Monday, September 30, 2013

Culture whiplash!

Culture does not change because we desire to change it.  Culture changes when the organization is transformed; the culture reflects the realities of people working together every day.  ~Frances Hesselbein

Recently I met with a new client, a board of directors, for the first time.  I joined the last 15 minutes of their meeting so when I entered the room they were all seated around the conference table.  I walked in the door, and what I felt next I would describe as culture whiplash (an abrupt jerk, jolt or snap).  They were all white men between the ages of around 40 and 65.  There was one woman in the room, a staff member, not a board member.  I haven't seen that degree of homogeneous board composition in a number of years.  I was quite literally taken aback.

I live in downtown Chicago.  One of my personal pastimes is trying to identify various languages being spoken as I walk down the street. Diversity is a way of life.  So a lack of diversity in a culture, if I'm not expecting it, really gets my attention.

I was distracted as I sat down to meet with this board and I tried to refocus my thoughts on the task at hand, but it was a challenge.  The distraction was not coming from the fact that I didn't fit into their homogeneous make-up, it was coming from the fact that what I expected was in stark contrast from what I experienced.

Does your organizational culture give someone whiplash the first time they walk through your doors?  Research tells us that as individuals, we have seven seconds to make a first impression.  I'm wondering if we only have seven seconds for our organization's culture to also make a first impression.

I think that what our organization's culture is communicating can sneak up on us.  When we're immersed in an organization over a period of years we don't always sense what's really changed, or not changed, over time.  Fortunately, in my board of director's scenario, after interviewing a number of the board members I learned that they did recognize their homogeneity needed to change.  Although I'm not sure they realized how much of an impact it could really have on someone who was walking into it for the first time.

In the Fast Company article, "Culture Eats Strategy for Lunch," Shawn Parr asks, "Do you run into your culture every day?  Does it inspire you, or smack you in the face and get in your way, slowing and wearing you down?  Is it overpowering or does it inspire you to overcome challenges?  It's important to understand what is driving your culture."

What do people expect when they encounter your organization's culture?  Because I work almost exclusively mission-driven organizations, I find that the culture expectations are quite high for people (employees, clients, vendors, etc.) coming into the organization for the first time.  How are you managing those expectations? 

If those expectations aren't being managed then maybe you are unknowingly giving people a form of culture whiplash when they walk in your door.  The culture reflects the realities of people working together every day.  What do people expect of those realities and what do they experience?

Monday, September 23, 2013

Can you hear me now?! Can you?!

Listening is a magnetic and strange thing, a creative force.  The friends who listen to us are the ones we move toward.  When we are listened to, it creates us, makes us unfold and expand.  ~Karl A. Menninger

This is certainly not my first time to focus on the topic of listening.  This past week brought an opportunity for me to be reminded once again just how difficult, and important, it is to listen, really listen.

I was facilitating a leadership development class and the topic was the leadership behavior of active listening.  These participants had just spent the past four weeks developing their listening skills.  Part of the assignment was to keep a listening log so they could track their improvement.  For many, keeping a log allowed them to realize how poorly they were listening and how difficult it was to truly listen.

One of the comments these students of leadership repeated was how they felt like listening took a lot of time.  While feeling pressed with all of their own responsibilities and deadlines, they found it difficult to have the patience to just listen.

It feels like we have become a culture that doesn't really value listening.  Stephen Levine said, "The saddest part about being human is not paying attention.  Presence is the gift of life."  Wow, the gift of life, yet we don't seem to have time to squeeze it into our task-filled days.  Expressing a very similar view, Bryant H. McGill said, "One of the most sincere forms of respect is actually listening to what another has to say."  

This all seems very paradoxical to me.  We want workplaces where people feel valued, respected, have the opportunity to develop and grow, yet, we're very bad at listening.  We don't take the time to listen so we don't develop the skill. 

The late Scott Peck, psychiatrist and best-selling author said, "We cannot let another person into our hearts or minds unless we empty ourselves.  We can truly listen to him or truly hear her only out of emptiness." We are so filled with our own "stuff" that it's hard for us to listen.  We fill our minds with our deadlines, our responsibilities, our to-do lists, our next task.  We find it hard to unearth within us the patience and, I dare say, compassion to listen to someone else.  Are we willing to empty ourselves to allow someone else to be heard? 

