Written by Ed Cook.
Recently, I successfully defended my dissertation. That sentence is an incredible understatement of my emotions. The lead up to the day of the defense was laden with anxiety. Despite the assurances of certain success from so many friends and family, I was not certain. As I waited in the hallway for the committee to deliberate, talking with the friends and colleagues who had come to watch the presentation, I was fatalistic about the future. I hadn’t had that feeling since I was on the deck of aircraft carrier having completed my initial landings aboard the ship and now waiting to hear if I had passed. I mused over my fate: “Well no matter what I’m a pilot that has managed to land on a carrier, a tailhooker. That can’t ever be taken away.” Barely before getting into the back of the jet, the instructor said over the comms system, “Clear on the canopy, Cook you qual’ed!” I let an involuntary and joyful scream that had to have penetrated my oxygen mask, the Plexiglas canopy, and the jet noise all around. That was some Joy at Work!
As the door opened and my adviser stepped out, he said, “Congratulations, Dr. Cook.” I managed not to yell in the halls of the VCU School of Business but my smile was as big as it had been on the aircraft carrier. The committee congratulated me, and I thanked them. The weight of an eight-year labor to build these ideas had ended. My degree was a Ph.D. in Systems Modeling and Analysis but my dissertation was about Group Decision-Making. Ironically, I now had a significant decision to make that would involve several groups: “what to do now?” I had already begun teaching at the University of Richmond and would continue to do that. The Change Decision was continuing to grow and there was more work there. But what else? Fly more? Learn to draw? Start rowing on the James? Write a book? Publish in academic journals?
So many possibilities. Fortunately, for the immediate, I pushed all that aside and went out with all those friends to grab a celebratory drink and a night of rest without having to wake up thinking about the next step in the dissertation. With some space to think of the question: “what’s next?”, I remembered my watch-word for this year: balance. I had been so focused on so many things that parts of my life were squeezed out. Now I could balance. So the specifics remain to be seen, but I will do some of all of these things, but at a pace that respects the need to balance.
Written by Ed Cook.
For much of my corporate career, I have heard: “feedback is a gift.” I think it is a gift I’d prefer to give back. Apparently, I’m not the only one. In their new book, Nine Lies About Work, Marcus Buckingham and Ashley Goodall discuss the growing distaste for feedback, at least feedback as it has been practiced for the last several decades. They point out the charged and emotional nature of feedback and how that can be detrimental to guiding improvement. I have certainly had the butterflies-in-the-gut feeling spread through me after hearing, “I have some feedback for you.” My anticipation is that the next phase will not be about how wonderful I am but rather a portrait of my shortcomings. With my emotional wall up, almost nothing of any value can penetrate. But maybe that protection is good. After all, what is feedback? It is certainly not an objective and universal view of my performance. At best, it is a perspective that provides insight for me. At worst, it is simply wrong.
There are two people involved here the feedback giver and the feedback receiver. In a slight nod to Lois Lowry’s cautionary book, The Giver, I’ll refer to these two as the Giver and the Receiver. Let’s look at feedback in a different way. First, from the Receiver. I’ve come to think of feedback as this:
A reflection of how your actions compare to my idealized self.
This has a few important points worth considering when you hear feedback. First, feedback is not objective. It is not even about how the Giver would do something. It’s how they would want to do something if they could do it at their hoped-for idealized level. This certainly does not make the feedback invalid, but it does not make it The Truth. It is simply a point of view.
Second, from the Giver. Nine Lies about Work has something useful to say. Only give directive feedback when it is about the facts or the steps in a process, like “our process is to always call the customer back within 3 hrs.” As long as that is objectively true (as in written down somewhere) that is useful feedback. If not clearly verifiable, then the Giver would do better to describe the impact it has on them, as in, “I feel like I get a better result when I call the client back in 3 hrs.” This is not directive. This is an expression of feelings. It lands softer and is easier to take on.
