Compelling Questions Can Lead Us into the Future

I admit it. I’ve gone dark on blogging. You’ve not heard from me for a while. And here is why….there is a book in the works. Book #2 and one that I hope helps leaders and professionals within organizations understand the forces that are shaping the workplace and how work is likely to change in the future. In the book, I am tackling these questions:

  • How are organizations and work changing?
  • How does that impact the way we lead?
  • What does it mean for professionals?

Recovery and Reflection

Yesterday I submitted the first three chapters and today I’m basking in the relief that comes with completing a long stretch of focused work. The first chapters are, for me, the most difficult. They provide the shape and tone and pace of the book. Just as I experience in consulting, how it starts is how it goes. And with those first three chapters come many decisions. What am I trying to convey? How do I best do that? How do I create a compelling introduction that pulls readers into the message? What style suits this book best? Who am I writing to? What do they need?

And so just like running endurance races, I see today as a day of recovery. Not for my physical self but for my mental and creative self. A time to put the book aside. A time to let go of the disciplined “time on task” that I find is required to get a big writing project out the door. A time to breathe and reflect.

My reflection keeps circling around the trickiness of finding good answers to the questions you face. For in this book, I’ve deviated from my typical methods to find answers that work for me and my clients. Normally I would read the top thought leaders, comparing and contrasting their thoughts with my experience. After a deep dive into lots of content, I will then synthesize a towering stack of books and articles into something pithier, more practical, and more accessible for my clients and readers.

For this book, I’m using a combination of interviews and web research. It is a book about the future of work, and consequently I don’t have experience to draw from.

The Questions asked…

I deeply realize how the questions I ask and the search words I use dramatically impact the information I draw from. And those questions shape the responses I get and the responses I get shape the conclusions I draw. And if I am successful and create a book that people read and internalize, those readers are impacted by that long chain of events that had there beginning in a few simple questions:

  • What forces are shaping the work we do?
  • What will work be like in the future?
  • What does that mean for leaders?
  • What does this mean for professionals?

I realize too, that the answers I get to the questions I ask are filtered by my core beliefs. For I do believe that, as humans, we will adapt. I believe that, if we are intentional and thoughtful, the future can be better than the present or the past. I believe that if we are unwilling to change and adapt, the consequences on any level, will be dire.

And so, while the writing of this book has taken me deeper into understanding how organizations are evolving, how leadership is shifting and how professionals will be impacted, this outward and forward work has also taken more deeply inward and backward. It has prompted me to examine and test my core beliefs. It has reinforced, even more profoundly, that the questions we ask shape the answers we get. And it has driven home the truism that what you focus on is what manifests itself in your life.

So much, in fact, that I am ending each chapter with questions. Questions readers can ponder. Questions that readers can struggle with. Questions that can help point the way for us. For I believe that questions may be much more important than answers in the future.

Outsmart Overwhelm

May is the 70th anniversary of Mental Health Month and merits time, reflection and action from each of us. In the spirit of the month, I’m re-posting this blog from two years ago on how I “Outsmart Overwhelm”. I hope my tips might help you get through those times in your live that are especially stressful or busy.

This has also been a year for me of supporting others I love with bigger mental health issues. I’ve seen the benefits of robust services and the challenges faced when resources are sub-optimal. If you’d like to join me in advocating for mental health, you’ll find a toolkit here.


I fall prey to feeling overwhelmed more than I’d like. The “to do” list is long and grows like a teenager in a growth spurt. At times there are so many tugs on my time that I can find myself paralyzed, seemingly unable to tackle even one of the hundreds of tasks facing me.

Most often these times are of my own making (although not all the time). All of these times of overwhelm induce anxiety, warp my perspective and render me far less effective than I desire.

As I consult and coach and teach, I know I am not alone. Many are overwhelmed by jobs that demand them to be available 24/7. It is not uncommon for one person to be doing the job of 3 others as organizations shrink and downsize. Family demands collude with work demands, causing those caught between them to feel inadequate at either.

One of my strengths on the Gallop Strength finder Profile is “maximizer”. While it is a strength, at times it is also my greatest liability. As such I straddle the fine line between getting a lot of important things done and making myself and others crazy by the sheer volume of things I am taking on.

Tactics to Outsmart Overwhelm

I’ve grown wiser about overcoming overwhelm after a lifetime of practice. As such, here are the tactics that I’ve found work:

Tactic One: Know that this too shall pass.

It always does. It will this time too. Remind yourself of this over and over and over again. Breathe. Put your head down and work. Repeat as needed.

Tactic Two: Create order in one small part of your life.

When all of your life seems spinning out of control, create one oasis of orderliness. Clean your desk. Organize your to-do list. Do the dishes and clean the sink. I’m not sure exactly why this works, but I do know that 20 minutes spent organizing out the piles of work on my desk, even when I know I should by using that time to actually work on the piles, helps.

Tactic Three: Prioritize short and long term.

When in serious overwhelm, know exactly what you need to do to get through the next hour, the next meeting, the next day. And get that done. Repeat over and over until you’re working on the things that need done two days out, and then three and then four. Note that this is a survival strategy and not a sustainable approach. If after a week, you are not lengthening your time horizon, more drastic action needs taken.

Tactic Four: Break long term goals and projects into action steps and schedule them.

At the beginning of any big thing, take time in the very beginning to block your calendar for the time you’ll need to get all the assorted and sundry tasks done. Put time on your calendar for the actual work, the inevitable meetings, the research needed. Add some extra time on your calendar because we all know that things take longer than expected. My rule on this tactic is that I can move the time blocks around on my calendar, from a Monday to a Tuesday (for example), but I can’t schedule over them or delete them.

Tactic Five: Get help.

Ask your boss to off load work that can be done by another. Use a virtual assistant service like Fiverr or Fancy Hands. Hire an intern. Hire someone to do outside of work tasks if this period of overwhelm is cutting into your personal time. No matter HOW you do it, do it!

Tactic Six: Solve the underlying problem.

Only you know that that is. It may mean a serious talk with your boss about workload, or it may be letting go of high maintenance clients or low margin work. It may be hiring an additional person. It may be saying no to requests that fall outside your top priorities.

Tactic Seven: Take care of yourself.

