Are You Starring in Leader Theater or Are You Building a Team?

By: On October 17, 2017

Karen sits in her office, slightly baffled. She’s in the middle of a major change initiative designed to dramatically improve her company’s cost structure. All along, she has been out in front of this initiative, explaining it, selling it, cheering for it. She made promises to the board.

But the results are stuck. Instead of moving up and to the right, the trend lines are flat. She walks into the executive board room and sits at the seat unofficially reserved for The Big Cheese. Around the table are key members of her organization: the CMO, CIO, VP of Sales, and head of operations. Everyone is smiling and nodding as her chief of staff opens the session.

And then this happens…

What’s about to happen is predictable if not particularly productive. It’s Leader Theater complete with assigned seats, scripts, and an open caffeine bar.

In this highly staged art form, the team members carefully tell The Big Cheese exactly what they want to hear. Sure, it would give the crowd a bit of a buzz if someone broke from role or fluffed their lines. But that’s hard to do. The group has rehearsed this bit of stagecraft for a long time. They’ve studied their characters so much that they’ve actually started to become these characters. Besides, everyone knows that you shouldn’t tell your boss the truth at work. (Or should you?)

You might be tempted to think that the team members are cowards. I don’t think so. I think they’re smart. They know there’s a script.  Big Cheeses love it when you follow the script. They can get a little testy when you don’t.  Here are the cue cards people see the Big Cheese lay out.

  • It starts with the entrance and place on the stage. They sit at the end of the board room table. If they’ve watched too many mobster movies, they choose a seat with their back to a wall, preferably where they can see the door. There will be no surprises.  
  • The Big Cheese asks questions like, “Don’t you think people are really on board with the direction we’re heading as a company?” These questions have obvious right answers. Given the power difference and the public forum, who is going to take The Big Cheese on?
  • The Big Cheese talks without listening. It’s clear that there is a stump speech that is meant to pump the troops up. All visible signs in the past five meetings using that speech have been positive. So The Big Cheese stays in safe territory, hitting key points, watching the heads nod like a table full of bobbleheads.

In the unlikely event they make a subtle appearance at the show, The Big Cheese resolutely ignores reactions like fear, sadness, and anger. Privately, The Big Cheese is not quite sure what to do with these primal emotions other than ignore them so that things don’t slow down and get messy. Lord knows, they have enough mess in their life already. Better to avert the eyes.

This script, all too familiar to many of us, is just a symptom of a leader who has forgotten a fundamental organizational reality. My friends Eugenio and Kevin from Quarto Consulting call this phenomenon The Cloudline. Like a tall mountain, any organization will feel different depending on where you sit in the organizational structure. Those at the top are often above the cloudline. Things are clear. The sun shines. Yes the air is thin but you can see for-e-ver. Farther down the mountain, there’s weather – clouds, rain, mud. If you’re lucky, you can see your hand in front of your face.

When The Big Cheese refuses to descend into the weather – to slow down, to notice, to be curious – she’s missing out on the reality that most of the organization experiences each day. She may enjoy the sunshine, but she’s going to be pretty lonely up there. It will be hard to get things done. Once she leaves the room, everyone will exit stage left and go back to everyday life, pleased that they crushed that little scene of Leader’s Theater.

This is how so many leaders get nasty surprises. They leave the room thinking everyone is on board only to find out later that people were just reading from the script. Too many strategies die as a result. Too many organizations make less of a dent on the world. That, to paraphrase a certain Big Cheese, is #sad.

In case you’re feeling a little smug right now, wondering if you can cleverly forward this post to a Big Cheese in your world without getting fired, pause for just a moment. Chances are, you’re a Big Cheese in some arena of your workplace or personal life. Maybe, like me, you recognize a little Cheesiness in your own approach and behavior.

If so, the prescription is simple, though not easy:

  1. Slow down and come down below the cloudline. You can’t descend safely without reducing speed. Next time you’re leading or attending a meeting as a Big Cheese, take a deep breath. Remind yourself that speed kills.  Think through who is going to be there. Put yourself in their shoes and ask, “How would I see this situation – and me – if I were in their place?” Based on what you discover, be ready to answer the normal questions they probably have about you and this situation as a way to open up the interaction. It’s amazing what a little empathy can do.
  2. Notice what you’re noticing. As you interact with others, take snapshots of the scene. Look for things that stick out to you. Then look one more time for things you might have missed on first inspection – a person’s expression, their fidgeting when you say certain things. Avoid judging, fixing, or even pointing out what you see. Just log it away.
  3. Be curious. Ask at least one question for every statement you make. Make them questions that do not have obvious answers. Questions like, “Help me understand what you’re seeing.” or “What would have to be true for that idea to be truly great?” are curious questions. When a response signals that another person may care more about a topic, gently dig into it simply to understand. Yes, this means you may have to wait minutes, hours, even days before you give your counterpoint to their point. That will be time well spent.

