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.

Thoughts & Observations

Feeling Stuck? Shift Your Center

A simple and, at least in my experience, fairly foolproof approach to getting unstuck by shifting between the three different centers of mind, body, and spirit:

  • If you’re stuck on a brain problem, move your body or do something to engage your spirit
  • If you’re stuck in an emotional vortex, set your mind to work or move your body
  • And if your body is revolting, engage your spirit or exercise your mind

This is why sometimes all it takes is getting up and doing ten jumping jacks to get you back on a flowing path again.

Press Enterprise Columns

From My Column: Wasting Time on Excuses

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! 

Wasting Time on Excuses

Originally published by The Press Enterprise in late fall 2009. 

Every weekday morning, hundreds of thousands of people around the country are doing the same thing. As they sit in their cars, running thirty minutes late for work because their five year-old threw up on their shoes five minutes before they left, they start thinking. Not thinking about what they have to do that day or what they hope to accomplish over the next few months at work, but about what excuse they are going to give their boss for being thirty minutes late.

The story about their kid throwing up on their shoes does not seem acceptable. They run down the list of socially acceptable excuses. Flat tire? No, they used that excuse last week. Accident on the freeway? No, the boss drives the same route and is obsessed with traffic reports. Stayed up until three o’clock in the morning working on a great new idea for growing sales by 50%? No, that does not work either. The boss only cares about whether you are on time or not. The fact that you stayed up until three am working is your problem.

What a great way to run a business. Force grown-up employees waste hours of time coming up with “dog ate my homework” type excuses because corporate America can not figure out a better way to measure an individual’s contributions to the company beyond how many hours their butts are in their seats.

The fact that wasting time creating acceptable excuses is okay but being thirty minutes late is not says something about what a company values. Forcing employees to create excuses also does not make any sense as a business practice. It wastes time. All that time spent in the car coming up with the right excuse could have been spent thinking about something important.

Excuse creation also happens to create tremendous stress. First coming up with an excuse, then worrying about whether you are actually going to need it or not, then spending the whole day wondering whether your boss actually bought the excuse, then wondering if when you boss gives you a particularly tough assignment whether it is punishment for your lateness that in the end was ineffectively covered up by a poorly chosen excuse that your boss did not buy. We waste time and energy with all of that (instead of actually getting work done) just because society has decided to collectively pretend that during working hours no one has any family drama, no personal crises, and no kids throwing up on their shoes.

You might be thinking to yourself: “but there are lots of jobs where being on time matters.” You are right.  If you are an airline pilot, the passengers would likely get upset if you did not show up until an hour after their flight was supposed to leave. If a worker on an assembly line is running thirty minutes behind, it can cause problems while the manager scrambles to find someone to fill in while they wait. The same issues are not there however for a significant percentage jobs. Most of the time nothing horrible is going to happen if you are late. If the only thing that is expecting you is your cubicle, then what is the rush?

Instead of punishing employees for having their personal lives creep into their work lives, companies should find ways to make it easier for employees to manage life and work in one seamless stream. Even in the cases of the assembly line worker or the airline pilot, what if companies figured out how to help their employees handle life’s challenges, instead making them feel guilty and stressed?

This is not about disrespecting other people’s time by never showing up when you are supposed to. It is about changing the structure of work from a focus on time as the most significant measure of an employee’s contribution, to a focus on what actually matters: whether an employee is contributing to the success of the business through the results they deliver. It is about “my kid threw up on my shoes” no longer being needed as an excuse because no one cares if you are 30 minutes late as long as you are still getting your work done. It is time for a paradigm shift away from employees being forced to waste time on excuses. Don’t they have more important things to do?

Thoughts & Observations

Practice the Noun

“Practice makes perfect” has conditioned us in some ways to believe that the goal of practicing is to get to the point where we don’t have to practice anymore – we’re perfect, we’re done, we can move on.

I’m finding that I like the mindset of the noun version of practice much better: you develop “a practice” of meditation, “a practice” of writing every day, “a practice” of treating others with compassion and kindness.

I’m not writing or meditating to reach a goal – to get to perfect – I’m doing it because by developing it as a practice I’m able to contribute more to the world, to better live up to my full potential.

Press Enterprise Columns

From My Column: The Lowest Common Denominator

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! 

The Lowest Common Denominator

Originally published in The Press Enterprise in Fall 2009. 

Everyday, companies around the country fall into a trap. Instead of setting policies and procedures that reflect a high level of trust in their employees, they settle for something less. Policies and procedures are built around the minority of employees who can not be trusted, instead of being built around the majority of employees who can. This is the phenomenon of the lowest common denominator.

All companies at some point fall prey to the lowest common denominator trap: A handful of employees dress inappropriately, so a strict dress code is put in place. One employee takes advantage of a liberal paid time off policy, so the policy is made more restrictive. One incident of a soda being spilled on a computer keyboard, and now all food and beverages are banned from all workstations. One person sends an inappropriate e-mail to a group of customers, and now no one is allowed to send e-mails to customers without approval from the communications department or the CEO first.

Companies fall into the trap of the lowest common denominator because it is the easy way out. Making policies more strict and procedures less flexible makes the people in charge feel better because something concrete has been done and they’ve freed themselves from any potential blame in future incidents.  This is a good thing when you are talking about something like preventing another Enron.  Most of the time though, the issues are not on the scale of Enron and the impact of catering to the lowest common denominator has a significantly more negative effect than if nothing were done at all.

Why is the lowest common denominator trap bad for companies? Because it kills everything vital to keeping a company alive: employee engagement, empowerment, creativity, innovation, motivation, and happiness. If employees know that a failure is likely to lead to reprimand and a more restrictive policy, then they will not take any risks. If an employee knows that being creative comes with a high likelihood of losing all opportunities to be creative in the future, then innovation will not even be attempted. If a company forces its best employees to follow policies and procedures geared toward its worst employees, the great employees will either come down to the level of policy that has been created or simply leave.

Companies who avoid the lowest common denominator trap end up on lists of the best companies to work for and are some of the most successful companies in the world. Google actively encourages its engineers to spend twenty percent of their time experimenting with company-related projects that intrigue them, even if they are outside of their normal scope of work.  Gmail, Google News, and a number of other innovations at Google were born out of that “twenty percent time”.

Zappos.com, another company on Fortune’s  “100 Best Companies to Work For 2009” list, empowers their customer service representatives by allowing them to manage calls from customers without scripts or maximum call times. The representatives can also make decisions about upgrading to overnight shipping, matching a competitors’ price, or even sending flowers to a customer who just lost a loved one without running it by their supervisors first. The amazing level of employee empowerment at Zappos.com does make a difference. With Zappos.com achieving over one billion dollars in annual sales (and having seen it for myself at Zappos.com headquarters in Las Vegas), it is clear how trusting employees creates a more engaged, happy, and effective workforce.

The next time you find yourself teetering on the edge, ready to fall into the lowest common denominator trap, stop. Instead of lowering the bar, raise it. Treat employees as trustworthy, hardworking, intelligent human beings and they will more often then not live up to your expectations. Those who don’t are probably not the type of people you want working at your company anyway.