This is another counter-intuitive move. In overwhelm we tend to work longer and harder. Skip sleep, exercise and down time. As a short term strategy (think a day or two), this may be an option. As a long term strategy, it renders you less productive, less focused and even more frazzled. So sleep. Eat well. Exercise. Play. In fact I think I’ll take a nap now!

What tactics did I miss? What do you do to overcome overwhelm?

Failing at Time Management? Try Self-Management!

time-management-clocksI’ll fallen for all the false promises around time management, time and time again. Do this and find 30 more minutes in your day. Do this and free yourself. Manage your calendar or your in-box or your “to-do” list and marvel at how much you’ll get done and all the free time you’ll amass.

No matter how faithfully I follow the instructions, I’ve never achieved having any span of time, even 5 minutes, where I marveled at how much time I had “created” in my schedule and then wondered how I might use that time I’d freed up.

The reason is quite simple. We neither “create” time nor “manage” time nor “lose” time. Time is time. We all have sixty seconds in every minute, sixty minutes in every hour and twenty four hours in every day. Each and every one of us. No exceptions.

So the question of time management is not outside of us (better planning, calendar tricks, a time saving device) but within us. How efficiently we use our time is within our control. Even more importantly, how effectively we use our time is us to totally up to us.

If it’s not “time management”, then what is it?

Two compelling questions, one about focus and one about distractions, are:

  1. Are you spending your time on the most important things?
  2. How much time are you spending on things that really don’t matter?

Even though time is equally measured for all of us (Chronos time), we’ve all experienced the subjective nature of time (Kairos time). Think of the times where time appears to go slowly, when we are bored or waiting in eager anticipation. Or those times, in a crisis, where time slows to a point of almost being suspended. Contrast those with the occurrences where time seemed to “fly”; when you were immersed in a pleasurable pursuit or creative work, where your focus was fully present and “in the moment”.

In either situation, where time either sped up or slowed down, in actuality it marched along, second after second. What changed was our internal state and our perception of time. Which leads me to my assertion: It is self-management, not time management that is important.

Wise Self-Management Looks Like…

Wise self-management means that you:

  • Are clear about your priorities and use your time in proportion to your priorities
  • Realize “busy” is a choice (and often a self-inflicted one) and not a badge of honor
  • Have the courage to say no to the things that don’t really matter or distract you from what really does matter
  • Recognize that your full attention is one of the most valuable things you have to offer – and act accordingly
  • Focus on the right things (for you) and not the many things that you believe others expect of you
  • Put your energy into the important few and discard the trivial many

Managing yourself also is a matter of recognizing that it is not only time but focus. Think of all the times you have bewailed that I only had more time: I’d exercise, I’d go back to school, I’d spend more time with my friends and family, I’d take more time for myself…. And how often, when you had that free block of time did you actually do any of these noble pursuits? Dedicating the time is the first step; dedicating yourself to the discipline to actually do that important thing is the second.

Showing Up in the Time You Have

There is another vital element of self-management and focus. Wise self-managers understand that it is how you show up in the time you have. There are dramatically different results between the time we spend focused, energized and productive versus the times we are weary, distracted or unable to concentrate. On those days I have energy, focus and clarity – I can get higher quality outcomes, with less effort and in much less time.

To show up in this best possible way requires taking care of yourself. You rest. You relax. You spend time with others who help you be your best self. You spend time alone in reflection and learning. For when you include self-care as a part of your self-management routine, you show up fuller, better and more robust when you are immersed in those things that really matter. This is not frivolous time – this is time spent investing in yourself, your capacity, your clarity, your stamina.

In a world that values busy, that stresses more over less, that places efficiency before effectiveness, it is counter-cultural to take bold actions such as:

  • Clearly defining a few top priorities and allocating your time accordingly
  • Taking time for your physical, mental and emotional well-being in order to be your best
  • Saying no
  • Doing less
  • Focusing on what really matters in the long term

From Busy to Bountiful

I’ve talked about some BIG ideas in this post and none of them are easy to implement. I think this is especially true in America, where our culture equates busy to better, importance to hyper-activity and over-extending our physical and mental limits as the professional default.

For just ONE week, I’d like you to observe just how many times you are either asked or ask others if “they are busy”? I suspect you’ll be shocked (and perhaps dismayed).

And so, let’s take a counter-cultural stance, merely by changing the dialog, one person at a time, about busy. And so, rather than asking others “if they are busy?” ask these questions instead:

  • Tell me about something you are doing that really matters to you.
  • What have you done in the last week that brought you great joy?
  • What are you focusing your time (or talents) on currently?
  • How are you using your skills to benefit others?
  • How are you? (and then just listen)

And when you are asked if you are busy (or some variation of that), shake up the conversation by using some of these responses:

  • I’ve given up busy for bountiful. I’m working to fill my life with (fill in the blank).
  • I’ve realized my best contributions happen when I am focused on fewer things, so I’m working hard not to be so busy that I lose sight of what really matters.
  • I’m not busy, but I’ve been super productive the last few months.
  • I’ve realized that busy wasn’t working for me – instead I’m focusing on doing fewer things better.
  • I’m not busy, but I am focusing on (fill in the blank) as the most important things for me.

I’m curious to hear your thoughts and insights about this topic. Please share!

Quotes, Questions and Books that Shaped My Thinking in 2018

I don’t collect “things”, but I do collect quotes that call to me, questions that reframe my thinking and books (lots of books). And daily I capture glimmers of wisdom culled from all three in my yearly journal.

Today, I’ve gone back through my 2018 journal to glean the wisdom from the quotes I’ve captured, the questions I’ve wrestled with and the books that resonated with me.


In hindsight, I regret that I captured many quotes this year but failed to note who to attribute them to.  None the less, here are the quotes that made my daily journal this year.

On Time and Our Journey

  • When 99% of your life is work, either you are really bad at what you do or you are completely off balance with the rest of your life. Neither is something to be proud of.
  • Burnout is not the price you have to pay for success.
  • Busy is a decision.
  • I am a traveler, not a map maker. I am going down the same path as you.
  • Your heart is more powerful than your brain.
  • Your dreams are the blueprint to reality. (Greg Norman)
  • Hard choices, easy life. Easy choices, hard life.
  • Integrity is the only path where you’ll never get lost.
  • Happiness is choice you make and a skill you develop.
  • Coming back to where you started is not the same as never leaving. (Pratchett)
  • A wise person has his not and he has his yes. (Lao Tzu)
  • The main thing is to keep the main thing the main thing.

