Friday, January 30, 2015

lessons learned from MLB players

As I drove home last night from the RBI Austin gala and fundraiser, I realized that I had had an encounter with five (yes, 5) former or current major league baseball players during the day.  These were no fly-by-night players - each of them had lengthy and successful careers...they were, so to speak, the best of the best.  Here are the odds: of approximately 471,000 high school baseball players, about 31,000 actually play college baseball.  Of those, about 800 get drafted each year.  How many of those 800 do you know by name?  Getting drafted is one thing - making it into the big leagues and playing for any amount of time puts you on the very pinnacle of greatness - you are the best of the best.
So what is it that gets these players to those positions - how do they get selected to play and maintain the ability to keep playing year after year?  Here are a few of my thoughts on achieving and maintaining excellence - I will let you apply them to your particular situation:
  • getting an early start - none of these players come to the game late.  They grow up playing the game, they are in quality programs from early on, and they have access to some of the best coaches.  One of the people I had lunch with yesterday was Tommy Boggs, former MLB player and currently the baseball coach for Concordia University Texas.  He has been running a program for elite high school baseball players for the past 30 years, many of which have gone on to play college and big league ball.  
  • hours of practice - similar to the 10,000 hour rule made famous by Malcolm Gladwell, these people spend hours on the field, in the batting cage, and in the bullpen, perfecting what they do.  It is no accident that someone like Huston Street (sat next to him at dinner last night) is able to throw a small spherical object to a precise point at 90+ miles per hour night after night.  
  • discipline - Yesterday at lunch, Scott Linebrink made sure to order green vegetables with his meal so that he would have the proper nutrients in his body.  Even after being out of the game for a few years, these players know what it takes to be at the top of their game, and do not let convenience get in the way of their lifestyle.
  • love of the game - listening to Keith Moreland talk about his days playing as he emceed the RBI Gala last night brought on both tears and laughter (OK, I may be a little biased here - Moreland played third base for the 1984 Chicago Cubs).  These guys LOVE the game and it shows in their interactions with each other and with the fans.  Loving what they do allows them to be disciplined and spend hours practicing.
  • not taking themselves (or the game) too seriously - while each of these people approach their playing in a professional manner, they also realize it is a game...and that it will not last forever.  They realize that they could be out of the game tomorrow, and that someday someone else will come along and be the next Roger Clemens (yes, he was at the RBI gala as well last night, sitting at the table next to mine).  Approaching their vocation in this manner allows them to have bad days once in a while, and not lose perspective (even though we as fans might).
  • God-given talent - baseball is one of the few games in which body size does not matter as much as other skills (as a short guy, Huston Street would never make it as a professional basketball player).  Those who make it to the top of their professions have a natural ability to see the ball well, throw the ball well, and understand the game better than others.  What they do with that talent is what's important.  During the live auction last night, Huston signed a jersey and put under his name Luke 12:48...upon looking it up, I read these words: "To whom much has been given, much will be demanded."  And that is true in baseball...and in life.
  • luck - each of these five people would tell you they were lucky to play the game (see Lou Gehrig's Luckiest Man speech).  Of the 471,000 high school players, only a very few will be lucky enough to make it to "the show"...and only a very, very few will be lucky enough to actually play in "the bigs"...and only the very best (and luckiest) will stick around for 10, 15, 20, or more years.  Of course, without all of the above, luck will never get a chance to actually work.
I have to admit that I was incredibly star-struck yesterday. All five of these people (several of whom I can call colleagues and friends) played in the major leagues - and for me, that is one of the coolest things in the world.  I smiled all the way home, knowing that I had the chance to hang out with major league baseball players during the day. I am already looking forward to the next time I get to interact with these gentlemen.

One final of the best of the best, and my boyhood hero, passed away last week - Mr. Cub himself, Ernie Banks.  He will always be high on my list as the ball player I emulated growing up.  I did get the chance to meet him once at an autograph session and that picture still hangs in my room, along with the many cards and other memorabilia I have of him.  RIP Mr. Cub...thanks for the memories!

