Words Matter

Even 15 years later, I still recall my eye-rolling. My long sighs. My suggestion that we just move on and get some “real work” done. And the rebuke.

The setting was one of those way too long, want to pull your hair out sessions with way too many people crafting a mission statement for the team. We agreed on the big points and were divided on the finer ones – the exact choice of words, their phrasing and even their punctuation.

This activity is something, in my mind, that should occur on the frequency of colonoscopies – every decade or so, unless it can be avoided.

My Comeuppance: Words Matter

My comeuppance in the moment was a senior leader, who looking directly at me, declared strongly that “words matter”. My more profound comeuppance has occurred over time as I craft key messages for my clients, as I write myself, and as I search for the right words to describe the transformational work I do.

I realize now, deep in my bones, that words matter. They matter very much.

And so I am much more patient in that search for words (and images as well) that convey what is intended. That communicate well beyond the mere arrangement of letters – into cultural connotations, into tone, into similes and metaphors, into that amazing place in our brains that transform symbols into thoughts and ultimately actions.

The collective search for those words can prompt robust thinking, give rise to compelling questions, surface differing viewpoints, lead to new insights, and ultimately create shared deep understanding.

Simultaneously, I’m sensitive to the situations in which we use too many words – creating complexity, boredom and confusion. I’m also sensitive to those times where there are too few words – creating doubt, insignificance and once again confusion.

Creating Clarity

I marvel at those times when there is eloquence, simplicity and clarity. I strive for those times. For in those times, there is comprehension, understanding and illumination.

The right words can send powerful messages without needing to be wordy. It matters if you describe your team as innovative versus improvement-minded. It matters if your team describes you as one that works hard or works with integrity. The difference between being customer-focused and being customer-obsessed is significant.

I would continue to submit that the grammar, spelling, and finer points can be taken off line. Just don’t allow the substantive work of searching for those words and phrases that describe you, your work and your products and services to be shortchanged.


The deadline is quickly approaching for the second annual Community Builders Award. The Community Builders Award recognizes and connects emerging leaders (between ages of 25 and 40) across the state of Indiana who are actively working to improve their leadership and the communities they live in.

Honor an emerging leader, today!

Three Sure to Fail Tactics for Surviving Today’s Work Environment

I don’t need to tell you that things are busy at work. You know it, feel it, live it. There is more work and fewer people to do the work. Your email box has reached its limit. You are continually asked to go faster. You are connected during work, after work, and perhaps on your vacation. You are bombarded with new information, processes, and industry breakthroughs.

When your to do list says 'everything', a sustainable solution needs to exist.No matter your industry, the story is the same. Restructuring, reorganizations, market changes, technology innovations and globalization have resulted in more work to be done by fewer people in shorter time-frames. As a result, many of us relay on three strategies to manage:

  1. WE GO FASTER
    We speed up, sometimes to warp speed. We dash between meetings. We charge through our work and personal life at top speed, barely able some days to catch our breath.
  1. WE HUNKER DOWN
    We come in early. We stay late. We eat lunch at our desk. Or we skip lunch. We take work home. We continue to find time wherever we can to squeeze in one more thing.
  1. WE FIND PRODUCTIVITY SHORTCUTS
    We multi-task. We automate our inbox. We download new apps and implement new technology. We search for ways to shave minutes, and sometimes seconds, from any “to do” list.

Any of these tactics, in the short term, can work. There are days we need to speed things up a bit. There are periods of time where we just need to hunker down and get through a busy patch. And who does not love to find ways to do routine tasks quicker and easier?

Our problem is that we are in a perpetual state of change, speed and turbulence. No matter how fast we go, we are unable to go fast enough to outrun it. We can only stretch ourselves so thin until we have nothing more to give. None of these three tactics are sustainable over time, especially when just as we speed up, our world does too. We are perpetually chasing something that we have no hopes of ever catching, let along conquering. We are the proverbial dog chasing the car, never able to catch it but caught up in the chase with every car that passes by.

