It was such a vivid dream. I am racing through a mall at lunch time carrying lots of packages when I see a colleague from another department in what appears to be an upscale salon. She is overseeing a video shoot featuring our CEO. (In my real world, every aspect of this is totally absurd. I hate shopping, usually work through lunch and our CEO will never be in a video shot in a salon!)
This colleague is doing something that is clearly my responsibility but there are too many people and obstacles between us for me to walk over. I have to take a huge detour through another section of the crowded mall but, no matter what I try, I can’t get back to the shoot.
At the same time, I’m trying call my boss so that she’s aware of what is happening. No amount of swiping the screen works. Suddenly, I’m outside. It’s winter. It’s snowing. I’m still carrying the packages, still trying to phone and now, there is an Olympic pool-sized pit of trampoline/bouncy mats that are a type sidewalk I have to cross.
It’s all quite serious. I’m being bounced around, trying to phone, trying to get back to the shoot where someone is doing my work. When I bounce out of the pit, I fall into the mud and have to pick myself up and all my belongings are caked in the boot-sucking mud.
I woke up with one word in my mind: focus.
So that’s my word for 2014. It’s going to be tricky because I initially thought I’d apply a different leadership tip every week. Then I revised it because applying 52 different tips in a year (and building on them) might be too much. (I am getting wiser with the years.) I thought perhaps 24 best practices would be more reasonable (to give me a two week holiday). Now, applying the concept of focus, I’m going to pare that down further and determine the object of that focus.
I need to look into those metaphorical packages and eliminate or consolidate a few.
It’s going to be a challenge with competing work, family and volunteer commitments on top of wide-ranging interests – book club, maybe ski lessons, blogging and exploring municipal politics in an election year. One thing is for certain, I will avoid carrying multiple packages while walking, bouncing and trying to call my boss.
What’s your word for 2014?
P.S. I wish there was a photo of this dream that I could post. That trampoline pit was crazy!
“Would you please pass the gravy?” or “So, how are things?” are not good conversation starters. You can do better and have a much better time at any holiday when you start having meaningful conversations.
As my gift to you, and to myself, I’m recycling one of my favourite posts. It’s always appropriate and since I wrote it in April 2012, my family has had dozens of great conversations. While meandering through “Which family rule would you change?” to “What is your favourite family tradition?” or “What do you admire about someone at the table?” we’re teaching our kids to participate equally in conversation, to listen to others and that there are no wrong answers.
An innocent “What was your most memorable birthday present?” yielded a particularly rich discussion with my sister at her cottage this summer. It turns out her favourite birthday present was an outing for dinner and a movie alone with my Dad when my Mom was gravely ill. She was eight or so at the time. As an adult now, I can imagine the stress of the situation for my Dad – self-employed, four little girls and a very sick wife – the birthday might have seemed like one more thing to do. So there was nothing fancy, just dinner and a movie; yet the one-on-one time is what is most cherished by my sister. It also sparked a great chat about how few kids movies came out in those days.
As for me, my collection of questions continues to grow. I keep the deck of family dinnertime questions handy. Now, I am adding more grown-up questions to my repertoire with Chuck Klosterman‘s HYPERtheticals: 50 Questions for Insane Conversations. The back cover asks:
“You are offered a Brain Pill that will make you 10 percent more intelligent, but you will seem 20 percent less intelligent to everyone else. Do you take the pill?”
I can’t wait to crack open the box. I know I’ll learn a lot about people I think I know well.
Wishing you a happy holiday filled with meaningful conversations.
From the archives:
Put down the smartphone and ask a great question
April 1, 2012
At a business lunch, I noticed that almost everyone left their phones on the table in front of them. Are they waiting for someone more interesting to call? In a pub on St. Patrick’s Day, at least half the people were holding phones, telling others… what? That they are having such a great time? If that’s true, why don’t they put the phone down and say that to the people in front of them?
