Thursday, December 30, 2010

Don't make a resolution until you read this

It's almost time to say goodbye to this year and turn the page to a fresh start in the next.  Feeling frisky about the possibilities for the coming year?  Ready to repent of all of your bad habits?  Are you poised with pen in hand, ready to write your New Year's Resolutions?  Don't do it.  You're probably setting yourself up for failure.

"Wow, Julie, that's rather dark!" you might be thinking.  It might sound atypical coming from me, a person who is convinced that a lot of life is the result of choice.  I believe that people can change and improve, and that they sometimes don't stretch themselves far enough.  But why this apparent pessimism about something as harmless as New Year's Resolutions?

I have two reasons for viewing resolutions with a jaundiced eye:
  1. The are often constructed around something that you think you SHOULD do, not something that you WANT to do.
  2. They are spouted off casually, without a plan for how to do them.
Yes, some of my more skeptical clients over the years have teased me about how I probably write a goal plan to go to the ladies' room.  No, I don't (happy to clear that up.)  But there is a reason why change intentions are winding up in the form of New Year's resolutions, in a last-ditch effort to do something differently.

Consider one of the potential topics around which you're thinking about making a New Year's resolution.  Now answer this question:  why haven't you done it already?  Most of the time the answers fall into a few general categories:
  • I ran into an unexpected obstacle the last time, and that stopped me.
  • I didn't have time.
  • I wanted to do something else more than I wanted to do that.
  • It was no big deal, so I bailed.
Your resolution might have the potential to become a full-fledged goal if it's important enough to you.  So why not think it through?  Why do you want to do it?  What happens if you don't?  Who and what will be impacted either way?  These "whys" are important to consider because they create the emotional tie-in that will keep you on track if you choose to commit to this idea.

What, specifically, is it that you want to resolve to do? Have you defined it well enough that you know what you're asking of yourself? If you are one of the millions of people who vow to "get in shape" next year, what do you mean by that? A sphere is a shape. A pear is a shape, too. You need to construct your resolution in a way that will enable you to know whether you accomplished it. Inches in fitness, times or percentages in sports performance, numbers of meals per week with all family members around the table - these are all measurable.

When you aren't specific it is much more difficult to identify the obstacles that you will need to conquer.  So let's assume that you have constructed a resolution that is specific and measurable.  If you really want to achieve it, then think now about the known and potential hurdles you'll have to overcome in order to get there.  Figure out what you will do to go around, over, under, or through them.  You might even be able to take pre-emptive action so that the obstacles will never pop up.

Oh, and one more thing - if your resolution feels like a big bite to swallow, divide it up into smaller tasks, milestones, or target dates.  You aren't going to pull off a whole-life overhaul between January 1 and February 28th - or if you do please write to me, because I'd love to showcase your accomplishment.  In most cases "get more organized" (this is not specific) can become specific through steps like "starting January 3, end each day by clearing off my desk," or "move my photographs from last year onto an external drive by February 10th."  Death by 1,000 cuts, as they say in the Kaizen world, is how you can transform your work and personal processes.  Take a bunch of small steps that collectively can bring big improvements.

Your resolutions need not be tied to the beginning of the new year.  Don't allow yourself to be pressured into casting a resolution lightly.  When you resolve, you are making a commitment to yourself, and if you are not really committed and don't follow through, you will be eroding a chip off of your self-image.  On the other hand, you don't have to wait until January 1st to begin to walk a new and better path.  If you want your life to be different, there is no better time than right now - whatever the date - to start creating it.

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

When it all catches up...

This was not an easy morning for the high-schooler to get out of bed for morning swim practice, despite the fact that it was a full hour-and-a-half later start time than the usual morning practice on a school day.  My daughter did as many teens do over school break - stay up exceedingly late at a sleep-over - and this morning she's paying for it.  The lack of sleep is catching up with her.

I understand it fully.  I've never been much of a late night person, but I remember being her age and being involved in so many activities that I would run myself down.  Ultimately I would wind up with a wicked cold or some other bug that required me to lay in bed for a day.  Today - MANY years later - I work to keep a balance of sorts, to make sure I maintain my capacity to produce, but I still find myself feeling enthusiastic enough about opportunities to take on another "one more thing" until I'm crying-tired and have to sit down.

"Pay me now or pay me later."  Ultimately the payment comes due.  But this isn't only about activity levels and taking on too much.

A college student I know was famous for her Facebook quips about how hung over she was after a week of partying.  She would write in colorful detail about other not-so-savory activities in which she engaged over the weekends, even while studying for finals.  Despite cautions from older relatives that she probably was creating a less than attractive image for herself online, she persisted in sharing her life in juicy and profanity-laced detail.  Her payment came due when she was turned down for an important internship because the sponsoring company checked out her Facebook posts and found her unsuitable. 

What was worse for her was that selected interns were able to acquire some credentialing that is now showing itself as a critical competitive edge in post-college job hunting.  Because she was not credentialed during an internship she will cost her future employer tens of thousands of dollars if she is to acquire the necessary credentials once she is hired.  Her intern peers, meanwhile, are fielding job offers left and right.  Her online disclosure habit has done more than catch up with her - the consequences continue to roll forward.

There are so many examples of how you can create the circumstances under which things catch up with you...
  • "Just one more cookie" turns into a five-pound holiday gain.
  • No savings plan becomes a retirement with limited resources.
  • Putting off doing laundry evolves into no clean socks.
  • Accumulated piles of paperwork on the desk turn into missed deadlines, or an uneasy feeling about work left undone.
  • No practice means a bad music lesson follows.
  • Overboard holiday spending on credit morphs into big monthly payments.
  • And of course the list goes on...
Just like your credit cards accumulate interest charges, many of these consequences grow larger as time goes by.  The longer you wait, the more you pay. 

What is bothering you and creating stress for you?  Is there something you can do, just a little piece right now, to catch it before it catches you?  Finish the last bit of that report and ship it.  Pick up your jacket and hang it up.  Do the dishes.  Call your mother.  The little choices you make right now are contributing to the future that you will experience later.

