Ted Does TEDx

By: On April 24, 2017

Bread Dude hits UW Madison

What would you talk about if you were invited to speak for no more than 18 minutes to 100 bright university students? At 10AM on a Saturday morning? In December? In balmy Madison, Wisconsin?

That was the challenge I faced after exchanging emails with a client’s daughter who was running the TEDx conference at UW Madison last December. Given my first name, I’ve always wanted to do a TED talk. I would even have considered changing my middle name to Xavier so that I could legitimately do a TEDx talk.

Now it was right in front of me and I had to find an angle.

I puzzled for a few weeks, pretty sure that trying to wow students with my insights on strategy or how executive teams work would be a real snoozer for 20-somethings who had wrestled themselves out of bed on a wintry Saturday morning. But I never learned to juggle. I haven’t cracked the code on cancer. I’m nowhere close to figuring out how to get to Mars. I didn’t think I had anything dazzling to say.

Then, while talking with my friend Amy, it hit me. After 25 years in the everyday work world of organizations big and small, what do I know now that I wish someone had told me when I was 21? Or 25? Or maybe even 30? Heck, what do I still have to remind myself about even as my wife reports I have a growing bald spot and my goatee threatens streaks of grey?

The theme of TEDx UW Madison was “Thinking Differently,” so I chose to tackle thinking differently about being happy at work. Just a teeny, tiny topic.

For inspiration, I tapped into the adventure my family and I have been embarked on called Noonday Bread. And my dad’s little-known yet inspiring story. And observations from working with hundreds of senior leaders over the past couple of decades, too many of whom are far too unhappy at work.

Stir all of that together, add the yeast of a creative Prezi, let it ferment for a few months and you get this presentation, called Getting the Math Right: Thinking Differently About the Good Life. I hope it challenges you as much as it does me.

And hats off to the group of students who pulled off TEDx UW Madison with such a high degree of professionalism. It was a pleasure to be part of the experience.

Be Bright.

I Gave Up Criticism for Lent

By: On March 15, 2016

I gave up criticism for Lent.

My Lenten practice in real life

My Lenten practice in real life

This seemed like a good idea at the time. I’ve noticed how I reflexively see and point out flaws in those around me – clients, colleagues, friends. And then there are my kids. And myself. There are so many flaws to point out and fix. It’s a target rich environment.

But I don’t think criticism – at least criticism in the absence of love – creates much value. I wondered what life would be like without it. After a lifetime of diligent practice to the point of perfecting it as an art form, I had given up sarcasm years ago. I realized sarcasm was just contempt masked with humor, and contempt is rarely an attractive quality.  Walking away from sarcasm was no great loss even if I sometimes had to forego a snappy comeback.

So I decided to give up criticism for forty days.

And then the latest phase of the presidential election came along. I wondered if this is really a good time for this particular Lenten practice.  I spent several days suffering criticus interruptus. My running partner asked me what I thought of a particular candidate and I stammered through my thoughts like a truculent witness under cross examination, choosing words like I’d choose steps in a minefield. As a dad, I’m used to having to edit my words. But weeding out criticism when the warning lights of wrongness are blinking like strobe lights at a rock concert – well, that makes you swallow hard and often. I fear getting a kind of criticism indigestion.

And yet, taking on a challenge like this may be a very useful enterprise. I’m coming to see work as a laboratory of the soul. And while I may find my ability to point out flaws endearing, I’m pretty sure those around me at work find it less charming.

A couple of weeks into my Lenten experiment, I noticed something. Avoiding criticism is good, but it’s not the whole picture. Given my long history of seeing and saying faults, avoiding criticism just looks like being quiet a lot. In itself, silence is not bad. You can do a lot worse than not saying unhelpful things.

Of course, the sad truth is that I still see the flaws. I just talk to myself about them instead of saying them out loud. I’m probably not a good enough actor to convince people that I’m not being critical when I think and feel critical thoughts. Those thoughts and feelings ooze out of us in ways we don’t see but are obvious to everyone else.

No, where the lab experiment gets interesting is when you turn your attention from only avoiding criticism and instead actively seek to bring good into the lives of others. The old-fashioned word for this is blessing, to will and to actively work for the good of those around you.

