Friday, April 30, 2010

Just Talk to Me

Have you ever wanted to look at someone and say to them, "Just talk to me...just ask me a question...just make good conversation." Several times this past week, I wanted to say to those who work with me, "Just talk to me...I understand you might be stressed, busy, confused, upset...but just talk to me." Why is it so difficult for people to approach another human being and just talk to them? Here are a few thoughts:
  • when talking to others, we might be afraid of what they might say
  • when talking to others, we don't really want to admit what we did or feel
  • when talking to others, we can't control the direction of the conversation
  • when talking to others, we will have to expose ourselves, which is incredibly scary

The importance of talking with others is that misunderstandings can get cleared up very quickly - whether I have not met someone else's expectations...or they have not met my expectations - talking with them helps to clear the air and promote understanding. Talking with people allows for both parties to be heard. Talking with people builds trust. Talking with people creates community. Talking with people promotes understanding. And all of that can create a great place to work - and to live.

So how can we more regularly and successfully talk to people? A few action items:

  1. When what you experience from others does not meet your expectations, begin by believing the best. If you can't believe the best, confront quickly.
  2. In confronting quickly, do so with a spirit of inquiry, i.e. that you may not know everything and that you want to find out what really is happening.
  3. Develop a habit of asking questions rather than making statements. And WAIT for answers from others.
  4. Put away your guns when confronting others - assume they are acting in the best interest of the organization (or relationship) and follow #3 above.
  5. Put away your defense mechanisms - when others come to talk with you, listen intently and be willing to admit you might be wrong.
  6. Similar to #5, develop an attitude that says you might be wrong at times, and that in talking with people you can actually learn something.
  7. Summon the courage to talk to others, even when it feels scary. Initiating that conversation is often the hardest part - once it gets started, it becomes much easier.
  8. Prepare ahead of time - consider what you want to say, what you want the other person to know, and what questions you need to ask. In my most difficult conversations with people, I will write out exactly what I want to say and sometimes read it verbatim to them.
  9. Trust that talking to people is a good thing, and that because you have taken the first step in creating this conversation, good things will come out of it. You will, in essence, be the hero!

One quick caveat - sometimes it doesn't always work as you would like it to. There have been many times when I have attempted to talk to someone, and the conversation falls flat on its face. The problem does not get resolved and the relationship is damaged. That's the risk we take when trying to talk to someone. However, I believe the rewards are amazing, and I will risk the few times conversations go bad for the many times they go well - and life is better because of it. At work, on boards, with friends, and at just seems better to go and talk to someone.

Friday, April 23, 2010

A Generation of Paradox

I love Twitter...came across this series of paradoxes (paradoxies?) from one of my favorite thinkers on leadership among young adults - Tim Elmore. Concordia University Texas uses his text Habitudes in our Freshman Seminar Course. Leadership is about being comfortable with ambiguity - and teaching college freshman is all about ambiguity. Come to think of it, leading college faculty is all about ambiguity...come to think about it, raising a family is all about ambiguity...come to think about it, running a not-for-profit organization is all about ambiguity...come to think about it, lving life is all about ambiguity.

So read this short blog and see if you would be comfortable working with this next generation of leaders (and they WILL be the next generation fo leaders, whether you want them to or not...)

A Generation of Paradox

Friday, April 16, 2010

the art of getting things done

If you are anything like me (and you probably are since you read this blog), then you probably find yourself in the midst of the "I'm so busy" trap most of the time. Maybe it's you telling all of your best friends (or ex-best friends by this time) how busy you always are and how your are always in over your head and how there is always too much work to do...OR you're surrounded by people who come into work each day telling you how much there is to do and how they can't seem to find their way through the piles and how it never seems to slow down...OR you have a boss who is always running around trying to get things accomplished and is always running late because they are so busy and keeps asking you when all of the projects he has given you to do will get done...and the list goes on.

We seem to live in a culture where people enjoy wearing the "I'm so busy" badge of honor - and we are often the first people to award that badge of honor to others. Our new heroes are the people who are too busy. I saw a sign the other day that said something to the effect that the new generation thinks 9 to 5 is a cute idea. In a connected a fast-paced a high expectation world -- it always seems that there is too much to do, too little time, and too many demands. HOW CAN I EVER GET EVERYTHING DONE?