Thursday, December 23, 2010

One of the best gifts ever

Originally uploaded by gserafini
Some people seem to have the knack for selecting the perfect gift.  They seem to have an intuition about exactly what the recipient would like to receive, and they hit it right with an incredible consistency.

One of the best gifts ever doesn't require that talent.  It doesn't require money or a gift card.  If you listen carefully you won't even have to ask for suggestions.  The person you are going to give it to has probably already told you exactly what will please them most.  All you have to do is follow through on it.

One of the best gifts ever isn't limited to Christmas, or Hannukah, or birthdays - it is appropriate 365 days per year.  You can be young or old, boss or worker bee, husband or wife, friend or foe, neighbor or stranger and still be able to give it successfully.

One of the best gifts ever is a change in your behavior - just because it would make the other person happy.  Perhaps your significant other really would prefer it if you hang your coat up as soon as you walk in the door.  Why not do it?  Perhaps your boss likes it best when you use Times New Roman rather than Arial font on your reports.  So do it, even though you like Arial better.

We live in an era where sometimes it seems the theme song in the background is "My Way."  We are concerned about freedom and autonomy.  Those of us in the U.S. have grown up with a whole history of role models who said, "No taxation without representation!" and "Don't tread on me!"  One of our founding documents is our Declaration of Independence.  We take independence seriously.

As a human, however, you are not fully independent.  You are interdependent - connected to family, friends, co-workers, neighbors and fellow citizens.  You rely on other people and they rely on you.  You often need one another, you need to work together to accomplish many of your life's tasks.  It isn't all about you.

If you think it is all about you, look around.  You will discover that the people who love you, and even some who don't, are giving you that gift of behavior change every day.  They haven't asked you to reciprocate, or maybe they have, but right now you might be sitting on the heavy side of a one-sided deal.  This imbalance is only sustainable for a while.  Eventually the balance is restored when your unreciprocated connections start to fall away.

You can start a cycle of generosity, accommodation, respect and caring when you are willing to give the first gift.  They might not notice it at first, especially if they are used to something else from you.  They might not give it back to you, at least not right now.  But the gift of changed behavior (your own) can change your life.  You can choose to be the one to make the first gesture of maturity, of generosity of spirit.  And when you do so, an upward spiral of relationship begins.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Being specific about what you want

'Tis the season for kids to ask Santa, parents and relatives for the goodies they would like to receive.  Some of the lists I have seen have included sizes, colors, styles, even the stores where they can be found or the exact page where it can be found in the Toys R Us catalog.  When the wishes aren't too extreme for the pocketbook or for the capacity of the elves, the kids who are specific in their requests are likely to see them filled on Christmas morning.  It's far easier to meet expectations when they have been defined in exact terms for you - better yet when they are recorded in black and white (or in electrons as the case may be.)

Performance management and being specific
I overheard a manager provide this feedback one time:  "You have a crummy attitude.  I need you to straighten up and stop being so negative all of the time!"  Whoa.   There are several things wrong with this picture:
  • What does "You have a crummy attitude" mean?  Describe it in behavioral terms.  Does the person avoid making eye contact with others?  Are they interrupting other people?  Do they not share their lunch?  Are they coming in late and leaving early from the office?  Unless and until this manager describes the offending behavior in specific terms it is unlikely to change.  All that will have been accomplished by this interaction is an erosion of the manager-employee relationship, accompanied by a side dish of more "crummy attitude."
  • If you don't want that, what DO you want?  What does it mean to stop being negative?  What is this person supposed to do instead?  Does the manager expect them to enter the office in the morning skipping, carrying a basket of flowers and singing "Tra la, tra la!"?  Telling a person "don't" or "never" is like turning off a television set - it does not define the picture that you want to see. 
If you want to see a certain behavior, say so out loud to the person from whom you want to see it.  If it is important, write it down and make sure that both of you understand what it means.  It should define how you want the person to move their hands and feet.

Being specific in goal planning
Many a youth says that they plan to become "rich and famous" - at least that's what I heard as each member of the Homecoming Court was being introduced at my alma mater's football halftime this fall.  So how rich is rich?  Is it a certain annual income level?  Is it a certain number of dollars in the bank, or are you rich if you own two vacation properties in addition to your house?  In your definition does it matter whether or not the two vacation properties are mortgaged up to the gills in order for you to buy them?

It is only possible to create a coherent and effective plan of action when you know exactly what you want.  Take this business example:  "Sell $500,000 in services next year."  Although this goal is specific in dollar terms, your plan will be better when you get even more detailed.  You also need to know what services you plan to sell, and to whom you plan to sell them.  It is only then that you can answer questions like, "If we want to sell to left-handed women executive directors of professional and trade associations, where will we find them?"  Where they are matters.  In addition, your defined left-handed prospects might have different service needs than do right-handed ones.  You get my drift here. 

Specificity and attraction
The law of attraction says, in effect, "When you believe it, then you'll see it."  When you get really specific you create a mental picture that is vivid and engaging.  You unleash your ability to notice opportunities, even in a cluttered background, because you have a clear idea of what you're looking for.  In addition, you can better help other people bring things to you by sharing your intentions with them.  It is far easier to attract referrals when, rather than asking, "Do you know anyone who needs life insurance?" you can ask something like, "I'm trying to meet the younger generation of leaders in family owned businesses, to help them make sure that their business can stay in the family for the future."

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Why women leaders are important to me - the back story

My girls and me
I always wanted to have it all – to be the devoted mother who was also a successful business person. I wanted to find my own way, my own path. That’s part of the reason why I started Summit – to create my own path, and to help other people create their own as well.

The business came first in the sequence for me. We (my husband and I) had just passed Summit’s fifth anniversary and I was seeing the approach of age 40 quite vividly. I wasn’t willing to go through life without children and I knew that the conventional path to parenthood a) was likely not to be successful given my medical history, and b)a consumption of economic resources with an unknown outcome while there are already children in the world who need parents.

