Friday, March 27, 2015

non-anxious presence

Yesterday I watched a master facilitator lead our strategic planning team through a day-long process of discovery and team building.  She gave us exercises to work on as a group, she put us into spaces in which we could think out loud together, and she consistently moved us forward, without ever exerting her own self into the process.  She was a non-anxious presence in the room, and it permitted us as a group to do our best work.

Earlier this week, I led our monthly faculty meeting where we heard reports, talked about a few issues, and had to decide how to move forward on an issue that had the chance to be contentious.  As I stood at the front of the room, there was a moment where I had to remind myself to not let my feelings about the subject  drive any of the discussion or the decision - it was my job to lead the meeting, not to do the work of the group.  I had to be a non-anxious presence in the room so that the group could do their best work.

One more I sat and talked with several individuals this week, I again had to remind myself to be a non-anxious presence in the room.  The conversations were difficult and I could feel myself becoming personally involved in several of them.  What I had to remind myself of during these conversations was that I could be personally involved AND remain a non-anxious presence in the room so that the two of us could do our best work.

So how can one remain a non-anxious presence in a room, in a group, or in a one-on-one conversation?  Here are a few thoughts:

  • remind yourself that you are not God, nor has anyone appointed you to be are there as a facilitator of discussion and decision making
  • believe that the group or the other person has much to offer and that their decision is their decision to make...not yours
  • be aware of the signals that your body or mind tell you when you start to get anxious, and then pull back...deep breaths always seem to help me
  • learn to stay quiet, and not to always fill silence with words...let the quietness of the room or the conversation be a time of reflection
  • be prepared so that you can focus on the issue at hand and not have to worry about your own performance.  Know what you need to know to run the meeting or have the conversation - and practice your role (and what you might need to say) beforehand
  • remember that most decisions are not life and death
Finally, I think that the most important aspect of being able to be a non-anxious presence is knowing that ones self worth does not come from the approval of the group, the team, or the individual to whom you might be talking.  Knowing that you are loved and worthy despite what others think of you goes a long way in staying relaxed when the pressure is on...and that can make all the difference in the world - for yourself and for the group or individual with whom you are engaging.

Friday, March 20, 2015


I have been thinking recently about what it means to be a professional - and how one acts in that role. Merriam-Webster describes professionalism as the  skill, good judgement, and polite behavior that is expected from a person who is trained to do a job well.  This blog will focus on the GOOD JUDGEMENT and POLITE BEHAVIORS that are associated with being a professional.  While I would like to say that I follow all of these all of the time (which I do not), I can at least say that these axioms guide the way I think about my work on a day-to-day basis.  Many of them I have discovered to be true over time...others have been passed on to me by wise mentor...and others are still to be discovered over time (mostly through trail and error).  So here goes - and if I miss any, please add them to the comment section of this blog:

Don Christian's 10 Rules of Professionalism

  1. Always tell the truth - you don't have to always tell everyone everything but when asked, tell the truth to the extent you are able...and if you cannot reveal certain information at that time, follow up with the person to let them know you were not able to do so.
  2. Use good grammar and correct spelling - if this is not your strength, have a proofreader handy...and ALWAYS double check your emails or blogs before hitting the SEND button.
  3. Answer emails promptly - I have a 24-hour rule for answering email, even if it is an quick "I will get back to you in a few days" response...and develop a way not to lose emails in the mix if you are reading off of different devices.
  4. Return a phone call with a phone call - while it is not always easy to do, phone calls made to you should be honored with a phone call back to that person...for this I have adopted a 72 hour rule (within 3 days).
  5. Do not send an email if you have any emotion wrapped around it -  stop typing, delete the email, and then go see (or call) the person...even a well-worded email can be taken wrong, so use email for information only, not to share your feelings or opinions (especially if they are directed to that person).
  6. Dress for the occasion - I used to tell my high school faculty that professional dress was dictated by what they were doing that day and with whom they were doing it...PE teachers had a different dress code from math teachers, and science lab teachers  had a different dress code from English teachers.  The same is true for all professions.
  7. Listen more than you talk - if, in a group setting, you find yourself having to respond every time a question is asked, you are probably talking more than listening.  Here's the interesting paradox - listening is harder than talking, so it takes more practice.
  8. Engage in the discussion - as a corollary to #7, professionals offer their opinion and help move the conversation forward.  If, at the end of a meeting you have not spoken, then you have robbed the team of your best thinking.
  9. Be on time - nothing connotes disrespect as being habitually late for meetings...remember that everyone's time is valuable, and making people wait tells them that you consider your time more important than theirs (if you are going to be late, do everything you can to let the other person know).
  10. Keep your work area organized - I understand that cleanliness does NOT equal godliness, and that the sign of a clean desk does NOT equal an empty organized work area says to those who visit or walk by that you "handle with care" the work given you (besides, how will you find that phone message left on your desk and return it in 72 hours?).
And finally, a #11 should be included that states: professionals learn to use the words "please forgive me" because they know that they will break one of these ten rules from time to time...and perhaps that is the true mark of a professional, one who is able to say "I'm sorry" and then move on with their work.

