It’s Not What You Said, It’s What They Understood That Matters.

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Use anything you can think of to understand and be understood, and you’ll discover the creativity that connects you with others. Martha Beck

 

 

Last week I had the privilege of having dinner with my brother-in-law and sister-in-law, two people I very much admire. They live in Mexico where they, along with a few local staff and numerous volunteers, continue to run the Genesis International Orphanage Foundation, GIOF. It is always fun to hear the latest stories about the children and the adventures they share that are a part of the day-to-day life for GIOF. One story hit home for me as being applicable for all of us in how we communicate.

Greg was sharing how he was working with the Niño’s cleaning up the dishes after dinner. He was using this as an opportunity to work on his Spanish, the product of many books, tapes, classes, immersion, and exposure daily to the language. He was doing very well. He said, “primero raspar los platos” (first you scrape the dishes), “luego te lavas los platos” (then you wash the dishes), and “y luego te desnudas” (and then you rinse). Now, when he got to the rinse part, he was a bit unsure of the proper word to use for ‘rinse’. Greg asked Gabriella, the GOIF director who is a local, how to pronounce ‘rinse’ in Spanish to which she responded “de enjuagar.” Greg then pronounced it the way that he heard it, “te desnudes.” All the children stopped what they were doing and, with mouths open, just stared at Greg. If that wasn’t enough of an indication that something was wrong, the red flush and look on Gabriella’s face as she came up beside him and said, “Oh no, you will need to apologize to the orphanage director”, was even greater.  Greg said, “Why? What? I just repeated what you told me.” Gabriella quickly replied, “No Greg. What I said was ‘de enjuagar’. You said ‘te desnudes’, which means to get naked!” Of course, by this time the children were all laughing and repeating in sing-song fashion, “now they would all get naked.” You know how impressionable young children are and they never forget and always repeat everything. Oh wow, what had Greg done?

Let me stop for a minute and give you some background information. GIOF works with many orphanages and indigenous groups throughout Baja Mexico. All of them have religious affiliation and can often be considered conservative by American standards.  This particular orphanage could be considered more conservative than most and Gabriella and Greg had been working very hard to have GIOF leave a good impression. I am sure that as Gabriella heard Greg tell the Niño’s that after they washed the dishes then they should “get naked” she swiftly saw all of that hard work being flushed down the drain of misunderstanding.  Fortunately, the orphanage directors had a sense of humor and understood Greg’s unintended transgression from his translation. I think the swift apology helped.

After I finished laughing at Greg’s story, I started thinking about the many times I have made unfortunate misses in communication myself. I just don’t have the excuse of translating from English to Spanish.  While I do try to get verbal confirmation that what I said or meant to convey was heard and understood, it is easy to assume that the receiving party is on the same page. The final step of hearing them confirm back with the action they will take often times gets missed. This is especially important when working with someone for the first time. There are so many subtle ways to interpret things that until you have worked together for a while it is difficult to ensure that what you said was really what they heard. This is especially important for those of us who live in a world of technical terms, local jargon, and of course the ever-present acronyms.

It was a pleasure to reconnect with Greg and his wife Patti and to find that no matter what you do every day we all can, at times, face the same challenges in communicating effectively. So when I am working with someone for the first time, I will from now on think of Greg and his “get naked” faux pas.  This will be a humorous reminder to me to make sure that I get confirmation that what I said was indeed what they heard and what I intended to communicate.

For more information about GIOF visit http://www.giof.org/support_giof.html

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Follow Your Dreams

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‘It’s our choices, Harry,
that show us what we really are…
far more than our abilities.’

~ Albus Dumbledore from ‘ Harry Potter’ by J K Rowling ~

Thanks to all of the feedback I received on my post last week, I did entertain the Junior Achievement students with the story of my first job.  After letting them know I was fired and why, I went on to explain to them that had I found out early what was expected of me it probably would have gone much differently. When I was sharing this story with them, I thought it best to also let them know that my first professional job was much more successful. I was a legal secretary and worked with I.B.M. Wow that made an impression, until I told them to beware of acronyms. I.B.M. in this case stood for the International Brotherhood of Magicians. Well the students were still impressed, maybe more impressed than before.  I went on to explain that my employer, in addition to being an attorney, was also a magician and that he held the position of International Secretary for this I.B.M. In that role he was responsible for publishing and collecting the subscription fees for their monthly magazine, The Linking Ring.