One day while reading the newspaper with this in the back of my mind, I saw an ad for adoptions of baby girls from China – and I knew in an instant that it was what I needed to do. I developed three goal plans – one for completing the one-inch-high stack of necessary paperwork, one for accumulating the financial resources to do it, and one for the process of converting my then-office to a nursery.

You should know this about me, something I discovered, or rediscovered, during the adoption process: if I have a goal in front of me that I feel passionate about, you had better stand back, because I’m going for it. Some of my friends didn’t understand why I wouldn’t work harder to have “children of my own,” and they didn’t comprehend why I would go to the other side of the world to adopt somebody who didn’t look like me. I met the older of my two daughters on Veteran’s Day, 1996, and in 2005 we did it again.

My girls are fully my own, and they are so like me in some ways that it’s scary. It’s either a testament to a divine plan that matched us with them or a wonderful example of the power of nurture. I am so happy to have the opportunity to parent girls, and especially these two girls who, if they weren’t with me and my husband, would likely be facing far more limited futures. Instead of dealing with government restrictions and the one-child rule, perhaps even forced sterilization and de facto servitude in the country of their birth, they are going to have the opportunity to find their own path like I have found mine.

Theirs might not be the same one that I would choose - the one I have chosen is different from my mother’s. But I believe that women have incredible resources, many of which still live in the state of untapped potential. I want to help women create the lives that fulfill them intellectually, spiritually, emotionally, and economically.

A woman leader has a huge number of roles from which she has to choose.  Some she balances - whatever that means - some she chooses to postpone or to move forward or to sacrifice for the sake of something else.  If I could do so, I would wish for every woman to choose her path rather than to fall into one by force of momentum, or to settle for the one that somebody deigns to give her.  Then when she finds it (and there may be more than one over time,) I want to see her grow in it, relish it, and contribute fully through it.  That's why I'm here.

Monday, December 20, 2010

The Value of Intergenerational Relationships

Grammy and Allison stir the stones at Bear Wallow Pond
I suppose that I might be a throwback to an earlier era in that I live only a 20-minute drive away from my parents' house.  The bulk of my aunts and uncles live in the same town that we do, and although we don't see them on the same weekly basis that we used to, we still come together almost once per month to celebrate holidays and birthdays.

A number of my friends are beginning their pilgrimages to distant children's homes for the holidays, excited about the chance to watch their grandchildren open presents on Christmas morning.  They have told me that it is tremendously hard for them to be so far away from their offspring's offspring.  They want to be there for all of the developmental milestones, and for the small moments that happen while reading a book, studying a leaf, or playing a board game.  They feel tremendous joy and love when they hold their grandchild's chubby little hand, or when they peek in to see the whirling dervish child sleeping with a deceptively angelic expression on his or her face.

The grandparent role, and the grandparent benefits
I know these by story, not by personal experience yet - and if my high-schooler is reading this, I don't want personal experience for another ten years or so! 
  • You can afford to be generous.  You often have greater financial resources than your children, who are earlier in their careers and the acquisition of their assets.  So you can sometimes spring for the frivolous toy or lunch out.
  • You can afford to be tolerant.  Although you are a huge influence, you have seen enough of the world to know that your grandchild isn't showing signs of a future career as an axe-murderer just because they "washed the car" with steel wool.  And yes, for many of you, your children are the ones who are primarily responsible for the teaching of ethics, table manners, etc.  It's great to back your children up in their efforts to nurture properly, but you can be the moderating voice (or the shelter in the storm) when things get too intense between your child and their child.
  • You can hand them back.  While they are usually fabulous and funny and energizing to be around, children aren't always sunshine and roses.  You can be there for the fun, and then go home to rest.
  • You see the impact of your parenting.  You can hear the very songs and stories you said to your son or daughter being said to your grandbaby.  You see the values that were important to you being transferred to the next generation.  You observe the gentleness with which your child relates with their child, and you feel reassured to know that they learned it from you.
  • You see the future.  There is something hopeful in knowing that your grandchildren might very well see the opening of the next century.  They might cure a disease, or lead a community, or develop a patent, or grow the next branch on your family tree.  You have created potential by starting the process that created them.
You might not have grandchildren, or children either.  You might not be able to talk to your own grandparents right now, and your aunts or uncles might be nowhere nearby.  But you don't have to be a grandparent to fulfill the role of one for somebody who needs that connection. 

The grandchild's role, and the grandchild's benefits
It's fascinating being the generation in the middle and watching my kids with my parents.  I see my mom and dad perk up when the girls are around, even when I know that they'll have to sit down and take a nap later to recuperate.  And my daughters, especially the 7-year-old, feel out of sorts if they haven't been to Grammy and Papaw's house for a while.

Yes, we were younger then, but here we are

  • Grace and acceptance for who you are- You, the grandchild, have the opportunity to hang out with someone who isn't always going to correct your table manners.  Your grandparent is likely to celebrate your best qualities and ignore your less attractive ones.
  • Wisdom and perspective - Your grandparents have been there, and many of them made it through far worse times and circumstances than you will ever have to handle.  Today's trials are rarely permanent in their implications, and your grandparents can help you remember that.
  • Skills and interests - My grandfather was instrumental in teaching us how to fish.  Yes, Dad took us too, but there was something different and extra-special about having the old salt show us his favorite fishing holes in the Loyalsock Creek.  One grandmother taught me (or maybe I inherited it) a love for needlework and crafts, and the other instilled an enjoyment of baking.
  • Fans - Grandparents show up for sports events, for concerts, for preschool pageants.  They are there to cheer you on.  They clip articles about you from the newspaper and hang them on their refrigerator for all to see.  They have no need for the modesty that keeps parents from bragging - their grandkids are the brightest, the most talented, the best-looking on the planet.
  • Candor - Sometimes you can't tell your mom or dad what's going on, because you're not sure that they'll be able to listen without taking action of some sort.  But your grandparent can listen, and give you advice without jumping into a lecturette or e-mailing an offender to stand on your behalf. 
I hope that you have the opportunity to be a grandparent, or that you have the privilege of having one, or memories of one.  Everyone benefits, and the connection is one that you have to choose to nurture.