The final sentence of this week's quote, "when we are listened to, it creates us, makes us unfold and expand" describes a wonderfully vivid image of the outcome of listening.  In nearly every organization I work with, employee development is a priority.  But rarely do I see listening skills being emphasized.  Listening is a low-cost, high-return form of professional development ("it creates us, makes us unfold and expand"), yet we say we just don't have the time to do it.  Do we really not have the time or do we not have the will to empty ourselves so we can really listen.

Woodrow Wilson once said, "The ear of the leader must ring with the voices of the people."  Are our ears ringing with the voices of the people?

Monday, September 16, 2013

Reality, fantasy, or strategy?

Face reality as it is, not as it was or as you wish it to be.  ~Jack Welch

Reality.  This has been a topic on my mind a lot this past week.  My recent interactions with several clients have been a profound reminder of the challenge to define reality.  The discussion of reality could quickly fall into an endless chasm of varied philosophical thought.  That’s not where I’m going. 

Part of my work includes asking leaders within organizations detailed questions about their view, perspective, opinion, belief, etc. about their organization.  Then I try to piece together everyone's view and experience into one cohesive picture of reality.  In some circumstances this is easier said than done because the views of reality can be extremely diverse.

Recently, I've had leaders within the same organization describe their current state as everything from solid/sustainable to a crisis.  Another organization's leaders rated their level of effectiveness on a new project on a 10-point scale from 3 to 10.  I recall a board meeting several years ago where I was the board chair sitting right next to the organization's leader.  The following morning she called and said, "I think we had consensus on a number of items."  I said, "I don’t think we reached consensus on anything."  Two people sat right next to each other in a meeting, then walked out the door with two very different views of reality.

Max De Pree, who I've quoted before, said (in 1987), "The first job of a leader is to define reality."  I've been wondering lately if it's evolved to more than just defining reality.  Because we live in a state of change that is moving at a faster pace than any point in history, reality is not a static state, but a dynamic state with constant twists and turns, false starts, and experimentation.  Is a leader's job more than defining reality?  Is it also about keeping the organization connected to reality, harnessing reality, and leveraging it for all it's worth?  By harnessing reality I'm not suggesting that leaders don't create change or shape the future.  I am suggesting that decisions are being made within the context of an accurate view of reality, not false assumptions or hollow aspirations.

How do you do that?  In real estate the long-time maxim has been "location, location, location."  In our current state of unbridled change, I'd suggest the maxim for leadership is "listen, listen, listen, communicate, communicate, communicate."  Leaders must listen more intentionally now than ever before because everything is changing.  No one single person's view of reality (including their own) is going to be accurate.  The only way to see reality that has constant moving parts is to see it through many different eyes.  That means listen, listen, listen.  Paul Watzlawick said, "The belief that one's own view of reality is the only reality is the most dangerous of all delusions."

Once you've listened, then harness reality by communicating, communicating, communicating.  I think plans are great!  I make a living by helping organizations create plans and they're an important part of organizational communication.  However, I think we're all a bit naive if we believe that those plans won't be fraught with false starts, re-dos, and adjustments.  That's what it means to be harnessed to reality.  When employees feel the whiplash of a sudden shift in direction, they need to know that the change is not a result of chaos or indecision, but of a discipline to stay connected to reality.

Reality:  We define it by listening (a lot!).  We harness and leverage it by communicating (a lot!).  We stay connected to it by being disciplined (a lot!).

Monday, September 9, 2013

Tell me more!

"Can you tell me more?"  Ask it often.  It is to conversations what fresh-baked bread with soft creamery butter is to a meal.  ~Andrew Sobel & Jerold Panas

Tell me more, tell me more…For those of us who can remember back to 1978, that's when John Travolta and Olivia Newton-John starred in the musical film Grease.  If you remember the film then you can probably hum the tune of Summer Nights with the lyrics, "tell me more, tell me more."

Tell me more…three very simple and powerful words that are used way too rarely.  Those in leadership will frequently say that they believe they need to listen more.  I agree!  However, listening does not include providing a solution, a fix, or a defense.   All of those things require talking and talking is not listening.  The point of listening is for someone to feel heard.  How can we feel heard if our statements are met with a defense or a fix that seems utterly obvious to the person offering it?

