Turn that Filter On

Kind people know all about filtering their thoughts. They understand that being “themselves” is a threat they must take pains to spare everyone else from experiencing—especially anyone they care about.—from The School of Life Kindness Prompt Cards

I hear a lot these days about “being ourselves,” about authenticity. We’re living in an era of divulgence. The more unfiltered we are, the more “real” we are. When I work with individuals and organizations to clarify their core values, “Authenticity” is often one of them.

But “Kindness” and “Connection” should show up, too. The quote above reminds me that sometimes one value has to take precedence over another. If being authentic means being unfiltered, we’re liable to put our other values in jeopardy and damage relationships. In coaching leaders and managers, it’s obvious to me that the biggest reason someone gets fired or managed out of a job is because of their inability to manage relationships well. That can have a range of symptoms, but not knowing how to filter their thoughts ranks at the top.

You’ve probably seen the aphorism, “If you propose to speak, always ask yourself: Is it true? Is it necessary? Is it kind?” This is easy to rattle off, but pretty hard to practice. If I apply this criteria to myself, I find I’m often speaking to be right, to be smart, to add too much value, to take airtime, establish myself as a little more superior or insightful than someone else. Filtering requires more time, more intention. Maybe enough that someone else will be prompted to speak up, and we will all be better for it!

In my work with clients and my interactions with my family today, I plan to repeat the mantra, “Kind people know all about filtering their thoughts.” Certainly, more kindness in our spheres wouldn’t hurt.

Taking time to be Strategic

I’ve been blessed to work with several clients lately who are taking time to be strategic.

I’ve never liked the term “strategic planning.” I find it redundant—isn’t all planning strategic?! And the term brings up a lot of baggage and confusion. How long should the process be? Is it expensive? Does it involved a lot of jargon and charts? Should the plan be 3 years? 5 years? 10 years? (I know the answer to the last question—not 10 years! Things change too fast these days.)

Here are a few things coming up for me as I work with clients:

It’s hard to resist the immediacy of operational problem-solving. This is the biggest reason groups and organizations aren’t strategic. There are too many fires to put out, and putting them out is often easier than thinking about the future!

It’s astounding how little time most organizations spend aligning their work with their long-term priorities. It takes senior leadership getting into a room together frequently. It takes time. It involves disagreement and questions no one has an answer to. This is uncomfortable for most of us. Or we consider it a waste of time because the results aren’t immediate.

Being a strategic thinker isn’t everyone’s strength. And that’s okay. These decisions are best made in a team, anyway. I’ve been hired before to help a manager “become a more strategic thinker,” and learned the hard way that it’s not a gift everyone has. Certainly some key people in your organization need to have this strength, but not everyone does. Look for those folks and pave the way for them to use their skills.

Without clear mission, vision, values, and goals that are articulated clearly and often, organizations suffer. I often coach leaders that it’s their job to sound like a broken record. What’s clear to them about strategy and direction may not be so clear to those around them.

Keep it simple. Lots of organizations in my orbit practice the “one-pager” approach. After getting input and having rich discussion, what emerges is a one-pager that articulates mission, vision, values, and key strategies. If you dig around, there’s usually more beneath that by division, department, or role, but the one-pager keeps people pulling in the same direction.

Strategic planning can be whatever you want it to be. Something is better than nothing. Don’t wait for a big, fancy expensive process. Start with getting some decision-makers together and asking, “Who are we? What do we do? For whom do we do it? Why is it important?” And then you’re off to the races.

So me encouragement to leaders and organization is to have fun dreaming about the future! Take the time, do it together, and see what unfolds.

Keep Going

I have a favorite print by Nikki McClure titled "Process." It's hands pitting cherries over a bowl.

How I hate process, sometimes! I want the cherry pie. I don't want to stand in the kitchen for an hour, my fingers getting stained with cherry juice, and wait for the pie.

But, of course, there's no pie without first pitting the cherries.

I could say a lot about enjoying the journey--maybe putting on some favorite music or talking to a friend on the phone. Or trying to have a mindful moment with all the juice and the pits.

Maybe I'll enjoy the journey or maybe I won't, but the pie is still worth it. I like instant satisfaction and success. I like to know that things are falling into place, and quickly. I've been thinking so much this week about Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., about the Civil Rights Movement, and how long and hard African American folks worked (and are still working) to see justice and equality. And I often remind myself of Dr. King's admonition that "Faith is taking the first step even when you don't see the whole staircase."

