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.

Great Meetings: Turn and Talk

Sometimes I ask people, "What's a large group to you?" Some people say "Six people." Others might say, "Over 500 feels big to me." We all have different comfort levels where group size is concerned, and too often meeting facilitators or managers don't acknowledge that.

The tip I'm going to offer today, "Turn and Talk," makes the group feel a little smaller and brings people's best thinking to the surface. 

Before you introduce a topic for discussion (I hope there's discussion happening in your meetings, not just announcements!), give participants a chance to talk in pairs.  Let's say your project team is meeting and you're about to discuss whether or not to push a deadline back. Before jumping in, you can say something like, "Turn to the person next to you and talk to them about how this project is going for you. Do you need more time? What do you think is best for our customer?" Give the pairs 5-10 minutes to talk (depending on the complexity of the question), then bring them back together. You can either let people jump in with what they heard and learned, or you can do something more structured like have participants share with the group what they heard from their partner.

"Turn and Talk" Advantages:

  • The comments made in the larger group will be more articulate and more scripted
  • Everyone will have had a chance to "warm up," to wrap their brains around the issue
  • Conversations will happen that might not have otherwise
  • Participants who generally talk a lot will have been forced to listen for a few minutes
  • Participants who tend to be quieter will have had more airtime
  • You will almost certainly have an easier time making a final decision

P.S. I've been doing some form of this technique for years, but stole this term from my son's kindergarten teacher.  She used "Turn and Talk" to great effect with five-year olds that were reluctant to interact. If it can happen in that kindergarten class, I'm positive you can have some success with it at work!

Great Meetings: Open Warmly

I'm betting this is a familiar scene to many of you:

You arrive to a meeting at work. People straggle in, and everyone's already feeling like time has been lost by the time you start. There's shuffling papers, maybe some technology problems, people turning off their PDA's (or worse, not turning them off!).

So it would seem like a ridiculous waste of time to spend the beginning of the meeting talking about personal things, right? And, if you ask people how they're doing, you might get a lot more than you bargained for. So the safest route is to dive right into the agenda and get things done.

Don't do it! I have a better way! And it's easy! It's called "check-in." 

"Check-in" is a method to:

  • Build context for your meeting
  • Give the introverts at least one chance to say something
  • Be human with each other
  • Actually be MORE productive in your time together

It's not an "icebreaker." And it's most definitely not something that requires people to be uber-transparent, like a most-embarassing-moment story. It goes like this:

  • Tell your group you're going to start with a "check-in." If you get groans, ask them to agree to try it for a month and then evaluate.
  • Each person gets a chance to say "A word or a sentence about what's up for you today."
  • As the facilitator, model brevity. Something like, "I'm happy to be here" or "I had a great weekend with my family." (Notice that people can be as disclosing or non-disclosing as they want.)
  • There's no crosstalk allowed--no comments or questions on others' check-in's, just listening.
  • Go around the circle, and anyone can pass.
  • Start your meeting.

Clearly, this wouldn't be feasible for a 100-person meeting, but I've used it with 40 people and only cut 5 minutes into the agenda.  Spending a few minutes connecting to one another is never a waste of time.  Be brave and try it!

Great Meetings: They are Possible!

When my kids ask what I do for a living, I tell them I help people get along.

And go to a lot of meetings. Unlike lots of folks, I actually like meetings (partly because they're always in someone else's workplace!).  I find the dynamics fascinating. Edgar Schein, a pioneering voice in studies of organizational culture, says that if you want to understand a particular organizational culture, go to a meeting. Does the meeting start on time? Who talks first? Does it seem like people want to be there? Are people making decisions together or staring at a powerpoint presentation, eyes half-closed?

I'm going to do a little series here on effective and engaging meetings--a few observations and tips that might help you in whatever meeting you're dreading at the moment. 

Here's some basics:

  • Meetings are inherently social. A presentation does not equal a meeting! Presentations can certainly be part of a meeting, but don't call everyone together unless you plan to engage them.
  • Workplace meetings should have a facilitator. A facilitator is someone who "makes things happen with ease." They're not necessarily the content expert or the person with authority. They're the one who watches out for process.
  • Have a plan. Meetings without agendas can be a scary waste of time. You can even build your agenda together at the start of a meeting.
  • A participatory, well-run meeting is almost always worth the work. I've had lots of chances to collaborate lately, and am always pleased that what we come up with together is so much better than what I would have done on my own.

 What tips do you have for effective and engaging meetings?

Tears at Work

No one I know likes to cry at work. Awful! Everyone sees your vulnerability, you feel out-of-control. Maybe you worry about losing the respect ofyour colleagues. And you probably feel just plain stupid.

