Press Enterprise Columns

From My Column: Leave Your Problems at the Door

Originally published by The Press Enterprise in 2010 (so it refers to my experience at my previous organization – but still super relevant!)

In the past two years, I have watched members of my staff go through tremendous personal hardships: life-threatening health crises, divorces, home foreclosures, layoffs of spouses, financial hardships, and horrible relationships. The quantity and severity of these challenges seems greater than anything I had previously witnessed in my seven years of managing employees. Driven by a tough economy and unforgiving housing market, many people are truly at their breaking point.

The reality is, however, that many of our employees were often quietly at their breaking points in the past. It’s not as if employees went from having no problems whatsoever to having suitcases full of challenges they lug with them everywhere. The bad economy has made things worse and impacted more people, but it does not account in totality for the tremendous increase in challenges I have witnessed.

What accounts for the rest of the increase? The fact that we dramatically changed our organizational culture for the better and that I know and understand more now about our staff as complete people with lives and families and challenges outside of work then I ever did before. In my early days of being in the workforce, I was taught that it was expected that when you arrived at work, you parked whatever personal baggage you brought with you at the door. You just found out that you are getting divorced? That’s nice. Leave that issue outside of the office. You just found out that your house is being repossessed and you have to move in three days? That’s too bad, but leave that problem at the door.

I understand where that concept of keeping life challenges away from work may have originated. It is important for all of us to be able to compartmentalize some our challenges so that we can continue to move through life and get done the things that must be done – doing our jobs, taking care of our kids, getting dinner on the table. We can not afford to let ourselves wallow day in and day out in a pool of our problems. In many cases though, that concept of setting your problems aside to get work done has been taken to the extreme and it has turned into an expectation that we all have a super-human ability to not let our personal challenges creep into our work.

When the culture of our organization started to change a couple of years ago, we built those changes on a foundation of trusting our employees. From that trust stemmed much closer relationships between coworkers. Instead of feeling like people we just happened to work with, our coworkers started to feel like friends and family. When a coworker truly becomes your friend or feels like a family member, you tend to share much more of your life with them, both the good stuff and the bad stuff.

I personally know much more now about my employee’ health issues, relationship challenges, and financial problems than I ever did in the past. Some people might say that is not a good thing, that it muddies the waters and makes it difficult to manage because there might always be an excuse to not hold someone accountable for their work. I guess I just see my role a little bit differently.

I absolutely believe in holding people accountable for their work, but I also believe that there are times when employees need help and support and an open ear more than they need a slap on the wrist for not performing up to their usual standards. If I can help someone talk through a challenge or give them a place to vent, then I have helped them as a person, not just as an employee. That person will go back out into the world – whether they are sitting at their cubicle or playing with their kids – and hopefully be in a better place than they were before they talked to me.

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Press Enterprise Columns

From My Column: Getting Past Your Worst Fear

Originally published by The Press Enterprise in 2010

It is often reported that our number one fear is not death, but public speaking. I still remember in sixth grade having to stand up in front of my class and give a presentation about Eskimos. I knew my information: I had done research, wrote a report, and had my notes right in front of me – but as I stood in front of the class, I was overwhelmed by fear. Determined to make that awful feeling go away as soon as possible, I raced through the presentation at a mile-a-minute pace and was incredibly thankful to be done – that is until my teacher told me that I needed to repeat the presentation because I had talked so fast that no one had understood a word I had said.

My fear and loathing of public speaking grew from there. I can remember the awful introductory remarks I gave at a high school event and all of the times I tried to avoid speaking in class or avoid even taking classes that required me to speak at all. As I entered the working world, I realized that I could not hide in the back of the classroom anymore – if I wanted to be successful, I had to figure out how to speak in public without feeling like I was going to die.

My journey to better public speaking has been a string of experiments. First, I tried writing out everything I wanted to say in long form, printing it in size 14 or 16 font, and holding on to the paper for dear life as I stood in front of a group to speak. That technique did not work for me for three reasons: first, having to read off of a sheet of paper meant that I was not looking at the people I was talking to; second, if I ever lost my place I would get totally flustered, turn red, and fumble my words; and third, I sounded like a robot.

On to the next experiment: someone had suggested that instead of writing out my entire speech, I should write it in outline form just to keep myself on track and make sure I did not forget my keep points. When I used that technique, I still ran into the same problems: I could not help but look down at the paper and I would get flustered if I missed something.

