Archive | 2007

Creating Our Own Great Adventures – It May Be Easier Than You Think

There are two types of adventure we can seek out in our lives.

The first is the grand version, which is what we usually equate to adventure. This is the bold backpacking trip through Costa Rica, sailing the Greek Isles, rafting the Gauley River in West Virginia, or just packing the car and setting off for a yet-unknown destination. These are experiences out of the normal flow of life. And for many of us who actually have responsibilities like jobs and children, these grand adventures are few and far between. That doesn’t mean they’re out of reach, they just may not happen as often as we’d like.

The second type of adventure can be found in the everyday. These experiences are accessible to each of us, it just requires more imagination and a willingness to think differently about what adventure really is. For me, adventure is about seeking out something new with some element of risk involved. It should get my heart pounding and evoke feelings of excitement and yes…a little fear. The everyday experience may then be chatting with a stranger (I’m kinda shy so this does get my heart racing a bit), volunteering for a meals-on-wheels drive (something I’ve never done before), or submitting an article I’ve been working on for magazine publication (I have no idea if my stuff is good enough).

Let’s see what adventures we can get ourselves into right now.

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Giving A Bad Relationship A Fresh Start

Thom Singer wrote a thoughtful post on how to revive a relationship that’s gone sour. He writes:

Sometimes it is easy when you have a large circle of friends and professional contacts to place the blame on the other person. Obviously the issue cannot be you, as there are many examples of folks who adore you….so the problem must rest with the other person. I disagree, as to have a positive relationship takes the effort of both people. Besides, taking responsibility to fix a bad connection is not the same as admitting guilt. Instead it shows you really care about your networking and are willing to give folks a second chance.

What I really like is the part where he says, “…taking responsibility to fix a bad connection is not the same as admitting guilt.” I think this is where we get hung up so many times. We hold on to the notion that in order to salvage a relationship, we always need to have an intense dialogue where we confess our past sins and then hope the other party does the same. In some cases, this course of action is unavoidable but I’d argue that its only for the most exceptional cases where feelings have been deeply hurt. For most of our relationships – particularly professional relationships – asking for a clean slate offers some strong advantages. Here’s how Thom cleans the slate:

I take a moment to let them know where I was disappointed in the past, but also own the fact that I cannot really know their situation, and that I do not need an explanation or apology, but instead I would just like to start over.

The greatest advantage of this path is that we’re way more likely to engage in this type of dialogue than we are if we choose to go into full confessional mode whenever a conflict arises in a relationship. Not only is the latter time consuming, it’s painful…and most of us want to avoid painful interpersonal encounters.

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In The Action Even When You’re Not

I heard a great story the other day which emphasizes how important our actions are…even when we think we’re not actually doing anything important. It involves the infamous Ice Bowl football game between the Dallas Cowboys and Green Bay Packers for the 1967 NFL Championship.

This game isn’t called “the Ice Bowl” for nothing. It was played at Lambeau Field in Green Bay, Wisconsin in December. The game time temperature was -13F degrees (-25C) with a windchill driving the temperature down to -48F degrees (-44C) making it the coldest NFL game on record. It was so cold that referees couldn’t use their whistles because they froze to their lips. To this day, some players still say they suffer from the effects of frostbite. It wasn’t just cold, it was bone-numbingly frigid. So, you can forgive some players for doing all they could to try and stay warm.

One key to the game came from the actions of a Dallas player, Bob Hayes, who was a wide receiver and considered one of the fastest men alive. Turns out his hands were cold (remember this is before players started wearing gloves) so when a run play was called, he shoved his hands in his pockets before the snap. When he did this, he communicated that he wasn’t going out for a pass and unwittingly tipped the Green Bay defense to play the run. In the end, the Packers won in dramatic fashion as Bart Starr scored the winning touchdown with 16 seconds left.

What’s interesting about this story is that it offers an example of how we influence the action around us, even when we’re not actually a part of the action itself. Everything is connected and we’re never truly out of the play…no matter if we think we don’t have a role in the action.