Thinking back on my legal secretary days, I had an opportunity to hone my typing and shorthand skills, learn some basic accounting, multi-currency, banking, and money management. Additionally I learned how to run the Linotype machine. For you youngsters, think large metal monster clang and bang late into the night just to get the mailing of the magazine out.  What took me days now takes only a few hours using an Outlook Address book and Mail Merge. Oh how life has changed.

Enough about the metal monster of magazine mailing. The lesson I learned that has stuck with me and still is of value today is that you really can live your dreams. Let me give you some background on my attorney boss. He was a friend of my mothers and came from an upstanding “farming family.” He was a big guy one you might term as a “gentle giant.” His hands were large and calloused from bailing hay all summer and he also had the misfortune to be born with a club foot.  His boyhood desire was to escape the farming life and tour the world as a magician. For those of you who have tried a magic trick or two you will know how important it is to move quickly and have “sleight of hand.” He realized early on that neither of these two most important skills would ever be within his capabilities. Wanting to escape the farm, he studied hard and got a scholarship to Ohio State University and went on to study law and sit for the bar exam. Still a small town boy at heart, he returned home and setup his law practice.

Never forgetting his early dreams, he decided that he still could do some magic so he joined the I.B.M. and performed magic tricks at children’s parties. He used his business acumen to benefit the Brotherhood and for many years held his International Secretary position, publishing and distributing The Linking Ring.  I have many fond memories of those days in that tiny office and the clanging banging Linotype. Today when I look back I realized that he did not give up on his dream, he just let it take on a slightly different form. In doing that he brought a lot of smiles to children’s faces, touched the lives of many budding magicians in far off lands, and helped one very impressionable girl understand that you should never give up on your dream.

A Trip Down Memory Lane

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“I think everyone should experience defeat at least once during their career. You learn a lot from it.” -Lou Holtz

This week has been a trip down memory lane. Let me just say that it is a very long lane and went all the way back to when I got my first job as a waitress. The pay was awesome, a whole 75 cents an hour. That was a super raise from the 50 cents per hour I had been earning from babysitting.  My days as a waitress at the local diner were not long-lived, they were cut short by my behavior. Well, no one had bothered to tell me that I couldn’t clock out for my lunch break at noon to sit and eat with my mother. Humph guess they thought I would just have enough sense to know not to take a break at the busiest time of the day. Who knew that they would fire me for such an innocent offense? Oh well, my second job was way better – frying chicken at the Hardin County Fair where they loved me and I made a whopping $1.25 per hour.

Let me put this trip down memory lane in context. I am hosting a Junior Achievement (JA) Job Shadow Day here at our offices next week. As a part of that, we held a “lunch and learn” session for the staff who volunteered to be the JA job shadow hosts so that they could understand the agenda for the day and learn what was expected of them as a host. During that meeting the JA Program Manager showed a few great video’s. One of them was, “Make a Difference in the Life of a Child” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XZLeBFNIUVo ( to learn more about Junior Achievement in Orange County visit http://jaoc.org/) .

While we were having our lunch, we started discussing our first job experiences and how much we did not know about the work world.  For some of the hosts, their trips down memory lane was much shorter than mine, but in every case we remembered how much we didn’t know then compared to where we are at today. This helped us put in context what we could do as hosts for the students. Modeling professional behavior, showing enthusiasm for our work and for the company, and answering the students questions will all be a part of the day. Especially explaining to the students how we got to where we are today. Some of us have taken a very circuitous route to get to the positions we currently hold. This brought me to the memories of a few of my first jobs. I can say that I have learned a bit since then.  One, it is important to understand what is expected of you on the job, two, it is important to show up for work on time and ready to work, and three, repeat one and two each and every day.  The rest is just good manners, be kind, be trustworthy, be respectful, and be a team player.