Unlike the dog, we do not need to be trapped in chasing cars forever. Yet that requires the search for sustainable solutions. Ones that enable us to do what is most important while at the same time maintaining our physical, emotional, and social health. To do that requires a radical rethinking of our work, what matters, and then great courage as we shed what no longer serves us well.

There are many ways we can radically rethink our lives and our work, and I’m going to focus on one, here: shedding. The notion comes from evergreens which shed old foliage incrementally yet constantly. This enables them to continually bring on new and healthy growth and makes them one of the hardiest plant species on earth. Due to the one-needle-at-a-time nature of this process, we never notice that this is happening, yet the deep carpet of pine needles on the forest floor are testament to just how much has been shed. Imperceptibly. Painlessly. Continually.

In a culture in which more is perceived as the goal, asking what we can shed seems a bit heretical. And so, we add work but never ask what work should go away. We are excited to bring on the new, yet never intentionally cull the old. We add new products and/or services, but fail to decommission the old ones; allowing them to slide into a slow death.

In my next post, I’ll go deeper into things you might shed. But for now, consider these questions:

  • What is your typical mental state of mind? What can you do to nurture a calm, peaceful and focused state of mind more often?
  • How much rest are you allowing yourself, including both sleep and “down time”? Is it adequate for your needs or do you find yourself tired and exhausted frequently?
  • When was the last time you really unplugged from work? From social media? How might you schedule time (even a day) to do that?
  • How many hours a week are you devoting to work? Is this a sustainable pace?
  • Are you able to focus on one thing at a time? If not, what are the prices you pay for multi-tasking?
  • Are you able to see things through to completion or do you have a multitude of projects in various states of progression? What is impact of having so much in motion at one time?

I’ve devoted an entire chapter in my book, The Leader’s Guide to Turbulent Times, to the concept of shedding. If you want a deeper dive, see Chapter 13.

Three Emails Leaders Should Never Send

Ahhhh… the allure of email. With a few keystrokes we can set things in motion, communicate with many quickly and easily, move things off our “to do” lists by putting them on other’s “to do” lists. It’s easy. It’s fast. It can be done at any time, just about anywhere, and from about any electronic device.

Ohhhh… the email traps we fall into. We think we are perfectly clear and then the resulting action shows us we were not. We respond to words only – and miss the emotional tone of a message. We rationalize that more people copied means better communication – only to be bombarded by the strange twists and turns as people begin to “reply all”.

Not all emails are effective.Augh… the angst we, as leaders, can cause with emails that should never have been sent. Damaged relationships. Time wasted on unproductive efforts. Email overload that is confusing at best and counter-productive at worst.

As a leader, you set the tone for communication in your area. What you do and say is modeled. An email from you carries more weight than those from peers. As such, your email etiquette and behavior can either help your team be more productive or totally trip them up.

Here are three types of emails that a leader should never send. And I do mean never!

1. Bad News

News that will elicit concern or negative emotions is always better delivered in person. This includes performance improvement feedback, customer complaints, and organizational realignments. Talk in person if possible. If not, call. Always deliver tough messages in person, where emotional tone can be discerned, questions can be asked and people feel valued as individuals.

2. Rants

It can be very tempting to fire off your emotional reaction to certain situations. Poor team performance. Upper management decisions you deem misguided. Customers, suppliers, regulators or other areas of the company that make your work difficult or your team look bad. Find other ways to vent; ways that do not create a permanent e-trail that can be misinterpreted, taken out of context, or forwarded on to others. Breathe. Take a walk. Write it on paper and throw it away. Then refer to #1 above.

3. Time Wasters

As the leader, you set the tone and others follow your lead. If you send one email of a cute puppy, you grant permission for others to send cute puppy emails, funny kitten emails, and who knows how many other time-wasters. If you gossip via email, multiply that by the number of people on your team.

Of course those are the obvious time wasters. There are many others to be aware of:

  • Sending wordy and poorly organized emails. Without doubt, it takes more time for you to write a short, concise, and clear email. It’s not easy, but taking an additional 15 minutes to avoid sending a vague and sloppy email saves much more time for everyone that receives it.
  • Sending an email without a clear direction. Is this for information only or do you expect action? If so, be clear about what action you’d like others to take, and set a clear due date.
  • Copying more than 3 people on the CC line. When you find yourself copying a long list of individuals, ask yourself why? If you can’t articulate what they will do with the information in the email, chances are they will not be able to either.