Feedback will continue to be an emotionally loaded topic. So perhaps we would be better off thinking of it as explicitly so. Instead of taking it on as The Truth, the Receiver can recognize that it is laden with the emotions of the Givers’ notion of an idealized self. Instead of giving it as The Truth, the Giver can recognize the power of expressing the impact the Receiver’s actions have had had on them. With these subtle changes in perspective, something more useful may transpire.
Meaning Inspired by Mission
Written by Ed Cook.
Is there anything that brings on the overwhelming urge to yawn more than a corporate mission or vision statement? This is supposed to be the company’s description of what it means to work there. It is the expression of purpose. But, (yawn)... it is often an example of mediocrity and stale wordplay. What makes me incredibly sad is that people crave purpose. Everyone, customers, employees, the lunch lady, everyone. And it is not all about money, as in cost for customers and pay for employees. It is deeper. Dan Pink’s book, Drive: The surprising truth about what motivates us, illustrates the impact of intrinsic factors like autonomy, mastery, and purpose as much more powerful drivers than money.
If everyone desires an expression of purpose, then companies would start to describe that purpose in a statement that has meaning, real meaning. But how?
One way NOT to do this is with Corporate Mad-Libs. I love this phrase! This is the corporate jargon version of the Mad Libs” books born in 1958 where you inserted adverbs and nouns and other parts of speech to create funny stories. Every corporate citizen knows about these (lack of?) purpose statements:
These are meaningless. Worse, they pretend to have meaning when clearly they do not. They are corporate blather, insipid rhetoric, dunderhead inspiration. I could go on with the Mad-Libs but you get the point. One way to tell if your purpose statement is useless is to state it as the opposite. If it’s foolish, then your statement was not all that valuable. For example:
We will maximize shareholder value. >> We will minimize shareholder value.
Of course, the opposite is idiocy, so why say your purpose is to maximize shareholder value. It doesn’t provide any direction for decision-making. It doesn’t inspire. It doesn’t do anything of value. These statements meet the test:
To get more specific, these are vision statements. They describe the bold future of the organization. The mission statement has the particulars of how a company does this and for whom. The two statements are linked because the vision statement should inform the mission statement. I like the three vision statements above because they do not get bogged down in the industry specifically. They are bold statements of something well beyond themselves. The mission statements, however, do speak to the industry and the specific customers. They provide more of the guideposts to make decisions.
I’ve previously written about the “Leadership Bubble” as a way to help employees grow and learn. The mission statement should be a tool that helps the leader determine how tight or loose the bubble should be because it provides the markers of success. By bringing their employees minds back to the mission statement, leaders can help focus the work that they do making them more successful as individuals and the mission more likely to be fulfilled. The vision statement should be the thing that gets people interested in coming to work. A vision statement can even be for a project. In Roxanne’s post: “How To Lead A Change You Dislike And Win For Your People,” she guides a leader through the process of dealing with their own feelings about a change. What if they were inspired by the change instead of turned off? The leader’s energy would flow through to the team. A well-crafted vision statement can do that.
Letting Go to Make a Ruckus
Written by Lauren DeSimone.
This past July I participated in Seth Godin’s altMBA. The altMBA is designed as an alternative business course for “high-performing individuals who want to level up and lead.” Seth Godin calls these individuals ruckus makers because they’re enrolling in the altMBA to learn how to instigate change within their companies and communities. When describing my experience to others, I often said, "It's like going to human school and learning a bit about business.
Each altMBA session brings together a class of 100+ leaders in a virtual workshop setting for four weeks. It is a 30-day sprint during which leaders complete three projects a week, give feedback to peers on their posted projects, and share reflection summaries in response to the feedback they received. It is 30 days during which smart minds from all over the world thoughtfully challenge their peers’ best ideas. Each week’s projects originate from prompts that encourage one to think, read, and write expansively – with humility, courage, generosity, and no judgment.