I've got some practical tips for people in both camps--the criers, and the ones who fall apart when they experience someone else crying.

First, here's my quick take on the phenomenon. As much as we might understand the merits of having good boundaries at work, we can't check our full, human selves at the door. In fact, doing that would make our workplaces less fulfilling and productive. For some of us, this means some tears sneak out from time-to-time. Maybe it was a taboo in the 1950's. It's not anymore.

One of the tricks to being a good leader or co-worker, though, it to maintain a non-anxious presence in times of change. That doesn't mean you never cry, but that you don't let your emotions--anger, sadness, frustration--set the tone for everyone around you. That takes maturity. 

If you're a crier:

  • Pre-empt the awkwardness. Make sure your inner circle at work hears something like, "I sometimes cry when I'm feeling things really deeply. I don't want that to bring things to a screeching halt or for everything to be organized around me. It's just how I express myself sometimes."
  • Find some strategies. Especially if you're in a position of executive leadership, you might consider some coaching around how your emotions come out at work. This doesn't mean you become wooden, but that you strategize around how to tighten up your boundaries.
  • Look deeper. Check in with yourself to make sure that your tears don't point to something else: Are you fundamentally unhappy at work? Are you exhausted? Are you fearful?

 If seeing others cry makes you squirm:

  • Resist the urge to fix. Know that someone else's tears do not require a solution from you. 
  • Resist the urge to interpret. Recognize that their crying probably doesn't mean the same thing as it might if you were to cry. 
  • Give your co-worker time. Let them say what they want to say or feel what they're feeling.
  • Later, give your co-worker feedback if appropriate. If this is happening dramatically or too frequently, let them know how it affects you.

The trick is to bring our regulated, authentic selves to the workplace. All of us are a work in progress on this front, I suspect. 

Becoming Seasoned

In my other life, I'm a cook. In that life, it's all about my new wok lately. A carbon steel wok costs around $30, and doesn't look like much when you bring it home. It looks pretty flimsy, actually. But then the work begins. The work of "opening" and seasoning your wok until it develops a black patina, a natural nonstick surface that will last for years and get better over time.

I can't help but think of all the metaphors embedded here. One of the prescriptions for seasoning a new wok is that it needs to be used every day on high heat--woks left in the cupboard might rust, and they definitely won't develop the coveted patina.  I've been lucky enough lately to do coaching work with a few folks who are serious about this seasoning business, serious about becoming more mature, about getting out there and making mistakes, using what they know and opening to the world.  

Here are a few things I'm noticing about "seasoned" people and what it's like to be around them:

  • They take their work very seriously without taking themselves too seriously.
  • They are focused on excellence, even if it means some of their decisions might be unpopular.
  • They aren't in danger of rusting from disuse. They're out there--engaging, making mistakes, paying attention.
  • They have often experienced deep loss in their lives and grown from it. 
  • They don't feel sorry for themselves, but they're not shy about expressing frustration if they need to.
  • They are intentional about creative pursuits and outlets in their lives.
  • They have a high ratio of questions to statements.
  • They take risks and know how to be spontaneous, but they've befriended structure and discipline.
  • They are deeply kind.

These aren't the sorts of things you can wake up on Monday morning and do. They say a wok takes 4 or 5 years to become fully seasoned. What?! That seems like forever to this impatient chef. But I have a feeling it's worth it.

How to Schedule a Hard Conversation

Here's a conundrumyou might relate to:

1) You have hard feedback to give to a co-worker
2) You keep waiting for the "right time," which never rolls around
3) You don't want to schedule a negative appointment and leave them worrying for the next week

First of all, if this describes you, give yourself a pat on the back for the courage and honesty it takes to give hard feedback and the fact you're willing to do it. That's half the battle.

And it's true--the right time will likely never present itself. Someone else might be around, or you can tell your co-worker's already had a bad day. Or maybe you're having a bad day, and you don't trust yourself to be at your best.

Here's what I do:

Me: Dan, are you available to talk for a few minutes right now? [This is the best option]
Dan: No, I'm just headed into a meeting.
Me: Okay. I'd like to find some time to talk as soon as possible.
Dan: What's up?
Me: Dan, I don't want you to worry, but I've been thinking about what how our meeting went last week, and I have some more thoughts about it. I think our conversation might be a little hard, but it's important to me that we have it. When can we meet?

Giving a quick "heads-up" like this certainly doesn't prevent me or Dan from worrying about the upcoming conversation, but at least he'll have some idea what it's about when he's lying in bed scripting it. If you don't tell people what the story is, they'll make one up, and usually it's the worst version. 

How to actually have the hard conversation is a topic for many more blog entries. Stay tuned!