Friday, January 23, 2015

the pop-in

Yesterday I had several people stop by the office and pop-in to say hello and chat for awhile.  Most times when people pop-in they begin with the words, "I'm sorry for bothering you..." or "I know you are busy..."  I have come to truly appreciate the pop-in and look forward to the conversations that ensue from them.  Of course, the downside of the pop-in is the interruption of concentrated time to think or work on a specific project.  Pop-ins can become an irritant if the frequency of them cannot be controlled.

A few thoughts on the value of the pop-in:
  • keeps you in the know on a real-time basis
  • you learn what is important to people and certain individuals
  • the person who is popping-in feels incredibly honored
  • gives you a chance to ask questions that might not otherwise come up
  • makes you approachable and a real human being
  • breaks up any monotony that might be happening
  • gets you up from behind your desk and into a standing position
To create a more pop-in friendly office, consider the following:
  • keep your office door open (conversely, keep it closed when you need concentrated time)
  • if you see someone walking by, wave them on in (conversely, keep your head down)
  • invite people into your office for spur of the moment meetings (conversely, only hold those meetings in the hallways)
  • be genuinely excited when someone sticks their head into the door (conversely, keep typing on your computer as you talk with them)
  • get up from behind the desk, greet the pop-in enthusiastically, and sit down with them for a short conversation (conversely, stay seated behind the desk and shuffle papers around as they talk)
  • give the pop-in your full attention for as long as you are able to (conversely, stay focused on whatever task you were doing, occasionally grunting and nodding your head)
  • if you are not able to give the pop-in your attention, let them know that this is not a good time and for them to come back again later (conversely, get more and more irritated the longer they stay)
  • become a pop-in yourself in other offices...let it be know that popping-in is part of your routine as well (conversely, stay in your office all the time with your door shut)
  • be appreciative of the pop-in as they may even want to send them a thank you note for taking the time to pop-in (conversely, ignore them next time you see them in the hall so they will know how irritated you were about their pop-in)
One final caution...there are some pop-ins who overstay their welcome and keep talking, no matter how many gentle (or not-so-gentle) hints you give.  A trick I learned a long time ago is to stand up and start walking toward the door as if you have another place to be.  The hope is that they follow you out the door, you thank them for coming by, and then walk toward the restrooms.  If they still keep following you...well, good luck at that point!

Friday, January 16, 2015

the three T words

Trust-Truthfulness-Transparency...or is it Truthfulness-Transparency-Trust...or is it Truthfulness-Trust-Transparency?  I was considering which one of these comes first and whether or not one actually does come before the others and which one was most important and...well, you get the idea.  These three "T" words are so important in developing a culture of openness and creating an environment in which people can do their best work.  It seems so easy to be open, honest and truthful - didn't our moms remind us to always tell the truth?  And yet, in an organization where there is little trust or transparency, it becomes difficult to tell the truth.  And if truth-telling is not rewarded (and maybe even punished), there will be no trust and people will hide their true selves from others.  So where does one begin?

In my world, I always begin with trust.  I know that the little voice in our heads says "I will trust you when you have earned it" but I have always been a renegade in this area.  I like to begin with GIVING TRUST which I believes allows people to be more truthful and transparent.  Because most of the world makes others earn trust, giving trust is new to people and often they are unsure how to act.  It has been fun in my career to watch people quickly let down their guard and become more transparent once they realize they have been given trust.  At that moment the conversation changes, the relationship deepens, and the commitment increases.  It does not take long for trust to be developed on both sides of the table.

On the other hand, when I give trust, I expect transparency and truthfulness from the other person.  I give trust so that they can trust me as well, which allows them to be transparent and truthful with me (and with the organization at large).  When someone is not truthful with me, trust is quickly broken and the relationship becomes damaged. I think the reason these three words are so important to me is because they are about establishing and building a relationship - and they are VERY personal.  Neither word can really exist without the other two in any relationship, be it at the workplace or at home.