One of the most important things you do as a leader is to communicate, and to communicate well. Your use of electronic communication is vital as so much communication is delivered this way. Avoiding these types of emails won’t make you a stellar communicator, but will help you avert obvious mistakes.

Leadership is About Who You Are and What You Do

At times people are startled when I refer to them as a leader. “But I’m only an employee, a student, or a volunteer,” they say in protest. For they believe that leadership is defined by role, position, age or appointment. I don’t.

I believe leadership is about who you are and what you do. It is seeing a way to create a better future, stepping up to make that happen and engaging others in the pursuit of that goal.

Lily - exhibiting leadership at 9 years oldTo illustrate my point, let me tell you a story about Lilly. It is a story about a fourth grader in Missoula, Montana, who is making a difference to other girls her age around the world. It is a story of seeing a need, finding a way to make a difference, and engaging others to help.

Lily began making her birds in 2012 as part of a school project. The birds are sewn from scraps of fabric, stuffed and stitched together by hand. Then, two years later, Lily learned some facts that startled her as she read Malala Yousafzai’s memoir, I Am Malala: The Girl Who Stood up for Education and Was Shot by the Taliban.

This 9 year old was startled to discover that:

  • Not all girls get to go to school
  • 2 out of 3 people across the globe that have not been taught to read are female
  • Only $5 can send a Nepalese girl to school for a month

And so Lily and her sister Maizy decided to sell those colorful birds that they had learned to make, with the proceeds going to the Power of 5 Conscious Connections Foundation and the Malala Fund.

Girls that go to school educate their children to go to school which makes the world a better and more peaceful place,” Lily explains. “I hope that one day I will see more girl presidents and great leaders in the world, but it all starts with going to school.

To date, they have stuffed and shipped an amazing number of birds, raising serious money – which has resulted in many months of education for girls far away from Missoula. They also share their pattern for the birds to others, so the ripple effect is immeasurable.

That, my friends, is leadership. And it has nothing to do with age or role or position. It is within the grasp of all of us, if we choose to step up.

If Lily’s cause has inspired you, you can go to Lily’s Lovebirds to support her and her work.

If Lily’s leadership has inspired you, find something that needs to be done, created or righted. And just get started. Take small steps, over time, and you’ll be surprised about the big results that occur. Engage others, as many hands makes light work. But you must start!

(Many thanks to Linn Veen who shared Lily’s story with me.)

How to Cast Vision with Your Team

Hate to tell you, but if you are patiently waiting for upper management to proclaim their vision for your work and your team, it most likely is NOT going to happen. Or at least in the degree of granularity you might be hoping for.

We all want to have work with meaning – and as a leader, it is your job to help create that meaning. The good news is that each of us has the ability (and perhaps the obligation) to cast vision – for yourself and your team.

A vision without action is a dream.

Action without vision is a nightmare.

The notion of vision scares us at times. It sounds big. Pretentious. Unknown and unknowable. You might struggle with deciding what is “too big” and what is “too little”. I encourage you to acknowledge the doubts and plow ahead. I’d much rather put my effort toward a “too big” vision than none at all. And if you err by starting small, you will have at least started. Small steps are better than no steps.

Think of visioning in dreamlike termsIt helps me to think of visioning simply as painting a picture (or visual image) of where we want to head. And thinking of it in “dreamlike” terms allows me to be less precise than a goal, and freer to imagine what is currently unimaginable.

Vision starts with a BIG question. These are provocative questions about possibility. About envisioning a future you would like to create. Most importantly, it creates focus, energy and momentum forward.

Step 1: Craft an aspirational statement in advance

Then present it to your team. Begin with “What would it look like if… ” and then add on. For example, What would it look like if…

  • Our customers referred us enthusiastically to all their friends?
  • You went home every single day energized and proud of the work you do?
  • This was the best team you have ever worked on?
  • We had a 99% customer satisfaction rating?
  • Everyone in the company wanted to know our secret about successful innovation?
Step 2: Give everyone time to reflect on the question

Post the question in advance, giving those who need time to process a bit of alone/quiet time to think. 5 to 10 minutes is fine – too much time and people overthink it. When they overthink it, they tend to dial back.