The Power of the Request

These days, I'm big on what I call "The power of the request." Meaning, if you want something, ask for it! Don't wait for someone to read your mind. Don't get resentful because you're not getting what you need. Don't ask for things in a veiled, circuitous way and then be upset when you don't get them.

I have a client who wants to become a better manager. She already has the trust and esteem of her staff and colleagues, but there are some things she wants to get better at. So she knocked on the CEO's door with a proposal for hiring me as her coach. And what do you think happened? Her CEO said yes! 

The power of the request works for leaders, too. I've seen leaders facilitate whole meetings when they want to get a point across to one person. They'll hold forth on "Having a better attitude when we answer the phone," and cross their fingers that the offending person got the point. How much better it would be to sit down with that employee and say, "I've noticed you've been short with some customers on the phone. I'm worried about what effect that's having on our reputation for good customer service. Will you work on that?"

And many of us could stand to ask for help more often, whether it's at work or in our personal lives. I've discovered I have lots of people in my life who are actually waiting to be asked. When I've made requests of them, our relationship has gotten stronger and more reciprocal.

If you're drumming up the courage to make a request at work, here's a few questions to think about:

1) What's my reason for making this request? What are my motives?
2) What exactly do I plan to say? How can I make my request simply, confidently, and in a personable way?
3) What will I do if I hear no? How will I maintain a good relationship with that person?
4) What will happen if I don't make this request?

Happy Asking! Drop me a line and let me know how it goes.

 

Confusion and Renewal

The "Four Room Apartment" comes from Marvin Weisbord's Productive Workplaces, and he got it from the Swedish social psychologist Claes Janssen. It's a tool for visualizing where the potential energy is in a person, group, or organization. How much energy we have for change depends on which room we're in. And we're in different rooms depending on health, mood, external forces, or aspirations. No one room is "better" than another, but not all endeavors work in every room.  

In Contentment, we like the status quo. We're calm and satisfied. Any change--a merger, reorganization, new leader, market crisis--can move us into Denial, where we're perceived as unaware or afraid of change. That moves us through the door into Confusion. It's here that we muck around, make some mistakes, maybe feel a lot of emotion, do the hard work of sorting things out. And we eventually open the door to Renewal, feeling open, sincere, willing to risk.

I find this model very useful--especially the idea that Confusion can lead to Renewal. The metaphor I often use is that of a home remodel. You've moved out of denial ("Okay. We really do need a bigger kitchen") and you start gutting the place--pulling sheetrock out, ripping up the floors. It feels pretty horrible and chaotic, but you can't cook in your beautiful new kitchen until things have been torn apart. Things get worse before they get better. That's the assurance I was trying to give my team the other night.

As a consultant, my job is to be with people during change. Weisbord says much of organizational development (OD) work fails because we're focusing excellent methods on people living in Contentment or Denial. He says, "The seeds of success are sown in Confusion and sprout in Renewal. That's where people welcome flip charts, models, and OD techniques." And I love his advice about how I can be with my clients in each of the four rooms:

Contentment: Leave people alone (unless the building's on fire).
Denial: Ask questions. Give support. Raise awareness. NO advice.
Confusion: Focus on future. Structure tasks. Get people together.
Renewal: Offer help for implementation.

Much of my job in helping organizations grow toward wholeness is to recognize which room my clients are in and how I can be most useful to them there. What room are you in? What about your workplace? 

Know what your Empoyees Do

Larry, the President and COO of Waste Management (WM), oversees 45,000 employees in 50 states. He went undercover for a week as part of the CBS show Undercover Boss. He pumped outhouses, picked up trash from the roadside, sorted recyclables, and did a neighborhood garbage route with a driver. He was woefully incompetent at many of the tasks, often due to the efficiency standards WM imposes. He just couldn’t keep up. At the end of the day, he was sore and in awe of employees that did these jobs every day.

Joseph, CEO of 7-11 convenience stores, oversees 28,000 locations on 5 continents. During his undercover week, he mopped bathrooms, made coffee, worked the night shift with a delivery driver, and restocked sub sandwiches. At one store, he wanted to understand the secret behind sales of 2,500 cups of coffee a day. Was it the location? Was the coffee there particularly good? Turns out, it all had to do with Delores, a woman who’d been making coffee in the morning for 19 years. She knew everybody’s names, and was pleasant and speedy despite the 2 days of dialysis she endures every week. 

Larry and Joseph could have asked for spreadsheets about productivity. They could have hired consultants to give them a report and recommend changes. But then they wouldn’t have met Delores. There’s a much-touted management principle called “Management by Walking Around.” Of course, there’s a lot more to good management than that. But there is no substitution for getting out there, doing everything you can to really understand what your employees’ jobs are like. Who’s the Delores in your workplace that needs to be noticed?