I have no objection to texting a friend so they can meet up with you but when you are intent on documenting all your moments for people who are not there, aren’t you missing out on the experience of actually being present, with the people who are there? Or if you are constantly checking your phone to read other people’s Facebook posts, texts, Tweets or e-mails, are you telling the people you are sitting with that you’d rather be elsewhere? Then last week I saw a woman take her iPhone to communion. Seriously…. someone more important than God is going to call, text, Tweet, Facebook or BBM you in the 30 seconds it takes you to walk up there?
Shake it off people! I know it’s our reptilian brain that is easily distracted. It’s the ego that’s fed whenever others respond to your picture, post or Pinterest…. but we are not Pavlove’s Dog. We do not have to react to every flashing light, every beep, every tweet and text.
As my high school French teacher used to say when the bell rang: “Dogs respond to bells. People respond to other people.” So the next time you’re sitting at a lunch, hanging out in a pub or having a meal with friends or family, embrace the opportunity to get to know something new about the people around you, to deepen your relationships and to challenge your assumptions. You can’t do that in a tweet or Facebook post.
In his book, You Should Have Asked, Stewart Knight recounts how asking “Which Canadian do you most admire?” at a family reunion led to a rich conversation about his father’s immigrant roots and political hero and his mother’s literary tastes – two aspects of his parent’s lives he had completely ignored until that day. His book offers an easy approach to creating powerful conversations by asking good questions. Knight writes:
“With powerful conversations, instead of learning where a person lives, you will discover one of their favourite childhood memories. With powerful conversations, instead of knowing what a person does for a living, you will find out what that person does as a passion. You will discover the intricate and fascinating details of what makes that person who they are” (p.38).
Not only will you benefit from a more interesting discussion and a deeper relationship but, according Robert Cialdini author of Influence: Science and Practice, when you identify something you have in common with another person, that similarity leads to liking, reciprocity, stronger networks and a greater ability to accomplish your personal or professional objectives. Within an organization, research from Ken Blanchard found that connectedness to the leader – the extent to which leaders make an effort to build rapport and personal and professional relationships – leads to greater discretionary effort and higher intent to remain with your organization. Connectedness to colleagues – the extent to which colleagues make an effort to build rapport and personal and professional relationships – is also positively correlated with discretionary effort and organizational citizenship behaviours. So people who feel connected to their co-workers are more apt to go the extra mile at work. Bottom line: there are compelling personal and professional reasons to be fascinated by others, to honour their uniqueness and to ditch the small talk:
1. Ask open ended questions like:
- What do you like most about what you do?
- What led you to this type of work/hobby/pursuit?
- What would you change about your industry/community/legislation/etc?
- What did you want to be when you were a child?
To borrow a few from Knight (and he has a ton of great ones):
- Out of all the jobs in the country, which one do you think would have the most devastating impact on society if those people didn’t show up for work? And what would be the worst day of the year for them to not show up? Why?
- Ask people why they live, work or travel where they do.
2. Listen and build your next question on what you have just heard.
3. Stop worrying that asking questions makes you look like you don’t know anything – you certainly don’t know everything so get over it.
4. Ask how things work, why they are that way, what makes a process so difficult.
5. Embrace the opportunity to learn!
Great questions are the ultimate mobile app so use them wherever you go! After reading Knight’s book, my husband started asking our kids a ‘Question of the Night’ at the dinner table and the conversations are fantastic. It gives the kids a chance to practice listening skills and also to respond to a serious question where there’s no right answer. Our favourites include:
- If you could go anywhere on a family vacation where would we go and why?
- If you had a superpower, what would it be?
- When you are a parent, which rules will you enforce in your home?
- If you could only eat one food for the rest of your life, what would it be?
- Who is your favourite character in a book?
To boost our dinner table topic creativity I recently purchased The Box Girls Family Diner Box of Questions. Try these at home, with friends or at the office or leave the cards out on tables during a party and watch the level of conversation rise! Another great resource (that also comes with a mobile App) is the Story Starter Pack. My favourite question here is : “If you could dig a tunnel from your house to anywhere in the neighbourhood/country/world, where would it go?”
You deserve the gift of more fun, meaningful and memorable conversations and the deeper relationships that result from them. Your co-workers, friends and family deserve to feel worthy of your attention. Try it! You can tell everyone about it on social media…. later. And, please tell me…. what’s your favourite “deep question” ? And what happened the last time you asked one?