Step 3: Dialogue and discuss

Allow time for the group to bring together their ideas. Structure the time so that everyone both gets a chance to speak and is listened to. Clarify that we are dreaming, not doing, at this point. It is OK to think about possibility and leave probability for another day. This is exploring, not committing. Although, in my experience, much of what surfaces actually is doable. And trust that the big ideas often can be adapted to fit your time/resource/energy limitations.

Step 4: Capture an image that illustrates your vision

This this image (of hands holding an evergreen in soil) inspires my vision to nurture leadership talent through Evergreen LeadershipTake the concepts, ideas, and phrases that surface and look for an image (or images) that capture the intent. Here is the key point: this is not about words on a flip cart or white board. It is about a picture, an image, or a metaphor. For example, this image inspires my vision to nurture leadership talent through Evergreen Leadership.

There are a number of ways to do this. You might:

  • Take a photo walk – Get out of the building and ask everyone to capture a photo that is a good image for the vision that is emerging. Share – and select one that resonates. Print it and post it. Make copies for everyone.
  • Create a collage or vision board – Gather up lots of magazines, art materials, some glue and scissors, and put the words and images that illustrate your vision on a poster board.
  • Agree on a generative metaphor. For example, Disney theme parks use the metaphor of a show. Employees are cast members. Customers are guests. There is a back stage. The metaphor can be used in so many ways to capture the experience Disney is wanting to create.
  • Have a variety of visual images and select ones that best illustrate your vision. You can collect your own or use the Visual Explorer Images from The Center for Creative Leadership.
Step 5: Begin to step into the vision

Create no more than 3 tangible next steps that can be done to make forward progress. These may be small and even exploratory. Insist that they are doable within 30 days and are done within that time-frame. In 30 days, review the image and the progress made. Pick three more. Repeat again, and again, and again. Pause quarterly and celebrate progress. You’ll be surprised at the momentum you’ll gain and the progress you’ll make.

Want some help doing this? Call me! We facilitate great retreats and visioning sessions.

Which is More Important – Dreaming or Doing?

I’ve had a heavy dose of visioning in the last 4 weeks. I led a 90-minute session on “Envisioning the Change You Want to Create” for TrueU.  Last Friday, I spent a visioning day with eight amazing women leaders led by Angie Nuttle of CorporateOD Strageties. This, on top if my annual ritual of reviewing the past year, envisioning the upcoming year, and setting goals. With the typical lull in work activity over the holidays, I am feeling I’ve been totally focused on dreaming and not doing.

I’ve seen firsthand the amazing things that can happen when you allow yourself to dream and to put some shape around that dream. People I’ve worked with to envision have started new businesses, traveled the globe, transformed relationships, moved into prosperity, changed themselves and the world around them.

Yet after a month that was rich with dreaming and light on doing, I am more than ready to move out of dream mode and into do mode. And I know that the order is correct – first dream, then do.

Folks get tripped up in this dream/do cycle. There are two types of traps:

Doers

Doers, who believe that dreaming is a waste of time. Far better to do something, anything. And oh, by the way, they are far too busy with all they are doing to take some time to pause, reflect, or allow themselves to imagine anything other than their current state of affairs.

 

Dreamers

Dreamers, who believe that what they think up will magically manifest itself once they articulate the dream in some manner. They create the vision board, sit back, and wait for good things to happen.

 

Both are dead wrong.

This Japanese proverb is a great summary:

“A vision without action is a dream.  Action without vision is a nightmare.”

Bottom line – you must be both a dreamer and a doer. Start with dreaming. It gives you something worthwhile to aim at. It sets your priorities. It ensures that you are busy doing the right things – not just things.  And then do. Work like you mean it. Set goals and milestones. Stretch yourself. Take a risk. Make a mistake or two and learn like crazy. Keep plugging away. Do something that moves you forward every single day – even though it seems small.