One prompt in particular, “Make Good Decisions,” was pivotal for me. It enabled me to open my mind to new, future possibilities by way of letting go of outdated or erroneous frameworks. These frameworks had anchored my decision-making and consequently inadvertently narrowed my vision. I learned to see that the truths informing my thoughts were actually influenced by emotional narratives. Once I saw them for what they were, I learned how to reframe narratives to reflect actual realities.
To do this I first had to understand a few core tenets:
Learning the importance of reframing narratives, detaching my emotions from outcomes, and recognizing agents of change all help me make good decisions. When I say good I mean objective, rational, deliberate. This enables me to let go of constraints I didn’t know existed, tap resources I didn’t know I had, and see opportunities that I had overlooked. In letting go I gained the autonomy, creative license, and possibility I need for making a ruckus in our wild world.
Written by Ed Cook.
With one quarter remaining in the year, it’s an opportune time to think about how to lead your team to the end of ”two-thousand-greateen” so that you achieve greatness.
These last three months can be a pivotal time of year. Vacations are finished. The press of work and the hustle for families has returned. It’s easy to get lost in what is right in front of you instead of concentrating on your end-of-year goals. Don’t let that happen. Engaged teams emerge or vanish in opportunities like this.
Team Engagement is the pinnacle of leadership. It’s the end result of a process that guides each person to their place on the team, so that they can find their personal fulfillment in the team’s success. This makes Team Engagement a completely different beast than Team Building.
Team Building is discovering more about the members of your team; what they enjoy, their creativity, or their competitiveness. It comes through playing bubble soccer, and attending wine and cheese pairings, or even a team lunch. For a great place to find these kinds of events, check out Occasion Genius. And, while Team Building is valuable, it is not Team Engagement. Done well Team Building can create connections where true Team Engagement can begin to form. Done badly, it is a sugar pill for teams that creates the expected high and then the inevitable crash. Team Building answers the question: “Who are these people?”
Employee Engagement is about the individual and how that team member finds personal fulfillment at work. An engaged employee is more likely to be able to contribute to an engaged team which makes your focus on the employee important. To get to Employee Engagement a manager needs to spend one-on-one time with an employee to understand from where that personal fulfill can come. Employee Engagement answers the question: “What do these people need?”
Team Engagement answers the question: “How do these people find joy in the team?” Team Engagement is the lightning in a bottle that many of us have experienced on a sports team, theater group or hopefully somewhere in your work. Team Engagement (like so many things) is something you know when you see it, but there are signs.
There are three signs of Team Engagement:
But if these are the signs, how to achieve them? We will focus the rest of this year’s newsletters on just that question. But for now, the first necessary step is totally with you, Awesome Leader. You need to embody the three signs of Team Engagement. As Roxanne has often said, for a team to change, the leader must change first.
Your first assignment is to reflect on the level of truth for you Awesome Leader in each of the three signs of Team Engagement. Think about how that truth came to be. Think about how happy you are with situation. Think about where you would like that to be by the end of the year.
Not just prioritization...balance
Written by Ed Cook.
There are a slew of books, blogs, and podcasts circulating that tout the value of prioritization. Essentialism by Greg McKeown, The One Thing podcast, even The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People by Stephen Covey all talk about prioritizing as the path to success. Yet, so many fail to achieve their desired success, why?
Prioritization may be necessary to make progress by placing your limited resources against what you most desire to get done in the short-term, but prioritization is not sufficient to achieve your goals over the long-term. For the long-term balance is a necessary component. Here’s why. Prioritization is a powerful tool against the distractions of the day. It helps direct energy to where it can lead to success of what is most needed now, and away from activities that may be be highly demanded or even enticing in the immediate but do not help achieve your goals of the day. Prioritization keeps social media at bay. It is a measure by which to judge if the excited employee, client, friend, colleague really has a “hot” item or are you just chasing after what is the most noisy, most obvious, most in-your-face.