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Starting A New Career Story

Someone very close and dear to me is experiencing a challenge that’s rather painful and isn’t unique to just her career. She has approached a crisis moment in her professional path where she no longer wants to continue practicing what she has a Bachelor’s and Master’s degree in. Some folks may find this a liberating feeling. However, she’s not just feeling scared, she’s also experiencing feelings of guilt, confusion, and disappointment. In essence, she’s saying goodbye to ten plus years of studying, training, and working. But her truth is that she no longer has the passion for that career and now feels a calling to explore new professional territory. Maybe this sounds familiar to you. If so, maybe you’ve also struggled with these feelings:

A feeling that your degree(s) are worthless now.
Let’s turn this around and focus less on what’s written on the diploma and what the diploma represents. The learning undoubtedly changed you in both significant and subtle ways. Take me for example…I studied history as an undergrad and though I don’t practice it as a professional it still has had a dramatic impact on how I approach life. I think about problems differently, taking a more holistic viewpoint in order to see all of the interconnections and possibilities. Take some time to reflect on how you’ve changed because of your past experience. Then celebrate how it’s made you the unique person that you are.

A feeling that you’ve wasted (or are throwing away) a part of your life.
Again, let’s turn this around. Consider the full experience of this chapter in your life: the people met, friendships made, knowledge gained, and so on. We can get hung up on the very old-school notion of a linear career path which not only limits our career choices, but limits who we are. Think of life and career as an anthology. The stories contained in an anthology have a loose theme, but can be different in their plot. At this stage of your life, you’re just adding the next story.

A feeling that you’re disappointing people or not meeting their expectations.
This may be true. But you have to ask yourself…are you living for yourself or someone else? Are you living to your own unique purpose or someone else’s idea of what that purpose is? I know these are not easy questions to answer. However, something else to reflect on is whether this feeling is based on your own assumption that you’re disappointing others, or in fact, based on reality. Have you taken the courageous act of talking to these important people in your life – parents, partner, friends – about your decision? Many times, we project a feeling of disappointment onto other people when its being felt from within.

A feeling that no one will understand your decision.
This is another often imagined feeling that springs from a fear of being rejected. We think that if the important people in our life are disappointed in us, they’ll shun us or not love us. That’s a fear that’s hard to shake. Yet again, we have to ask ourselves if that’s an assumption we’re projecting out onto others or whether it’s based on reality. More often than not, the people that love us will support us – even if they don’t immediately understand why we’re choosing to go in a different professional direction.

An overwhelming feeling of anxiety about what’s next.
Some of you may have at least some idea of where you want to go next. Some of you may have no clue where to go…you just know you don’t want to go back to where you were. Either way, you likely know more than you think about the next story in your career. You just need some help.

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Build A Learning Culture With Learning Circles

Most organizations are chronically deficient at learning and it’s easy to see why. Learning takes time, patience, and healthy dose of curiosity – all qualities that are in short supply at probably 95% of all companies and non-profit institutions. When there is learning, it’s cloaked with best intentions in workshops and other professional development events. Don’t get me wrong…these ought to be a part of one’s plan to build a learning organization, but they are simply not enough. Without building the capacity to learn into an organization’s DNA, these events will barely penetrate the surface of how your people approach their work. What to do if you’re a manager or charged with leading your organization’s learning operations?

One action is to start a learning circle. Google learning circle and you’ll get a slew of resources. However, drill down a little further and you’ll find there are relatively few that address learning circles within an organization…particularly a for-profit company. Don’t let that stop you, though. If you recognize the importance of developing a learning culture in your workplace, here’s a framework to experiment with:

Rules? We Don’t Need No Stinking Rules!
Well, that’s only partly true. There should be no hard rules to the circle. It should be free to evolve as the needs of the group evolve. However, don’t take the “no rules” mantra as an invitation to anarchy. A successful circle needs a basic structure that provides a purpose for the group to exist.

Pack a Problem and a Yippee!
Each person in the circle must be prepared to bring two items to each meeting. The first is a problem. Even better than a problem is a mistake, but this takes some comfort with the group so don’t expect this at the outset. The second item is a Yippee!, which is an example of something that went well. It’s important that learning be a balanced process where both good and bad are reviewed and then celebrated.

Play 20 Questions.
Most people will want to instantly solve problems often without bothering to dig deeper into the actual issues behind the problems. Don’t let the natural tendency to problem-solve get in the way of the actual learning. Instead, put a question threshold into place. Insist that no less than 20 questions get asked before a statement can be made. This will spark curiosity and instill an investigative mindset that – done consistently – will begin to form a habit.