On Mindfulness / Presence / Well being

  • Nature is a great therapist.
  • We decide what we want to see before we see it.
  • It is not what you look at that matters, it is what you see. (Henry David Thoreau)
  • When we prioritize our well-being, performance goes up across the board.
  • What separates the good from the great is a deep presence, relaxation of the conscious mind, which leads to flow. (Waitzkin)
  • Don’t believe everything you think. (Buddhist saying)

On Difficult Situations

  • Often when you think you are at the end of something, you are at the beginning of something else. (Fred Rogers)
  • Anger is what pain looks like in public. (Brene Brown)
  • If you want to be the best, you have to risks that others avoid. (Waitzkin)
  • Lean how to use adversity to your advantage. (Waitzkin)
  • Learn the hard from the soft, the soft from the hard.
  • The first mistake is seldom disastrous. It is the downward spiral of the second, third and fourth error that creates a devastating chain reaction. (Waitzkin)
  • If I am ready, I will learn. (Waitzkin)
  • Be at peace with imperfection. (Waitzkin)
  • Contribute more than you criticize. (Brene Brown)
  • Don’t be afraid of being wrong. Being wrong is just an opportunity to find more of the truth. (Annie Duke)
  • We fail the minute we let someone else describe success for us. (Brene Brown)

Compelling Questions

I find that questions are more powerful than answers. Questions open us up. They reframe our perspective. They enable us to think bigger and better. Here are a few of my favorite questions from 2018.

  • What would it look like if this was easy?
  • Is this a crisis or an opportunity for growth?
  • What is the one thing you wish someone had said to you as a child?
  • What is the most loving thing I could do for myself and others right now?
  • What do I need to stop doing because it hurts me?
  • What can I start doing to heal myself?
  • How can I contribute to the end of suffering for humanity?
  • What is the biggest misperception others have about you?
  • Am I able to make a difference right now? If not, can I be patient?
  • Where does my heart lead me?
  • What is my biggest fear right now? How likely is it?
  • Does my worrying about this help the situation?
  • What does “done” look like?
  • What does success look like?
  • What did we set out to do? What happened? What did we learn? How fast can we improve on it? (Brene Brown)

My Top Reads

Well, where do you think I find all those great quotes and questions? From reading! Here is my short list of good non-fiction reads for 2018 with a short reason why.

A Second Chance: For You, For Me, For the Rest of Us by Catherine Hoke

One of my first books read in 2018 – and one that caused me to volunteer for Defy Ventures, the 501(c)(3) founded by Catherine that enables incarcerated individuals (think the toughest of the tough) and corporate executives transform themselves using the power of connection, vulnerability, accountability and entrepreneurship. This is the story of her journey to defy the odds by her prison programs that have many successes, including graduates that have less than a 5% recidivism rate.

Grandma Gatewood’s Walk by Ben Montgomery

In the past two years I’ve been drawn to hikes on the Appalachian trail (not through hikes, mind you) and I began to get curious about Grandma Gatewood, who was the first women who through hiked the trail in 1955. And by the way, she did so at the age of 67. And then again another year. And again. And did I mention that only wore Keds and that her gear consisted of a blanket, shower curtain and a bit of pocket money? A story of grit, of determination and doing something big without really intending to!

The Opposite of Hate: A Field Guide to Repairing our Humanity  by Sally Kohn

If you are like me, I am amazed, dismayed and baffled about how hateful people can be toward one another. Kohn sets out to answer the question of why, using research and interviews with internet trolls, white Nazis and people engaged in hate groups. She puts forth some compelling observations – including that what we most yearn for in connection.

The Art of Learning: the Inner Journey to Optimal Performance  by Josh Waitzkin

You may have noticed by the number of quotes above that this book spoke deeply to me. Waitzkin, a child chess prodigy, national and international chess prodigy and martial arts champion, unpacks the inner game of exceptional performance. No matter what you are attempting to master, this book is packed with keen insights on how our mind shapes our performance and outcomes.

Team of Teams: New Rules of Engagement for a Complex World by General Stanley McChrystal

I did a geek out reading binge on collaboration and this, by far, was my favorite read. McChrystal recounts the situation he found himself in when commanding the Joint Special Operations Task Force battling Al Qaeda in 2004. Resources, training the best equipment and military might was not match for the situation he found himself in. He proceeded to abandon traditional military hierarchy and put in its place a network with transparent communication, decentralized decision making and new structures of “teams of teams”. His insights and strategy are well articulated and translate well into any organization that is faced with the need to be agile, fast and adaptive.

In Praise of Difficult Women: Life Lessons from 29 Heroines Who Dared Break the Rules by Karen Karbo

Karbo is a witty writer who, in just a few pages per heroine, provides a pithy view of the life and impact of 20 women who dared break the rules. She covers a wide variety of fields (from arts to the sciences to politics) and ages. A fun read, a great history lesson and an inspiration to any of us who want to dare ourselves to do something that matters.

No Ego: How Leaders Can Cut the Cost of Workplace Drama, End Entitlement and Drive Big Results by Cy Wakeman

I found myself saying “yes!!!” throughout this book. As a leader, I’ve been guilty of spending too much time on poor performers and their drama. As a consultant, I’ve seen organizations go to extreme lengths to create workplaces that do superfluous things to build engagement. Cy gets to the heart of it: the best employee experience is being able to meaningfully contribute to work that matters. This is a blueprint to engagement that matters, accountability to results and crating workplaces where people want to work together for a higher purpose.

Facilitating Collaboration: Notes on Facilitation for Experienced Collaborators by Brandon Klein

If you never facilitate groups – skip this one. If you do, this is one of the best (and geekiest) guides I’ve found. Klein takes this work very seriously and details every step of the way….from how to plan, how to engage sponsors, how to set up space and how to balance moving with the group and moving the group along. This book has upped my game….and I’ll read it at least one more time to capture even more insights.