What prioritization does not do is set a course for a fulfilling future. I mean the word “fulfilling” in its more literal sense. Truly full. Prioritization will often drive to great results in the area in which you are prioritizing, but what of the other areas of your life? It can be clear what the next most important thing at your job should be done, but how do you balance time with your family or friends? Prioritization does not have much to offer in letting go of doing that next assignment now and instead go have a long lunch with an old friend who you keep rescheduling, or read the next chapter of that book that you look upon longingly, or even the strategic planning you need to do for next year. Afterall, the word prioritization itself means to find “the first thing”. Getting that next deal done can readily score ahead of lunch with a friend. After all, that lunch can happen...tomorrow.
But of course tomorrow never comes, and people can end up prioritizing themselves away from their desires for a full-self. So in addition to prioritizing...balance. This can be a simple allocation of time and energy to the major areas of one’s life. Maybe it is 60% work; 30% family and friends; and 10% on yourself. Each person needs to pick the amounts for themselves, but the idea is once picked THEN prioritization can happen WITHIN each of the life areas. Do this both weekly and monthly, and the shift will be dramatic. It’s OK to move that lunch with a friend in favor of closing that big deal, but the lunch has to land somewhere else on the calendar. Actually land on the calendar, not have an intention to put on the calendar. An easy way to track this is to color code your blocks of time on the calendar so you can see if you are staying true to your intentions for balance.
I have been checking my balance by counting activities. How many times am I going out a week to do a cultural activity, how many times that are just hanging out, how many times with family. I have pushed this into the business as well. How many networking coffee meetings. How many events. And for myself how much am I reading. How many times am I going flying. How many times am I exercising. Tracking these events gets the same result for me and is easy to track on a color-coded calendar.
This issue of our newsletter announces Lauren DeSimone as the first new member of The Change Decision. In part, having Lauren engage with us is an attempt to balance. We balance not only what Roxanne and I are doing for our clients but also balancing the skills and energy that we can bring. As different as Roxanne and I are yet complimentary, Lauren brings in even more dimension (and raw awesomeness) so that we can have even more impact.
Good luck with your efforts to balance and achieve FULLfilment in what you desire for yourself and all around you. Let us know how it’s going.
Written by Roxanne Brown.
There are lots of times when I’ve thought (exasperated), why can’t I do anything about this?!
I read endlessly about change. I’ve advised countless executives and practitioners on the ways and means of getting change done. I’m constantly thinking and talking about it. No kidding, I’m oddly fascinated and adore the subject.
And yet when it comes to some things I work on personally, it just doesn’t matter how much I know. So frustrating!
My conclusion? Sometimes you just need a little outside help to get what you want. I know, I know, not particularly insightful and a little self-serving. Definitely not my intent!
What I can share that may be of use to you are a few resources that can help -- the things I turn to when I’m working on something I really, really want. So, here you go…
A tool of my own:
Sending best wishes for getting what you want most this year!
Focus the struggle
Written by Ed Cook.
On February 14, 1990, the scientist of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) turned Voyager 1 around to face the solar system. The spacecraft was just beyond the orbit of Neptune and on it’s way toward interstellar space. While out there, Voyager 1 took what came to be known as the "Family Portrait," a series of photographs of Neptune, Uranus, Saturn, Jupiter, Earth and Venus. At the press conference Carl Sagan, at that time a "rock star" scientist because of his popular books and television series, "Cosmos," said,
"We succeeded in taking that picture [from deep space], and, if you look at it, you see a dot. That's here. That's home. That's us. On it, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever lived, lived out their lives. The aggregate of all our joys and sufferings..., every saint and sinner in the history of our species, lived there on a mote of dust, suspended in a sunbeam."
The photo of the Earth became known as the "Pale Blue Dot."
Capturing these photos was heralded as a defining moment in humanity’s struggle to understand the world and itself. But not everyone was so joyful.
