all of his grandchildren and perhaps more important, they got to know him. He continued in his role as my mom’s best friend and increasingly, her caregiver as she lost her eyesight. I’m no fan of death since I believe we were made for life. But we have no complaints about how long we had with my dad and how well he lived.

We went through the pre-scripted events of my dad’s passing. As one of his executors and powers of attorney, I made visits to funeral homes, nursing homes, lawyers, and bankers. With my four fabulous brothers, their wives, and a network of my parents’ life-long friends, we planned for my dad’s memorial services and for my mom’s care. I wrote a eulogy I had been contemplating for 15 years, grateful that I received inspiration commensurate with the occasion. We had the services, beautiful and celebratory and sad because the one thing missing was Dad.

Then the sucker punch came. Nearly two months to the day after my dad’s death, my next-older brother died suddenly of a heart attack. Though we had gone our separate ways in recent years, he’s the brother I spent most of my time with as a kid. He probably had as much influence in shaping me as anyone outside of my parents. He was a constant in my life.

And then he wasn’t.

Another eulogy followed, a sad privilege I was granted by my sister-in-law. After never having done a eulogy, I wrote two in close succession, the kind of bumper crop no one craves.

Writing about business and work and all of that suddenly seemed impossible for a while. I didn’t feel wiped out. I felt deaf, dumb, and blind. I had nothing to say. My dad used to say about speakers occasionally, “He had nothing to say and said it poorly.” I didn’t want any of that here. I refuse to write when I have nothing to say. Lord knows, the world is chattery enough without me adding to the din.

One of my core beliefs about my life – and yours – is that every season of life has its own curriculum, designed with the potential to shape us into more of the kind of person that we were created to be. Nearly nine months on, I think I’m starting to see one big lesson that fell out of this season.

Thankfully, I haven’t had a lot of tragedy in my life over the years. So it was a new experience to be that person around whom everyone feels squeamish. When I showed up for client meetings right after these tragedies, people had different reactions. Some stared at their shoes. Others stumbled through condolences. A few wrote personal, heartfelt cards – some even the old-fashioned kind with a stamp and handwritten words. One leadership team I’ve worked with recently wrote a joint condolence card in an unusual show of compassion and camaraderie toward an outside supplier.

Too often, we’re cautious about showing each other our humanity at work. There’s an invisible line that we dare not cross between being professional and being human. Perhaps it’s because we have a tendency to compartmentalize our lives. Maybe it’s because we know that sometimes business requires us to do things that make us uncomfortable. I may have to disagree with you. I may have to fire you – or be fired by you. So we dehumanize our colleagues to protect ourselves from the messiness of being human. It’s a less extreme version of what we do in wartime, dehumanizing an enemy so that we don’t feel so badly about killing them.

Many  of those who expressed humanity to me in the days after my losses have very different viewpoints from me. Their compassion won’t change our disagreements. Bridging those disagreements isn’t why they extended themselves in the first place. But since they extended themselves, I’m inclined to be open and human with them, perhaps a little less guarded and less compartmentalized. I can’t see how that will be a bad thing for anyone or our business dealings.

My dad understood this. In fact, I now understand that he made a career of it. For years, I struggled to put the strands of his medical career into a coherent story. It looked scattered, with board certifications in pediatrics, public health, and family practice. Over the course of my dad’s career he treated children in the slums of the segregated south, mentally handicapped adults in New York state institutions, nursing home patients, and everything in between. He was well known in our community for patching people up on the deacon’s bench in our kitchen before the days of urgent care clinics.

But from the perspective of the end of his life looking back, it all became clear. My dad felt called to serve the ignored and helpless and under-served. It’s why a person I barely knew from the church I grew up at approached me at my dad’s funeral and said, “Your dad used to come and take my mentally ill husband out for drives in the country so that I could have a break. No one knew your dad did it and no one else could have done it. But he understood and he did what he could do.”