Tribe of Mentors: Short Life Advice from the Best in the World by Tim Ferriss

A good friend gave me a copy for Christmas last year, about a week before the holiday. After reading just a few entries, I immediately ordered 20 copies for peers, clients and practice partners. Ferriss reached out to his list of successful people (albeit a bit heavy on media, sports and martial artists) – and asked a series of questions like:

  • What book do you give most often as a gift?
  • How has a failure, or apparent failure, set you up for future success?
  • In the past five years, what have you become better at saying no to?

The answers are both varied and provocative. This is a book to savor; I read one entry a day. It’s like having a mentoring conversation every day of the year!

Dare to Lead: Brave Work. Tough Conversations. Whole Hearts. by Brene Brown

Brene describes courageous leadership as an inside out type of courage. Of having the courage to be vulnerable, to risk, to be emotionally available and to lead with your whole heart. This is the kind of leadership that creates connection, energy, and the psychological safety to take risks and do big things. This is the kind of leadership that makes the stoic “leave your emotions at home” leaders cringe. Given that what organizations need right now (and even more so in the future) are people that will create, innovate and to operate with candor – this is a book with great relevance for leaders in organizations that want to succeed in today’s business environment.

21 Lessons for the 21st Century by Yuval Noah Harari

This book was an airport splurge on a business trip – and well worth the cost. I’m a fan of Yuval’s past two books, Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind (which at 464 pages is not really brief) and Home Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow (another rather lengthy book). No matter the size, Yuval takes complexity and distills it into a compelling read that is both well researched and well written. This book is 21 chapters where Yuval explores technology, politics, despair and hope, truth and resilience. If you like to ponder where the human race has been, where it might go and what forces are shaping the world we inhabit – pick up a Harari book!

And a Kris Taylor quote: We are better together! Share some of your best quotes, questions and books from this past year!

Student or Learner: What About Learning Agility?

Today I share a blog written in response to my blog asking if you were a student or a learner. Dave Hoff, co-author of Learning Agility: The Key to Leadership Potential and COO/EVP of EASI Consult.

Student or Learner: What About Learning Agility?

My colleague Kris’ last blog posed the question, “Are you a student or a learner?” From my perspective, the answer could lie with your development of learning agility.

One of the specialties of my consulting firm is learning agility.  We define learning agility as finding yourself in a situation that you have never been in before and don’t know what to do but then you figure it out. Regarding learner versus student, I’d say that learning agility is probably more characteristic of a learner than it is of a student.

I want to step back, though, and first describe some aspects of learning agility, partially within the context of Kris’ earlier blog.

Kris writes that the biggest risk may not be that you are not smart enough but that you can’t learn quickly. With learning agility, we make a key distinction between ability and agility.

Sometimes people will ask me, “Isn’t learning agility just intellectual horsepower? Isn’t the smartest person in the room the most learning agile?” I won’t flat-out say no but I equivocate and say, “Not necessarily.”

What I tell people is that learning agility is important… to a point, a threshold. Once that threshold has been reached, smarter doesn’t equal more learning agile. It is learning agility that allows you to be successful in those new and unfamiliar situations.

I also tell organizations I work with that, in the future, employees are going to be hired more for their ability to learn what they don’t know than what they already know. The pace of change keeps escalating. Some organizations are finding the job they hired some employees to do five or 10 years ago no longer exist.

If the employee has been a good performer and done what they were initially hired to do but the organization no longer needs that kind of work, what should the employer and employee do? Does the organization terminate the employee?  Does the organization have an obligation to retrain the employee? If the organization goes the retraining route, then it would help if the employee were learning agile.

So, do you see why learning agility is going to play a bigger part in the selection process?

Skill, Motivation, and Context

There are three other factors we talk about in learning agility:

  1. Skill
  2. Motivation
  3. Context

Skill relates to someone’s baseline capability in an area. It may just tell us the person’s starting point for development, and that could play a larger role in consideration if time is critical. If it is going to take two years for someone to reach the needed skill level but we need them to be ready in one year, for example, that could be a problem.

Motivation is a much bigger factor. How important is it for this person to demonstrate these capabilities we need? It may need to become the person’s number-one priority. How driven are they to acquire this capability? They may need several practices to demonstrate this skill we need them to have. Are they willing to fail several times before they succeed and look awkward and foolish as they fail? In terms of learning agility, that is what is known as performance risk taking. Learning agile people are willing to take these risks.

The third factor is context. Context matters. Are you providing the type of environment that supports those behaviors you are asking an employee to demonstrate? I once worked for an organization that desired innovation… so long as you didn’t make mistakes. Innovation without the ability to make mistakes is impossible.

Kris mentioned in her blog that learners are a bit unruly. I can tell you than learning agile people question norms. They won’t accept that the reason we do something is because that is the way we always have done it. Learning agile people will push back.

The key work around learning agility was done by Dr. Warner Burke from Columbia University. His research determined that there are nine dimensions that, together, make up learning agility. Burke views the first two – Speed and Flexibility – as the drivers of learning agility.

The other seven supporting dimensions are:

  1. Experimenting
  2. Performance Risk Taking, which I mentioned earlier
  3. Interpersonal Risk Taking;
  4. Collaborating, which I know is something Kris has written about extensively
  5. Information Gathering
  6. Feedback Seeking
  7. Reflecting

There is a way to measure learning agility through a test called the Burke Learning Agility Inventory. There are 38 items on the test and they are all behavioral. By demonstrating those behaviors, you will then be more learning agile.

Are You a Student or a Learner?


As I work closely with many others in my consulting practice, I see a distinct difference between how people approach new situations. Some eagerly jump in, even though they aren’t fully prepared. Others may be willing, but they wait for clear direction, for the path to be cleared, for step by step direction before they will venture into this new territory.

Differences Between Student and Learners

As I observe these two approaches, I see a distinct difference between learners and students.

Students await direction; they rely on a detailed “how to” and “step by step” directions. Learners find the way; they are willing to get messy and are OK with less than perfect first steps.

Students are focused on the external rewards. They ask what it takes to get an A. The want to know what counts toward their final grade and what does not. Learners learn for the sheer sake of learning. They are motivated by an intrinsic desire to learn, to grow, to discover.