So dream a bit and then do a lot. (Keep your head in the clouds and feet on ground!) Repeat every day. You’ll be amazed at what happens.

Here are some past blog posts that may help you with both dreaming and doing:

The Hard Truth about Transformation

The Fastest Route Might Not be a Straight Line

When Planning Turns Into Procrastination

How to Overcome the Biggest Resistance of All: Your Own

Resolving NOT to make Resolutions

Do BHAGs Scare You –They Do Me!

 

Collective Wisdom or Collective Folly: What Do you Nurture as a Leader?

I often say “we are smarter than me,”… referring to the increased capacity, deep wisdom, creativity, and solid decisions that groups of people can make – as opposed to one individual acting in isolation. No matter how smart that one person is, in general they will be “outsmarted” but a group of people. That is, of course, if that group of people can work together effectively.

Briskin, Erickson, Ott, and Callanan examine the phenomena of group decision making in their book, The Power of Collective Wisdom: And the Trap of Collective Folly. They answer how groups can come up with novel and powerful solutions to intractable problems at times – and at other times wallow in cobbled together solutions that are amazingly awful.

In a world where our problems are bigger than ever, and where the world is increasing connected, and technology advancements are outpacing our ability to assimilate them, we need to find ways to do more of the former, rather than the latter; to come together in meaningful ways to find creative solutions and ideas.

ancients_gatheringSince the early days of humans, people have gathered together to seek answers. First around a fire, then around a table or in a forum. The structure of our democratic government is founded on seeking answers from diverse perspectives across the whole for the collective good. The founding fathers did this brilliantly, yet we see daily how our democratic processes have broken down in America – resulting in collective “folly” rather than wisdom.

Peter Senge describes collective wisdom as “most evident in quiet confidence that our “not knowing” is our strength, that the ability to ask deep questions is more important that offering superficial answers – and that imagination, commitment, patience and openness, and trust in one another will consistently trump IQ over the long haul.”

What distinguishes groups that operate in collective wisdom? They connect deeply, looking for the right action to achieve a higher purpose by inviting new perspectives and broader thinking. They do not rely on the single expert and instead mine the collective experiences. They don’t fragment into functional expertise, but seek integrated perspectives. They don’t isolate decision making, but invite and encourage broad thinking and reflection.

A quote I like from the book: “Wisdom arises in the gaps between what is known and unknown; in the small openings that allow new meanings and perspectives to take hold.”  To do so takes suspending what we think we know (expertise), thinking more expansively and honoring different perspectives and ways of knowing.

The authors share specific actions each of us can take to create the space in which collective wisdom can emerge, and warns us of actions that impede this process. Enabling collective wisdom to emerge is neither easy nor fast. It takes moving beyond our own egos. It takes the discipline to really listen rather than expound and defend. It takes getting comfortable with ambiguity, messiness and the unknown. It takes slowing things down and being comfortable in non-linear group processes.

If you are interested in helping nurturing collective wisdom in the groups you are a part of, you’ll want to do a deeper dive by reading the book. In the meantime, here is a short list of actions you can take to improve the chances that your next group decision will be grounded in wisdom rather than folly.