Friday, December 17, 2010

Knocking the stress out of your holidays

This is the reknowned "weekend before Christmas," when teeth are on edge and the shoppers beside you tend to grow sharp elbows as they nudge you out of the way to snag the best remaining deals.  So much still to do to make the postcard version of Christmas for your family - shopping, wrapping, decorating, cooking, entertaining...  And don't forget the others - the teachers, the coaches, the bus drivers, the cleaning ladies, the doorman - who are relying on YOU to make their holiday Christmas-card perfect.

Chill already!  Take a deep breath.  It is very likely that you have added unnecessary tasks to your list because of all of the accumulated holiday expectations you're carrying with you.  We all have them.  But the way in which you handle Christmas is just like anything else - it's a choice. 

Because they don’t happen every day holidays tend to sustain distinct memories in your mind. Over the years you start to forget the minor occurrences and only recall the overall mood, or only the highlights.  You don't remember the hassles (chances are that somebody else made the details and the workload invisible to you.)  It's easy to start to idealize the holidays, and retailers are only too happy to add to the growing expectations you have for yourself.  It's how they make money, after all!

I can still recall the image of the trunk of Dad’s Oldsmobile stuffed with packages we’d routinely bring home from my grandmother’s house on Christmas Eve when I was a kid. I remember my grandfather carving the perfectly browned turkey, willing to sneak a taste of the crispy skin for any kid that hung around nearby. And in my family EVERY special occasion revolved (and still does) around food: homemade pies, fluffy mashed potatoes, sugary glazed sweet potatoes – about 5 side dishes for each of the 15 or so people around the dinner table. Holidays as done by Grandma became my benchmark - my expectation to live up to.

But Grandma stayed at home all day. She didn’t have a driver’s license, so she didn’t even consume time running around. Cooking was her daily “thing,” her way of summoning her artistic skills and her way of expressing love, and providing security. So on big days she loved to go all out. I, on the other hand, am focused on work or running kids all day, and even if I had the inclination I wouldn’t begin to have the time to do what Grandma did. But still I feel those expectations for a special day. It can add up to a headache or an acidic stomach if I don’t watch it. And I know I’m not alone in this.

Here are a few ideas I've tried, and some that I plan to try.   Perhaps they will help you if you want to keep holiday stress at bay, and to achieve the feeling of the holidays for your kids without totally losing it yourself:

•Get the heck out of Dodge. Go out of town for the holidays and let your siblings worry about feeding you.

•Plan a potluck meal, but only invite people whose cooking skills meet muster. (Of course I'm kidding about the cooking skills. It’s about good company.) That way you only have to deal with making a couple of items and having a table ready.

•Decide what’s most important and do that. Don’t try to do everything your parents or grandparents did. Cook, or decorate, or go Christmas caroling, or do homemade gifts, or do a holiday open house. But you don’t have to do it all.

•Share your holidays by volunteering. A church or shelter nearby is serving holiday dinner for anyone who doesn’t have enough food or nobody to eat with. Choosing to serve turkey and stuffing for the less fortunate – now that’s the spirit of giving.

•Get take-out. I don’t mean you have to have Chinese or pizza. You can get a turkey or a spiral-cut ham already made – just keep it warm and add side dishes. You can even buy those pre-made if you want to.

•Save on money and time shopping for gifts by drawing names. This is really helpful in large families who otherwise would have huge lists of people to think about. Even if you are among the fortunate who still have a good job with good pay, why should January and February be stressful because of the credit card bills you racked up in November and December?

•Enlist your family to help. My 14-year-old has become quite the gift wrapper because I’ve had her working on them for the past 5-6 years. When she was learning how to fold the paper and tape it the contents of the packages were especially tough to guess. (I must admit that I use a lot more paper and tape when she’s wrapping, but who cares?)

•Build in some downtime, and hold yourself to it. Just stop, sit down for a while and watch a football game, or read a book, or talk and sip a glass of wine with your spouse after the kids go to bed. Even if the rest of your schedule is crazed you can keep yourself from flipping out over something minor if you’ve had some recuperation time.

•Last, but most important – remember the reason for the season and place your focus on that. Christmas isn’t about showing off your culinary skills or your prosperity as a business giant. It’s about giving and connection. Christmas isn’t about supporting the national economy by depleting the inventory at Toys ‘R Us, it’s about the birth of Christ. Lighten up already.

Even if your holiday memories aren’t particularly pleasant you have the opportunity to create new ones that will be happier. But be there – not as the whirling dervish who doesn’t have time to read a book to the preschooler – but as the dad, or the mom, who is the role model for holidays to come.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Anatomy of a Disagreement

I was in a meeting last night that finished with emotions high - and not in the "we're in this together, friends for life" kind of way.  Ok, ok - I was one of the people in the room in an emotionally elevated state.  I'm a coach, not a saint, and the issue being discussed was extremely important to me.  I went to the meeting thinking that the group was about to make a big mistake, and I didn't want them to proceed.  I thought - and still do - that if they do what they say they are going to do, they are going to reap negative consequences for the foreseeable future.  I went to take a shot at convincing them to change direction.

As I was thinking of this "discussion" on the way home and in my dreams, even waking up thinking about it this morning, I replayed and dissected it.  I know that I went in to say my piece, and listening was on my agenda primarily to determine when to speak and how vigorously I needed to do so.  I can say to you without being disingenuous that I was looking for an alternative path for the group to take - not only to say that I didn't think the current one was right.  I use the term right intentionally - because in my view the situation at hand was a matter of values that collided with mine, and I perceived that I was not alone in the room.