This may feel like it’s going to slow you down. But it’s almost always another example of the old wisdom, “When you slow down, you go faster.” Because avoiding Leader Theater will allow your team members to show you things you may otherwise have missed. Those perspectives are likely key to your organization’s success. That’s the kind of show we all want more of.

Be Bright.

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When Getting Sh*t Done Doesn’t Get It Done

By: On October 2, 2017

Matt is a high achieving, high potential leader at a fast growth company. His job requires him to pull together the efforts of multiple groups – marketing, sales, operations – to achieve the company’s quarterly goals. It’s a process that naturally creates friction as he asks colleagues to make adjustments and compromises, not all of which are welcome or convenient.

Matt’s bosses put him in this role because he can be, well, assertive. They know it’s a tough job but that Matt is results-oriented. Failure is not an option. A little friction doesn’t bother the bosses as long as the noise doesn’t get too loud.

In Matt’s work life, a pattern has emerged. It all starts with Matt arriving in a whirlwind, fresh off a breathless commute on crowded expressways. He walks from the parking garage to his office, and there waiting for him is Maya, his assistant. She tells him that a fire is burning, that the CEO and Matt’s boss want to see him. Pronto.

They call Matt into a hastily convened meeting in the hipster board room. There’s a performance problem and they need it fixed so that the company can hit the quarterly targets they promised the all-powerful analysts on Wall Street.

The execs turn to Matt expectantly. He knows what this means. While he didn’t create the problem, it’s now his big smelly bag of dirt.

“Figure out a way to make this happen,” they say as they are hustled from the room by a frantic-looking executive assistant whose unenviable job it is to keep this crew on schedule.

“Oh,” the CEO says as he’s leaving the room, “keep the reasons for this move quiet. We don’t want to have any leaks to the Street.”

Matt starts running the numbers immediately in his head. His brain is a big, fast processor legendary in the company for its ability to grind through data and get to solid answers. By the time he’s hit the restroom and gotten back to his office, he has a pretty clear picture of what needs to happen.

It’s going to be ugly because the moves he will suggest directly contradict what many employees were asked to do last week. Nothing makes people crazier than rapid changes of direction that lead to dumping a week’s work in the garbage. But that’s life in the fast lane.

It’s right here where Matt faces a choice: leave his soul locked firmly in his glove compartment or let work be a laboratory for his soul. Let’s imagine what happens depending on which choice he makes.

Option 1: Business as usual

Imagine a day where Matt just goes about his business with his soul stuffed safely in the glove box of his Mercedes.  When he hits his office, Matt is all action. He starts by whipping off emails to several people around the organization, asking them to re-direct their actions toward the new directive from on high. Since speed matters, he skips a few levels in this communication, in several cases bypassing his peer group to get to their people who actually do the daily work. Since confidentiality matters, he’s light on the reasons behind this hard right turn.

It only takes a few minutes for the first email response to come back from one of the troops. The message is simple: “Ummm… Huh? Seriously? Why are we doing this?” Matt sends off a curt email that mostly says, “Get moving. Because I said so.”

Not long after, Matt gets his first email from Atul, a peer who runs a key marketing function. Edited for content, the message is direct: “WTF?” Atul doesn’t understand why the sudden change of direction – and he disagrees with it. With a teeny bit of energy.

Though Atul doesn’t mention it directly, Matt is pretty sure the folks in the trenches are complaining that the directives are going to make them waste a whole bunch of work. In an attempt to mollify their troops, Atul and other peers are pushing back. They’re miffed that Matt has gone around them and in the process stirred up problems in their teams.

Matt can feel the irritation rising. Like a quarterback running the play given him in a long-yardage situation, Matt doesn’t think it’s worth wasting time bitching about it. The play clock is running. Get to the line of scrimmage. Run the play. See what happens. Then get ready to run the next play. We can peer at the game film later. Right now, it’s time to get moving.

As he reads the steady stream of emails on his phone between meetings, he mutters to himself, “Quit complaining! We’re in this mess partly because you didn’t execute your part of the original plan. We can’t control it – so just run your part of the play. And don’t worry, it will change again in a couple of weeks. So get the hell over it.” Of course, he doesn’t say this directly to his colleagues, but it’s the script playing in his head.