The Christmas lights were horribly tangled. How does this happen when they are just sitting in a box for the year? As I started from one end, created some slack, gave some random shakes accompanied by some frustrated words, I started to think about how we approach complex organizational “tangles.” You know, the issues that are years in the making, fraught with politics and personalities, history and policy?
Here’s my shortlist – and reminder to myself- for tackling complex tangles. In no particular order:
- Determine whether this is a problem worth solving. First, I plugged in the lights. Had they been burned out, then it would not have been worth spending the time to untangle them. It might have been easier to replace the string or to consider other alternatives.
- Relax. This is going to take some time so settle in. The problem didn’t happen quickly so acknowledge that the solution won’t be quick either. Like the Chinese finger traps the more you tug and struggle, the tighter the snare. While difficult and counter-intuitive, you need to relax.
- Take the long way ’round. The path is rarely linear. Sometimes you have to loop backwards or work on a different section.
- Just try something. Sometimes you just have to start somewhere. You may not be sure if your approach will work but there’s no harm in trying – it’s already tangled. Could you make it worse? Perhaps but nothing ventured, nothing gained.
- Don’t pull! Adding tension to the problem only makes it harder to solve. Especially where people are concerned. Are people tugging on different parts of the strand and exacerbating the problem?
- Question your intent. Are you focused on a solution for its own sake or are you in it for yourself? If it’s the latter, could this be a source of resistance from others? If the solution is for the greater good, can you involve others?
- Ask for help. Could someone give you a different perspective? Do they see the problem differently than you do? Do they know any special tips or tricks? Or could they just give you a little moral support? Successful and lasting change involves many people.
- Explore options to avoid new tangles. As you make progress, explore options to avoid new tangles. How would you do things differently to avoid being in the same place a year from now?
On this last point, if you know how to avoid Christmas light tangles I’m all ears. Happy holidays and may all your days be tangle free!
I could not let the day pass without adding my humble tribute to the millions of more eloquent ones around the globe.
- A man whose vision transformed his 8×8 prison cell into a university.
- A man whose hope was undiminished during 27 years in prison.
- A man whose forgiveness earned him the trust needed to unite a divided country.
- A man whose courage led him to denounce the world’s superpowers in his fight for social justice
- A man whose perseverance changed his country and the world.
May our current leaders be inspired and aspire to the moral leadership Nelson Mandela exemplified. May they seek to unite rather than to divide.
I’m appalled by the antics in Ottawa right now. They erode trust faster than a wave on a sandcastle. But I want to know why it’s happening.
Why did the Conservative government draw attention to Senate expenses now? They had to know about lax and unequally applied regulations. They had to know that funding improprieties would draw questions about why the majority party has not made good on a party platform to abolish the Upper House.
Despite the sensationalism, why the focus on relatively small potatoes? Contracts for F-35s are worth $25 billion over 20 years. Cancelled gas plants in Ontario are in the neighbourhood of $500 million. Those are big scandal dollars. In the case of the Senate expense scandal we’re talking about $90,000 – $100,000. The audit has to cost more than that.
We have to ask: Why would a political party do this to itself? Why would it throw its own appointees under a very public bus? No one looks good in this scenario.
Today a headline in the Globe and Mail read, “The Senate drama: So lacking in good guys, it must be a European movie.”
Is it entertainment? Is it fiction “inspired by true events”?
Initially I wondered: While we’re watching the drama unfold, what else is happening? Are the expense allegations, backroom deals and “he said-she said” political prestidigitation – slight of hand to divert attention from something bigger? What is the Senate expense scandal hiding? Is it designed to change a conversation? This is a government that has been masterful and ruthless in controlling its messaging from its first days as a minority government in Ottawa. There’s no reason to believe they would change their approach now.
Is Stephen Harper the Wizard of Oz behind the green curtain? Did he orchestrate the debate that has been raging for months? News reports are attracting crowds of Canadians around airport televisions. Office water coolers are buzzing with opinions. I’m all for public policy debate and interest in our political institutions. I think Canada needs far more of it, especially on constructive issues, but this feels off.