To Foster Collective Wisdom

To Foster Collective Folly

Group decision making that fosters wisdom - people engaged in the discussion Group decision making that fosters collective folly - people not at all engaged in the discussion
  • Create a safe space for people to share what they think. Welcome all thoughts. Encourage dialog. Thank people for their thoughts.
  • Punish people who speak up or offer alternative perspectives. Shut them down. Make fun of them. Sigh. Roll your eyes. Don’t invite them the next time.
  • Listen carefully to all perspectives & ideas with an open mind. Explore. Examine. Seek to understand what others are seeing and thinking.
  • As the leader, reserve most of the meeting for your agenda, ideas and solutions. After all, you know best!
  • Suspend certainty about existing views & beliefs. Be willing to challenge each other. Be OK with not knowing.
  • Never show vulnerability. Maintain a façade of being in control and all-knowing at any cost.
  • Invite a broad swath of perspectives, even if they don’t always agree with you. Include people outside your function. Ask who this decision impacts and create a place for them.
  • Determine in advance who agrees with your ideas. Invite them to the meeting so as to get to agreement quickly and easily.
  • Ask compelling questions that may not have an answer. Things like: What is the most important aspect of this? What are we not seeing? What is the best possible outcome? What are we not discussing that we should?
  • Tell don’t ask. Asking is a sign of weakness.
  • Look at the situation from a variety of viewpoints. Ask who is not in the room that needs to be considered. What does this look like in 6 months? In 6 years? In 60 years?
  • Remember, it is every person for him/her self. Protect your turf at all costs. Do what moves your area forward.
  • Welcome all that arises. Focus on getting the best solution rather than the most expedient one. Get comfortable with different. Get comfortable with silence. Get comfortable with discomfort.
  • Run a tight meeting. Don’t get distracted by those that try to divert you from where you are headed.
  • Invite and encourage alternative points. Talk them out respectfully. Have the tough conversations in the meeting rather than in the hallway. Trust that when the right solution emerges, there will be unity.
  • Don’t allow dissention. Insist that everyone agree – even if they don’t.
  • Allow quiet or reflective time for something new to emerge. Plan for it. Give people time to gather their thoughts. Breathe. Slow down for the important decisions. Know that slowing down when needed enables you to go faster later on.
  • Have your outcome firmly in mind before you start the meeting. Use the meeting to explain and assign action steps – nothing else.

Your choice – which path do you want to take?

Demonstrating a Commitment to Inclusion

My 3 year old granddaughter, Aubrey, has always had firm ideas about things. What she wants to do and who will do it with her. Where everyone should sit, including the coveted seat next to her. How things are done and what things must be lined up exactly “just so.” And most of the time, being a good natured grandmother, I comply. But I must admit at times I find myself telling her to stop being so bossy. And each time I do, it gives me pause. For I have to wonder if I am reacting to being told exactly what and when to do things by a toddler or if I am subtly reinforcing the notion that girls should be more passive and nice – and that bossy girls are not OK.

September 2013 cover of Harvard Business Review magazineSheryl Sandberg confesses in her book Lean In that as a child, she would much rather organize the play than play. And she, too, reports being chastised for exhibiting traits that would be seen in a young boy as strong, assertive and evidence of natural leadership.

The September 2013 issue of Harvard Business Review caught my attention with the headline: Emotional – Bossy – Too Nice: The biases that still hold female leaders back – and how to overcome them.

What isn’t Working

A summary of credible research on gender and leadership point to the following:

  • On average, women make up 53% of entry level employees and 40% of managers – yet only 24% of Senior Vice Presidents and a paltry 19% of C-suite executives.
  • A Harvard Business School experiment asked college students to rate equally qualified job candidates for the same position. The information packets including information that both were parents, one a father and one a mother. While fathers were not penalized at all, mothers were less likely to be recommended for hire and even if so, offered $11,000 less citing assumptions they were less competent and committed.
  • Pay disparity is greater than the norm in sales roles, with women earning only 62.5% of male peers in insurance sales, 64.3% in retail and $66% in real estate. The conclusion – women are typically given inferior accounts and denied support staff, mentors and other performance enhancing aids provided to their male counterparts.
  • A number of studies show a trend of providing women more positive feedback and less constructive criticism, a form of “benevolent sexism” that women must be handled with care. The outcome: lower standards for women resulting is fewer promotions to higher level ranks.
  • In spite of women being rated equal to, and in most cases above, their male peers with 360-degree feedback on 16 leadership competencies, Zenger Folkman found that although women were found to excel in 12 of the 16 traits (and the higher the level, the wider the gap) – the higher the level the more likely men held a disproportionate number of the roles.

While the issue focused on women, we know that the results would be similar if the focus was on race or age or any other diverse population.

What is Working

The HBR series ends with a summary of “Practices that Make a Difference.” Here is a quick summary – you can click here for the full text.