What if we all rejected the tendency to compartmentalize and dehumanize our work?  What if we stepped into the messy territory of realizing that it’s always human, even when – maybe especially when – it’s difficult? Yes, it’s risky. But living the other way has risks of its own, mostly to our souls.

What's in your wallet?

What’s in your wallet?

My dad trained himself to calculate the risks between self-protection and engaging with others. I know because I found evidence in the wallet he was carrying when he died. Tucked behind a college-era picture of my mom is an anonymous poem that he carried for around 35 years. He discovered the poem in materials he was using for teaching squirrelly middle school boys a Sunday school class at our church. It was a poem he referred to often publicly. I assume he reviewed it regularly in private.This copy was scrawled in his own handwriting on the back of one of his business cards from that bygone era.


All growth is trouble.

If comfort is your need,

Better to sleep

Curled round yourself forever,

Shelled with indifference,

Like an unsown seed.


All love is trouble.

Once you give your heart

To anything, to anyone at all,

You are made vulnerable

In every part.

To be at peace in love,

At peace and free,

Is the hope of fools.

If fool you be,

Curl snugly round yourself

Like a smooth stone

That cannot bleed

Or put forth leaves

Or know

What the great have known.


Noonday Sun

Be bright.

Ditch The Talking Points, Make Listening Points

By: On September 3, 2014
Oh no, more talking points...

Oh no, more talking points…

You’ve been to this meeting. You and a bunch of peers are gathered to do some planning or training. Over lunch, a senior leader of the organization has been asked to come spend time with the gang. It’s a great opportunity for both the leadership group and this senior leader to have exposure to each other.

More than likely, the leader emailed the meeting organizer, “What do you want me to say?” Leaders almost always do that when they’re asked to join a meeting with middle management or a customer or a key partner. They know that others expect a leader to say something.

So that’s what the leaders do.  They say… something. They come armed with talking points. Sometimes they say something good. Occasionally it’s memorable – especially if they use hand-drawn pictures. More often, it’s forgettable, benign, and sanitized. You and your colleagues parse and interpret. You read the tea leaves.

Then you go back to work.

It’s not tragic, but it’s a wasted opportunity.


Try this instead…

Now flip this scenario around. Say you’re the leader in this situation.  There’s another way to handle this interaction, one that has a better chance of building trust and credibility with a key group. The strategy is to create listening points. Here’s how you do it.

  • Listening Point step 1: Think of an issue that is of mutual interest. It could be a strategy that this group is trying to implement. It could be a trend you’re sensing in the environment.
  • Listening Point step 2: Ask a few real, provocative questions about the issue. Here are a few questions you could try on for size (I got several of these from Tom Paterson, a master strategic facilitator):
    • What might I be missing about what it’s really like to do your job right now?
    • Where do you see opportunities we might not be taking advantage of?
    • Where do you see dangers to which we are apparently blind?
    • Where are we wasting resources?
    • What excites you about our direction?
    • What concerns you about our direction?
  • Listening Point step 3: Listen for anything – and I mean anything – that you can commit to act upon or bring to your own peer group for further consideration.
  • Listening Point step 4: Commit to take that action and communicate when they will hear back from you.
  • Listening Point step 5: Follow up as promised.

This approach has several benefits over the usual way executives make appearances.

  • You can direct your comments to the real felt needs of people in the group rather than shooting in the dark with pre-prepared comments.
  • You have the opportunity to make a real contribution to something of shared interest. This is much better than playing a figurehead role where people are left wondering what you really do all day.
  • You can build credibility with a key constituency through actions plus words instead of just doing happy talk.

I understand why leaders fall back on talking points. It’s a safety net. Leaders often feel like they’re safer if they take the initiative and fill the air time with scripted comments, much like politicians do on talk shows. Interactions like the one I describe above are largely unscripted. And unscripted can feel out of control.

But the control you get by hiding behind talking points is shallow. You get momentary control but you lose the influence you only get by surfing through an improvised conversation. That’s when people learn what they really want to know about you.

How does she really think?