In an unrelated meeting that afternoon, the topic bubbles up with a couple of peers. They challenge Matt on whether the current U-turn makes sense. With blunt force analytical trauma, he puts them right back on the defensive with equal parts data and passion. After the first 30 seconds of his barrage, his teammates switch to sullen resignation.

As he’s driving home, Matt takes a certain amount of satisfaction in knowing that he had man-handled the messy challenge given to him by the CEO. He takes no particular joy in pissing people off. But given a less-than-perfect situation, he had made the best of it. And he knows he has cemented his reputation as a get-it-done guy with the CEO, never a bad brand to have.

In three other cars and on one commuter train heading out of the city, his colleagues are going home bewildered and frustrated. One of them says to herself, “I want to believe there’s a good person inside Matt. But I don’t see it very often.

Option 2: Matt sees work as a laboratory for the soul

Let’s run that same day with Matt’s soul smack dab in the middle of the story. Although Maya sees Matt come through the door at the same time of day, what she may not see is that he spent a very crucial fifteen minutes in his living room at home before heading to the office. During that time, Matt pulled out a black notebook and did a brief inventory of the day before.

He played back the interactions and challenges he faced. He asked himself what was going on inside him at key moments in the day, how his thoughts and internal reactions (aka *feelings*) shaped his behavior for good and bad. He made a mental note to thank one colleague for going above and beyond the call of duty, and apologize to another for a careless comment he made.

In his Mercedes SUV on the way to the office, Matt consciously chooses to back off the speed. He allows people to cut in front of him. He goes in a slower lane instead of weaving to find the optimally fast route. He knows that he’ll arrive at work within 2-3 minutes of the same time no matter how aggressively he drives. He also knows that hurry is one of the great destroyers of the soul.

Driving peacefully – or at least as peacefully as you can on a major city’s expressways in rush hour – costs you a few minutes. In exchange, it forces you to remember what’s important and it allows you to slow your own thoughts down. It’s also a good way to practice putting yourself in someone else’s shoes, imagining what might be going on in someone’s life to make them drive like an idiot. He chooses to wish the best for other drivers instead of giving them the one-fingered salute.

In the hurriedly arranged meeting with the CEO, Matt listens carefully. His big processor whirs into action. He can see several alternatives but they all involve difficult trade-offs. There’s no way around that.

It doesn’t take long for Matt to decide on the best course of action – or maybe the least worst course of action. Matt knows that what’s being asked of him will irritate several of his colleagues. Before launching into action, he checks back in with his boss.

“Here’s what I think we need to do,” he says, jumping to a whiteboard. “It’s going to piss some people off but I think it’s the best way to get the result you’re asking for.” His boss listens and gives him that look that says, “Do what you have to do.”

Matt is tempted to leap into the fray. Instead, he makes a quick mental list of the top three colleagues who will likely be affected by his plan. He shoots off a few texts, asking for an impromptu one on one meeting with each.

His first meeting is with Atul. Matt lays out what he can of the situation. Then he quickly comes to the point. “If I’m in your shoes, this plan is going to suck a little because your team is going to feel like we’re yanking them around. Can you think of any better way to do this?”

They talk for a while, each asking the other questions. Matt tries hard to listen, to slow his mind down for these crucial five minutes, to unplug the part of his mind that says, “I have all of the answers already.”

Unconsciously aware that he’ll be replaying this meeting the next morning in his little black book, Matt observes Atul carefully, almost as an independent third party in the room. He notices small facial expressions that he would have missed in the old days. This slower pace helps him remember that Atul’s mother is in the hospital, a detail he could easily have forgotten in the heat of the moment.

Finally, Atul pauses for a moment. He’s clearly not happy but he appreciates that Matt is taking the time to ask his opinion – and to acknowledge the situation is suboptimal – before moving forward.

“No. I don’t like it. But I can’t see a better way.” He pauses for a minute. “Can you at least tell my team why we’re making this change?”

“What I can tell them is that we need to change the mix of our marketing emphasis. I can’t really give them more detail than that. I think you know why. I’m really sorry.”

Atul gets it. It’s not his first day on the job. He nods his head. “OK. Let’s do the best we can. Just copy me on the email. And if you get big pushback, let me know before you drop the hammer.”

“Of course.” Before leaving, Matt shares how he’s planning to message his emails with Atul and gets a few pointers on how to position the information that will minimize the stir below them.

The rest of the meetings go pretty much the same way. No one is doing cartwheels. But they all appreciate that Matt looped them in and showed that he had thought about how this move would affect them and their teams.