So it is with excitement that I am looking forward to our Junior Achievement Job Shadow Day.  We will have over fifty students visiting from two different local high schools along with a few teachers. What a great opportunity this is for our staff and the students.  However, I don’t think I will share with the students my first job experience or maybe on the other hand I should. What do you think?

Leading By Example

 

 

 

 

 

 

Example is not the main thing in influencing others. It is the only thing. – Albert Schweitzer

Life would be so easy if we never had to deal with any difficult situations. How many of us can say that we never have had a challenge in our work lives? If you can respond in the positive to this question, then you are either oblivious to the world around you or living in Nirvana.  Over the years I have had many of these opportunities to flex my leadership muscles.  I put it this way because until you have faced a daunting challenge I don’t think you can really judge your strength as a leader. Most of us in leadership positions do a pretty good job when things go as planned. But how we react and interact during difficult times is what really tempers our leadership skills.

I had an opportunity recently to observe one of our senior leaders reacting to a difficult situation. I believe what this leader said was they knew they were not treating some individuals very nicely, but that was just the way it was going to be due to the stress of a situation that was taking their focus away from the day-to-day to concentrate on resolving more pressing issues.  I am usually never at a loss for words, but I was struck speechless when I heard that this leader thought it was okay to treat people poorly due to stress at work. Now the moment has passed and I am still looking for the right way to bring the topic back up so that I can do a bit of “upward mentoring.”

This incident got me thinking about how I behave when I am under a lot of stress. As you may know from my earlier posts, I am a self-avowed Tasmanian Devil when the doer in me kicks in, but how do I behave when there are challenges here at work?  I love the quote by Schweitzer and think that it speaks volumes. If I keep this in mind when I feel the urge to “Tas out,” it restrains me. The most impact I can have on a daily basis is to set a good example for those I work with especially when under stress.  As long as I remember the examples that I set by my actions become the behavior of those around me it keeps my inner Tas under control. I have only to envision an office full of Tasmanian Devils whirling around and the lowering of productivity with missed deadlines that results to restrain my doer Devil mode.

Now how do I approach the topic of setting a good example with the leader I mentioned above?  Fortunately I am not the one being treated badly, but if I were it would almost make this crucial conversation easier.  I know I need to pick the time and my approach carefully so that my comments will be heard and received. This is not the type of conversation I like to have over lunch, nor is it effective at the end of another difficult day. Perhaps I’ll take the donut approach and invite them for a Starbucks walk across the street?  I find that walking improves the atmosphere for talking. Maybe I’ll share a “story” about one of my Tas experiences and how I handled it effectively? Or maybe I’ll just wimp out and see if they read this post?  Whatever I choose to do I need to do it this week because the more time that passes the more difficult this conversation will be.

As you can see, a lot of thought and reflection has been going on this week.  When I observe less than stellar leadership behavior, it does help me to become a better leader. It reinforces for me how it is much more difficult to be an effective leader under pressure. These times are the true test of leadership skills. All I have to do is see the reaction of others to this leader to know how I do not want to behave.

We are all a work in progress. Leadership in my mind is first setting a good example for those around us and second being a servant leader. Wish me luck with my crucial conversation. I welcome your thoughts on how I can approach this effectively.

Keeping The Squirrel’s Tamed – Staying Focused

As I was reading my 500th email the other day, I came across this blog http://blogs.hbr.org/bregman/2012/04/coping-with-email-overload.html by Peter Bergman the author of 18 Minutes: Find Your Focus, Master Distraction, and Get the Right Things Done.  I did like I usually do and stopped everything to not only read his interesting tips for how to better manage my daily glut of emails, but also to read the first chapter of his book and download it to my iPad. While doing this I kept on reading other emails that had piled up since I shut down the evening before at 10 p.m. and did I mention that I also had started to read my emails from home at breakfast at 6 a.m. that morning?