Finally, I have come to understand that for some people (maybe many people) trust is very difficult to give or to receive because of past life experiences.  Because relationships are so personal, if one has been hurt through a breech of trust, transparency or truthfulness, it is not easy to be trusting, truthful,or transparent with others.  It is my hope that an organization that has a culture of trust, transparency, and truthfulness might be a place of healing for people where they will see a different type of behavior that allows for healthy relationships to be established and built...and that can make all the difference in the world.

Friday, January 9, 2015

talking to myself

This past Wednesday I drove from Dallas to San Antonio and then home to Austin, spending about 6 hours in the car all by myself.  I love that time because it gives me the opportunity to think and plan...and most of it is done through talking out loud to myself.  I often imagine what others might think when they drive past me, watching my lips move but not having anyone next to me.  I have found that my best thinking is done when I can actually talk to myself out loud.  I have tried to relegate my thinking time to when I work out...but I am too concentrated on how hard it is to keep putting one foot in front of the other.  I have tried to relegate my thinking time to sitting on the plane...but often times I just want to sleep,  I have tried to relegate my thinking time to a specific block on my calendar...but the items on my desk keep distracting me.  So I have settled on the time to do my best thinking in the car...where I am alone and can talk to myself.

So why am I including this in a blog about leadership...what does talking to myself have to do with how one leads?  Here are a few thoughts as you consider the importance of thinking, speaking, and leading:

  • leaders need time to think - concentrated, longer periods of time when there is no interruption from others or distractions calling out to you
  • leaders need time to speak out loud - putting the right words together to get a point across can make all the difference int he world
  • leaders need time to consider alternatives - in the midst of a long  drive, many different plans can emerge around one dilemma.  Being able to think about them and hear them out loud helps in making a decision
  • leaders need time to practice - going over what I am going to say (either publicly or to an individual) gives me confidence before going into a situation
  • leaders need time to reflect - going over  the decisions that had been made that day provides a time to consider the WHY of what you did or did not do
  • leaders need affirmation - while I would never rely on self-affirmation, sometimes we need to pat ourselves on the back and rejoice over the decisions made during the day
Next time you catch yourself talking to yourself, don't be embarrassed...embrace it as your way of preparing yourself for leading.  However, I would caution you to find a quiet place to do so, be it a car, a room off the beaten path, or deep in the woods.  I would not be happy if, sitting next to you on a plane, you would be doing your best thinking out loud.

Friday, January 2, 2015

what's new with you?

Over the course of the past few weeks as I have visited with friends and family, I often get asked the question “How is it going?” The assumption behind the question is that I will have much to share about the new role and how life as the CEO at Concordia University Texas is moving forward.  Saying “It’s going well” never seems quite enough (and on those days when it does not go so well, I’m not sure I want to go into details).  As I answer the question, I find myself slipping into tried and true responses that may or may not really say much about how it REALLY is going, which has prompted me to think differently about the question and the answer.  Maybe more than “how’s it going?” the question is more of “what’s new with you?” and maybe even more so “how are you different?”

As people take on new leadership roles, a change begins to happen – or at least a change SHOULD begin to happen.  While leaders who take on these roles should remain the same person, there are things that change:
  • broader perspective
  • different alliances
  • shifting responsibilities
  • realigned loyalties
  • new financials
  • more meetings
  • less sleep

As we begin this New Year, I would encourage you (and myself) to think about how each of these impacts the way we lead – and the way we think about ourselves as leaders.  This change in thinking and behaving does not happen naturally – some of the changes are fundamental shifts and are often difficult to achieve.  Remember the “Peter Principle” of being promoted to one’s area of incompetence…leaders who take on new roles do not fail because they do poor work; they fail because they struggle to make the shift from their previous role.  This is why leadership coaches, mentors, and consultants are important as people make this shift.  Having someone ask the hard questions and holding the mirror up can help make the transition smoother (at least as smooth as these transitions can be).  So as this New Year begins, consider how you will answer the question of “How’s it going?” or “What’s new with you?” next time it is asked.  I hope your answer will surprise the other person…and maybe even surprise you!