I watched this video this morning--Barack Obama and John Lewis talking about MLK's assassination and the work that went on after that. Congressman Lewis describes some Klan members coming to him decades later and asking for forgiveness for violence they perpetrated against him. Decades! I always want hearts and minds changed instantly. That can certainly happen, but sometimes it takes decades. That cherry-pitting (and much worse, of course) goes on endlessly.

If you're persevering for something you care about, something that brings more healing, justice, mercy, kindness, equality, integrity, forgiveness, or love to the world--you are in good company. And keep going. That cherry pie is going to taste good for someone, even if you're not around to eat it.

Take Things Personally

I'm guilty of giving the advice, "Don't take things personally."

How realistic is that, though? If we're honest, we DO take things personally. If we care about our work, our impact, our relationships, I really hope we are taking things personally.

But by "person," I don't mean "ego." I don't mean your personality. I don't mean the part of you that's fixated with image, perception, working it. I mean the part of you deeper than that, the part that can't be lost or harmed. The part that longs for things, that wants to connect with other people. The "you-ness" way down there.

That part of us actually can't grow unless other people tell us how they experience us. We can only go so far on our own. Criticism hurts and stings. But most of us, as Adam Grant points out, drop people from our lives the second they criticize us. What a lost opportunity! What fragile egos we have! Dropping people from our lives can look like:

  • Telling on them to HR
  • Making a team against them, gossiping about them to other people
  • Cultivating a well of resentment and bitterness
  • Actively maligning them
  • Maintaining a fantasy that we're blameless
  • Defensiveness: Avoiding, blaming, denying, deflecting

If we were to take things personally, in the best sense of the word, we'd do these things instead:

  • Ask questions. "How did that hurt you?" or "Why was that disappointing to you?"
  • Be on a constant quest for improvement--actually view criticism and hard feedback as gifts
  • Make right relationships with people the cornerstone of our lives. One of my tests for myself is, "Is there anyone in my life right now that I'd avoid at the grocery store?" If so, I try to see what I can do on my end to make things right.
  • Regularly ask for feedback. "How am I doing at being your boss?" "What's one thing I could do that that would improve my relationship with you?"

It's this magic combination of being both tough and tender at the same time. Try it. If you find that hard or ridiculous, find someone who can help you--a coach, therapist, spiritual director. You won't grow without it.

There is no Formula for Leadership

Despite the millions of books on the market about leadership, there is no formula.

If you're a leader and you care about serving your constituents well, you will have some sleepless nights. You will regularly face moments when you don't know what to do. You will often have to make choices between less-than-ideal outcomes, and you will surely disappoint people. You will forget to thank people you really appreciate. You will doubt your abilities, you'll feel incompetent, you may fantasize about having a rote job that no one notices or expects anything of.

All of that is normal. What sets great leaders apart from the rest isn't that they don't feel any of those things. It's that they have learned to manage their doubts, anxieties, or responsibilities in a way that's mature, in a way that actually inspires those around them, in a way that still esteems service more than anything else. "Calling" is one way to talk about this. If you feel called, pulled, inexorably nudged to say "yes" to leadership, you'll continue to have what it takes, moment by moment, to serve. If you're doing it for the perks or the acknowledgement or to satisfy an ego, you're in for a bumpy ride. You won't ultimately have what it takes to inspire and empower those around you.

I'm thinking of all the leaders I'm currently working with right now. Some leading large organizations, some leading small ones. Some in government, some in small business, some in non-profits. I'm envisioning for them a week where they feel connected to their calling, where they have what it takes to make hard decisions, to pay attention, and ultimately, to find joy and purpose in their work.

When your Personality isn't Enough

Our fascination with personalities doesn't seem to be diminishing at all.

Myers Briggs, Strengthfinders, colored parachutes, and my favorite, the Enneagram. We like them because we're eternally fascinated with ourselves, with those around us, with what makes us tick or what motivates us. And we can learn so much from these tools.

But, if we're paying attention, there comes a time when we can't as much mileage out of our personalities as we used to. Maybe you're a goal-driven person, but you're realizing that setting more goals doesn't feel as satisfying anymore. Maybe you've focused on being correct or good your whole life, but that's losing its effectiveness. Maybe you've been the life of the party, but that's getting exhausting. Maybe you've relied on your creativity to get things done, but you're running out of ideas. Maybe you've been known as the one who always helps others, but you're starting to realize you have needs of your own.