So why did I, someone not usually part of this group, show up to say my piece?  In my view, there are situations in which the greatest manifestation of loyalty is vigorous protest.  I was taking a risk that I would not be heard, and I was gambling that other people around the table would misperceive that my intention was to attack, not to help.

I looked at Graham's Hierarchy of Disagreement this morning, trying to see at what level the discussion revolved.  Most of the interaction revolved around counterargument and refutation (near the top of the pyramid, and more valid disagreement.) What took things downhill was when my assertion, and related ones by people who agreed with me, were contradicted without evidence, or with faulty evidence.  Our protests hit a brick wall, our words bouncing off of it like so many sand fleas.

As emotions heightened, one party characterized my actions and those of others in the room as "You have been picking on me for two months!"  The person was responding to their perceptions of the tone, and certainly to the persistence, of the resistance they were receiving from several parties there.   As we went back and forth without making headway, there was a point at which I stated my own assessment of the situation out loud, saying, "I hear the sound of a speeding locomotive, and I don't like it."  Perhaps that could be construed as name calling, but I was talking about the decision process, not about the person.  At least I think that's the case - I was getting pretty agitated.

Would I do a rewind of my participation in that meeting?  I don't think so.  Was it my shining moment?  I think it depends upon your point of view in the situation at hand.  There were people that I was defending, and I am glad that I went to the mat for them.  Could I have disagreed with this person in a less public setting?  Perhaps, but it was my belief - and still is - that my concerns would be unacknowledged and undocumented doing it in that way.

I know I was not the only one in this group sharing the same view.   This was not a matter of one person trying to change the direction of the boat, although in cases of right and wrong I believe that being in the minority doesn't mean you should stand down and be quiet.   Once I said my piece in that meeting - a few times in different ways - likeminded people started to emerge from the crowd, willing to speak out in the same vein that I did.

I don't know yet whether my sticking my neck out and risking making some enemies will change anything.  At this point the outcome of the situation is out of my hands.  But even if the wrong decision is made, and the consequences start rolling in - I'll know in my heart of hearts that I did everything I could to prevent it.  In my view, that's a worthwhile disagreement to be having.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Can you hike a demanding trail with no leader?

Can you hike with no leader?  Perhaps, if you are all walking side by side on a trail that accommodates your entire party - but then you would all be the leader, wouldn't you?  How would you determine your direction?  Who would determine the best time for a break, or the best place to make camp if you are camping overnight?  Whose job is it to know the details of the terrain, the hazards that are seen or unseen, and who has the backup plan in case of emergency - bad weather or injury?

If you are on easy terrain, your whole party is healthy and your trail isn't too long, it doesn't matter who leads.  Any one of your party, even a child perhaps, could lead.  If, however, the trail is demanding, fraught with heavy physical demands and requiring technical, even survival, expertise - the hike requires an expert to lead it.   Even a world-class athlete like Martina Navratilova, recently in the news because of an aborted attempt to climb Mt. Kilimanjaro, can suffer from the serious health side effects associated with severe altitude.

Rough terrain and crisis situations call for a leader that is decisive and knowledgeable, and that is credible with the people he or she leads.  There might not be time for discussion or consensus.  The risk might be too high for the group to try something untested.  At the same time the effective leader in the high-stakes situation understands that the emotional state of the team may be one of the factors that he or she needs to manage. 

Sometimes the decision is so critical that every hiker has to be on board in order to make forward progress.  A weaker member of the team might be fearful about jumping over a deep crack in the ice.  The leader pays attention to those reservations, and seeks to find the way through it with each team member, but ultimately has to consider the overall group as his or her primary charge.

You might be thinking, "What about the team building and consensus that you talk about all of the time?"  It is true that a leader has an easier time of obtaining commitment when all parties have an opportunity to weigh in.  So when possible it's a good idea to poll the group and generate input.  But ultimately the leader may have to be the one to make the call.  The members of the group often want the leader to make the call.  Yes, they might do a bit of Monday morning quarterbacking later, especially if the results don't pan out in the way that they expected them to do.  But you as the leader can't stand on a mountaintop in a blizzard indefinitely with your team without incurring collateral damage.  Make the call.

Perhaps you don't have a formally assigned leader on your team.  In these cases the informal leaders will rise to the surface, emerging because of charisma, age, experience, education, connections, strong personality, etc.  But sorting out informal leadership roles takes time.  While they are working out their pecking order your team can splinter into subgroups of the candidates' respective backers.  If the process goes on for too long the team can become more and more polarized and it will become icreasingly difficult to move forward in a unified manner.

If you don't have a formal leader it's important for your team to have decision criteria and a process by which to make the decisions you need to make.  Structure and process can get you through - for now.  But next time choose a leader.

Monday, December 13, 2010

Would you stop a bike thief? Which one?

Yesterday in Sunday School, where my husband and I are teaching middle-schoolers, we posed the question, "Do you think that racism still exists?"  A nice young man replied, "That was mostly in the 1930s and 40s, but it's not so much now."

My husband and I told him about a show we watched December 10th called "What Would You Do?" that took issue with his perspective.  Apparently, despite many popular perceptions, racism is alive and well. (And so is the idea that a damsel in distress, especially a cute one, should be rescued.)  This idea might come as no surprise to some of you - and if so, fair warning that the video will likely tick you off.  But for those of you that think equality in treatment by society is a foregone conclusion regardless of color or gender, this segment is a real wake-up call.

The premise is this:  actors are hired to display a scenario, and hidden cameras record the reactions and responses of passersby.  The idea is to verify whether or not people are willing to get themselves involved in order to resolve a particular moral dilemma.  The segment we watched involved three actors who were apparently trying to boost a bike that was chained to a post in a park.  One actor was white, one black, (dressed in identically styled hip-hop attire,) and the third was an attractive blonde woman.

You can click this link to view the segment on  My stomach churned watching the reactions to these three scenarios, but I won't go into too much detail lest I spoil the impact of the story for you.  Self-awareness is the first step to self-improvement, and I'd say based upon watching this, we all have some work to do.