Then one day, I had the ah-ha moment I had been waiting for: there is no such thing as public speaking. The only thing that exists is conversation. You can have a conversation with one person, or five people, or five hundred people, or five thousand people, but it is still a conversation. When we have conversations one-on-one, we usually do not stand there with a written-out script or an outline of our talking points. We just talk. When we forget what we wanted to say, we do not tell the person we are talking to “hold on a minute, I missed something. I forgot what I was going to say. Let me look a my notes.” Instead, we ad-lib and we continue on until we find our footing again. Why would “public speaking” be any different?

My big discovery made speaking in public more approachable to me. It made it less something reserved for the great orators of the world and more something that we are all capable of doing. Changing the way I see public speaking does not mean that I never get nervous. It just means that underneath that healthy level of nervousness about the speech or presentation I am about to give, there is a sense of calm and joy in knowing that I am preparing to have a fabulous conversation about a subject that I am interested in and care about. What great conversation are you going to have today?

Thoughts & Observations

Humanity Connected

“Humanity connected is God.”

This line, spoken by Jim Gilliam in his beautiful talk at Personal Democracy Forum in 2011 called “The Internet is My Religion” stood out to me when I heard it recently, and seems especially relevant today.

And whether you believe in God, or another divine spirit, or no spirit at all, it reminds me that it is within our connection to each other that we find goodness, and love, and support. And when we stand together and let our voices amplify each other, amazing things happen.

Thoughts & Observations

Keeping the Door Open

As I settled onto my mat at a new yoga studio, I looked around realizing that I was one of only three people in class. This was very different than the previous yoga studio I had been to (which could have more accurately been called a yoga factory), in which they would pack in as many people as possible, to the point where I spent the whole class worrying about kicking someone or falling over on top of them, and wondering whether that sweat I felt dripping was actually my own.

Two thoughts came quickly in succession as I sat there in this new, wide open space:

1.) Holy crap this is awesome!

Followed by…

2.) But if they only have three people in class, maybe they aren’t going to make enough money to stay open and then they are going to close and then I won’t have this yoga class anymore.

My forward-thinking, preparation-based mind was kicking in…but not in a good way.

As I caught myself spiraling into negative future predictions, it got me thinking about preparation, and when thinking about potential future outcomes is a good thing and when it becomes limiting.

I think it comes down to this: preparing for potential future events and outcomes is helpful when that preparation helps keep the door of possibility open. It’s good to keep a few bandaids, tissues, and a granola bar in your bag, because when you get a blister, get a runny nose, or get a bit hungry, you won’t have to stop what you’re doing to deal with a problem that could have easily been prevented. Preparation served to help keep the door to the present moment open and it enables you to have more enjoy it even more (instead of thinking about that blister on your foot).

On the other hand, when preparing for the future becomes centered around fear and anxiety – worrying that the yoga studio is going to close when there is no indication that it will  – that type of preparation closes the door to being fully present. You are already living in the land of defeat, already experiencing and feeling what you fear will happen before it has even had a chance to happen yet.

The first method of preparation leaves you open to fully enjoy the present moment, and the second causes the door to the present moment to be shut.

 

Thoughts & Observations

Artwork for Sale. Please NO Pictures.

artsign

This artwork was on the wall of a small restaurant in Upstate New York.

The little red sign at the bottom reads: “Artwork for Sale. Please NO Pictures.”

Right.

Because we all know that the best way to sell artwork is to not tell anyone about it.

I laughed out loud when I read this. And then felt sad and happy at the same time.

Sad because obviously the person who owns this restaurant or who made the art doesn’t get it. They don’t get that the value of the art is in sharing it.

But I also felt happy because there are more and more people who would laugh at the sign just as I did, seeing the error in such short-sighted thinking.

We are benefitting from the fact that so many people are starting to approach the world through the eyes of abundance and openness instead of scarcity and protection.

Now if we can just get everyone else on board…

 

Thoughts & Observations

You Don’t See the Slog

Watching this Tiny Desk Concert  it occurred to me that what we usually see of each other is the performance, not the slog.

But even if what we see is the joyous end result, these guys have to slog through the same daily stuff that any person does – doing the dishes, paying the bills, getting the oil changed in the car.