First philosophy...then practicality:

1. Philosophically, one must admit to themselves that they will NEVER get everyting done. There will always be more to do...more demands...more paperwork...more of everything. That's how life is. Even if we feel caught up, there is another project (or 2 or 3 or 4) looming that if we started on them now would make life easier for everyone. Accepting this fact is point #1. Point #2 is that leaders have to learn to self-prioritize. It would be great if God (or even our boss) gave us a list of priorities that if we followed would make life easy. But that is not going to happen. Being able to self-prioritize is really the ability to look at ourselves, understand what is important to us and others, and then make a decision to act on those that we feel need both immediate attention and what is important for the long haul (see Stephen Covey's Quadrant I and II issues). I believe this is a philosophical issue because it is not a check list or a calendar or an organizer or any other is a way of thinking and living. Perhaps the ability to live with ambiquity and paradox helps here.

2. Practically, there are certain ways of approaching our work and life - and actual action plans to take - that can help us get things done. I am by no means an expert on this issue, but here are a few ideas that work for me:

  • process paperwork - I find that paperwork can eat my lunch if it starts piling up. I set aside at least one day week where I have 2-3 hours to do this (sometimes less, sometimes more). If you know when you are going to do this, you can tell people when you will be getting to it, relieving stress and guilt over getting paperwork finished.
  • wake up early - I'm at the office no later than 6:30 every mnorning, giving me at least 90 minutes before anyone else really arrives and things start happening. During that time I answer emails, process paperwork, organize my day, set things out that I need later on, etc. It's quiet, peaceful, and it has become routine. The key here is routime that helps to get things done. Find your timne and stick to it.
  • block off time - there are chunks of time marked on my calendar to accomplish items that need to get done. My assistant knows those are for the most part sacred times and meetings do not necessarily take precedence over them. If I have two hours blocked off to work on a project, I spend those two hours working on that project. These chunks of time are set up in advance, giving me time ahead of due dates to get things done.
  • delegate - we all know this is important, but the reality is that leaders get to their positions for the most part becasue they don't delegate early in their lives...they DO THINGS. Now that there are multiple priorities and projects due, one must learn to give things away to others and trust them to get the job done. Major reports and projects should be the handiwork of many people.
  • set time limits - people can suck up time...and that includes ourselves. A 5-minute conversation turns into 30 minutes of chatter. It may be may be may even provide new ideas...but it takes time. Learn to master the use of the line, "I have only five minutes right now." That way, the next time someone comes into your office (or you walk into theirs), you have a better chance of only staying 5 minutes rather than 30.
  • keep a clean desk - it's difficult to say to someone "I'm so busy" when they look at your desk and see nothing on it. We can increase our "badge of honor" if our desk is piled high and have paperwork laying on our tables. I think we are afraid that a clean desk may say to people we don't have enough to do (don't ever look inside my desk drawers - they're a mess). A filing the desk at the end of the day or week...having someone else clean your desk...whatver it takes, not only will you feel less overwhelmed when you come in the next morning, but you have a sense of control and pride in your clean desk (a new badge of honor).

That's all I have time for - I'm too busy to write anymore - there is so much to do today - my boss is expecting 2 reports finished by the end of the day...see you next Friday!

Monday, April 12, 2010

leadership as a stochastic art

This weekend I finished an awesome book entitled Shop Class as Soulcraft: An Inquiry Into the value of Work by Matthew Crawford. Crawford has his PhD in Political Philosophy from the University of Chicago - and presently owns and runs a motorcycle repair shop in Richmond, VA. Without going too deeply into his ideology of the work ethic, suffice it to say that I have a whole new respect for the plumber and carpenter who come to my home to repair that which I cannot - or chose not to. To "rank" certain vocations, or to give them names such as blue collar and white collar, does injustice to everyone and creates a society that is often less than fully functional.

That being said (and I do encourge you to read the book), Crawford speaks about the stochastic arts, referring to Aristotle who wrote, "it does not belong to medicine to produce health, but only to promote it as much as possible..." The doctor (or mechanic, in Crawford's world) deals with failure every day becasue they are only FIXING, never building or creating. They fix things not of their own making. Crawford writes, "Because the stochastic arts diagnose and fix thing that are variable, complex, and not of our own making, and therefore not fully knowable, they require a certain disposition toward the thing you are trying to fix. This disposition is at once cognitve and moral. Getting it right demands that you be attentive in the way of a conversation rather than assertive in the way of a demonstration" (p. 82).

Consider leadership as a stochastic art. Leaders lead people, none of whom they have created. Leaders lead organizations, few of which they have created. Leaders influence people, all of whom have their own worldview and understanding of how life should function. Leaders work to make change happen, all the while wondering how others will respond to that change. Leaders see a different future for their organization, a future which can only be achieved through changes in people, all of whom the leader has not created or made. People and organizations are, in Crawford's words, variable and complex...they are not fully knowable...they react on their own...they react differently in different situations...leaders cannot produce change, they can only promote it.