Spread the Learning Love.
Encourage the group to constantly share their learning outside the circle. Give them the tools and resources to create a wiki and a blog. By further emphasizing the importance of knowledge sharing to the whole organization, the circle will be more likely to build the discipline for recording what it knows (which can be so easily forgotten) and disseminating it to a broader audience of colleagues.

Cloning for Success.
While there may be a temptation to immediately initiate several circles throughout your organization, I’d encourage you to start small. Start with one group of four to five individuals and allow it to evolve for a few months. Then when the time is right, charge each pilot group member with starting another learning group with new individuals. This replicating strategy ensures that subsequent groups have a firm understanding of the circle’s purpose and get a jumpstart on the process.

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Creating Great Ands – Your Opposable Mind At Work

Monty Python and the Holy Grail

Chocolate and Peanut Butter

Moe, Larry and Curly

And so on, and so on…

Each of these are fine on their own. However, when one is added to another, a great alchemical melding occurs. It’s the integration of unique things into something quite different.

Too many times we limit ourselves and our choices by placing an ‘or’ between our options. Why not choose an ‘and’ instead? Because it’s just not that easy to do, particularly in the world of management and business. We like our options to be neat, our decisions to be orderly, our outcomes to be quick and well-defined. Yet this more logical and rational preference costs us more than we realize. It cheats us of our potential. Do you think Moe would be half as hilarious if Curly wasn’t there? And while chocolate is very good, the addition of peanut butter takes it to a whole other level (okay, that may just be for me).

I used to be an ‘or’ kind of guy. If someone gave me a choice between chocolate or vanilla ice cream, I’d make a rational choice between the two options. Then my dear wife entered my life and introduced the power of ‘and.’ When presented the same choices, she’d always reply, “Both.” The first few times she did it, I would say, “Wait, you have to make a decision.” Her response? “Why should I? I like both and they taste better together.” Guess what? She’s right. And by choosing an integrative solution she’s modeling a process that is essential in today’s business world.

One of the most influential articles I’ve read in Harvard Business Review was titled How Successful Leaders Think by Roger Martin. The article is a prelude to his book, Opposable Mind: Winning Through Integrative Thinking. His primary argument is built around the idea of an opposable mind. Like the genetic advantages we gain through our opposable thumbs (like holding a pencil, lifting large stone blocks, and catching a ride with strangers), we have an immense capacity to create new options through an opposable mind. Yet, we often veer toward the shallow compromises of an ‘or’ decision because of the mirage of comfort it yields. Martin writes:

We often don’t know what to do with fundamentally opposing and seemingly incommensurable models. Our first impulse is usually to determine which of the two models is “right” and, by the process of elimination, which is “wrong.” We may even take sides and try to prove that our chosen model is better than the other one. But in rejecting one model out of hand, we miss out on all the value that we could have realized by considering the opposing two at the same time and finding in the tension clues to a superior model. By forcing a choice between the two, we disengage the opposable mind before it can seek a creative resolution.

The next time you’re presented with two or more options, don’t be too quick in choosing one over all the others. Take a bit more time to play with the healthy tension between the ideas and follow the steps that Martin offers:

  1. Start by acknowledging that everything is relevant at the beginning. Rather than quickly dismissing what seems trivial or unnecessary, welcome the complexity of the situation. It’s from this place that the best answers will emerge.
  2. Consider how things are connected. Instead of choosing a path and immediately racing in one direction, take a step back and look at the whole situation. Find relationships, question assumptions, get curious about other possibilities.
  3. Take a systemic approach to making a decision. Martin suggests that we see “the entire architecture of the problem – how the various parts of it fit together, how one decision will affect another…The order in which you make these decisions will affect the outcome.”
  4. Achieve resolution by refusing the simple and segmented “either/or” model which only leads to compromised trade-offs and conventional options. Appreciate the natural tensions between conflicting ideas and seek a solution that creatively assembles the best of each option.

Yes, this might appear to be more difficult and more time-consuming. But if you truly want to differentiate yourself, your team, or your organization, then do something that few others are willing to do. When a problem arises today, get curious and wonder, “Wow! what would it be like if we put these different things together?” Don’t be surprised if it leads to some interesting solutions.

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Creating Our Own Magic

It’s spring break for my girls and what better way to spend it but at Disney World in Orlando, Florida. This will be Leah’s second trip and Katie’s first to the Magic Kingdom. This will be my third trip (first as a 7 year old, second and third as an adult) and it’s interesting to experience it again. It’s during this trip that I’m finally enjoying the park for what it is: a place where magic can happen. Yeah, I know…that’s rather naive and counter to the cynical notion of the corporate artificiality of Disney. But, magic can happen if we allow it.