Friday, December 26, 2014

the 56th time

As I turned toward the center of the church on Christmas Eve to hear the second chapter of the Gospel of Luke being read regarding the birth of Jesus Christ, I realized that I was hearing the same passage being read for the 56th time in my life (I may not remember the first several, but you can bet I was in church during those years).  On this day, the 56th Christmas Eve service I had attended, I was hearing the same words spoken..."And it came to pass in those days that a decree went out from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be taxed..."  I have to admit that hearing the words spoken in the King James Version is still my favorite.  I will put up with the NIV or the ESV, but I am never so happy as when I hear the story spoken in the language in which I had come to memorize those words.  And so as I listened, I was again enthralled with the story of the birth of Jesus as told by Luke.

So what does this have to do with leadership?  I read somewhere (perhaps it was something by Peter Drucker) that said when people get tired of hearing about the mission, you have just begun talking about it.  The STORY of your organization must be told over and over again...and it is best if it is done in a way that resonates with everyone.  To tell the STORY (the organization's mission, vision, values, and culture) is critical to keeping the STORY alive.  Part of it is its history...part of it is its successes...part of it is its day-to-day workings...and part of it is the story that reminds people of why you do what you do.

When I heard the words "And it came to pass..." I began reciting the words inwardly to myself because I knew them so well.  Would it be the same way in your organization?  Can people recite the story to themselves and others?  Do they know what the story is?  When they gather, is there an anticipation that the story will be told again?  Does the story remind them of the importance of what they do - and how they do it?

What is your organization's story - and how important is it for the people to hear it over and over again?  What milestone is celebrated each year so that the story can be told in its entirety?  For us, the beginning of a new school year marks that time...yet I will never pass up the opportunity to remind people of the story - and why it is important to the institution.  part of my job is too ensure that the story is kept alive.  What will you do in the new year to keep your organization's story alive?

Friday, December 12, 2014

four cups of coffee

People often refer to the Starbucks down the street from our campus as my "second office." I can be seen there once or twice a week meeting people for coffee and having a lively conversation.  I mentioned to someone the other day that I could write my personal history over the past six years from the conversations that have happened there.  Those "cups of coffee," whether they happened at Starbucks or other places (and may not have even included coffee), have made me the person I am today.  I had four different "cups of coffee" yesterday that I believe are important for people to have on a regular basis...

  • Cup of Coffee #1 - someone outside your comfort zone: this is a person who comes from a different background, different culture, different ethnicity, or anything "different" which makes you a but uneasy.  When I encounter these situations, I sometimes even find it difficult to ask questions because I am unsure of the norms in the other person's life.  These are conversations which you enter into with courage, humility, and the deep sense that you are about to learn something both about the other person and yourself.
  • Cup of Coffee #2 - someone who can mentor you: this person is often much smarter than you, has a higher level of experience than you, and has been where you want to be.  I am not referring to a formal mentor here; rather this is someone you encounter by chance and have the opportunity to have a dialogue, or someone you invite for that cup of coffee and come with a host of questions.  These are conversations which you enter into with a multitude of questions and ready to listen intently, knowing you may never get this opportunity again.
  • Cup of Coffee #3 - someone you can mentor: again, I am not necessarily talking about a formal mentoring relationship; rather, this is someone with whom you get to share knowledge, help them clarify their thinking, discuss accountability issues, or get to think out loud together.  What I love most about these "cups of coffee" is the ability for me to clarify my own thinking about certain subjects,  These are conversations which you enter into with the intent of being 100% present for the other person and creating an atmosphere of trust and respect.
  • Cup of Coffee#4 - someone in your inner ring: this is a "safe" person who allows you to be yourself and with whom you can share your deepest struggles and joys.  I have found these conversations occur most often at the end of the day and are often around a beverage other than coffee.  This is where you get to ask the really hard questions, where you might get some really tough feedback, and where it is okay to let your guard down.  These are conversations which you enter into with complete candor and openness (often referred to as "vault" conversations).
As I look back at the past several weeks, there are many times I get to have all four cups of coffee in a single day...and there are times where they are spread out over a week's worth of conversations.  What I do know is that they do not happen without some planning...and without my invitation.  How many cups of coffee will you have today?