Then I remembered the first step of Kotter’s change management model: Establish a sense of urgency.
Is it possible that the Senate expense scandal is designed to spark public outrage over amounts that people can relate to? Then, the Conservatives could swoop in and communicate their vision for change, i.e., abolish or reform the Senate and build on the momentum.
Is it possible the accused Senators are collateral in a massive political drama/ communications tactic intended to manipulate Canadians? It wouldn’t be the first time that politicians created what psychologists call a “felt need for change.” In 1997, then minister of education and training, John Snobelen, was caught on video telling staff that “we need to create a crisis in education” to condition the electorate for major change. I’m sure other examples abound.
I don’t object to use of a proven change model. I’d argue it’s only ethical when it is an honest, transparent demonstration of compelling facts that move people to seek change. I applaud it if it prompts public policy debate that is about exploring ideas and not about tearing down people. I object when the “felt need” or “establishing a sense of urgency” is a red herring. I am outraged when the tactic erodes trust in our elected officials and in our institutions. The only possible bright side? People had to find out who their MP or Senator is and perhaps gave them a call or dropped them a line.
I hope I’m wrong. I’m not sure when I became such a cynic. For the record, I worked on Parliament Hill for years as a House of Commons page, a tour guide and a Parliamentary intern. I’m a fan of the Senate. The intent of the Upper Chamber is to represent regions and to balance the “representation by population” of the House of Commons. The Chamber of sober second thought is intended to introduce its own legislation and to study legislation sent to it from the House of Commons. Senators are not elected because the diverse group esteemed Canadians are supposed to tackle politically sensitive issues like euthanasia without the pressure of electoral cycles. But we’re being served a caricature of the worst stereotypes and it makes this girl wonder.
Navigating constant change is the not-so-new normal in organisations.
Political, economic, competitive even environmental pressures mean always doing more with less, responding to opportunities or avoiding threats. Despite the importance of implementing change successfully, leading change expert Dr. John Kotter has found that 70% of all major change efforts in organizations fail. Organisations throw huge resources at change initiatives only to have the momentum peter out. Too often, the gains simply never materialize.
In helping my current organisation communicate change I’m using Kotter’s 8-step model* and Roger D’Aprix’ Communicating for Change as my guideposts. Both outline the critical need to create a sense of urgency. In fact, it’s the first step in Kotter’s model.
Here’s the crux of my current conundrum: How do you a) convince leaders to b) create a sense of urgency without c) scaring people?
D’Aprix quotes an HBR interview with Lawrence A. Bossidy, former CEO of Allied Signals. Bossidy subscribes to the “burning platform theory of change.”
“When the roustabouts are standing on the offshore oil rig and the foreman yells, “Jump into the water,” not only won’t they jump but they also won’t feel too kindly toward the foreman. There may be sharks in the water. They’ll jump only when they themselves see the flames shooting up from the platform… The leader’s job is to help everyone see that the platform is burning, whether the flames are apparent or not. The process of change begins when people decide to take the flames seriously and manage by fact, and that means a brutal understanding of reality. You need to find out what the reality is so that you know what needs changing.”
D’Aprix urges corporate communicators and leaders to establish a sense of urgency that is grounded in the marketplace, in competition, in customer demands so that even if employees, shareholders, customers or other stakeholders don’t like change initiatives at least they understand why they are required.
The paradox is that, while it is the first and essential step to successful change, leaders may resist candor, transparency and giving people the straight goods. They may fear that stating the challenges in stark terms to create a sense of urgency will alarm their audience. They may fear that admitting there’s a monster under the bed or stiff competition makes them look weak or out of control. They underestimate the intelligence of their audience and the value of plain language. They fail to appreciate that others also see complexity and will not fault them for making difficult choices or bold moves in that environment.
I’m a PR girl at heart so it’s a given that positioning and timing are important. I understand that there are stock market, media, employee engagement or political concerns but we should heed Kotter’s advice:
By far the biggest mistake people make when trying to change organizations is to plunge ahead without establishing a high enough sense of urgency in fellow managers and employees. This error is fatal because transformations always fail to achieve their objectives when complacency levels are high” (Kotter, 2012, p.4).