  1. Measure diversity and inclusion Makes sense. What is measured matters. Hard to make progress when you don’t know where you stand.
  2. Hold managers accountable How companies did this varied from inclusion on performance management goals to hiring to having regular reviews of progress by area and putting diversity on the table in leadership meetings.
  3. Support flexible work arrangements Being in the trenches as both a working parent and a working child of aging parents, this is a make or break factor for many. I’ll work hard and long – but the ability to have some flexibility in how I do that makes a world of difference.
  4. Recruit and promote from diverse group of candidates Think differently, go to new sources, and move outside your recruiting comfort zones – for women and other minority talent. Attracting and sourcing talent is a foundation step that must be supported by the others on this list.
  5. Provide leadership education Ensure that your leadership development programs include women and minority participants. Find ways to identify and nurture emerging talent – either in our out of house. Doing so grows skill, confidence and visibility.
  6. Sponsor employee resource groups and mentoring programs Affinity groups (young professionals, ethnic minorities, women, LGBT) can provide a sense of belonging and resources across the organization. Being in the minority can be lonely – and affinity groups and mentors help.
  7. Offer quality role models And quality is the key – no tokens here.
  8. Make the chief diversity officer position count Your organization may not be big enough to have this role – but ask yourself the question of exactly who is leading this effort? Who is holding the leadership team accountable for progress? Who is promoting new efforts in this important effort.

diversity

No surprises here, all just good management practice. And it is clear that organizations that can create workplaces where all talent – no matter what gender, race, ethnic or sexual identity, or age – can bring forth their best, will be the best situated for success. However, I must admit that the work is long and hard – and progress is slow. But it is too important to waiver – for Aubrey and others like her, for our organizations and for our future.

So, I’d love to hear. What is your organization doing to tap into the potential that diversity and inclusion bring?

Workplace Hazing

Say the word hazing and we immediately think of college fraternities and high school locker rooms. The idea that if you want to be “one of us” there is a price of admission – sometimes embarrassing, sometimes requiring great sacrifices, sometimes acts of daring, and sometimes outright danger or death.

It’s not called hazing at work. It’s called things like, “just the way we do things here,” or “our culture,” or “orientation”.  None the less, many organizations have strange (and less than helpful) rituals designed to test new members before they become a part of the group.

These grueling initiation processes often are detrimental. Not only to the person experiencing them, but to customers, peers and the organization itself. Medical school is a prime example. Status quo in med school rotations require 30 hour shifts and 80 hour work weeks. This is in spite of conclusive proof that sleep deprivation diminishes judgment and performance dramatically. And so this form of workplace hazing puts professionals with the least amount of experience and knowledge AND with diminished capacity for clear thinking in positions that can literally have life and death consequences. All this in a field that has studied and knows the effect of sleep deprivation on judgment, mental functioning and physical health.

And it’s not just medical school. Here are a few instances I’ve seen:

  • A mid-sized consumer goods company who was desperately in need of fresh thinking and quick action. Their product was besieged by a fast new start-up and the red ink was both alarming and unsustainable. A long line of new leaders at multiple levels in the organization were brought in – selected for fresh thinking, fast action and the ability to get results, the very traits so needed. And one by one, these folks were ostracized and marginalized.  And soon they would leave – discouraged at their inability to be accepted and/or make a positive difference. The herd was being “thinned,” even though those being thinned were those most needed.
  • A professional firm that developed leadership talent via a series of two year rotations with sporadic and minimal transition planning. You either sank or swam – and that determined your ability to survive and to advance. It may indeed find the most resourceful folks – but begs the question of what might be the outcome of focusing that resourcefulness on a NEW problem or opportunity – rather than spending six to eight months desperately trying to determine what needed done in this job – that those who had gone before had already ascertained?
  • A manufacturing company who had an informal, but widely-used, selection criteria of walking fast during the job interview tour. The belief was that walking pace was a strong indicator of things like drive, speed and stamina. Never mind that most jobs were stationary. Never mind that there are some folks like me who go slower in new situations to absorb what is happening. None the less – only the fast walkers survived.

I’d suggest as new members are being vetted for fit into our groups, that we take a few moments and ask what really matters. If I’m a Marine, it is in everyone’s best interest to ensure that those joining are up to exceptionally demanding physical challenges. If I’m in aviation, I want to know that pilots practice handing emergency situations. If we need resourcefulness, are we providing newcomers with challenges that allow this to be tested on something that matters? If we need stamina, are we measuring that in indirect ways that don’t jeopardize customer outcomes? If we need new thinking, can we recognize that receiving those new ideas falls to us?