Friday, December 10, 2010

Implications and the time element

Originally uploaded by wwarby
Causes lead to effects.  Behavior leads to results.  We all know that - well, most of us do - but sometimes it's easy to forget about the time element.  The behavior in which you engage today will create the results you see....when?  There's the rub.

I want it now!
How many times have you read advertisements for get-thin, get-rich, grow-hair quick schemes?  (I am certain that we'll see another swath of them after the post-holiday resolutions kick in.)  The sponsors of the weight loss ads know that it's hard to use self-discipline today in the surety (hope?) that it will result in a half-pound of reduced weight tomorrow or the next day or next week.  So you're unlikely to see a similar volume of slow-and-steady methodology.  You are lured in by a promise of the biggest result in the shortest amount of time, and with the least amount of effort.

Then there's the holiday shopping for you to consider.  "Don't worry, we'll finance it!"  Right now that sounds pretty good - there's a lot to be done in the next two weeks, and it certainly would be easier to take the deal and get the bigger TV set.  It's easier until the first bill comes, and the one after that.  Indulgence in which you engage right now won't fully show itself until a few weeks or months from now.

A number of my clients have done an exercise with me where they evaluated their "bad" habits within the frame of short-term versus long-term implications.  The vast majority of these people told me that their habits provided short-term rewards.   It was only in the longer-term that the downside implications appeared.  They found that if they set goals and used them to stay focused on the long-term it was easier for them to modify their right-now behavior to overcome the habit and improve results.

Thursday, December 9, 2010

Managing by microscope

What traits or characteristics helped you attain your leadership role?  Education?  Smarts?  Experience?  Endurance?  The right relatives?  (kidding!)  Uncompromisingly high standards for yourself and your behavior? 

Did the last of the traits listed above resonate with you?  If so, you might be a microscope manager.  One of the hazards of being hard on yourself is that you can tend to hold the same standards for others too, no matter how unrealistic they might be.  You are perpetually on alert for correctable flaws in yourself, and you peer into the microscope to see what other people (particularly the ones who report to you) are doing.  It is a force of habit to focus on what's wrong with the picture, and when you magnify anything you're likely to find a flaw sooner or later.

You might argue that your fault-detector behavior is driven by your pursuit of high quality.  You might be right in terms of intention, but wrong in what you identify as the cause of quality problems.  Sometimes the microscope manager forgets that quality is driven by process, not only by people.  Some of the most predominant quality gurus would tell you that the vast majority of errors (90-95%) are produced from faulty processes.  The people are doing their best operating in the flawed process - the one that management (you?) created for them.

If your staff only hears from you when something is wrong - and trust me, you'll find something wrong -  they are going to start avoiding you.  They are going to begin to edit what they tell you so you won't go off about something you perceive as a preventable (stupid) error.  Once they start editing out the bad news you're going to be operating in the dark.  Your own results are going to begin to suffer because you aren't receiving the information you need.

You could choose to remain on lookout, trolling the department to catch someone messing up, or to notice problems.  But if you choose to do that, who is doing your job while you're checking up on everyone who reports to you?  If you follow this strategy their productivity or quality isn't the only issue - now yours is an issue too.

I was reading a parenting article a while back that recommended that moms and dads turn a blind eye to their kids' transgressions from time to time.  The relationship is not enhanced when the parents are in perpetual enforcer role, and the kids need an occasional win.  (The article did go on to say that you don't ignore the things you see, rather that you don't watch them every second.) 

If you don't give them that grace your kids are likely to start seeing themselves as bad (which perpetuates bad behavior,) or they will start to live their lives in secret.  If you are a microscope parent you won't know what is going on with them, and when they become teens your ignorance will become downright dangerous as the ante is raised on high risk behavior.  In addition, your kids need to develop their autonomy and their own problem solving skills.  In the long run you don't benefit them if you ride in on your horse, knight's armor and all, to fix things for them all of the time.

The parenting recommendation transfers to management.  Your staff has to learn to work it out, to solve problems.  They can only do it if they aren't so afraid of you that they cover problems up.  Give them the space to learn.  Check in with them, have methods in place so you know what's happening and what results are being achieved, but keep your staff out from under your perpetual microscope, especially once they are fully trained and experienced.  It is appropriate to do closer oversight when an employee is new, or when you know there are serious performance deficiencies that must be corrected.  But people aren't perfect.  Not even you.

Every contributor in your department - and in your company as a whole - is a mixed bag of assets and liabilities.  They have talents and skills to bring to the table, and they also have emotional baggage and irritating habits.  Aim your microscope at their successes, at their positive qualities.  See just how big they can grow when you magnify them.  When you see more of them, you'll see more of them.  You will create an upward spiral of relationship and achievement.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

The first step in successful plan rollout

Still Broadcasting !!
Originally uploaded by Khalid AlHaqqan

A plan on paper is just that - a plan.  Nothing happens, nothing changes, nothing improves until action is taken on the plan.  Yet often strategic planning processes give short shrift to the critical step that turn the plan into focused action - communicating it to the people who are going to be needed to execute it.

The Execu-speak Plan
Your plan is a big deal.  It's going to determine your future direction.  It will guide decision making and the allocation of resources.  So it should sound like smart people wrote it, right?  With all of the $64 words they learned in MBA achool on display in convoluted compound sentences and multiple paragraphs of well-defined rationale, right?

Nope.  Think about the targeted audience for your plan.  If you want your staff to be fired up about your plan it needs to be written in a way that speaks to them.  I'm not recommending that you dumb it down; rather I'm recommending that you not clog it up with wandering generalities and weasel words.  The hearts and flowers might sound great to you, but if the point of the plan is to give direction, the direction needs to be clear, specific and unobscured by fluff.

If you intend to say "Take customers away from our #1 competitor XYZ Company," say so.  Don't say something like, "Intensify our efforts to provide unparalleled value in our target markets."  What in the heck does that mean?  Your staff won't know what you want them to do - at least not from reading the plan.