How open is he to influence? How humble is he?

What excites her? What makes her crazy?

Like anyone, they’re really trying to figure out whether you’re someone they want to follow and listen to and deal with. They know that talking points can be an elaborate screen. Listening points – and especially your response to the conversation – provide a window into who you really are.

And that’s what people really want to know.

Who are you really?

Will you listen?

Is there a chance that you’ll be open to their influence?

If you answer those questions convincingly – in how you act more than what you say – you’ll develop an environment of optimism and innovation.

Noonday Sun

Be bright.

Smart vs. Good

By: On June 25, 2014
Smart, Good, or Both?

Smart, Good, or Both?

Jim Collins starts his classic, Good to Great, by saying “Good is the enemy of Great.”  I love Collins’ books but I’d like to suggest a 2014 corollary to his comments. Today, Smart is often seen as the enemy of Good, as in Goodness. And personally I’d love to see a resurgence of Goodness.

In my work, I get to observe CEOs, founders, GMs, and key functional leaders up close and personal. As I work on strategy and organizational effectiveness, I see the inner workings of organizations. People come to trust me and tell me what really happens on the inside.

One thing I’ve noticed in the past few years is that we’ve become very enamored of smarts. Listen to how people describe someone they admire intellectually. “She’s super-smart.”  “He’s a rock star.”

When this cult of smarts gets extended to its logical conclusion, you end up with someone like Colin. Colin graduated from an Ivy League school and landed as an associate at a blue chip strategy consulting firm. He did fine in the firm but grew impatient. Since he was a little kid, he had been told that he was exceptional. Now he had a few accomplishments to back it up. So he jumped ship and began a tech startup with a few friends from the firm and from B-school. They’ve successfully raised money and are in the process of scaling the business. Colin is active in the press, promoting their new service and talking up the business, often with dazzling effect.  No doubt he’s smart.

Behind closed doors, while it’s clear that he’s sharp-minded, he’s also very sharp-tongued. He dresses down colleagues, especially the junior associates they’ve recruited to their rapidly growing startup. When he interviews potential employees, he focuses on their raw intelligence – often as indicated by their scores on standardized tests, the schools they attended, and the companies they’ve worked for. He’s dismissive of anyone without his version of pedigree.

Colin is a perfectionist with staff, using them up like Kleenex. He breeds fear and competition in the organization. He’s smart, ambitious, and ruthless. His leadership platform is based on fear and on making everyone want to please him. It works to an extent. People jump. It’s just that sometimes they jump right off the cliff into all sorts of strange behavior as they respond to Colin’s pressure. They push customers, shift blame to colleagues, use and abuse vendors.

Flip over to Jim. Jim’s no dummy. He has several advanced degrees. But what’s most striking about him isn’t his “presence” or his hyped-up oratory. While he’s articulate, what’s most notable is how people talk about Jim when he’s not there. Yes, he has his detractors. He himself will tell you that with self-deprecating humor. But the general vibe about Jim focuses less on his smarts, and more on his character.

“He’s a good man,” someone will say. “People all around our community look up to him,” another will say. “He’s obviously intelligent, but he’s not about looking like the smartest guy in the room,” another will comment. They may not always agree him, but they believe that Jim is about doing what’s best for the institution.

Behind closed doors, you’ll hear a real person when you talk with Jim. He’s not above frustration or impatience or fatigue or even withdrawal in the rough and tumble of leading an organization. But what’s striking is that Jim comes back to center quickly. He listens. He’s open to influence. He owns his part of any challenges facing his organization and his relationships with colleagues. In other words, he’s human in the best sense of the word.

Colin may get more dramatic results in the short term. But you will see a trail of wreckage behind him as a result of his approach. Jim’s results may take a bit longer or be a little more understated. But given time, he’ll be able to attract high-character, highly talented people to his cause because of who he is and the thriving environment he creates.

Both will stamp their character on their respective organizations. One will be a force of nature, almost violent as it sweeps through the marketplace. The other will be a quiet, steady breeze urging the organization forward. It will be gentle, which a mentor of mine once beautifully defined as “strength under control.”