Matt now moves into action. He writes his emails to the junior teams, taking the extra minute to read them over while imagining his colleagues seeing them. He makes a few adjustments and hits send.

Despite his hard work, Matt gets a few emails and texts back from team members questioning the move. He feels the irritation beginning to rise inside, especially given the fact that he had taken the step of talking with his peers. But he takes a deep breath and resists the urge to fire off a nasty-gram. In a couple of cases, he gets up from his desk and walks across the office to speak to those who were pushing back, trying to acknowledge their concerns while gently sticking to his guns.

At the end of the day, Matt drives home and thinks back on the day. He’s largely thankful – for the opportunities he has, for the relationships he’s built, even for the challenges he faces since he knows they’re pulling the best from him.

He makes a mental note to thank two people at work for little moves they made today toward working together and away from the normal dog-eat-dog approach. Yes, there are a few things he’d take back and one or two apologies to make tomorrow. But all in all, he sees progress in how he reacted to events beyond his control. He still got the plan in motion.

To be fair, Matt’s soul-centered approach has costs. He spent more time up front bringing his colleagues along. He invested time before that paying attention to his thoughts and reactions – and practicing the fine art of slowing down. These actions made small differences in this one day. But this is the long game he’s playing, at work and with his soul. Many small steps in the right direction gets you up the mountain.

The next morning, he’ll start the day in his living room with his little black notebook. He’ll have good things to write down. He’ll refocus for that day.

Step back from those two scenarios and look at what choosing Option 2 will mean for Matt. His relationships at work will be less guarded and more straightforward. He’ll spend less time calculating and playing the angles and more time getting work done. He’ll have more relational credibility in the bank for the day when he has to ask for a favor, something we’re all bound to need eventually. He’ll more easily see someone like Atul as a real human being with understandable human issues. When he realizes that part of Atul’s reaction may be caused by a personal issue like his mother being the hospital, Matt won’t feel like so much of a jerk. In a counterintuitive way, Matt will end up being more efficient in the long run even if there are moments where a slower approach will frustrate him.

The benefit doesn’t stop there. Using work as a laboratory for the soul almost always translates to the rest of life. Matt’s family will benefit from the exercise he’s giving to his muscles of observation, empathy, and humility. He’ll be able to tell his wife and kids that he’s wrong without gritting his teeth so much.

And of course, Matt will benefit in his relationship with himself. He’ll know deep down that he’s not just a tool for his bosses – what I call a Useful Asshole – to get dirty work done. He’ll know that he’s a secret agent of good in a world that needs an army of them. Maybe best of all, he’ll begin to become forgetful of himself and experience the joy of focusing on others. He’ll take that mission very seriously while not taking himself seriously at all.

I could end there, but I want to make sure you don’t miss something very important. Option 2 is not about more clever techniques to get others to do what you want, or methods for being popular at work. Yes, you probably will be more productive and your relational stock will likely rise.

But Option 2 is fundamentally about seeing work as one of the greatest opportunities for inner transformation any of us ever has, as a laboratory for the soul. Treat work with that kind of reverence and it’s hard for things to turn out wrong.

Be Bright.

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Is Your Team a Momentum-Maker or Momentum-Killer?

By: On September 18, 2017

Ben has a problem. He just took over the leadership of a company that until recently had been on a bad losing streak. Two years ago, the board brought in a turnaround artist who used a combination of hard work and brute force to arrest the decline.  As a result, a large portion of the current leadership team is new to the company. The good news is that they think of themselves as a collection of winners, pulled together with various experience to reverse their company’s fortunes. You can feel it in the nervous tension in the group. The bad news is that they aren’t winning as often as they should.

Ben thinks through what to do in his first few months as CEO. He knows his team members want to get moving, to get things done, to create results. Their instinct is to do something. Ben knows the typical tools used to get an organization rolling; restructuring, incentives, public floggings, optimistic road shows. He’s skeptical that these moves will work here. He’s no rookie. He’s seen what happens when you try to manipulate an organization. Smart people check out or become completely self-focused just when you need them to care about customers, the company, and most important each other.

While there are structural issues to address, Ben’s gut tells him that he needs to get his team together and do something, but it’s something that they’re going to hate: work on how they interact as a team. Without this, they can restructure all they want but the magic still won’t be there. He can imagine the thought bubble above the heads of many team members: “A kumbaya session? What does any of this have to do with getting results for our company?” He gets it. It’s a thought he remembers having at points in his career too.