Students do what they are told, when they are told. Read this. Do this. Write this. Learners are a bit more unruly. They explore. They get distracted. They dive deep into one area of interest, leaving others behind.

Students want to know “the answer”. Not just any answer, but the “right” answer. Learners spend their time on the questions, and the questions that the first questions give birth to. The bigger the question, the more fun learners have.

Students measure their worth by the teacher’s marks. Learners are willing to challenge the thinking of the teacher. To argue a point. To think more deeply into the topic.

Students strive for perfection. Learners strive for messy attempts that lead them to greater insights.

Students minimize risks by following directions. The clearer the directions, the better. Learners chafe at overly restrictive directions. They revel in the fuzzy boundaries and uncharted territory.

The student is a text book. The learner is a blank journal ready to be filled with insights.

The student associates mastery with passing the test. The learner sees mastery as a continual and deepening practice, with mastery an elusive but worthwhile pursuit.

The Demand for Learners

There are places where being a student is a great approach, such as places of deep technical expertise (like piloting an airplane or preparing tax returns) or jobs where consistent performance to a defined standard is expected. Tasks that are best done in a repeatable process.

Yet the world today is in demand for learners. For in the world today, technical knowledge has an increasingly short half-life. The world demands quick adaptation to a rapidly changing world, one in which known answers are in short supply. It requires deep thinking, comfort with ambiguity and comfort with risk taking.

Today, the biggest risk may not be that you are not smart, but that you can’t learn quickly.

And so, I challenge myself and you, to become even more of a learner. To risk not knowing in the pursuit of knowing more deeply. To abandon the notation of perfect performance and embrace the fun of messy exploration. To tap into that joy of discovery that you had at 5 and discard that fear of appearing foolish that follows you around with adulthood.

If you’d like a companion on your journey, I would be honored to walk by your side. Please know, you can always contact me here or email me at

What Collaborative Teams Do Differently

I sincerely hope that you’ve had a chance to be a part of at least one highly collaborative team! If you have, my thoughts here will attempt to describe that peak experience and what a collaborative team does differently. If you have not, my goal is to capture the essence of the being on a collaborative team, so that you are more alert for this type of experience.

When you’re a part of this type of team, you contribute meaningfully to something bigger than yourself or anything you could have done alone. You step back in amazement and wonder that, together, big and important work was done. You’ve bonded, often making life-long friendships, with those that worked side by side with you.

That’s not to say that you loved every moment and that there weren’t times of friction and conflict. Often times the task was herculean, the resources scarce, and the work you did far exceeded anything described in your job description. At times you wondered if you could really do what you set out to do.

But, you did it. No, that is not true. In reality, “we” did it. Together, in spite of the daunting task, the team pulled together, did what needed to be done and made it happen. In my experience, collaborative teams I’ve worked with have started green-field manufacturing plants in countries foreigns to us, implemented ERP systems in complex ecosystems, started companies and put together meaningful learning programs with long lasting impact.

What a Truly Collaborative Team Looks Like

I’ve been a part of many teams that did “big” work and hard work that were not collaborative. On these teams, the work got done. We worked hard. We overcame obstacles. But these teams didn’t have the same feel, the same zest and the same spark that others did.

So what makes a collaborative team different, and how do they function? Here is my take, from my experience:

  • Collaborative teams have a laser like focus on the common purpose and why it is important. There was deep clarity about the work of the team and we knew that our work mattered. There were plenty of times that we thought there was no way, no how, that we could do it, but we still showed up every day and worked as if we could.
  • While there was clarity on the purpose, the day to day details about how to achieve the purpose were not well defined. We had the freedom to meet the objective using our own skills, brain power and will. This was not for a lack of skill; it merely reflected that this work was new and different than what had been done before. We were charged to find the way forward.
  • Although everyone on the team had a role, specific expertise and was a responsible for a “part” of the whole, yet everyone pitched in to do whatever was needed. I can’t think of a single, solitary time when I head a fellow team member on one of the teams complain “that this is not MY job”. Our job was to deliver on our mission and everyone’s job was to make that happen.
  • There were not “prima donnas”, but there also weren’t slackers. There were clearly some folks in charge, but leadership flowed naturally depending on the needs of the work in that particular moment. Team members who didn’t contribute or were too “good” to get their hands dirty didn’t last long on these teams.
  • Creative solutions emerged. As these collaborative teams were traversing new ground, we brought a sense of possibility and a lack of constraints that freed us up to do things differently. There was a willingness to listen to new ideas and to take a risk to try them. There were passionately debates about how to proceed, ultimately deciding and getting behind a way forward (that often combined several of the ideas from many different team members).
  • There was a strong sense of team work. Everyone was valued and it showed. We worked hard together, but also got to know each other personally. We socialized together. Traveled together. Knew each other’s families. We supported and helped each other, in and outside of work. We balanced task and team (or relationship). And many, many years later, these people are still some of my closest friends.

Synthesizing What Collaborative Teams Do Differently

The best I can synthesize what collaborative teams do differently is that they:

  • focus on both TASK and TEAM
  • are highly accountable and get work done
  • achieve big things
  • are creative and innovative in pursuit of accomplishing what they set out to do. At the same time, they nurture relationships
  • respect everyone’s contribution and expect everyone to contribute
  • disagree at times, but only in the pursuit of the shared goal
  • are more fluid in tasks and leadership and idea generation
  • support, challenge, and work hard
  • celebrate successes and the stories of their failures become part of the team lore about the journey

Is Your Team Collaborative?

If you’d like to size up either leadership or team capabilities with collaboration – reach out. We have a great tool for self-assessment.

If you’d like to nurture more collaboration in your work place, let’s talk! Just reach out to me at

What Is Collaboration and Why Is It Needed Today?

True confession….when no less than three different clients this year asked for help on collaboration I experienced a sense of validation and vindication. On no less than three prior occasions, as I was up for a promotion in my earlier careers, I was denied. The reason for not making the cut: “I was TOO collaborative.”

There was no denying I was collaborative. Still am. Always will be. I do my best work side by side with others, dreaming, creating, and then doing. But TOO collaborative? How could that be?