Smarts are useful. But the character and heart of an organization will have a lot more to say about its long-term impact than its collective IQ. Character drives the organization’s deepest beliefs and persistent behaviors. It’s what teaches salespeople how to interact with customers in ways that promote rather than tarnish the brand. It’s what teaches team members how to interact with colleagues when they get sideways with each other so that they can create more together than they would on their own. It’s what teaches leaders how to productively handle adversity or mistakes or embarrassing foul-ups.

Smart isn’t really the enemy of good. It’s only seen that way because we expect too little from those blessed with a high IQ or impressive pedigrees. So next time you’re faced with a decision – especially about who to select or reward or discipline – don’t only ask about the smart move. Ask about the good move.

Noonday Sun

Be bright.

How to Provoke Change Without Alienating Your Peers

By: On May 29, 2014

Sara has a problem. She was recruited into an important role at a new company, one where her ability to succeed is directly affected by how well she can get tenured colleagues at this well-established company to change how they think and act. She comes from a company and industry known for innovation. The company she’s joined, while no laggard, has lost its creative mojo over that past few years.

Sara’s no dummy. The first couple of months in her assignment, she acted patient, interested, open, respectful. If she was honest with herself, she would admit that it was partly just that – an act. Privately, she looked around at this company – and even this industry – and thought they had missed the boat on so many things that make a cutting edge company. Decisions seem bureaucratic.  Resource allocation seems upside down. She can see waste and old thinking all around her. Inwardly, she’s getting aggravated with the glacial pace of change, with what seems like the team’s willful blindness.

It came to a head today when Sara was in a meeting with her boss’s team. They were having their 27th discussion about how to allocate resources in next year’s budget. She could feel her blood pressure rising. She didn’t even notice that she had rolled her eyes a few times. To let off steam, she had made a few snarky comments to the other new team member next to whom she had strategically seated herself. She has a playlist of snappy one-liners dancing on the tip of her tongue, waiting to get out there like itchy thoroughbreds in the starting gate.

CrossroadsSara stands at a crossroad. Here are the likely outcomes based on how she handles herself:

  • Option 1: She indulges her impatience. She buys into the heroic tale that she’s the one who is here to shake this organization from its lethargy with a well-placed kick in the rear. In so many ways, she says, “What’s wrong with you people?!?!?”

    If she chooses this option, here’s what’s going to happen. The shutters will come down. She’ll find herself suddenly on the outside of the group looking in. Her job will get harder, not easier as colleagues distance themselves from her. While she may be able to explain her demise with a martyrdom tale of how she tried to help these people but they wouldn’t listen, the fact will remain. She won’t have helped them. And she’ll be at best marginalized and at worst out of a job.

  • Option 2: She embraces the situation with curiosity, respect, and humor. Yes, she’s going to keep nudging and challenging because to not do so would be simple self-preservation. And Sara wants to make a difference, not just keep a job. But instead of boring people with “how we did it at my prior fabulous company/industry,” she influences her peers by asking questions first. She chooses questions that will both inform her and potentially provoke new thinking. Questions like:

    • Tell me more about how you do things and how you’re structured?
    • What led you to doing things that way?
    • What’s worked for you about that? What’s frustrating or not working?

That kind of approach will begin to earn Sara the right to suggest alternatives instead of just getting slaughtered.

If Sara chooses that second option, she’ll be showing a different mindset – one of curiosity, respect, and appreciation. She’ll have to remind herself that you can both respect an organization’s past and acknowledge that it’s time for change. Grownups can hold those two things in their minds at the same time, avoiding the trap of thinking that you have to trash the past to motivate change.

Most of all, she’ll give herself a chance to make a difference, to serve this group of new colleagues with her different perspective and ideas. That’s why she’s here in the first place. She knows that the long-term road to happiness at work – and even to promotion if her mind is set on that kind of thing – comes through serving others.