From hard experience, Ben knows that there is often a strong connection between how his team works and the results they’re going to get. When his past teams were able to work through challenges without having it get personal, they could tear apart a miss in the last quarter’s numbers without damaging drama. When those past teams carried relational baggage, even deciding where to hold the next year’s sales meeting got sporty. Forget about dealing with the really tough issues that drive performance. You could almost feel the wind come out of those organizations’ sails.

Ben knows a secret that many leaders don’t grasp:  Leadership teams are responsible for managing one of the most elusive commodities in the world: momentum.

Momentum is the degree to which your people sense progress, excitement, and confidence in what’s happening. You know you have momentum when people are going the extra mile for each other, watching each other’s backs, and resiliently handling setbacks. You know it’s missing when everyone is looking out for themselves and maybe looking for a job in their spare time.

Momentum is either working for you or it’s working against you. If it’s working against you, you probably feel like you’re running in quicksand while banging your head against the wall. Which is a lot of fun if you’re into that kind of thing.

Sure, you can fake momentum. That’s called hype. It works for little while but it’s not sustainable. Once exposed, hype gives your credibility – and the company’s – a mortal wound, after which you will need to brush up your resume because the ship will likely sink.

Here’s how leadership teams – and how they work together (or don’t) – affect organizational momentum. This explanation builds on thinking from Mike Blansfield via Marvin Weisbord who first articulated these observations. Hats off to my colleague Mark Demel for making the ideas visual.

 

Like many things in life, momentum works in a self-reinforcing cycle.

  1. In an organization that’s stuck in neutral or going backward, the trigger event for another trip through the cycle is usually some sort of result. Usually it’s a crappy result. Profits are down, quality is poor, maybe a video of a customer being dragged out of your place of business after losing teeth at the hands of your staff goes viral. You get the picture.
  2. This trigger forces you to examine how things are getting done, or perhaps not getting done. As a leadership team, you need to look at plans, systems, processes, policies, structures or people. Probably a little bit of all of that. You’re on the hunt for the real issue.  In itself, this is not bad. In fact, a really good team does this well and gets to the root of the issue as quickly and deeply as possible resulting in useful course corrections. But pity the leader whose team has poo-poo’d the human stuff. Because right now, at this moment of trying to optimize or fix the business, that willful ignorance will be exposed.  Just try searching for ways to fix a business – especially one in any sort of crisis – when there isn’t a solid level of trust, openness, and shared understanding. Get ready for some totally awesome Leadership Team Theater as team members posture, attack, defend, and hide. You’ll be able to hand out Emmy awards but the problems will be obscured behind the drama.
  3. That’s because every team member is constantly asking a few questions about their participation in their leadership team. Yes, that includes your leadership team.
    • Am I in or out around here?–  Do people accept me and include me? Do I have to watch my back or do they have my back?
    • How are power and control handled here? – Team members often loathe the fact that they aren’t in total control when in a team, especially leadership team members who often crave control of their own destinies. The real question is who wields power and do I have any influence over what happens here?
    • How are skills and resources handled? – Everyone wants to make a contribution. At least everyone who deserves to be on your team. They wonder whether they’ll be given the resources so that they’re able to make their best contribution. If not, talented team members want to take their skills elsewhere.
  4. When leadership team members can’t answer those questions positively, cue the Leadership Team Theater. Your fundamental business problems will go unsolved. Maybe there will be a cosmetic fix, but nothing that’s going to reverse the momentum in any long-term way.

That cycle of failure leaves team members – and the rest of your organization – deflated. They’re less confident in the ability of the group to make good things happen. They’re less confident in their own ability to influence the group to make good things happen. Momentum sags.

But flip that story around.

  1. Imagine a leadership team that invests in the human side of their work together. Ideally, they’ll do this before they’re under the gun although there’s nothing like a crisis to focus the mind. Imagine they work hard to answer the perpetual team questions positively so that each team member can say:
    • I’m in. People value me and my contribution.
    • I can influence things around here.
    • I can make a contribution here. I have the resources to do my best work.
  2. They can address the fundamental drivers of the business with gusto. Trust, openness, and a common understanding of where we’re going – and why it matters – are going to reign. No, team members do not have to be best friends. But they buy into the team’s core purpose and their place in it.
  3. Do that long enough and deep enough and results start to improve.
  4. Pretty soon, the team has a growing confidence in the collective and in their own individual abilities to get stuff done.

That team is going to have some serious momentum. That team is going to leave its positive mark on the world. Ben wants that team and I’ll bet all of us want to be on that team.

What’s the next step you can take to build momentum on your team?

Be Bright.

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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.

Hazard

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.

Listening

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.

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