Around the second half of our lives (40-ish, for most people), we have a choice to make. Are we going to just start working harder? Or are we going to go deeper? Are we going to keep revving that tired old engine of our personalities ("That's just the way I am!"), or are we willing to grow more comfortable with negative emotions like fear, rejection, shame, sadness, grief, and anger? Are we willing to slow down, name what we are experiencing, and sit with it? Are we open to operating out of our Essence instead of our personalities?

This isn't the kind of thing we can put on our calendar for Monday morning. It's an adaptive process with a step or two forward and many steps back, sometimes. But boy, is it worth it. The longer I coach leaders or clients who are at a crossroads in their life, the more I bear witness to the amazing folks who've chosen to go deeper, to risk operating out of a more sustainable well than their personalities. On the other side of that scary process? Joy. Freedom. Wisdom. Discernment. Truth. Forgiveness. Integrity. Beauty. No way there but through, though.

What's Inspiring you Lately?

What's inspiring you lately?

For me, so much.

A business owner who asked for feedback about his leadership, heard some hard things, and kept listening.

A young woman who's coming to me for coaching and said, "I feel like I've gone as far as my default way of doing things will get me. I want to try something different."

Another business owner who, despite the fear and pain of it, is taking steps to dissolve a partnership that is no longer serving his business or his employees.

A basketball coach at my son's high school who took the least skilled students from tryouts, formed a team with them, and clearly had more fun that all the other more senior teams.

A client who's decided, after many conversations with me and much deliberation, to retire before she's stayed too long.

What's the next right thing for you? What could happen if you step into that clearing?


The Myth of the Grand Opening

I've been a Seth Godin fan for a long time. I find him to be a very helpful and wise navigator in the swirls of pop culture, trends, and the ongoing task of figuring out what's important and what's not. This interview has stuck with me for several years, especially his question, "How few people can I influence and still be able to do what I'm doing tomorrow?" When I was starting my practice, this was profoundly helpful.

He's launched a podcast, and this first episode carries forward this favorite theme of his. Don't wait for the Grand Opening! Don't wait for Oprah to discover you! Don't toil away in secret, counting down until the Big Reveal.

Instead, follow the energy of Yes, as Meg Wheatley or Shonda Rhimes would say. Do the next right thing, as Glennon Doyle would say. "Just get out there and do your best," as all parents say to their nervous children. Get feedback along the way, share your fledgling ideas with people you trust, be willing to fail. And call off that grand opening!

All Work is Meaningful Work

I'm working with a client in the grocery biz, and I asked managers to collect stories about memorable moments with guests. I'm collating and going through them this week, and I've cried every time. Stories of bakers, service deli clerks, meat cutters, and checkers doing things like delivering groceries to homes, giving guests rides home because their car broke down, getting together last-minute Thanksgiving dinners for struggling families, finding a way to bake 100 dozen donuts for refinery workers.

I always say that the phrase "meaningful work" is redundant. All work is meaningful if we are bringing our full selves to it and providing for ourselves and our families.

I'm especially inspired today by everyone who works in customer service, finding the energy to dig deep and keep serving and smiling even when things are hard or less than rewarding.

Mike Rowe (of "Dirty Jobs" fame) advises vocational seekers not to follow your passion, but to "bring it with you." In the career coaching I do, my clients can labor under the idea that there's a job out there that will completely satisfy their every longing or utilize their every gift or strength. The bad news? There isn't such a thing. The good news? You probably have what it takes to be happy and fulfilled in more settings than you might imagine.

These amazing grocery store employees have reminded me of that, especially the reality that our most profound and fulfilled moments usually come when we are serving others.

Knowledge vs. Wisdom

I've been listening to Rob Bell's podcasts on the Wisdom Tradition lately. He makes the joke, "Have you every wondered why such smart people tweet such dumb things?" It's because they lack wisdom. They might know a lot of things or have great expertise or technical knowledge, but that's not the same thing as wisdom.

So much of my coaching and consulting work is helping my clients create pathways to wisdom, helping them nurture an inner environment that's hospitable for wisdom to grow. I've often wished I could just "DO" wisdom the way I do the dishes or create a workshop, but there's no such thing. It's cultivated through a lifetime of self-awareness, seeking feedback, and humble learning.