Because of my ability to collaborate, the solutions that emerged to solve business problems were innovative. They stuck. They had deep support from key influencers. Wasn’t that a good thing?

And so, in the past few months I’ve done something else I’m really good at – exploring the concept of collaboration. Reading the current thought leaders (with no less than 6 books consumed). Defining it. Creating content. Facilitating workshops.

Through all this work, I came to a stunning conclusion. It’s an insight that was years in the making, but before I share that, let me share some thoughts on why collaboration such a “hot topic”.

Some Background

At the turn of the 20th century, when new inventions such as telegraphs and telephones and faster forms of transportation enabled the better movement of goods and people, larger and more centralized organizations took shape. It was a time of centralization and with that specialization. It was a time when bigger was better, and it was a time where industry disruption was measured in decades and not days. Where the more efficient you could be, the better the results you realized.

Today we are in the midst of a dramatic and foundational shift. This is due to a myriad of factors: lightning speed communication to anyone just about anywhere, affordable computing power, global connectivity and the emergences of breakthrough ideas faster than they are able to be consumed.

The Implications

Due to that shift, entire industries are disrupted regularly, often from an unforeseen competitor. Who could have imagined that the taxi companies that had big cities locked down would face fierce competition from someone from the suburbs with a Honda Civic, a smart phone and some time on their hands?  Who would have thought that anyone could carry a library full of books on a device that fits in their hand twelve years ago? Do you suspect that the execs at Hilton and Hyatt were planning to be out performed by a scattered network of homeowners and an App? (Interesting note: today AIRBNB exceeds the valuation of Hilton and Hyatt combined in spite of having no “real” properties, only technology and a network of collaborators).

We are in a time when being large may be a liability, when no one leader can know it all, and when fresh ideas and quick time to market is a vital competitive advantage.

We are in a time where collaboration, not competition, is the advantage you need to remain relevant, to be sustainable, to thrive.

The Reality

Yet today many organizations and leaders are stuck in different paradigms: That bigger is better. That the leader is the one that knows all and directs all. That diverse people and ideas are window dressing rather than a true creative and competitive advantage. That leadership resides at the top and that allowing it to surface anywhere else in the organization presents a threat to maintaining order, position and efficiency.

Many are realizing that these “industrial era” beliefs are getting in the way, hindering performance and unsustainable. They realize there needs to be a new way to operate in a world that moves so quickly, that being nimble is more important than being big, and creativity and innovation are crushed in command and control environments. They realize that collaboration is the way forward.

So What Exactly is Collaboration?

That is exactly the question I’ve explored in the last three months. As I often find it helpful to define concepts by what they are not, the chart below both defines and contrasts collaboration to commanding, coordinating, and cooperation. Many are close cousins, but to me, collaboration is defined and differentiated by this:

Collaboration is when a diverse group of people work side by side to co-create a solution to a problem that none of them could have solved on their own. It is marked by a deep sense of trust and respect for all team members and a strong desire by all to achieve a common purpose that matters. It is when purpose is held in higher regard than position. It is messy at times. The exploratory nature of collaboration means it is neither very linear nor very efficient. It is a place of ideas, of experimentation, of possibilities. It is an environment in which individual egos are sublimated and where a sense of camaraderie and team work prevail. It is the fertile ground from which radically new ideas, products and solutions emerge.

My Stunning Conclusion

As I did this deeper dive into collaboration, it suddenly hit me: “they were right – I was too collaborative!” For I realized that, for me, collaboration was an overused strength. Collaboration, by its nature, is inefficient, both in time and resources. It is an amazing leadership style when situations are complex and solutions are unknown. But in many situations, in which decisions need to be made quickly or when the answer is knows – a collaborative approach is inefficient, frustrating for others and wastes precious time and resources. Knowing when to be a leader that fosters collaboration is great, but in my growth areas were to know when to collaborate and when to shift into a different leadership style, more attuned to the situation.

So, in the spirit of helping you become a better leader, here is my summary of “collaboration at a glance”. In subsequent posts, I’ll do deeper dives into collaboration, so a great starting point is understanding where collaboration fits in the range of leadership actions.

Collaboration at a Glance

The Innovation Imperative: Four Things to Foster Innovation in Organizations

This post is an adaptation of remarks given at the International Pet Food Forum at an event hosted by Diana Pet Food

The forces of change surround us and are unrelenting. Back in 1965, Moore predicted that computing power would exponentially increase. Almost 60 years later that still holds true. Fiber optics allow us to move data at amazing speeds and the cost of storage has plummeted from a cool $300K for 1 gig in 1980, to virtually free today. In addition to the accelerating power of the internet, we see an explosion in the speed of change. It may be driven by technology but it touches all that we do.

So we find ourselves in an environment in which disruption is the steady state. All you must do is flip through your smart phone to see the casualties. Go to a movie theater? No just stream it. Buy a video camera? No thanks – I have my phone. Buy a flashlight for an emergency? Nope, just have your phone handy. If you were a flashlight manufacturer not that long ago, would you have guessed that AT&T and Apple were going to be competitive threats?

This it is NOT business as usual.

Examples abound. We know that 88% of the companies on the Fortune 500 list in 1955 no longer exist today: Blockbuster, Kodak, Borders, Sears (Sear’s Tower – the original mail order biz), Blackberry and more. 50 years ago, if you made it onto the Fortune 500 list, you were likely to stay there for 75 years. Now the average duration is 15 years and declining. And the big players today – Google, Uber and Facebook are barely teenagers in a human lifespan, yet they dominate.

The differentiator – an imperative to INNOVATE.

A quick look at Fast Companies Most Innovative Companies of 201list tells the tale.  The most innovative companies are also disproportionately the most profitable, the fastest growing, and the most likely to bump out a longstanding company from the Fortune 500 list. Leading the pack: Apple, followed by Netflix, Square, Amazon, Patagonia, CVS and Spotify. Certainly an interesting mix – with one common denominator: innovation as a core competency.

Today the race is being won by those who can rethink the market, ride these forces of exponential change – and create something nimble, agile, and adaptable. And in today’s world – that equates to sustainability. Blockbuster went bust – but Netflix is killing it. Borders is boarded up- but Amazon, which started as a book seller, now allows anyone to set up a storefront and sell virtually anything. Amazon Web Services, which grew out of the company’s own e-commerce infrastructure needs, has become a $13 billion business.