At the time, many of the scientists at JPL were adamant against risking a shot so close to the sun that it might damage Voyager’s camera as well as the use of Voyager’s precious fuel to create photos with no scientific merit. This was a stunt in their minds. More publicity than public science. In fact, Carl Sagan had to go over the heads of the scientists at JPL (some had been working on the mission for over 20 years) to the Administrator of NASA, Richard Truly, to force the issue.
But outside of the scientists themselves and those curious enough to read the books and watch the documentaries, no one remembers that struggle. Just the pictures are remembered. Those striking thought-provoking pictures. You can see them here: Family Portrait
Often projects that are considered a huge success in hindsight were a struggle all the way to completion. Recognizing the value of the end result and not the strife on the way there, is a key for leaders to maintain strength and push out doubt. In fact, it is the ability to engage in struggle that creates the conditions from which greatness can emerge. Squash all dissent and team will atrophy as their muscles to handle a difficult question are unused. Foster the struggle, guide it, and a high-performing team will emerge.
This happened for me in a large team program. The leaders were "bickering" (or so I labeled it), but as it was happening Roxanne texted me, "This is great! They’re working it out!" That totally set me back on my heels. That was not my interpretation, but as I reflected, I could understand that she was right. The team was in the struggle, working it out, and in the process getting stronger. Had I squashed the conversation, it would have sent the message that I was concerned primarily about harmony or even worse that I was indicating some opinions are more valuable than others. Instead, the team stayed in this mode of struggle and I kept them focused on their purpose. In the end, we completed the program successfully. It was great, but it was never easy.
I have failed and (re)learned this lesson every year of my career. It is as difficult as it is powerful. Focus on the struggle and the clarity of purpose (your team’s purpose) will emerge.
It's Lonely at the Top
Written by guest blogger Tracey Sloan.
It's lonely at the top. I used to hear that phrase, and think "Really? You got THAT far, and now you're complaining?!" Fast forward a few years (okay, two decades), and I hate to admit it, but, it's lonely at the top.
I am in a senior leadership role in the transportation industry. Not so senior that I have my own floor, or even keys to the Head Master Chef's Boardroom. But I am invited to the table, and I have a role and a team that allows me to dream big and create something absolutely fantastic for the future.
In years past, I was a little spoiled. I'd led communication, change, strategy, operations, training...well, all sorts of teams. In most of those occasions, I grew up through the ranks, and had plenty of time to invest in building great, productive and positive relationships. Relationships I could tap into in a pinch, for a word of encouragement, or a quick cup of Joe to talk through a challenge du jour. And my team, who'd I'd essentially grown up with, was there for me, anytime and always, and me for them. I got to a place where I could just share an outcome needed with a direct report, and BOOM, they delivered, just like that. On time; high quality; minimal guidance required. Guess you could say I was livin' the dream, from a leadership perspective.
In my new role (four months or less; still a babe in these woods), I know no one. Goose-egg. Came to the company new to everyone; no familiar faces or places in sight. I was fortunate enough to meet a small handful of people in my interview process, and in the first couple of weeks, I began to build a small tribe. Unfortunately, they have day-jobs, too, and can't be there at my beck and call, just because I'm feeling lonely or need a little encouragement or peer interaction. One of them even made clear that this was not a role he was even remotely interested in playing. Um, okay.
So lest you think I'm just crying in my proverbial Wheaties, there's a positive angle and some light coming (because living in darkness is just not my thing). While it's been difficult to navigate this career change, I've grown a tremendous amount in just four months. I've learned that all workforce cultures have their ups and downs, their smiles and frowns. I've learned there is always good to be discovered, and bad to be worked through. Pursuing perfection is a waste of time and life. I've learned I do much better when I remain present, and embrace the now. If you stay hopeful, and encouraged, good things will come back to you, even when you aren't sure how that's going to happen.