Here are some ways to sleuth out whether you're chasing knowledge or wisdom:

Knowledge can be memorized. Wisdom must be developed. Becoming wise is an adaptive challenge. There's nothing you can memorize that will make you better at it, no "Tips and Tricks" that can be cut out of a magazine or posted on Facebook. It's human nature to want 10 Steps to Betterment, but the path to wisdom is longer and messier. This is why having wise elders and mentors in our lives is so essential. They have been on the planet longer and are further down the path. (With some exceptions. Wisdom is always a choice, and we don't get it just because we age.)

Knowledge gets you a high test score. Wisdom doesn't keep score. I've read so many autobiographies of wise, influential people who say something like, "I was never good in school." (Most recently, renowned neurosurgeon James Doty's Into the Magic Shop.) If they had compared themselves to those around them and taken that as the last word, we wouldn't be benefiting from their contributions now. Comparison is the enemy of wisdom. It traps us in the non-essentials, drowns out our own voice. Grades us on a curve.

Knowledge wants to get it right. Wisdom wants to enter into mystery. As long as we're preoccupied with getting it right (I know this trap very well), we won't be in awe. We won't experience wonder, the delight of the unexpected, the crazy way that things can shift and change for the better. I see a lot of leaders trying to control change instead of asking, "What's trying to happen here? How can I get out of the way and get curious?"

Knowledge talks. Wisdom listens. In my work, I almost never encounter anyone who says, "I'm not a good listener." We tend to think we're good listeners. But listening isn't giving advice. It's not thinking about our response while something else is talking. It's not even nodding in agreement, scanning for sameness or connection. It's truly being curious about the other, being open to outcome, seeking to understand, being together in differences. Leaders who get this are almost unstoppable.

In an age of divulgence, mass media, and branding, wisdom is prudent, discrete, quiet, steady. And worth the long road.

An Open Door Isn't Enough

One of the things I hear a lot from leaders is reference to an "open door policy."

Behind that verbage is a good-hearted desire to hear from staff and be approachable.

The problem is that having an open-door policy isn't enough. Usually, you'll end up hearing from two kinds of folks--1) Complainers who want to dump something in your lap for you to solve or 2) Extroverts who don't have any hesitation about walking through your open door. You'll be missing the introverts (and they always have the most thoughtful things to say!) and you'll probably be missing out on hearing the good things that are afoot in the organization.

This is where you need to employ what I call The Power of Invitation. Invite staff to give you feedback about how things are going. Seek them out. There are so many ways to do this. I suppose one of them is creating a survey and hitting "send," but try to avoid that one. Walk around and ask folks questions. Things like, "What's going well here right now? What's hard?" or "What's one thing you want me to know about your job?" or "What ideas do you have about improving things in this department/team/organization?" Set up lunch or coffee dates with folks. Use small chunks of time in regular meetings to ask broader questions about how things are going. Set up an actual or virtual bulletin board for staff to leave comments and questions. When you're in groups asking for feedback, do a go-around so you hear from everyone and not just the Talkers.

And, if you're still so inclined, you can also leave your door open.

A Little Help from our Friends (or Professionals)

Asking for help is something I’m big on. I talk to clients about the Power of the Request. I exhort friends to ask for what they need. I lecture my kids about asking for help instead of whining.

But here’s the reason we all need so much cajoling—it’s hard to ask for help! Somewhere, we have a misbegotten idea that we should be able to do things ourselves.  That asking for help is weak. That if we just had more resolve, skills, personal power, contacts, motivation, or smarts, things would fall into place.

Redoing this website has delivered a big object lesson when it comes to asking for help. On my to­ do list for a year, “Redo Website!!” was staring up at me. I made and cancelled plans to take a retreat and work on it. I made a clipboard for this eventual unit of work and hung it on my project wall. I told a lot of people it was about to be in process.

But I wasn’t motivated to do anything about it until the name of a designer crossed my desk and I composed an email to her: “I’m looking for help designing a website for my consulting practice. Are you available for a conversation? Do you have time to work on this in the next 3 months?” Mahria got right back to me, we entered a fabulous collaboration together, and you’re seeing the fruits of my request.

I’ve launched simple sites before. Technically, it’s within my sphere of knowledge to do this myself. But I’d moan every step of the way. I’d get stuck a lot, and I’d be uninspired or caught in the limitations of my own perspective. No matter how capable or successful we are, sometimes we just can’t do it alone. Or if we can, the product won’t be nearly as good.