Don’t we all love this information age where we are inundated with so much valuable information that we can’t get anything done? As I was doing all of this triple tasking, (did I tell you I was working on a project at the same time?) I came across another blog that talked about Agile Development – we use this here at Sage – and the need for the teams to be able to stay focused. In this second blog, I noticed a section headed “Squirrel” that immediately caught my eye. Right about now you’re probably asking yourself what the heck is she leading up to and why can’t she stay focused? Well, that’s because every email that comes in dings and for me that is just like yelling “Squirrel!” at your dog. You know, when you are out for a walk and he sees one of these bushy-tailed creatures and he immediately breaks from his “heel” and goes nuts trying to catch that pesky critter.

The light came on for me, not only was I responding to that email ding like my beloved dog responds to squirrels, but I was also guilty of shouting “squirrel!” to the team during our sprint reviews. For those of you not familiar with Agile, a sprint review is conducted after a pre-defined period of intense work. For us, this is every three weeks. The sprint review is where the team gathers to show what they have accomplished and celebrate meeting their goals. As it would happen, my epiphany came on a Monday morning right before we had our Product Owner/Managers meeting – another Agile driven meeting – and this gave me the opportunity to ask for feedback and explain that I thought I probably was guilty of getting the teams distracted by yelling squirrel. They of course were very nice to me, but did give me some great feedback — in my heart I know I am guilty of the squirrel gig. What we worked out was a process for me to give the feedback at the right time to the right person so that the team would not be distracted.

Now it’s time for you to do some introspective thinking. When have you yelled “squirrel” to your team? When have you jumped up and responded to the squirrel call? Both are equally bad as the first distracts others and the second is personally worse because it keeps you from being focused and productive.

I would encourage you to read Mr. Bergman’s blog and put his suggestions to the test. As for yelling “squirrel!,” make sure that if you do it is because he is really as dangerous as the picture at the top of this post.

Be on the lookout for next week’s post. In it I will give you some examples where being too focused might limit your creativity and at the same time let you know what scotch tape, sand paper, golf clubs, and smart phones have in common.  For those of you who are creative types and have the answer to this feel free to comment here on your thoughts about the commonality.

Mastering Your Stories

Assumptions are the termites of relationships. Henry Winkler

There are all types of stories, the bedtime stories we tell our children, the big fish that got away stories that we tell after vacations, and those stories we tell our spouse for why the credit card balance just keeps increasing.  However, this is not about any of those stories. What this is about is those stories we tell ourselves every day. An example might be when our boss walks in to the office in the morning passes us in the hall and doesn’t say good morning, how many of us immediately tell ourselves the story “gosh I must have really messed up my status report last night and he’s going to blast me when I have my one on one this afternoon.”  Then we sweat all day until we have our meeting with the boss in the afternoon, only to find out that he has a toothache and isn’t feeling well.  What a better day we would have had if we had just not jumped so quickly to tell the negative story.  Think about every day when things happen and the stories we tell ourselves only to later find out that our stories were just manifestations of how we were feeling at the time.

The concept of “mastering stories” comes from some training and a book that I read many years ago. The book is Crucial Confrontations by Patterson, Grenny, McMillan, and Switzler.  If you have read it you might remember that the concept of mastery of stories is around first reflecting on and seeking out all of the possible reasons why the event might have happened.  Don’t immediately jump in and assume you know what is going on, but instead ask yourself why a reasonable rational person might have done what you observed. I like to think of this as” always assume the best intentions.” If you can accomplish this and stop telling yourself negative stories, I think you will find that you have a better working relationship with others and at the same time a much more positive work environment.

Here is an exercise to illustrate my point. Think over your week. Think really hard.  When during the week did you tell yourself a story that turned out to be a real fabrication of the experience? Be honest, I’m sure that you can come up with at least one example. Mine would go something like this… during a project meeting a manager from another department brought up the need to keep another director and one of the senior officers in the company informed. When this happened I told myself this story. “She must not agree with what we are doing and wants to run and tattle on us to the big boss…” I was frustrated for the team because this certainly seemed like unnecessary bureaucracy and we already had a good plan and process worked out to move forward efficiently and why couldn’t she just see that? So I fumed for a few minutes and then took myself to task to master my story (you can think of this as going and standing in the corner and giving myself a good talking to). After a phone call and a short conversation with the manager, I then understood that she was not trying to add another layer of decision-making, but instead just trying to ensure that the other executives who would be driving this process moving forward were fully informed. No changes for the team on their processes, just a way to have full disclosure so that the other executives could make effective decisions.