Only seeing each other in performance can give the impression there is only performance – the joyous outcome –  and there is none of that unartistic, often unpleasant, seemingly time-wasting daily stuff.

But it is there and it always will be.

So maybe, instead of seeing it as the enemy, we should see it has part of the ecosystem. If you never shower, if you never do the dishes, if you never sit down to actually pay your bills, the ecosystem will start to fall apart. Unless you’re practicing a certain kind of art, it is awfully difficult to be an artist over the long run with no clean underwear and a life infrastructure that is completely falling apart.

And it is interesting that it is, in fact, in the slog, away from our art, that we often times have the insights, epiphanies, and mind-shifting ideas that give us the spark to keep going and to build something amazing.

Light needs shadow. Art needs slog.

Press Enterprise Columns

From My Column: Death By Meetings

Special Note: As I am getting close to writing my 200th weekly business column for The Press Enterprise, a daily newspaper in Southern California, I’ve looked back and realized that all that I’ve written probably should have a home here as well. So every few days I’ll post a new (old) column. Hope you enjoy! 

Death By Meetings

Originally published by The Press Enterprise in 2010

Meeting. The mere mention of the word can illicit a sense of loathing in anyone who has ever worked in an office. Companies have gone overboard with meetings – scheduling meetings to plan a meeting about a meeting. Meetings are often too long and can feel absolutely pointless. That being said, meetings are not wholly unnecessary: meetings bring employees together for important conversations and allow multiple people to bring their perspectives to the table at one time. If meetings are necessary, how then do we prevent death by meetings?

First, you have to fully understand how much your meetings are costing you. An employee’s time is a limited resource. Just like making strategic decisions about how to use its financial resources, a company also has to make strategic decisions about how it uses an employee’s time. When a company has a habit of scheduling meeting after meeting without a strong purpose, or inviting people to meetings who do not really need to be there, it is wasting its own resources (and concurrently driving employees nuts). How much are meetings truly costing you? Use the Meeting Cost Clock available from EffectiveMeetings.com to give you a clear picture of the price tag attached to each meeting. Simply input the number of participants and their average hourly wage and start the clock. Project the Meeting Cost Clock on the wall for a few meetings, and you will most likely be appalled at how fast the costs add up.

After you have a clear picture of how much meetings are costing you, stop yourself before sending out your next meeting invitation. Before the invitations to a meeting even go out, time should be spent thinking about whether the meeting needs to be held at all. Could you share the information via e-mail and be just as effective? If you truly need to have a meeting, think about who actually needs to be there. Invitations to meetings are often treated like invitations to weddings – you feel like you have to invite everyone so that no one feels snubbed. Instead, think about what the goal of the meeting is and what attendees need to be there to ensure that goal is met. While there are some meetings with a level of importance that could make an uninvited employee feel left out, most of the time employees will not be insulted if you tell them they do not have to add yet another meeting to their schedule.

Another problem with meetings is that they often turn into run away trains – running way behind schedule and going off topic. To tackle this problem, ideally a meeting request should never be sent without a clear agenda and a specific amount of time allotted for each agenda item. During each meeting someone should be assigned to keep track of time or you can use a giant timer that is visible to everyone so that attendees get used to staying on track. You can also employ some more radical tactics to keep meetings short: Seth Godin suggests holding meetings without chairs – when everyone is standing up, they tend to get to the point faster.

To keep side tracking in meetings to a minimum, you can designate a place on the wall or use a flip chart as a “parking lot” and provide everyone with sticky notes to keep track of ideas, discussions items, and questions that are triggered by the meeting but are not related to the subject being discussed. These sticky notes are posted in the “parking lot” and can be covered at the very end of the meeting or in follow-up emails.

And finally, do what you can to help people think in meetings and make meetings fun, especially for the long ones. Feed people. Give them something to drink. And if the meetings are largely focused on generating ideas, give them tools – like playdough, markers, and sketchpads, to help them do that.

If the purpose of a meeting is to actually get something done, to move an organization forward, then the effort should be aligned around making that happen…or no meeting should be taking place at all.

Thoughts & Observations

A Quick Lesson at the Potter’s Wheel

I’ve been taking a pottery class at a local studio, and the other day, three classes in, I had only managed to throw one pot that had survived the whole process of being shaped without completely falling apart. And even then, as I was trying to trim the bottom of the the little vase I had made, I poked a big whole in it (pot instantly became flower pot).