Asking Mahria for help gives me some insight into what it’s like for my clients to ask for my help. Often, I don’t get a call or an email until something is really on fire—the board is dissolving, the morale has hit rock bottom, the organization has no clear sense of mission or vision. I think I get these eleventh hour calls because, when my clients started seeing signs of trouble a year or two ago, they said to themselves, “I can fix this.” Or “This will work itself out in time.” Sometimes that’s true. Lots of times, it’s not. They need a thought partner or a coach. They need a facilitator, a mediator, or a large group intervention that ruffles some feathers or encourages or opens up possibility. They need help! And the first, brave, terrifying step is to ask for it even if they don’t know what it look like or if it will make them feel exposed. I understand that vulnerability, and I take it seriously. It’s scary to open yourself up, to let someone else see into some of the hardest spots in your leadership or organizational life. But beautiful things are created that way. I’m ready for your request.

What we Focus on Grows

A client sent me a note in the mail recently. (I love snail mail. Always will.)

In in, she thanked me for helping her organization focus on what was going right, and said that focus left her "jazzed about next steps, hopeful for the future, and proud of the organization." And she quoted these lines from a book she's reading on Appreciative Inquiry:

What we focus on becomes our reality. If we focus on what is wrong or what is missing, we tend to see everything through that filter or frame. If what we focus on is magnified by our attention, we want to be sure we are magnifying something worthy.

A couple years ago, I was consulting to an organization that had an obvious "problem person" on its small staff. He made snide comments during meetings, rolled his eyes, and generally made folks uncomfortable. It was temtping to focus on him to the exlusion of the group. But the Executive Director of that organization, a very wise woman, would often say, "What we focus on grows. Let's move on to talking about our future and the things we all care about." 

I did happen to do some one-on-one coaching with this "problem" staff person, and his behavior and contributions improved dramatically. But I've always appreciated my client's reminder: "What you focus on grows." And what is it we want to grow?

In our personal and professional lives, we want love, kindness, and producitivty to grow. We want good leadership, good followership, and shared vision to grow. We want clear communication, helpfulness, and good planning to grow. We want flexibility, honesty, and wisdom to grow. So how much time are we spending focusing on these things?

In almost every meeting I faciliate, I begin by asking the participants to be reflective and appreciative in some way. Some of the questions and prompts I use:

  • What's the best thing that's happened to you this week?
  • What are you appreciating about your co-workers or team members?
  • What's a personal win you've had lately?
  • When did things go right in this group lately?
  • When have you felt most connected to your mission and purpose?

Sometimes clients share really huge things ("We launched our new program and everything didn't explode!) or sometimes smaller things, like "Kathy helped me transfer a patient to the Recovery Room" or "I pushed myself to try something new." Whatever is shared, it moves us beyond the quicksand of problem-solving and into a place of appreciative, creative thinking.

There will always be problems. And I'm not advocating that we ignore them or pretend that things are going well if they are not. But sometimes the road is long and bumpy--that's why they call it "work!" So we need this disciplined focus of "What is going right? And how can we magnify that?" Find some little way to try that this week and note the difference it makes for you and those around you.

Delivering Bad News

I met with a client today, and our goal was to plan for delivery of bad news--their annual employee engagement survey had come back with very low numbers, reflecting a hard reality in a pretty tangible way.

She told me about a time a few years back when they'd had these same sorts of meetings. An executive had visited to share the survey results with the group, and had tried in vain to lead a cheerleading session: "Come on, guys! We can get these numbers up!" 

I identify with that executive--wanting to infuse energy into the group, wanting to give them hope. As Winston Churchill famously said, "For myself I am an optimist — it does not seem to be much use being anything else." I do this work because of the hope I have for groups to be extraordinary. And I am an optimist.