As a kid, I remember being enchanted by the Swiss Family Treehouse located in Adventureland. What young boy wouldn’t want to live in a huge treehouse? Now, as an adult, I tried to relive that magic, but it was strange. The whole experience was just climbing steps to the top and seeing the Robinson’s sleeping quarters, a dining room, and a sitting room. I kept wondering if that was all there was. And for me, that was really all there was.

This morning, my wife got an email from a friend of hers who lives with multiple sclerosis. In their communication, Caroline mentioned that we climbed the Swiss Family Treehouse and her friend offered a whole new perspective on this place in the Magic Kingdom. Turns out that she was told she couldn’t climb the treehouse due to her condition. She laughed and replied that that was all she needed to hear. She got out of her wheelchair, slowly climbed to the top, took a few minutes to savor her personal victory, and then slowly descended to the bottom.

I can’t help but see that treehouse in a whole new light.

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If Leadership Was A Punctuation Mark, What Would It Be?

Ever work for someone who thought leadership was defined by an exclamation point? Ever get confused by your own leadership style and whether you should get folks to follow you through a series of statements ending with periods? Is there a reason I’m beginning this post using only question marks? Hmmm?

We can get caught up in the notion that a leader has to be commanding…commanding in a sense where you’re slinging around words, phrases, and sentences ending with an exclamation point (my daughter likes to call them “shoutty marks”). It might sound something like this:

“Bailey! Come here! And explain to me why Johnson is pissed off!!!”

Or perhaps, more often, we simply issue those commands with a bit more subtlety. Something like:

“Chris. Please come to my office and tell me what’s going on with Johnson.”

Another option? Yep. How about using that wonderful creation, the question mark?

“Chris? What happened to make Johnson so angry? And what’s your plan for making this right?

The first option isn’t going to win you any leader-of-the-year awards while the second might get you an honorable mention. The third one, though, leads to the gold medal round. The key is to get curious, which isn’t always easy or even the first thing we think of doing when something important is on the line.

Ask: is there something to learn here? And not just for you, but the folks you lead. By asking questions, you’re helping them learn from their own experiences. What may seem like an initial failure can turn into new opportunities. Use open questions (those that don’t lead directly to a “yes” or “no” answer).

Finally, all of this isn’t to say there are not times when every leader must emphasize their words with an exclamation point or nudge folks with a period. It’s just important to remember that questions are an essential part of a leader’s repertoire.

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Does Happiness Always Mean Getting Your Way?

The BBC had an interesting article yesterday called Why are Dutch children so happy? that went on to explain why the Netherlands was at the top of a recently published Child Wellbeing Report produced by UNICEF. (By the way, the United States – perhaps unsurprisingly – rates pretty much near the bottom compared to Europe and Canada). The lead-in to the article reads:

Dutch children have been rated the most fortunate children in Europe. Their parents go out of their way to please them, and teachers expect less of them than some of their European counterparts.

Well, that’s not exactly how the UNICEF report portrays the Netherlands, but does raise some interesting questions when we think not only about our own children (regardless of which country you call home) but own lives at work. How much is our own happiness tied to having things go our way? Can there be happiness in our challenges and struggles?

Let’s take this example from the BBC article:

18-year-old Ysbrand, a student in Helmond near Eindhoven, says this picture matched his childhood. He says that his parents spent a lot of time with him when he was younger. His mother stayed at home while his father worked.

But, he said the contrast when you get to 18 can be something of a shock.

“Now I’m left to look after myself,” he told the BBC News website. “My parents say that I need to care for myself and to be independent. It’s hard. I don’t have much money as a student and to go out is expensive. Beer, for example, is very expensive in the Netherlands.”

By focusing on what will make us happy right now, we postpone possible future pain. Not that we shouldn’t aim for joy in our life, but we need to be honest with ourselves and consider whether our present experience – even if it does suck – won’t make us a better person down the road. Sometimes we need to unhappy in order to learn how to be happy. I can certainly remember painful experiences in my life that were hellish in their own special way, but in reflection I’m so glad that they were my experiences. I wouldn’t be half the person I am today without them.