In my head, I declared at that moment “well, I guess I wasn’t destined to make pots – I’m definitely not a potter.”

A few minutes later, as I was throwing yet another hunk of clay down on the wheel, I asked the teacher for help.

It actually turned our that I was being too gentle with the clay, that I wasn’t (ah-hem – thanks Sheryl Sandberg) “leaning in” (quite literally) to it hard enough.

Once I figured that out, I was able to make two very nice little bowls. And all of a sudden I was what I had declared just a few minutes ago that I wasn’t.

A nice little reminder that we are often too quick to raise the flag of defeat.

Press Enterprise Columns

From My Column: What Did You Love?

Special Note: As I am getting close to writing my 200th weekly business column for The Press Enterprise, a daily newspaper in Southern California, I’ve looked back and realized that all that I’ve written probably should have a home here as well. So every few days I’ll post a new (old) column. Hope you enjoy! 

What Did You Love?

Originally published by The Press Enterprise in 2010

What did you most love doing when you were a kid? I had only thought about the answer to that question in bits and pieces. I also had never realized the importance of answering that question in the framework of the rest of my life and work. When I was very young, what I most loved doing was creating things. With my brother, the two boys who lived next door, and the kids up the street, we created everything from plays and musicals, to dance routines and ice capade shows. We built forts in the woods and dams in the stream behind our houses. As I grew up, that focus on creating things became more formalized as I became passionate about taking ballet classes almost every day of the week.

Somehow, after I graduated from high school and moved on to college, I started to forget how much the art of creation added to my life. Society started to train me on how the cogs in the wheel of a business are supposed to act – show up on time, follow the rules, do not question why things are done. While I may not have followed all of those rules, even in my relatively short time in the business world, I internalized the rules so much, that I often times did not even realize that I was following them.

Why does all of this matter in the business world? What does having a love for creating dance routines as a kid have to do with performing well as a business leader? It matters because when we forget what our strengths are, we do not bring our best selves to our work. What I loved doing as a kid was a natural indication of who I am as person and what makes life most meaningful to me. If you come to the conference table understanding what you are best at, what you can contribute, and what you are most passionate about, you will begin to add more value than you ever thought possible.

It was when I became a CEO at the Girl Scouts in Southern California a few years ago that I truly started to create art through my work again. I could see that our organization needed some dramatic changes and I started to realize that staying within the confines of the business rules I had internalized would not lead to the solutions we needed. I started creating things again – creating a new physical atmosphere in which our girls, volunteers and staff could experience Girl Scouting; creating a hand-drawn stick figure cartoon (Sally the Girl Scout) to explain some of the changes our organization was going through; creating videos for our organization’s YouTube channel. After I started that process of creating things again, I continued to grow into it and embrace it, and truly feel more engaged in my work than ever before. It means that my organization is getting the best of me it possibly can.

My art may not be fine art – I can not paint, I can not play an instrument, I can not even sing. My art is about finding ways to make the world around me better through the things I create. I give people a new way to look at things. I try to add value to what already exists by shedding new light on things and putting them in a new context. Your art may come in a different format, but whatever art you bring to your work can change the game for your business.

Sometimes as kids, when we do not yet know what society expects of us, we actually have more clarity around what our strengths are and what we are truly passionate about. For me, the act of creating is where my strengths and passion come together – my sweet spot. It took the act of thinking about what I loved as an 8 year-old to remember that. What did you love doing as a kid? What is your art? Where is your sweet spot?

 

Thoughts & Observations

Talented Does Not Equal Unafraid

Towards the end of this interview with Seth Godin, Seth mentions consistently doing things he’s afraid of.

I’ve known Seth for a number of years, and I’ve realized I’ve never thought of him as being afraid of anything.

Why? Because he’s so good at what he does.

Hearing him talk about doing things that scare him made me think more clearly about the fact that just because someone is talented and good at something – just because they make something look effortless and easy – doesn’t mean that the act of doing it is a fear-free act for them.

As much as we might hope that we could somehow get to the place of being able to do meaningful work and never feel an ounce of fear, we should actually be hoping for the opposite: that we continue to push the edges enough to always be a little bit afraid that what we are about to do might not work.