But the worst thing you can do if you're going to deliver bad news to your employees is to act like it's not bad news. That doesn't respect them--their intelligence, their knowledge of the work, or their humanness. After coaching many leaders, here's a few things I've learned about how to do this with heart and guts:

  1. If it's possible, let the bad news rest with you for a bit before you share it. Work through your own feelings about it, talk to a friend or appropriate colleague. Have whatever sadness, anger, or confusion you need to have so you can be present for your staff once their sadness or anger kicks in.
  2. When you're ready to deliver the news, don't sugarcoat it. Be clear about all that you know at the moment and clear about what's yet to be discovered or decided. But don't just focus on the "head" stuff. Calmly (and calmness is important!) share with them how you felt when you understood or heard the news, maybe something like, "When I first heard this, I was really disappointed. I had hoped for a different outcome." Get the "heart" part in there.
  3. Walk the line between giving employees too much information, which can be anxiety-producing, or not enough information, which has the same affect. 
  4. You might not be able to express hope for the future. Even so, you can can express trust in your staff--in their ability to pull together when the chips are down, their history of facing obstacles, and simply the sort of people they are. 
  5. Follow up. Don't deliver a "hit and run" and just hope people pick up the pieces. Give updates, support other leaders to follow up, and have a plan.

Our "bad news" meeting ended up going well even though the news was still bad. Staff had a chance to process, give input, and just sit silently with one another for a few minutes. Sometimes the most we can offer is a little calm in the storm.

Exercising your Non-Preferences

I've been doing a lot of leadership coaching lately. It's one of my favorite things--important conversations with influential people, helping them inspire vision, lead change, or solve problems with their staff and organizations. 

I always begin my work my leaders with an assessment, usually by interviewing those who work with and for them. I get the privilege of hearing about strengths and higlights, and I also get to hear about growth areas. I'm always struck by how all of us are strong in some things and weaker in others. The leader who's a strategy whiz might need help being approachable or personable with staff. The leader who has familiar, warm relationships with everyone might not be the best strategist.

Can we be all things to all people? Absolutely not. What's powerful is when leaders are aware of their preferences non-preferences are. The challenge, then, is to begin exercising their non-preferences, noticing those moments and situations that call them to stretch. For the externally-focused CEO, this might mean she clears some time to take staff out to lunch or have unstructured office hours. For the chatty socialite, this might mean he spends time (and maybe gets some help) to focus on strategy.

I think of it as exercising those muscles that don't get much attention normally. On the rare occasion I make it to a yoga class, I'm aware of my muscles in ways I never was before! And reminded of all the amazing ways my body can flex and stretch when I'm intentional.

Leading well means staying fit and pushing yourself, sometimes till it hurts. 

Powerful Questions: What's Up?

I've had powerful questions on the brain lately, so I often find myself going through the day, looking for them. I've got an example for you.

It's from the mouth of an eight-year old, and I hope it illustrates that powerful questions don't have to be wordy, complicated, or erudite. In fact, they are usually the opposite.

For for my son Wyatt's birthday party, we took him and some of his friends on a hike. One of his friends, Kyle, was lagging behind and didn't seem as engaged as the other kids. I had noticed, but decided to let it play out a bit. Wyatt noticed, too. He looped back from his trailblazing, put his arm around Kyle, and said, "What's up with you?" Turns out, Kyle just wasn't in a hiking sort of mood and told Wyatt that. The result of Wyatt's question was that they both felt more at ease, and Wyatt stopped worrying about whether Kyle felt left out or unhappy.

What if Wyatt had asked, "Are you having a good time?" Not a horrible question, certainly, but close-ended, and giving Kyle much less freedom to really describe what he was feeling. Kyle could have said "Yes" or "No," and Wyatt still wouldn't have gotten any peace of mind about Kyle's behavior.

What if Wyatt had asked, "Why are you lagging behind?" "Why" is tricky--it can get you information, but the information you get is often given in defensiveness. It prompts people to overly explain their actions or motive or suspect you're trying to sleuth around. Often, it doesn't express the care or curiosity that you want to express.

In my work with clients, I often find myself asking a version of Wyatt's question: "What's going on for you right now?" And I get all sorts of revealing answers that explore possibility, uncover frustration, or help us know where to go next. What powerful questions have you noticed lately?

Powerful Questions start with "What"

Maybe you remember your mom or dad eagerly asking, "How was school today?" And you probably quipped, "Fine," threw your backpack down, and disappeared. I used to ask the same question to my second-grade son until I decided to start applying some of what I practice in organizations. So now I ask things like, "What happened today that was unusual?" or "What part of the day was your favorite?" Of course, he still rolls his eyes sometimes, but I've had much better luck with more interesting questions. 

 We can't get to the juicy stuff if we don't frame our questions in juicy ways.