Recently, I had several back-to-back, high-stakes, high-visibility meetings and deadlines. Testing the new kid, I get it. They were all hitting at once, and there's only one me. Out of sheer and utter necessity, I had to let go of one of my deliverables, because I knew it would go to pot out of sheer neglect. So, after weighing my options, I took an uncalculated risk and delegated 100% of my very first All Hands to my direct reports. It had been years since they'd all been together in one place, so this was an important event. I challenged them to work together and design an event that would be informative, interactive and inspirational. I warned them that I would essentially just be showing up, and they'd be fully running the show. I then proceeded to work ridiculous hours on making sure the other efforts I was managing were on track.
When my team arrived early to set up for the big day, I was finishing up my last big meeting, which unfortunately ran two hours late, and both meetings were in the same room. This reduced their set-up time to seconds, not minutes, with eager-beavers waiting in line to get in. I prepared myself mentally for a complete debacle, realizing it would be my fault if it tanked, for leaving them in a lurch. Boy, was I wrong. The team didn't miss a beat; they put on an amazing show. The team was engaged, thinking and laughing-out-loud, like never before. Prior to this, I'd experienced my team more as a group of talented solo artists, and here they were working together, as a thoughtful and free-flowing symphony, with all but a standing ovation at the end.
Here I gave them this task out of pure necessity, and they delivered something magical, better than I could ever have imagined. The lesson was on me. I learned to trust that your team has your back, even if they're just getting to know you. That they can take - and even welcome - a challenge. That home runs happen when people are inspired, not over-coached. And that Stephen Covey was right when he said people will rise to whatever expectations you set. I just needed to get out of their way.
Since this day, I've seen my team through a whole new lens. I think we've gained mutual respect and understanding, and see the value of the diverse gifts each person on the team brings to the table. I give them more space, and greater degrees of freedom to lead. In response, they are lighter in their steps, stronger in spirit and leading with a renewed sense of creativity and determination. And me? Well, let's just say, it's not so lonely at the top anymore.
Written by Ed Cook.
What is trust? And, why do we want to build it? These may not have the easy answers the simplicity of the questions suggest. Let’s start with trust. We place our trust “in” things and people, like, “I’ll put my trust in this old car,” or “I’ll put my trust in Angela,” or even “I’ll put my trust in God.” We talk about “my trusty pen,” or “umbrella,” or “screwdriver.” But how do we even know we have trust? The one key characteristic of trust is that it is something given, as in, “I give my trust to you.” It cannot be taken or really even earned. The origin of the word itself is from Old Norse and means strength. In giving trust, you are giving your strength to another. A powerful gift.
As to why would we want to build trust, especially in a team situation, the value is clear. The team is stronger. This makes sense if the team is thought of as the collection of connections between the members of the team. The collective strength of those connections are the strength of the team. Building trust is team building.
This definition provides a guide to the activities that will truly build the team. These activities cannot be merely episodes in the life of a team. Although ropes courses and team outings and, yes, even trust falls can create comfort between team members, they cannot create trust. These efforts are more of a quick, sugar high. Tasty but it doesn’t nourish. This is particularly true when the team is working mostly through virtual means.
One of the ways to build trust is for each of the team members to express to all of others the unique value they bring to the team. Then the other members of the team tell that person what they appreciate about them. This Appreciation Exercise is something we have done with many teams and the results continue to surprise us. In a simple exercise like this, people who are normally emotional rocks will tear-up as they hear what others appreciate about them. In many cases, they did not realize the value that others held for them. Trust was implied but not expressly given. A video meeting is a perfectly good way to do this for a team that must work virtually.
This brings up the second way to build trust, use video. Effective human communication relies strongly on audio and visual information not just the conceptual content of the message. So a phone call is better than an email, and a video conference is better than a phone call. Making sure that the message is fully received is certainly important in the giving of trust. How sad it is to mean to convey your trust only to have the receiver miss the message because of the limits of the medium.
The third way to build trust is the most obvious and most difficult. It must be given. Since Trust is a gift, it cannot be earned by the team member on the other end of the video chat. It must be given. In that gift, you are strengthening the team and increasing the chances of your own success. This is the key to strengthening a team...trust me.