One of the hardest things for leaders, especially CEOs, is to just listen, nothing else, just listen.  When an employee is venting about their dislike of a policy or their disenchantment with how leadership is living out the organization's values, imagine if that CEO said something like, "You sound really frustrated, could you tell me more?"  As opposed to providing a mini three-point sermon as to how that employee's perspective is totally and absolutely incorrect.

BONO has referenced an illustration used frequently to demonstrate the power of really listening.  "It has been said that after meeting with the great British Prime Minister William Ewart Gladstone, you left feeling he was the smartest person in the world, but after meeting with his rival Benjamin Disraeli, you left thinking you were the smartest person."  I wouldn't be terribly surprised if Disraeli used that simple but powerful question, "Can you tell me more?"  

In order to ask that question, it may mean we have to harness our own angst and desire to "correct" or "fix" and let the other person continue.  Or, it may mean we need to let the need to share our own similar success stay in our head and not pass over our lips.

"Tell me more" builds relationships and strengthens trust.  "Tell me more" communicates that you care.  "Tell me more" makes people feel heard!

Andrew, one of the authors of today's quote tells a story of agreeing to a lunch meeting with his business banker.  Something he'd been putting off.  They went to lunch.  Throughout their meal, she (his banker) talked about the progression of her career at the bank, her vacation, and showed him pictures of her grandchildren.  Suddenly, she realizes how much time has gone by and announces that she has to leave.  Andrew is left nearly speechless.  She didn't ask him a single question.  She knows nothing about his experience at the bank, his future plans, to say the least about who he is personally.  Even one question followed by "tell me more" could have created a completely different experience for Andrew, and ultimately for his bank!

Ralph G. Nichols, author of Are You Listening and pioneer in the study of listening skills said, "The most basic of all human needs is the need to understand and be understood.  The best way to understand people is to listen to them."  

Why not ask someone today, "Could you tell me more?"

Monday, September 2, 2013

Are you busy?

To affect the quality of the day, that is the highest of arts.  Simplicity, simplicity, simplicity!  I say let your affairs be as two or three, and not a hundred or a thousand; instead of a million count half a dozen.  ~Henry David Thoreau, Walden

Thoreau's Cabin on Walden Pond
Are you busy?  

That’s a question I get asked frequently.  It's part of the culture of owning a small business and/or being self-employed.  And I do the same; I ask my business friends "Are you busy?"  For some reason when I was asked that question recently, it struck me differently somehow.  I suddenly thought to myself, is that really how we've come to judge our success?  Is being busy good and not being busy bad?

With just a couple of minutes of research I discovered that I'm certainly not the first person to ask that question.  Below are a few quotes I pulled from an article in the NY Times entitled, "Too Busy to Notice that You're too Busy."
While those who are overworked and overwhelmed complain ceaselessly, it is often with an undertone of boastfulness; the hidden message is that I'm so busy because I'm so important. 
It's a status symbol. 
We avoid dealing with life's really big issues — death, global warming, AIDS, terrorism — by running from task to task. 
It is a kind of high. 
Paradoxically, Dr. Hallowell writes in "CrazyBusy," it is in part the desire for control that has led people to lose it.  "You can feel like a tin can surrounded by a circle of a hundred powerful magnets," he writes. "Many people are excessively busy because they allow themselves to respond to every magnet: tracking too much data, processing too much information, answering to too many people, taking on too many tasks — all in the sense that this is the way they must live in order to keep up and stay in control. But it's the magnets that have the control."
So when and where did I succumb to the idea that "busy" is something to be idolized?  To be put on a pedestal?  To define success?  Like many things in life, I think it happened slowly and gradually over time and it wasn't until I had been asked the question for maybe the 100th time that I finally started to wonder if I too was associating busy with success or importance.

As leaders, should we be identifying ourselves with "busy?"  Are we imposing that same expectation onto others without even realizing it?  And, is busy really good anyway?

When I look back on my life I don’t think I want to look back and see that I was "busy" and somehow equate that with a legacy I want to leave behind.  To change that, I could start by taking "busy" off of the pedestal of importance and no longer ask people "Are you busy?"  Maybe I could change that obligatory business networking question to something like, "What have you learned lately?" or "What's the greatest difference you've made or impact you've been able to have this year?" or "What have you been working on that's brought you personal fulfillment?"  The list could go on, but beginning to associate my conversation openers with something I value more than busyness seems like a good start.