In the Industrial Era, organizations of the late 1800’s  through the 20th century, bigger was better. Stability was key. Companies competed by sheer size – the goal was to crush their competition. Bureaucracy flourished. Org charts calcified the organization into neat little boxes and standardization, consistency and minimizing disruption were the primary focus.

And now, here we are. In an entirely new world. We are in an age where our industrial era organizations simply don’t work. Where we need new models, new skills and new ways of working. Where small and nimble is a competitive advantage. Where tried and true products are passé. Where speed matters. Where it’s imperative to innovate.

Now, innovation is a HUGE topic – and a deep one. So for this post I’d like to share with you four ways organizations are fostering innovation.

Top performing organizations in the 21st century:

  • Treat innovation as a business process
  • Foster the skill of creativity
  • Connect with their customers
  •  Collaborate

Each of these are big topics, so for the sake of brevity I’ll provide a brief description and some questions to consider for each.

Innovation as a Business Process.

There is a process to innovation, in spite of the belief by some that innovating is a “loosey goosey” thing somebody does in R&D. Just ask IDEO. Smart companies know the process and incorporate it into all the other processes we know so well: Finance, Accounting, HR, Sales…  Innovation is not isolated nor the sole function of the forgotten folks in R&D. It is embedded in the organization, provided resources and a path from innovation to production.

We can no longer afford to sort the world into the “business types” (think rational, linear, predictable) and the “creatives” (think intuitive, edgy, and free flowing). Innovative companies don’t exhort their employees to innovate; they have structures in place, resources identified, and processes to follow. Just as accounting, HR, engineering and operations are defined – so can innovation.

You might ask:

  • Where does innovation happen in your company (if at all)?
  • Are there dedicated resources for innovation?
  • Who is your company is charged to innovate?
  • What was the last innovation your company implemented?
  • What is in your innovation pipeline?


It took me 5 long years to get my MBA at the Krannert School of Management. I spent 14 years in a Fortune 200 company. And at no time in no way did the notion of creating something important in business get much attention. It was not taught, even though it is a process that can be taught. It was not encouraged, measured, or rewarded.

I think that we’d all agree that the many business geniuses are terribly creative – from Henry Ford to Steve Jobs to Elon Musk to Jeff Bezos. Our problem is not embracing creativity at the top. The problem is that we’ve driven creativity out of the middle ranks by such a strong focus on left-brained business management. Management by the numbers and a sole focus on short-term financials. We’re out of balance. We need to find ways to balance the creative with the effective management – and do it quickly.

We need to think of creativity as a business skill needed throughout the organization. Skills that are used every day by everyone, not just at the top. Not just when we are in crisis. Not just the folks in the R&D department. We need to learn the process of creating and create organizational structures that foster creativity. Period.

You might ask:

  • Who is charged to be creative in your organization?
  • Are the skills of creativity seen as a core competency? Taught? Supported?
  • What happens when creative ideas emerge?
  • Are there process in place to:
    • Generate many ideas, rather than a few
    • Test those ideas in the market
    • Vet those ideas thoroughly
    • Move the best ideas into your day-to-day operations
  • Diversity fuels creativity. How are diverse people, ideas, cultures and perspectives encouraged?
  • Creativity requires space, time, and freedom to dream. Is your organization so focused on productivity that there is no time to create?


It seems that the more high tech we become, the more high touch we crave. One size does not fit all any longer. Consumers want personalized. They want to be understood. To be connected with on an emotional level.

In all areas of business today – connecting with those that we provide goods and services to is critical. The creativity needed in today’s business world is not random, not just “edgy” for the sake of “edginess” – but creative innovations that speak to a need. It is not creativity for the sake of creating alone – but creating based on connection with your current customers, your future customers, and perhaps customers you can’t even imagine right now.

Great questions to ask about your ability to connect include:

  • How often do you interact with the people that use your goods and services?
  • Is that time spent merely trying to sell them (or service) what you already have or is it talking and listening and observing what they need?
  • How much do you use human centered design in your organization?
  • To what extent do you focus on your WHY rather than your features and benefits?
  • People connect emotionally. To what extent do you communicate and connect emotionally as well as rationally?
  • How “whole brained” are you? Do you rely on sheer left-brain (logical/rational/linear) or also use right-brained thinking (intuitive/non-linear/emergent).


If you recall, I mentioned that competition was the order of the day in industrial era organizations. As I worked for 13 + years in a Fortune 200 company – collaboration was at best frowned upon, and most often discouraged. It was discouraged both inside and outside the organization for fear of giving up information or ideas, or perhaps enabling someone else to take advantage of us or do better than us. Go to a conference? No way – we have training inside! Invite other departments to help solve a problem? No way – it will signal that we don’t have all the answers. Collaborate with a sister division with a new customer? Unheard of – what if their numbers are better than ours.

Now in hindsight, it seems a bit ridiculous. But it was real. And it IS real. In so many of the organizations I work with, people are tightly bound into their functional “silos”. Unable to see across the company as a bigger picture. Each functional area only out for the benefit of their own. Truly the parts more important than the whole.

21st century organizations know that even if they could be self-sustaining, that doing so would take way too long and would take too many resources. They know that knowledge is growing so quickly that they can’t be an expert in it all – so they find ways to collaborate with the expertise they need.

Emerging Networks

Networks are emerging much like the way we organize ourselves – a bit messier, a lot less linear, and a whole lot more powerful. A great case study is Airbnb, who has taken collaboration to an entirely new level. Tech innovation and the power of networks has propelled Airbnb to surpass the valuation of Hilton and Hyatt COMBINED. That valuation in spite of the fact that Airbnb owns no property or real estate. Airbnb’s valuation is based on its ability to innovate, its network, and its ability to connect with people who either have space to rent or need to rent space.

Questions about Collaboration

Collaboration fuels new ideas and it requires diversity. Collaboration can share the costs and rewards of bringing new products and services to market, yet requires discarding our ego’s desire to know it all and control it all. Collaboration can provide us quick access to resources and as such, shortens the time to do something innovative. But it also requires us to leave behind some of our old thinking about competition, control and certainty.