That’s easy enough to do for those I already like – the client who usually agrees with me, the colleague who amazingly laughs at my jokes. It’s harder when dealing with the difficult people in my world – the guy whose default setting to my ideas in a meeting last week was skepticism and (ironically) criticism; the colleague who misses deadlines; the Delta airlines employee who had the gall to stop me (a United flyer with status) from using the express line at their TSA checkpoint; the taxi driver who I couldn’t describe to my wife when I arrived home because doing so would have been non-stop criticism.

Those situations require me to seek the grace to step out of myself. I have to put myself in the shoes of the skeptical client, the tardy colleague, the helpless Delta employee following blind rules, and the hapless cab driver – to imagine what might be their circumstances that could lead to these reactions. Moving from empathy to blessing – well, that requires a level of grace well beyond my natural ability.

And maybe that’s why this is the perfect time for this soul experiment. Maybe putting yourself in a situation where your own resources are simply inadequate is exactly what it’s about.

Noonday Sun

Be bright.

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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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 little 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 see 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.

Lessons From A Redemptive Entrepreneur

By: On December 3, 2013

“Now that’s a big idea!”

It was high praise from the former senior partner of a highly respected strategy consulting firm, a guy who deals in big ideas every day. I had just shared the concept behind one of my client’s new ventures over lunch. While still in its early days, this company aims to change how $200 trillion gets managed every year. Yes, that’s trillion with a T. Can you say b-i-g i-d-e-a?

What waits off the beaten path?

What waits off the beaten path?

But I heard a piece on NPR this summer about a group of Harvard MBA’s who may have an even bigger one. They decided to swap a typical summer internship for a road trip to help entrepreneurs. Maybe it says something about us as a society that we’re surprised that four bright, young people would break from the herd charging up the well-trodden path toward the top of the world to spend time working with ordinary people in middle America who are trying to make their business dreams a reality. Let’s face it, the world those students live in solves for money, power, and status. Helping entrepreneurs figure out how to launch sustainable and socially responsible businesses isn’t the most direct path to the top.

But as impressive as those MBA students’ choice was, I’m even more intrigued by the people they chose to help: an inner city hair salon, a designer of rugged women’s work clothes, and a micro-brewery.

Take Sebastien Jackson, a young African American man in Detroit. His vision is to use a for-profit business – in this case, a hair salon – to drive cross-racial understanding in one of our toughest and most segregated cities. Now that’s a big idea. Instead of fleeing his city, Jackson is choosing to put his efforts into transforming it. In his case, he used what was close to his hands and his background to get started. He had worked at a salon prior to starting The Social Club Grooming Company. Now he wanted to use it to crack the code on racial reconciliation.

That’s what redemptive entrepreneurs do:

  • They see a bigger issue that needs to be changed. Jackson saw his city falling apart and knew that one major barrier to its rebuilding was the underlying racial tension. No one wants to move their families and businesses to a place that seems like it’s on the verge of a riot.

  • They see a solution – or at least part of a solution. Jackson believes that people don’t get along when they don’t understand each other. He decided to try to create a place where people could casually learn about each other – to rub shoulders in ways that promote understanding without being forced. I’m guessing you already know that men get to know each other better when they’re interacting casually instead of facing each other across tables eye to eye (ladies, you can send me your checks for that free relationship advice anytime). Sitting in a barber chair and shooting the breeze is a perfect environment for guys to start to get to know each other.

  • They use what they know to do what they can. Sure, Jackson could have gone out and gotten a social work degree. Maybe he could have become a politician – and maybe he will in the future. But here’s the fact: the guy knew hair. So he combined his vision for change with a solution that was natural for him.

  • They build organizations that will be viable for the long term. A noble idea without a sustainable model is unfortunately not much use. This is where the Harvard MBA’s came in – using what they know (business, economics, finance) to do what they can (helping redemptive entrepreneurs create sustainable business models).

Maybe the example of the Harvard MBA’s points out another mark of the redemptive entrepreneur. A redemptive entrepreneur sees herself as one piece of a tapestry of like-minded people who are determined to use their skills for the common good. She doesn’t have to do it all. She just has to do her part and find others who are also doing their part. Put together, they create something useful, meaningful and even beautiful.