Who needs to know, anyway?
A communication or roll-out plan needs to be part of your planning process.  If you keep the plan as "super secret stuff" only accessible to your executive level you won't be able to enroll your staff in helping you get it done.  Sure, there might be some elements of the plan where tipping your hand beyond a very tight group might not be to your advantage.  Keep those to yourself.  But share as much as you can.

Give your middle managers a heads up before you communicate to the staff at large.  You are expecting them to support the plan, to use it as a context when they make work assignments and to defend it against any employee objections.  It's even better if you can provide an opportunity for them to have input into the plan creation itself, or at least into the steps to implement it in their respective areas.

Keeping it rolling forward
Your plan needs more than an effective kickoff.  It should be the subject of progress updates in your in-house communication, and it should be the umbrella for departmental, even individual, goals that are set.  It should be the context for success stories that are shared.  Your plan needs reinforcement, booster shots, and updating along the way as conditions and results evolve.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Can it make sense to arbitrarily switch sides?

A friend once described a neighbor of his as having a mind like concrete - all mixed up and permanently set.  It was funny to me and illustrative at the same time.  It's easy to get into a groove, a habitual perspective on things to the point that new information and opportunities pass by without notice if they are out of sync with your preconceived notions.

If you want to stay flexible in your thinking, build a positive relationship, or if it's important to manage risk by thinking thoroughly about a situation or problem, consider taking the contrarian point of view in discussion and try to support it. 

Relationship building
Here's a simple example just to demonstrate:  You play golf every Sunday morning.  This is becoming a problem because your spouse is complaining and you prefer to have a happy spouse.  Sunday golf is what you have been doing for 5 years, but because your wife is important to you, you ask yourself a question:  "Just for now, I'll pretend that I don't like my spouse going off to play golf every Sunday. What is it that I don't like about it?"

Make a list, and make your responses as comprehensive as possible.  In this case, you're taking on the opposite view because you are trying to understand the other person's perspective.  Once it is complete, test your list with the other person and see how close you were.  Your attempt to see their side of it will earn you some relationship points with them, even if you were incorrect about some of their objections.  Trust me, they will clarify them for you.  The point is that you are asking and trying to understand.  Next question is whether you will actually change your behavior to accommodate their concerns, but we're not covering that here today.

Slowing down the speeding locomotive
Another situation where it may be important to assign a devil's advocate role is where it seems as though a group is so much in agreement that they might be missing some crucial information.  Note that I said "assign" a devil's advocate role.  If you are leading the group and make the assignment you can forestall the perpetual naysayer from filling that role, sparing them a further reputation for being a negative Nellie.  In addition, the strategic assignment of a devil's advocate role can help you increase the flexibility in certain participants' thinking by forcing them to investigate an opposing view.

Creating a nonjudgmental tone
Sometimes it's best when you (the leader) stays completely out of evaluation mode.  I have seen this work particularly well with teens, taking a values-based subject and divide them into teams.  One team supports womens' reproductive choice, for instance, and the other opposes it.  You select the teams regardless of individuals' real views on the subject.  Once the teams have a chance to collaborate and strategize, they debate the topic and a "winner" is chosen.  The idea is to uncover the gray areas between perspectives, test commitment and the ability to persuade, and increase tolerance among differing value systems.

Monday, December 6, 2010

Living in limbo-land

walking between two large rocks,
at Purgatory Chasm state Reservation
Sutton Ma
Originally uploaded by Beth K.
"I'll let you know."  "I'll call you."  "We have to discuss it at committee."  "You'll only need to wait a while longer."  "Let me think about it."  If you have heard any of these, you know what it's like to live, if only for a while, in limbo-land.

Originally designated as a place on the border of heaven and hell in Roman Catholic theology, in this frame of reference I'm talking about limbo as the state that people are in when they are waiting for an answer, waiting for something to happen, waiting to be acted upon.  It might turn out well, or it might not, but for now they are between the proverbial rock and hard place.

Sometimes a temporary limbo state is part of the process.  Some decisions can't be made instantly - there is predetermined procedure to be navigated, and until the procedure is complete the person or persons on the other end are expected to be patient.  For instance, when a big loan request is made, it has to go to committee so that one person isn't placing a large amount of assets at risk on behalf of a financial institution.  In this committee situation the group has to become involved.

In other instances, though, it's not about due process.  Instead a decision isn't being made because there is fear of making a wrong one, or because the deciding party is waiting for the perfect information to arrive before they will make a determination.  What about the person on the other end of the transaction?  During all of the sturm und drang of the decider the other person is living in limbo-land.

This is one of those situations where the intention behind the deciders' behavior can be quite different than its impact.  The actions that result in someone being sent into limbo can (and in some cases should) be interpreted as:
  • Disrespectful
  • Interpersonally tone deaf
  • Callous
  • A gambit to acquire power by manipulating emotions
While a person is living in limbo-land it is quite common that they will feel depressed, and that their productivity will suffer.  They will invest emotional energy in trying to predict the decider's criteria for going one way versus another.  They will talk with their colleagues and friends, trying to get a bead on what's happening behind the scenes.  They will, in some cases, slow down or stop working until they find out whether or not they are wasting their time trying to produce results.

It's not fun for that other person to feel like they are living in limbo.  You don't like it when you are in that place - and neither do they.  At some point they will get tired of living there and they will make their own decision.  They will act, and it might not be the action that would be most beneficial to all parties. 

Limbo is often the result of bad news that the decider doesn't want to share.  But it's not fair to keep that other person hanging.  Better to rip off the Band-Aid and suffer a hurt that is painful but temporary, than to cause a chronic ache that lasts for days, weeks, or months.  Limbo-land wounds more than the victim - it hurts the people around them, and it hurts the credibility and the effectiveness of the late decider as well.

Friday, December 3, 2010

Feeling like you're watching reruns in your meeting?