Some questions to ponder about collaboration:

  • Are employees in your organization encouraged to interact and collaborate across functions?
  • To what extent are employees encouraged to get outside the walls of the business and forge relationships with those outside?
  • Are there strategic partners you collaborate with?
  • How much internal competition exists? Within departments? Across departments and functional units?
  • How is collaboration nurtured? Supported? Encouraged?

Responding to today’s environment requires us to think about business in a different light. Where innovation exists alongside optimization. Where business skills and thinking are a blend of left and right brained activity. Where we get comfortable with the joy of creating, the emotion of connecting, and the powerful output of networks and collaborations.

These forces of change are not abating any time soon, so we are faced with the imperative choice to innovate or to stagnate. To change or die.

I know what side I’m on!

Five Networks Every Leader Needs

As I speak to leadership groups and mention the value of networking, I invariably get a brave soul or two who raises their hands to make these points:

  • I’m an introvert. HELP!
  • I hate networking events. They seem like a waste of time. You meet a lot of people, none of whom remember you for more than a millisecond.
  • Networking just seems like a way to promote yourself and get others to do things for you.
  • I have lots of work to do. I don’t have time for this stuff.

And I remember the time I thought the same thoughts and had the same questions. And how, over time, I’ve done a complete shift in how I view networking and my own network. For I now know:

  • That my network is one of my most valuable assets
  • That your network either pulls you up or keeps you down
  • That networks are about reciprocity, about giving as much as receiving

The Impact of Networks

Proof positive: When I began consulting in 2004, my network was weak. Perhaps even pathetic. 50 names. Mostly from the employer I has spent the last 13 years with. Some of whom I was not certain they would remember me. Not a great way to start.

Yet over time, I have an amazing network. It is wide and deep and filled with the most amazing people. To get to that point, I had to learn the art of networking and creating professional relationships that are not prescribed and defined by an organization chart. I had to figure out how to connect with people who would meet with me, help me, work with me and refer me because they wanted to, not because their boss said they had to.

In today’s hyper-connected and fast changing world leaders need deep and rich networks. Inside and outside of their organization. To stay abreast of new trends. To meet the people who can help them with a problem or a project. To find top talent. To stay current. To work cross-functionally. To work creatively. And ultimately to do better work, to access resources, to learn, to grow and to be a better person.

Making the Right Connections

But you need to know that networking is a two way street. You give before you receive. You share and others will share in return. You teach and others will teach you what they can. You support and others will support you.

It is true that what you give, you also receive. Not one for one. But in a bigger, more wondrous way.

And I’ve found that the more successful the person, the more likely they are to ask what they can do for me. And believe me, it’s not an aberration – it happens time and time and time again.

I’ve also learned that powerful networks don’t just happen. They take time. They take effort. And they take some strategic focus. In this post, I’d like help you build a network as rich as the one I have.

Yet your network should not be measured by how many contacts you have, how many business cards are stacked on your desk or how many LinkedIn connections you’ve amassed.

It is measured by how many of the RIGHT connections you make and your skill at making those connections valuable, for the other person and then for you. Now you might think that the RIGHT connections are those with potential clients or customers or the “right” people who will promote you in your organization. In reality, the most vibrant networks have different people in them.

The Five Networks that Leaders Need

Let me share the five categories of people you want in your network:

  1. Connectors – There are people in this world who love nothing better than connecting the right people together. They have a wide network. They have an intuition that tells them that you need to meet person “X”. They love to make introductions. Pay attention when they connect you with someone – they most likely are right! And know who they are so that when you are wondering “Who can help me with this?” – your connectors know exactly who you should reach out
  2. Advocates – Everyone needs people in their network that sing their praises. Who know what you do (or your team or company) and are witness to how well you do it. Who can be called on to be a reference for you, but who also spontaneously let’s others know they really need to talk to you because you are fabulous at what you do. Treasure these folks! And be an advocate for others.
  3. Allies – You’ll want to have a network that includes people who support the work you do and at times even want to work with you. They may have similar or complementary skills. They often share your world view and can help you advance the work you are undertaking. These are people you love to do work with.
  4. Supporters – These are the folks who raise you up; your rainy day friends and colleagues. They affirm you and support you emotionally. They provide unconditional positive regard. They cheer you on. And since leadership can be a lonely endeavor, you’ll want a few supporters on your side.
  5. Challengers – As opposed to your supporters, challengers cause you to think differently and deeper and better. They call you out. They provide unvarnished, but helpful feedback. They often are ahead of you in some way – and they encourage you to come up to the place they are. They can challenge your professionally or personally. But they raise the bar for you and cause discomfort – the kind that comes with growth. It’s easy to dismiss or avoid them. Instead treasure them – as they do what so few others have the courage to do.

A rich network that works for you will have a mix of all five categories. And not in equal measure, as advocates are most likely rarer (yet often more valuable).  And there are not neat little boxes. At times someone might challenge you mightily and then be your best working partner as an ally.

What is the Strength of Your Network?

In evaluating the strength of your network ask:

  • In what ways am I showing up for those in my network? Am I willing to advocate? Connect? Support? Challenge?
  • What is the mix of individuals I have in my active network? Am I missing some categories?
  • Am I spending too much time in my comfort zone (most likely supporters or allies)?
  • What can I do to build my network? To reach out? To help someone else?

Thinking about your network with this lens answers ALL the objections I listed at the beginning of this post:

  • One does not have to be an introvert to cultivate these relationships, for they are neither superficial nor totally social.
  • These networks are not developed at networking events; they are nurtured one action at a time.
  • The strength of your network is more about what you do for others, rather than what they do for you. It is about giving and knowing that others will give, when needed or asked, in return.
  • We all need advocates and connectors. You may do great work – but it won’t go farther than that if no one knows.

Leadership today is about connection – and collaboration – and networks. There are no great “stand alone” leaders. If you are going to reach your goals, you need a network – and with most things of value, that takes time.

If you want to enhance strong and deep relationships within your leadership team, talk to us about our leadership circles which do this by design (in addition to developing relevant leadership skills). We also custom design and facilitate leadership retreats where deep connections can be formed.


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