Back to your story. Were you able to master it? Did you use the reasonable rational person view? Did you assume the best intentions? If not, go stand in the corner for a bit and think about it, or better yet, pick up a copy of the book Crucial Confrontations and learn how to master your stories from the experts.

Being A Doer

 Last week I said I should title this “the good, the bad, and the ugly,” but decided that this would not do justice to the strengths of the Doer.   I did, however, want to pay homage to the nick name (Taz) that my daughter gave me many years ago.  After yet another stress filled morning getting three teenagers off to school, did I say they were all girls? My daughter started calling me Taz. This was probably due to my frenzied flinging of school books, lunch bags, cans of hair spray, and various articles of unmentionable clothing that were strewn about the house. All of this as I had to fight for the bathroom to get ready for work and eat my breakfast on the run. You can easily see how I earned my name and of course why my pants were often on backwards.

 I would like to say that I am different in my work life than I am at home, but when the pressure of work projects looms out comes the Taz in me.   As you know from my earlier blog, we Doer’s get a lot done, but sometimes at the expense of dead bodies left in our wake. 

When brought to our attention that we may have caused a bit of an issue as we voraciously chewed through a problem, we Doer’s are usually confused as to why anyone is upset because after all we did get the job done. And very quickly at that! So all Doer’s be forewarned while you may accomplish a lot you need to keep the battlefield clear of bodies.

ImageNow in case you think that I am a real “piece of work,” please remember that I am not a Doer all of the time just when I am under pressure. When I am working along as I am today just getting things done at a normal pace, I am really a thinker. I had plenty of time to get ready for work this morning (the girls are all grown and gone) and my pants have that knife-edge crease in them. I am operating in my best thinker mode pondering all the different detailed ways to write this blog and get my points across. As you can tell, I do love pictures and still identify with the Taz.

ImageI’d like to also add that when the conditions are very favorable I can switch into my Feeler mode.  This is when I walk around the office and chat with folks and find out how they are doing, what their children are up to, and maybe even invite someone to walk across the street for a Starbuck’s. More on this next week as I share a bit about the Feelers among us. Perhaps I should dub them more politically correctly and call them the “Connectors.”

Working with a Pure Thinker

Last week I wrote about my experiences with a pure Innovator (Intuitor in some camps), but this week I’d like to focus on my friend the Thinker. What comes to mind for me is the statue by Rodin, with his thoughtful expression and solid cut in stone appearance. The Thinkers among us are sometimes characterized as being organized, structured, conservative, analytical, rational, controlled, etc.  In an earlier post, I summed this up by saying that you can tell a Thinker by his pants being pressed with a knife-edged crease (actually I believe I said it would cut butter).

When I think of someone I work with who fits the model of a “pure Thinker,” I remember a recent team building exercise. The Thinker was on my team and since it was raining I of course went into my “Doer” mode and wanted to complete the event quickly, while my teammate the Thinker was keeping the notes in dripping detail.  After we finally slogged back to the comfort of the office with our soaking shoes and clues – this was a CSI crime solving team event – the Thinker then proceeded to catalog the clues in excruciating detail. It seemed that each individual hair needed to be accounted for by its length and color or at least that is what I thought the Thinker was doing constantly handling each hunk of hair over and over again. When it came time to solve the crime, our team was last to submit our clues and solution and even then we did not win!

The team building was not really about winning, it was about learning about each other. I certainly learned that the Thinker was a perfect fit for their role as a Project Manager where the devil is in the details and it also reinforced a bit about me as well – the Doer rushes to the conclusions which are not always the right ones.

Learning about the different styles, hopefully lets us appreciate the strengths and weaknesses of each. If we take a few minutes and do a bit of introspective thinking, we can probably determine which style most fits our daily lives. With this in mind, we can then view others by their dominant styles and interact with them accordingly.