Originally uploaded by Jetyuan

Does it feel like you're saying the same things over and over again?  One of the challenges in being a senior leader is that you have said it over and over.  And believe it or not, regardless of that one-too-many-Lucy-reruns feeling, you probably have not yet said it enough.

I remember watching the Fish! video a number of times while doing training for startup entrepreneurs.  It's a video about the famous Pike Place fish market in Seattle, where customer engagement is achieved by such antics as throwing fish to fill orders.  One of the employees of the fish market talked about how one of his personal challenges was staying engaged when asked the same question he has been asked 1,000 times before.  I'll paraphrase:  "I have to remember that the person that asked me that question doesn't even know the other person that asked the question a while ago.  They don't know that anyone else has asked me that question."

To the fish market staffer the question had devolved into a "stupid" question, only because it was asked so frequently that he somehow expected tribal knowledge to transfer the information to all of his customers - by osmosis, perhaps?  Much like the guys in the fish market, your audience is constantly changing.  Just because you communicated to your senior team doesn't mean that the next layer down has heard it, or the department in the next building.  Saying it once, twice, or even three times will likely not be enough to reach all of the people who need to know.

Beyond the audience issue, there's the issue of retention.  You might have heard the statistics before, but to recap:

After one repetition
  • Next day - 75% retention
  • 2nd day - 50% retention
  • 2 weeks later - 2% retention

After 5-6 repetitions in a spaced fashion (1x per day)
  • 65% or more retention for 15 years to life!
Even with the same audience you're going to need to repeat yourself, or repeat the message in some other way if you want it to stick, much the way you remember Christmas Carol lyrics or the silly jingles on TV commercials.  Yes, you might feel like you're trapped in an "I Love Lucy" rerun from time to time, but it's what you need to do if you want the message to sink in and stay there.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

New concept on creating your own career path

Even if you are one of the lucky people who has stable employment that compensates you at a rate that sustains you and your family and provides health insurance and retirement benefits, you are not in the most secure position if you are not taking charge of your own career progression.  Even the most well-intentioned employer has been challenged with eliminating "non-essential" expenses from their budget, and oftentimes the belt-tightening comes at the expense of employee development.

"We have virtually stopped our training and development," a CEO said to me recently.  "We know that we can't do this indefinitely, but we had to do it for a while."  Economic realities are economic realities, and this CEO knows that it's a financial Band-Aid right now not to do training.  But even in the best of times, a larger proportion of budgets for conferences, schools, and training programs tends to be allocated to the more senior levels of the company.  Certainly if you believe management is cause and all else is effect this can make sense, but how can a self-motivated person accelerate his or her own career progression?

Leaders Cafe - a new way for you to
take charge of your career
 Now there is Leaders Cafe 2020, a new solution for individuals who want to take charge of their own career path.  Leaders Cafe is web-based, delivering dozens of world-class webinars on leadership, sales, values, goal planning, communication skills - many of the personal ingredients that are necessary to success but not always made available to everyone.

Each webinar is approximately 50 minutes long, and the portfolio is available 24 hours a day.  All you need is internet access and a comfy place to sit and you can work on developing your leadership skills and knowledge.

You might be thinking, "This sounds great.  So where's the catch?"  There is no catch.  You can sample a few webinars for free and take advantage of some e-books and other resources without parting with one nickel.  Then if you decide to participate in Leaders Cafe you can do so either at an Associate Learner or Premium Learner level. 

Associate Learner is a la carte - you purchase whatever webinars you want, one at a time at your own pace.  A Premium Learner subscription gives you enough LC credits to watch approximately one webinar a week for a year!  You can set your own pace - go fast or take your time.

If you are contemplating changing jobs, or if you have to find one - and quick - Leaders Cafe also offers a resume (CV) builder that is completely free.  Entirely free of charge.  That resume writing project is the obstacle that keeps a lot of people from doing a successful job search, or any job search at all.  Now it doesn't have to be an obstacle for you.

Check out Leaders Cafe.  Take charge of your own career learning process in a way that is convenient and affordable.  You can do this.  You can take the next steps toward creating the life you want.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Disappointed? What did you expect?

No, these aren't all for her!
Disappointment is a curious is not dependent on one particular outcome.  Rather it is a reaction to the gap between what you anticipated or hoped for and what actually happened.  I think about this when gift-giving occasions are approaching.  Children (in my family at least) get excited about making a list for Santa, or for relatives who will be buying gifts for them.  One list I saw in my family contained items that I estimated would cost $1000 in aggregate!  For only one of several children!  (But then you know teenagers.)

I nipped that particular expectation in the bud because the gap between the order form, er, I mean the wish list, and the realistic budget for gifts bordered on the ridiculous.  I didn't want that kid to feel disappointed on Christmas morning.  Mind you, she wasn't thrilled when I told her
  • This is a wish list - not an order form, and
  • There need to be some items on there that cost $50 or less, and $20 or less.  Does she think she has Warren Buffet and Bill Gates for relatives?
When the day arrived the kids had many (not all, mind you) of their expectations met, partly because they have generous relatives and partly because their expectations had become (by mandate, I'll admit) more realistic.  They also had a great day because their expectations had been communicated - that revised wish list went out to all potential gift givers, and they came through.

To this day the gift givers request a wish list from the children.  They are happy to see the expectations because it helps them choose more effectively - it narrows the field of options and saves them time.  It also helps that they don't have to risk disappointing the kids, even while investing hard-earned cash to purchase gifts.

A gift is a gift, and the giver has every right to choose what he or she wants to give.  Sometimes the recipient doesn't have a particular thing, that perfect thing, on their radar screen, and that's the only reason it doesn't appear on the list.  The giver doesn't have to stick to the list - the last time I checked it was still their money.  The target of this tale is the recipient, not the giver, although admittedly the assumption here is that the giver cares whether his or her offering fulfills the recipient's expectations. 

So to recap:
  • Are your expectations realistic?
  • Have you communicated them to the parties who will be tasked to fulfill them?
This isn't only a holiday story.