So consider what it means for a leader to be "attentive in the way of a conversation rather than assertive in the way of a demonstration." Skills needed to do this include listening, asking good questions, collaborating, inviting different voices to the table, observing, believing one might be wrong from time to time, letting others take the lead, being transparent, being optimistic, showing empathy, and working to develop others. As you watch other leaders (and yourself) over these next few days, see how many times these people engage in demonstration rather than conversation. When you observe one or the other, ask yourself why that happened that way - and what you can do to promote a change of behavior in that other person...or in the organization...or in yourself. If you catch yourself demonstrating rather than conversing, stop and apologize to the other person, and see if you can exhibit behavior which is more conversational than demonstrative.

Two books for you to consider and read this week:
  1. Shop Class as Soulcraft by Matthew Crawford (Penguin Press, 2009)
  2. Primal Leadership: Learning to Lead with Emotional Intelligence by Daniel Goleman, Richard Boayatzis, and Annie McKee (Harvard Business Press, 2002)

Friday, April 2, 2010


I just now finished reading a biography of Richard J. Daley, mayor of Chicago from 1954-1976. The book, entitled American Pharoah, is both demeaning and flattering of the person known simply as "BOSS," the title of an earlier biography written by Chicago columnist Mike Royko. Growing up just outside of Chicago, many of the events and names througout the book were familir to me, having shaped my earlier years in terms of what leadership should look like.

Richard J. Daley, while known by most people for the events surrounding the 1968 Democratic Convention held in Chicago, was known in Chicago for the way he controlled the "machine" that ran Chicago politics for many, many years. Looking back on those times, I am struck by the paradox that while personally I am against any such graft or politicking, I also can see how much progress was made for the city of Chicago during these times. There is no doubt that Mayor Daley loved Chicago and its people - and did everything he could to make it a great city. The fact that he did it using policital cronyism at the expense of many others, bothers me - yet I wonder if Chicago would be the city it is today without such political behavior.

I know that it is poeple like Richard J. Daley (among many others) who give the term "acting politically" a bad name. Leaders have to be able to "act politically" to get things make things drive change. The term itself - "to act politically" - is not inherently evil. Leaders have all kinds of power to do so - and that is where the problem often lies. Having the multiple types of power available to onself can easily lead to corruption. The famous phrase - "power corrupts; absolute power corrupts absolutely" - often makes people leery of power. Leaders who become leery of power will often refuse to use it for the good of their organizations. Not only may the not know how to act politically...they refuse to act politically, keeping their followers and their organization from moving forward and enacting significant change.

Perhaops the answer lies in Jim Collins' theory of Level 5 Leadership, which he describes as those who have the indomintable will to act coupled with intense humility. There was not much humility in Richard J. Daley's life - thought there was incredible will to act. On the other hand, we as a country witnessed great humilty from President Gerald Ford, with little or no will to act. Is there a middle ground? I certianly hope so, and I believe it can be accomplished in some of the following ways:
  • leaders need to know what the mission and vision is - and keep that as the main goal
  • leaders need to surround themselves with people of differing views, not only by what is often referred to as "yes-men"
  • leaders need to continually ask themselves whether their actions are for the greater good or for a select group of people
  • leaders need to continually self-reflect and honestly look at their own motives
  • leaders need to comfortable with the paradox of doing what is good for the institution AND taking care of people at the same time
  • leaders need to confront their own prejudices and ways of behavior, dealing honestly with actions that conflict with the mission, vision and values of the institution
  • leaders need time to be by themselves, not always surrounded by the pressure of the moment
  • leaders need to be aware of their care for "the least of these," whomever that might be in their organziations and communities

It's good to be "boss" - it's good to be in charge - it's good to act politically - it's good to have power...but it's also good to remain humble - and it's also good to build a larger base of leadership - and it's also good to act justly - and it's also good to share power. These seemingly contradictory ways of thinking are some of the hallmarks of great leadership, which can be used to move an organization forward and to act for the common good.

That being said, I just wanted to say once again that these are the type of leaders we will be developing through The Concordia MBA, which will see its inagural class begin in the fall of 2010. The first information session is scheduled for Tuesday, April 6 at 5:30 PM at Concordia University Texas. This is an exciting time for us in the College of Business. Keep us in your thoughts and prayers as we move forward in this venture.