So I’m curious… have you seen (or does your group) test new members in some way? If so, did it test something that mattered? Or is it just a form of workplace hazing?

5 Things You Can Do to Become a More Agile Learner

Learning and learning fast is imperative today. Your ability to push past your comfort zone, acquire new skills, explore different ways of thinking, a willingness to learn from the old and move on to the new will define your success today.

Leave your comfort zoneBut how does one do that? Today I’ll share five strategies you can use to increase your learning agility.

  1. Stretch yourself
  2. Be OK with less than perfect
  3. Get feedback
  4. Reflect frequently
  5. Shed what is getting in the way

Let’s look at each of them in a bit more detail.

  1. STRETCH YOURSELF – and in a number of situations. Learning agility goes well beyond mental or intellectual horsepower. Consider stretching yourself socially by joining new groups or relating to folks that are NOT like you. Travel somewhere very different and stretch yourself culturally. Try being more vulnerable and stretch your emotional comfort zone. Read something outside your normal fare. Go to a lecture, a movie or a festival that pushes your comfort boundaries. Create something – anything. Take on a project at work or in the community that stretches your leadership or management abilities. The possibilities are endless. Pick one and only one to start with, so that you don’t become overwhelmed. But stretching is a muscle – and the more you exercise it – the stronger you become and the easier it is.
  2. BE OK WITH LESS THAN PERFECT – Remember that our comfort zone is defined in our head. And that the boundaries we have drawn are designed to either keep us looking good or at least not to look foolish. Remind yourself often that all first attempts at something new are awkward, less than elegant and only first steps to proficiency. Notice that you are really the only person fixated on you – most everyone else is fixated on themselves. Tally up the true consequences of a misstep or flawed attempt – and weigh that against the cost of being stuck in only doing what you do well. I think you’ll discover the risks are much less than you imagined, that you’ll stumble and recover. You may also find that the risk of stagnation is far more dire than any risk associated with growth.
  3. GET FEEDBACK – The surest path to improving your proficiency quickly is to get immediate and constructive feedback from a trusted and knowledgeable source. Seek out teachers, mentors, friends, co-workers, bosses, and peers that can both share what you are doing well and not so well and how to do things differently. If it is a technical skill – find an experienced instructor. If it is an interpersonal skill – look to a trusted friend or peer. Then ask for feedback, listen carefully and non-defensively, and thank them for their gift.
  4. REFLECT FREQUENTLY – Pausing to reflect, think, and readjust is the one of the most powerful things we can do to improve our performance, our mood, and our self-awareness. It costs nothing other than time, yet we rarely take advantage of this strategy. It doesn’t take much time (try 10 minutes), but it does take intention and practice. There are many ways to do this. It might be quiet time in a comfortable space, it might be reflecting in writing, it might be yoga or meditation, it might be a quiet walk or run, it might be any number of other ways that enables your mind to settle and think. Find what works for you and repeat daily!
  5. SHED WHAT IS GETTING IN THE WAY – Too often it is not the act of learning something new, but holding on to something old that is the biggest thing that holds us back. At times, this old stuff just precludes us from trying something new; at other times it cements us in unproductive thoughts and actions that sabotage us. A quick example – we had a good friend who lost a very specialized job that paid quite well. He clung to the notion that with new opportunities he should be paid equally well, in spite of the fact that his technical skills were not transferable. He turned down many opportunities at a slightly lower pay rate but with upward potential. He was so stuck in his belief about pay that he never did take another job, missing out on the opportunity to earn more over the long haul. Today he is bitter and struggling on a partial retirement – all for the sake of failing to shed his belief about what he “should” be paid. So – when you find yourself resisting or defensive or stalling – ask yourself if there is something else at work. Are there ideas, attitudes or beliefs that you must give up to move forward?

So I’m curious. What can you do to stretch a bit – even if it is just a starting point? Share your thoughts – and inspire others to do the same.

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