I had the chance recently to work with a small design team, crafting questions for a conversation among leaders at a large healthcare organization. I was reminded of how hard it is to frame powerful questions! We worked for 90 minutes to come up with three questions, and even that felt very rushed. Using this amazing article as a guide, the questions had to: 

  • Focus on possibility
  • Create dialogue and connections
  • Catch people where they are--really matter to them
  • Be simple and clear
  • Generate creative thinking, not problem-solving
  • Touch a deep meaning
  • "Stick" with participants after the conversation was over

We're using the questions this week. I'll let you know how it goes.

Maybe the most practical thing I've learned around framing questions is the little word "What." You'reon the right track if you can configure a question to begin with What. It's much more open-ended than Why or How and doesn't prompt defensiveness or pat answers. And it's definitely not closed-ended, like Did, Do, Is, or Are. Those prompt just a "yes" or "no" answer, which isn't likely to lead to much discovery.

Try this on someone close to you--your child, partner, spouse, or friend--someone you check in with regularly. Instead of saying, "How are you?" try a more creative question, and begin with What. I think you'll be pleasantly surprised.

Meaningful Work

These days, there is a lot of talk about "meaningful work." Finding the right or perfect vocation has become a consuming pursuit for many. Career coaches and counselors are ready to charge you lots of money to help you discover the triple treasure of high salary, sense of higher purpose, and the best fit for your skills and personality.

I heard an interview with Mike Rose recently, who writes about intelligence, work, and the American dichotomy between "manual labor" and academia. He has a hard time with the concept of "meaningful work."  Yes, it's important to find meaning and purpose in our work. But isn't a job that puts food on the table meaningful? No matter what your job description is, isn't providing for a family or paying the bills a noble pursuit?

Yesterday, I had the pleasure of interviewing hospital staff.  My favorite interview was with a woman from the housekeeping staff who's been doing her job for 15 years.  She sat across the table from me and said, "I love my job.  I love the patients and watching the nurses do their work.  My opinions count here, and I take so much pride in my work." 

She's a housekeeper for a surgery unit. She empties bedpans, changes sheets, scrubs blood off the floor, and all sorts of other unsavory jobs. At the moment, she's not aspiring to be a nurse or physician's assistant or anesthesiologist. She's aspiring to be the besthousekeeper she can be.

In my job, I get an insider's view into lots of professions--utility workers, nurses and doctors, social workers, 9-1-1 dispatchers, managers of all sorts and stripes, fundraisers, architects, consultants, clerks, customer service specialists.  What sets the best apart is their definition of meaningful work, and it goes something like this:

  • I come to work every day and do the best job I can.
  • I'm committed to my work and proud of it even when I don't get recognition from others.
  • I find the human element in every situation and do my best to connect with it.
  • I make mistakes and acknowledge them and have grace for other people's mistakes.
  • I'm the one who is ultimately responsible for finding meaning in my work.

Work is such an elemental part of being human.  I hope you are finding meaning in your work, whatever you're doing.

Great Meetings: Design Tight and Run Loose

"Design tight and run loose." This is a one-liner that has the potential to save a lot of meetings from disaster, and a maxim I constantly keep in front of me when I'm working with groups.

What does it mean? It means you have a thoughtful, detailed plan, but you hold it loosely.  Still confused? If you're planning and facilitating a meeting, here are some tips:

Set aside time to build a relevant agenda, but be willing to stray from it. Have you ever been part of a meeting where someone says, "Well, we'll have to put that under 'new business.' I can see you are bleeding out over there, but we haven't allotted time for that." 

Plan for eventualities (like conflict or disagreement) without worrying about them. Some of us go into meetings hoping there won't be any surprises (or worried there might be), but without a plan to handle them if there are! This is the "design tight" part. What might surface in this meeting that's hard, uncomfortable, or unforeseen? How will you allow for that--even encourage it? What will you do if there truly is not time to stop and address it?

Train yourself to make realistic guesses about how long agenda items will take. You'll never get this 100% right. This is where facilitation is much more of an art than a science. But you can get better at it by noticing what happens in other meetings you're in and making your own notes while you're a participant or member in meetings.  This will help your "tight design" be closer to accurate, reflecting the reality of the group instead of just your own agenda.

In some ways, it's easier to design tight than to run loose. Anyone can sit down and write down a bunch of times and agenda items on a piece of paper. But it takes practice (and faith!) to be present to the group, managing the interactions according to what's most useful and relevant in the moment. I like the jazz metaphor--you've got to know the score before you improvise. The discipline make the improvisation possible. And the improvisation helps you keep loving the discipline.