Saying nothing until all the “i”s are dotted and the “t”s are crossed (and they never are in fluid situations), may seem tempting or safer. But in the absence of information, people will speculate. You’ll still have to contain the market, political or media concerns but with less control over timing and content. You won’t get the extra effort needed to implement change. D’Aprix’ advice is to be constantly communicating openly about market pressures. That way, stakeholders understand the organisational context.
When convincing hesitant leaders to create a sense of urgency you can:
- Provide data and proven models (Shockingly, they don’t always take your word for it!)
- Encourage leaders to build trust by being transparent about the challenges they face and the choices they are making.
- Help them outline the vision that guides the actions required. People may be alarmed by the urgency but comforted to know that a plan is in place.
When you get approvals to proceed:
- Ground the need for change in your political, economic or competitive environment.
- Avoid euphemisms or sugar-coating facts. As Kotter puts it “Stop senior management happy talk” (p.46)
- Communicate, communicate, communicate. Use as much face-to-face communication as possible and keep managers up to date.
Have you faced a similar conundrum? What worked for you?
* If you read this blog regularly, you know I like to cite my sources. I like to use approaches that are grounded in research rather than chase the latest tweet (although I read those too). When it comes to my professional work and my blog posts, I try to stand on the shoulders of giants or at least hang around their necks in a crazy piggy-backing attempt. Kotter’s Harvard Business Review article Leading Change: Why Transformation Efforts Fail published in 1995 is among the most reprinted HBR articles. His book Leading Change was named on of the 25 most influential business books by Time magazine.
When I was out for a walk last night, a lovely family of four was biking along a path at the top of the hill on the horizon. Suddenly, the little girl – obviously a new rider of perhaps six or seven years old – fell off her bike. She didn’t even appear to wobble, the bicycle just fell to the side with her still on it. It was one of those moments that you feel in your gut rather than simply witness. Within seconds I could hear the little girl sobbing as the Mom knelt by her side. As I drew nearer I heard the Mom repeating loudly: “You were going too fast. You’re going to have to calm down. You need to be more careful.”
I can empathise that the mother was shaken but I couldn’t help but wonder how helpful was it to blame the child in this situation. If I put myself in the girl’s little shoes. (Which, admittedly is much easier as a bystander.) There were probably a jumble of thoughts in her mind that included ”this hurts,” ”that was scary”, ”why is Mommy mad at me?” and maybe “I did something bad”.
Notwithstanding perpetuating our culture of victim blaming, nothing in this exchange is going to help calm the little girl down. Nothing is going to cut through the immediacy of the feelings that override logic. Nothing is helping to assess the situation. Nothing is going to help her get back on her bike confidently.
Why not acknowledge what happened and the feelings of hurt or fear? Why not hug and comfort to build feelings of security and trust? (To be fair, the park Mom was hugging.) Why not ask the little girl how she is feeling and what hurts instead of telling her what she did incorrectly and what to do now? Asking questions instead of telling in this scenario does two things: the child has to calm down to answer coherently and participates in assessing what’s wrong. This way she can regain some control of herself and her environment.
This is not a parenting blog and I am a woefully imperfect parent; but the scene in the park made me wonder why we are so compelled to blame in our personal and professional lives. Blame seems like such a wasted emotion and behaviour. From ”the dog ate my homework” to governments blaming the policies of its predecessors for all their woes, blame is rampant.
It has no place in leadership. It erodes our own feelings of control. It erodes the trust of others. It diminishes the perception others have of us taking responsibility for our actions, for the actions of our team and of our capacity to take proactive steps where we can. Simply put, there is nothing constructive about blame.
Rather than expending effort on allocating blame, it’s more constructive in the short-term to:
- Acknowledge that a problem exists
- Try to view the scenario from the other’s perspective
- Assess the extent of the damage
- Learn what should be done differently in the future, especially for beginners
- Find a way to move forward or get back on that bike
As Henry Ford said: “Don’t find fault. Find a remedy.”
And please, wherever you are, do it with a little patience and compassion. We were all beginners once and generally, everyone is trying to do their best.