If you’re trying to influence a team or a workplace, start there. Start with a mindset of service. Build curiosity, humor, respect, and appreciation on top of that attitude. Then persistently pursue excellence with your new colleagues. You’ll have earned the right to challenge them because you will have demonstrated that you’re for everyone’s success. Then even when your ideas and questions unsettle them, they’ll buy your intent.

Noonday Sun

Be bright.

Three Marks of High Leverage Change Opportunities

By: On April 15, 2014

Dear Change Agent,

Let’s say you just took over a major business unit of a well-known consumer services company. You were brought in from outside the industry because you had a stellar history of creating healthy growth in other consumer-oriented services companies.  Recent results have been mediocre. New competitors lurk around the corner, some of them bigger and badder than the company has ever faced.

You can see fundamental issues in the business – as fundamental as a casual attitude toward customers and the frontline employees who serve them. You know this because employee turnover at key frontline sales and service positions is through the roof. Maybe these symptoms are normal for this industry, but they’re not normal for you.

You’ve been in your role for 30-60 days. You’ve gotten out in the field and seen first-hand what’s going on with customers and employees. You’ve started collecting people to go along with your observations. You’ve sorted your insights into what’s right, wrong, unclear, and missing about this organization.

Maybe your analysis looks something like this.

Four Helpful Lists Filled In

It’s time to plan some action. But not any old action. Anyone can get busy. The relentless pressure you’ll feel to DO SOMETHING will tempt you to jump into the busy-ness pit. Stop. Think.

Look especially for high leverage change opportunities, those places where you can push a little and get a lot of result.  Here’s what to look for:

  • Avoid this!

    Avoid this!

    Push Levers, Not Rocks – Look for initiatives where focused effort on a relative few people, processes, or customers will touch many others. For instance, if your problem is improving how your sales organization interacts with customers, it will be tempting to focus energy on training front-line salespeople. That’s pushing a very large rock uphill and probably the wrong place to start. Instead, ask yourself where the high-leverage few are. Usually that’s going after sales managers or opinion leaders in the sales organization.

  • Find Double-sided Initiatives – You’re new into a culture with unwritten rules on how things run and what matters. If you want your ideas to be accepted, look for initiatives that can be positioned in at least two ways – to appeal to the existing cultural norms and to drive the organization toward the new cultural rules that you want to instill. So if the existing culture is cost and numbers driven and you want to foster a customer-obsessed culture, look for initiatives that can be positioned as reducing costs to your corporate colleagues while you emphasize the impact on customers to your own team. Avoid if possible single-sided moves that only play to the existing culture or the desired culture. If you completely conform to the current culture, you lose your edge for change. If you ignore the current culture in the zealous pursuit of change, it’s only a matter of time before the organization spits you out.

  • Select Symbolic Initiatives – Look for efforts around which you can wrap your change story. So if you’re trying to change the culture from being casual toward customers to being customer-obsessed – and you’ve chosen your sales leaders as the leverage point – be ready to explain the initiative in terms of how it supports that change and why that change is important. The argument for driving a customer referral program could go something like this:

    • “Delighting customers isn’t just a feel-good thing to do. It’s the smartest way for us to run our business and to protect ourselves from powerful new entrants to our market.”

    • “While our salespeople are the ones who most directly touch customers, our leaders are the ones who create an environment that drives how salespeople think and act. It’s our job as leaders to make selling easier over time and there’s no better way to do that than to get customers spreading the love.”

    • “We’re going to invest in and measure an initiative to help salespeople generate and track leads from referrals. But we’re going to deliver this program entirely through our sales leaders because you are the ones to make this happen.”

To make the initiative really symbolic, be ready to both publicly recognize progress and firmly deal with those who don’t get on board. And by firmly deal with, I mean potentially letting some of those people go. You don’t have to be nasty, but you do have to be resolute based on the business case and your principles.

Observe. Diagnose. Select. Act. You’re on your way.

Noonday Sun

Be bright.


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