And I hope this doesn’t seem like I’m picking on the Dutch. Frankly, I don’t think the example of Ysbrand above is all that different from some of the experiences I’ve seen from fellow parents here in the U.S. The desire to coddle and over-protect kids transcends borders and culture.

Today, we’re challenged to look at our own happiness and determine whether that happiness is real or is simply deferring pain for another time. Ask whether that graduate degree that might be challenging and even painful to undertake might lead to a better tomorrow for you. Ask whether the pain of quitting your job might not be the first step toward finding your own soulful work. Remember that happiness sometimes means taking the hard and painful path.

Be well.

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We Learn So Much About Life From Death

Things have been chaotic and emotional for our family over the past week. On Monday, my wife’s grandfather, J.W. Starr (known to his grandkids and great-grandkids affectionately as Papop), died at age 85 after a very sudden diagnosis of terminal cancer. Turns out the cancer had been incubating silently within him for a while only to make it’s full presence known at the end. The time from when we first heard the heartbreaking news to the moment he died was less than a week.

Fortunately, my wife scheduled a flight a couple of days before he died and arrived in time to see him and hold his hand one last time. Shortly after he died on Monday, Caroline called me and told me to pack up the kids for the 1000 mile drive from Austin to Albany, GA.

That long drive-time in the car sparked an internal dialogue and reflection on Papop’s remarkable life and the wonderful legacy he left for all of us. He taught us so many lessons just through his simple actions. He modeled the values he felt were most important without ever needing to preach. He gave us the blessing of showing us how to live.

Have the courage to follow your faith even when it may not make sense to others
When he was in his early twenties, Papop volunteered for the military and fought in World War II as a bomber pilot in the Pacific. But before he completed his pilot training, he made the fateful decision to propose to and marry the love of his life, Mary Smith (who we all now call Mimi). Mimi held on to the letter that Papop sent to his own parents announcing his intentions and in that letter he acknowledged that their decision to marry may not make sense to their parents. In particular, Mimi’s parents reasonably feared that she might find herself a war widow before their first anniversary. However, Papop had faith that this was the right decision and knew that it was their love that would bring him home safely. Papop and Mimi were married for 62 years and their relationship is known in our family as “The Great Romance.” Together, they offered a model of what a strong marriage is for all who knew them.

It’s never too late to find your passion
One of Papop’s great legacies is his artwork. His paintings can be found in each family member’s home as well as the homes of art collectors throughout Georgia. He primarily painted landscape scenes of his life: the beaches, lowlands, and marshes of South Carolina and Georgia. As we sorted through some of his unframed works in his attic studio this week, we also discovered some lesser known works, such as portraits and still-life. The amazing thing is that this passion didn’t come out until he was much older. When we asked Mimi about how Papop started painting, she told us a story that surprised all of us. When she was a schoolteacher she had to grade papers. At that time, Papop enjoyed watching television, but it was distracting to her papergrading. So Mimi bought him some paints and brushes and hoped that this less noisy diversion would keep him busy. Turns out it not only kept him busy, but unleashed a vibrant yet untapped talent that inspired him throughout the rest of his life.

Soulful work can last a lifetime
After returning from WWII, Papop continued his education by getting a Master’s degree in Social Work and served as the Director of The Family Service in High Point, NC and then worked for the Federal Probationary Office in Macon, GA. Eventually, he and Mimi came to Albany, GA in 1952 and there he worked in his father’s typewriter sales business. Not too long ago, he retired, but continued to work in the Career Development Office of a local college. He often told us that his work helping young college students figure out their future plans was the most fulfilling work that he had ever done. Papop also gave his time to his church community that meant so much to him. For Papop, work wasn’t something to be shunned or avoided, but something that gave meaning to his life. It was his way of sharing the blessings he had with others.

These are just highlights. Putting Papop’s life into a brief retrospective is nearly impossible, though my sister-in-law managed to do this in what must be one of the all-time great eulogies ever delivered.

We talk about living a full life with no regrets. We talk about how to live in service to others. We talk about leaving a legacy behind us. It’s a blessing to encounter a role model who shows us how to do these things with grace, love, and humility. By reflecting on their lives, we’re challenged to find the magic in each day, to give far more than we get in return, to be the type of individual who makes a positive impact on each person they encounter. One way of thinking about Papop that has stayed with me is that it didn’t matter whether you knew him for an hour or a lifetime, he left a lasting impression that made you want to be a better person.

We all miss him and were blessed to know him.

John Walter Starr (1922-2007)

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