I appreciate both the Innovators and the Thinkers for their strengths and definitely want both of them on my team because they have valuable traits that are needed to provide the creative complex thinking and the detailed steps so that nothing is forgotten as we get the job done.  This last is the Doer’s specialty and I will share with you more about my predominate style under stress next week. I think I will call that post “the good, the bad, and the ugly.”

Think Free… Think Gray

This past week I’ve been reading a new book, The Contrarian’s Guide To Leadership, by Steven Sample. After reading a few chapters I posted the think free think gray phrases on my white board. These were a personal reminder. Yesterday when a respected peer asked about what these phrases meant I told him that they were reminders to me to not jump to a conclusion or make a quick decision. Now that is so unlike me, that he just smiled and shook his head. Well one can hope that as I have read, leaders are made not just born, and that I can learn a few new habits. The habit I am working on first is “artful listening.”

More along the lines of thinking gray, artful listening, is listening attentively without rushing to judgement. This allows gathering a fresh perspective and not being bound by pre-conceived notions. I have been praised for being able to think and act quickly. While there is a place for that in “fight or flight” situations these are not often present in the software development world– while it might seem like it is when a customer calls with an urgent issue, it is still better to gather all of the facts before racing to make a decision.

However, thinking gray and thinking free are much more than just artful listening, but I’ve got to start somewhere. Given  my proclivity for rushing to resolve problems I think artful listening is enough for me to tackle initially.   Then after I think I have somewhat mastered this art I will move on to the next learning opportunity.

I am finding this book a wealth of thought-provoking information and encourage anyone in a leadership position or who wants to move into a leadership role to read this book and start to practice some of the principles prescribed by Mr. Sample. I’ve included an excerpt from a particularly well written summary of the book below.

“…If nothing else, Sample’s gift in this book is the notion that there is no tried and true formula for good leadership or for becoming an effective, let alone good, leader. Should we aspire to doing leader, as opposed to being leader (in which we like the trappings of office but don’t want to dirty our hands with the day-to-day, not-always-pleasant requirements of actually doing the job), we are encouraged to break out of conventional thinking, cultivate some tendencies that diverge from what we may have learned, and take responsibility for our own and others’ actions. As Sample says, if you’re not willing to do what it takes, stay out of the leadership business altogether.

A few Contrarian principles suggested in this book include:

  • Think gray: try not to form opinions about ideas or people unless and until you have to. Sample calls this “seeing double,” and “the ability to simultaneously view things from two or more perspectives.”
  • Think free: train yourself to move several steps beyond traditional brainstorming by considering really outrageous solutions and approaches. Too often we rush to judgment or give in to the naysayers who only focus on how or why something cannot or should not be done.
  • Listen first, talk later; and when you listen, do so artfully.
  • Experts can be helpful, but they’re no substitute for your own critical thinking and discernment.
  • Never make a decision yourself that can reasonably be delegated to a lieutenant; and never make a decision today that can be reasonably put off to tomorrow. But then, Sample also says…
  • Shoot your own horse. Don’t make others do your dirty work.
  • Ignore sunk costs and yesterday’s mistakes. You can only influence the future.
  • Reading Machiavelli can help make you a more moral leader.
  • Work for those who work for you. Hire people who are better than you and help them succeed.
  • You can’t really run your organization; you can only lead individual followers, who then collectively give motion and substance to the organization you nominally head.
  • You can’t copy your way to the top; true excellence can only be achieved through original thinking and unconventional approaches….”

Sample is also a huge proponent of something he calls “open communication with structured decision-making,” which allows the freedom to talk informally with anyone in the organization but doesn’t undercut the authority and responsibility of line administrators and managers.  I particularly like the example he has in the book that deals with a successful business leader who stopped by and had a chat with one of his engineers and asked a few questions. A few days later the engineers manager complained to the leader that he had redirected the work of the engineer. The leader felt terrible because all he did was ask a few questions. However, it wasn’t clear to the engineer that while there was open communication the decision-making really needed to follow the structure already in place.

If you really want to avoid micro-managing and if you truly want to empower those who work with and for you, this type of approach is critical. You might say it’s contrarian leadership at its best!