Be bright.Noonday Sun

Getting The Math Right

By: On November 25, 2013

Hand working on equationToo many of us hate our jobs and live in fear. Even the super-successful. And it’s our own doing.

I had lunch with a super-talented guy recently. He has a resume to die for – blue chip schools, top tier firms, big titles. Amid his success he had been bounced out of companies a couple of times, as people do when they play at senior levels. Even though he has been incredibly successful, I sensed a deep worry about whether he had ruined his career, about how many opportunities he had missed. The smell of fear mixed with the aroma of the pasta.  I walked away feeling badly for him but also frustrated. This happens to so many of us. Why do we strive and achieve and yet still get chased around by the barking dogs in our heads?

Maybe it’s because a lot of us work for goofy reasons. Oh, I know that most of us have to work. We weren’t born into a fortune. We like to eat and eating costs money. But most of us aren’t driven by the need to eat. Not if you’re reading this on a screen somewhere. If you were really fleeing starvation, you wouldn’t have time for this kind of rumination.

As smart as we are, a lot of us have gotten the math all wrong about our work. We think that if we’re super successful and we don’t totally lose our souls in the process, we’ll be happy. The equation goes something like this:

Success + Being a Decent Person = Contentment

Only, that equation doesn’t really work. If it did, I’d have a parade of lunches with people who had silly, contented smiles on their faces because I regularly mix with really accomplished, decent people. Instead, too many smart, high-achieving people are secretly lost. In fact, their happiness is too often inversely proportional to their visible success.

The problem isn’t that they aren’t successful enough, whatever that means. The problem isn’t that they aren’t decent enough, though we could all amp up our decency without hurting anyone’s feelings. The problem is that the equation they’re living by is just flat wrong.

What would happen if my friend lived with this equation in mind?

Being who you’re created to be + Contentment = Success

Simple, I know. But in a culture that actually glorifies dissatisfaction as a noble trait, think of the implications of switching your emphasis:

  • Instead of letting achievement, acquisition, and the quest for clout control my happiness, I’m clear that wealth, notoriety, and influence don’t define my life. My character and my impact on those closest to me does.

  • Instead of being under the grinding pressure to “win” no matter what hand I was dealt, I do the best I can with the hand I’m dealt. I shun the cheap happiness of comparison in favor of joy.

  • Instead of always looking over my shoulder at what might happen or what might have happened if only…, I look at what’s right in front of me and enjoy it for what it is.

  • Instead of seeing today’s work as a stepping stone to something really good, I see today’s work as really good in itself because it just might draw the best out of me. It might even make me better. It might be a class I have to pass to become more of who I was created to be.

Don’t think for a minute that conventional wisdom will make sense of this. Our world trades in fear, insecurity, and scarcity. It knows that you can motivate people to buy and sell anything – even their very happiness and souls – when motivated by those barking dogs. The purveyors of dissatisfcation equate contentment with resignation. But they’re wrong. Resignation says that things aren’t that good and they’re not likely to get better. Contentment celebrates that things are actually quite good, and that – in the grand scheme of things – all is well.

So this Thanksgiving, think about your life and work.

  • Are you doing something – at least a decent chunk of your day – that flows out of who you’re created to be? If so, give thanks. If not, ask yourself: Where can you make a slight shift in thinking or action that would change the game and play to your sweet spot? Or can you shift your attitude from thinking your work isn’t good enough for you to thinking it’s a gift just waiting to be unwrapped?

  • Does your work give you the opportunity – and by “opportunity” I really mean “difficulty” – to grow your character or to make a positive impact on someone else? If so, give thanks.

  • Is there some limitation you face that forces you to be creative, to overcome, to be abnormally resilient? If so, give thanks.

  • Have you had a good laugh or better yet that moment of joy in your work where you’re engaged, switched on, or even righteously angry? If so, give thanks.  (If not, this might help.)

  • Does your work provide you with an opportunity to provide for and care for those you love even if it’s not your rock and roll fantasy? If so, give thanks.

Maybe you just realized that you had the math wrong and you’ve decided to work from a new equation. That’s worth giving thanks for too. Because it all starts with getting the math right.

Being who you’re created to be + Contentment = Success

Be bright.Noonday Sun

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