Friday, March 13, 2015

why history matters

Yesterday in what is called our University Council, we took the time to rehearse a short history of our institution.  We did this for several reasons:
  •         We are embarking on developing a strategic plan that will shape the next 3-5 years (the next part of our history)
  •        As a part of the strategic planning process, we had our employees take the Organizational Cultural Inventory (and history helps tell the story of the current culture)
  •        Out of the 18 people in the room, approximately 1/3 have been a part of the institution for more than 10 years; 1/3 for 3-10 years; and 1/3 less than three years (thus many of us only know a part of recent history)
Knowing from whence one has come is important as the next part of one’s history is going to be written (this is true for organizations and individuals).  The past shapes one’s beliefs, attitudes, and behaviors – whether we want it to our not.  Since much of people’s actions are in RE-action to what has happened previously, taking time to think about the past and examine how it has shaped us up to this point is important before moving ahead.

As I contemplated our time rehearsing Concordia’s history, several thoughts crossed my mind:
  •   Making decisions in a vacuum, without understanding the history, can have paradoxical results: 1) you can make decisions which are harmful to the institution without filtering them through your past; and 2) there is a chance that you might not make a good decision because you filter it through your past
  •        While the past can dictate how we think and behave, we CAN change and realize that a new place and time is different…and we need to think and behave differently as well
  •         The past is powerful, and affects an organization’s culture in a strong way.  Saying we are going to change is never enough – consistent behavior over time will begin to dim the results of past behavior…but it takes time (and probably more than we think)
  •         It is really hard to change one’s picture of the past – we only know what we know.  One of the roles of a leader is to provide replacement pictures for the organization, pictures that can help people write a new story of what the organization CAN be, not just what it has been.
  •    Honoring those who have gone before us is an important part of creating a culture that says “people are important.”  Whether living or dead, those who have helped shape our history should be remembered for what they did to get the organization to where it is today (a corollary might be to not let our founders dictate what we do today…getting stuck on the person can dilute the vision)
 Finally, a quote recently came across my desk that reminded me of the importance of what we do on a daily basis – and how our current story is the history of tomorrow.  In Mark Beto’s Daily Motivator, he quoted Juliet Gordon Low as saying that “the work of today is the history of tomorrow, and we are its makers.”  That’s a responsibility that is on all of us, whether we are writing the history of our organization, our families, or of our community and nation.  It is my prayer that all of us will live out that responsibility in a way that gives glory to God and serves our neighbor.

Friday, March 6, 2015

tough decisions

I have come to realize the that tough decisions we face in leadership...and in life...are those in which the decisions we have to make are comprised of all good choices.  Tough decisions are not the ones we make between the right thing to do and the wrong thing to do...they are mostly between two choices that both would be good for the individual or for the organization.  This is not about listening to the "good angel" or "bad angels" sitting on each of your shoulders...tough decisions are the opportunities before you or the organization...and which one has the greater upside in the long run.

Currently I have several tough decisions before me, many of which are not emergency decisions and will allow me to take the necessary time to make the choice (I started to type "the best choice" and then paused since the decisions are around multiple right or good choices).  So how are these decisions made without paralyzing the individual or the organization?  Here are a few of my thoughts:

  • begin by understanding (and accepting) that the decision is between two or more good choices.  While this tension may be hard to hold, it is a fact.  If the decisions is between a good an bad choice, then make the decision simple by choosing the good choice.
  • take time to make the decision.  Most decisions do not need to be made immediately and time can bring clarity to the decision.  If someone else is pressing for a quick decision, do all you can to put it off for a short time.
  • get the facts...and get the hard facts.  Do a complete analysis for those areas which are important to the organization at that time.  Consider all of the areas and functions that need to be taken into account and drill down deep into the facts as they emerge.
  • build a team...these decisions often require multiple perspectives, and having a team to bounce the ideas off of can bring some clarity to the decision making process.
  • build the right team...while there may be an executive or administrative team in place, different decisions call for different people at the table.  Get the expertise needed to assist in making the decision.
  • remember that this is your decision and as the leader, you will need to take ownership for it.  Regardless of the team and its input, the decision must be owned by the leader and she must be responsible for seeing it through.
  • consider implementation of the decision and how it can best be executed.  Making the tough decision is only the it has to become a reality.
As you move along the path of making tough decisions, remember that prayer is also an important part of that process.  Asking for clarity, discernment and courage allows you to open yourself up to God's direction in your life...and in the life of the organization.  Time spent in quietness and solitude can be time well spent when facing tough decisions.  

And one final note...going through this type of process does not guarantee that the decision will benefit the organization in the long run.  Often times a decision made at the time looks and feels right from all angles...and can still turn out to hurt the organization.  These times remind us that we are still finite beings with limited knowledge and understanding.  This is why we call them tough decisions...

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.