Wandering Into Wisdom

This blog chronicles the knowledge, insight and wisdom I encounter every day as a leadership consultant, executive coach, educator, father, friend and citizen. This site is dedicated to my father, Louis (Jack) Laughlin, who passed on to me an appreciation for wisdom. A special thanks to my friend Isaac Cheifetz, a businessman and journalist, who helped me understand the value of blogs and encouraged me to write one.

Scientific Proof*

People tell me all the time that most scientists don’t believe in God. They always look a little puzzled when I ask them if they know any scientists. When I was an undergraduate one of my biochemistry professors turned to us in the middle of a lecture and said, “Any of you that think this all happened by chance should reconsider.” My favorite quotation website has thirteen quotes by Albert Einstein about God. As far as I know, Darwin never said that his work on the “Origin of Species” caused him to question the existence of God. I wonder what scientists these people are talking about.

Fast Enough*

It seems that the faster things become the less patience we have. What happens to that moment of bliss when we first experience something faster? Copy machines, computers and speed limits all got faster, but our impatience always seems to stay one step ahead.

Detection vs Prevention*

I know someone who learned the hard way the difference between fraud detection and fraud prevention. Their bookkeeper was allowed to fill out checks but not sign them. When they caught her forging checks she tearfully told them that she knew she would eventually get caught but the money was gone so she couldn't pay them back. After the owners fired her they decided to lock up the checkbook and fill out checks themselves. They haven't lost a dime since.

Technical Adoption*

Consumer behavior theory offers a framework to develop a personal strategy for technological change. Early adopters embrace new technology in its infancy. They brave high prices and unreliable designs for the privilege of being the first. Majority adopters accept a new technology after it becomes reliable and economical. As long as it's useful and reasonably priced, they don't mind adapting to a new technology. Late adopters accept a technology only after the previous technology is no longer available. They minimize the cost of making the transition. Once you know your comfort zone, you can determine when a new technology is ready for you.

A Desirable Destiny*

There's an old adage that, “Success is where preparation and opportunity meet.” But for what opportunity should we prepare? Our desires push us toward one future while our destiny pulls us to another. This paradox leads many to worry that their lives appear more like a list of random events than a well executed plan. In the end, our experiences become significant, as does our fulfillment, when we recognize our fortunes rather than force our future.

Living on Purpose*

Philosophers throughout history have struggled with the role of purpose in our lives. Although there are a mountain of self-help books about living a life of purpose, many of them sound more like a life of self-importance. In the following quote, Joseph Campbell questions the need for deep meaning in every aspect of our lives. “I don't believe people are looking for the meaning of life as much as they are looking for the experience of being alive.”

Priorities*

“A hundred years from now it will not matter what my bank account was, the sort of house I lived in, or the kind of car I drove…but the world may be different because I was important in the life of a child.” Card titled "Priorities" by Successories

Addicted to Drama*

I watched the news last night and realized the level to which they dramatize everything. Drama sells. Politicians know about the power of drama and that war is the most dramatic of all human endeavors. If they want our support, they make a case for war. A chemical dependency counselor once told me that discomfort with serenity is one of the biggest challenges for addicts in recovery. It seems that they are just as obsessed with the drama surrounding their addiction as they are with the substance itself. In a way, serenity is anti-drama. Given the human cost of all this drama, a little more serenity might be good for all of us.

Just Being Honest*

We’ve all heard an inappropriate comment followed by, “I was just being honest.” We could suggest these people also make sure their statements are relevant, necessary, factual, sensitive, mature…you get the idea. Dorothy Nevill had it right when she said, “The real art of conversation is not only to say the right thing in the right place, but to leave unsaid the wrong thing at the tempting moment."

Burned Out*

Steven Berglas, author of “Reclaiming the Fire,” makes a useful distinction between burnout and exhaustion. Although the symptoms appear similar, boredom and lack of meaningful work drive burnout. A vacation may cure exhaustion but it might actually exacerbate burnout. Berglas prescribes stimulation, not relaxation.

Our Frog Died*

There’s an old proverb that if you drop a frog in boiling water it will jump out, but if you put it in cold water and heat the water slowly it will boil to death. I wonder if we’re boiling to death when it comes to news about greedy financiers. Bernard Madoff is accused of running a ponzi scheme through his financial company that could be the largest financial fraud in history. Investigators estimate losses of up to fifty billion dollars. A year ago we would have thought, “That’s a lot of money.” Today, we might be too numb.

Letter to The President Elect*

As an undergrad in the 1970’s, I worked in a lab filled with graduate students doing renewable fuels research. Then the oil markets improved, and the research stopped. The recent decline in oil prices could cause us to repeat that scenario but the situation has changed. The world oil supply is half gone, global demand is fifty percent higher and our ecology won’t survive the use of the remaining reserves. I wish I had some brilliant ideas or easy answers. I don’t. I hope the President Elect retains his commitment to a future-oriented energy policy. I will help others understand the need to support these efforts. Sent to Obama's team via change.gov.

It's Marginal*

I paid significantly less for gas yesterday than I did a few months ago. About 60% less. Let’s take a look at what’s driving such a dramatic change. Supply and Demand – The shrinking world economy has caused the demand for oil to decrease while production capacity remains unchanged. Price Elasticity – Oil prices are relatively inelastic in the short term so we don’t buy more oil simply because it’s cheaper, which keeps demand low. Marginality – Although the consumption of oil has only declined a couple percentage points the price has decreased about 60%. It’s a difficult concept to grasp. Think of a freeway that becomes a parking lot at 99% capacity but allows traffic to flow sixty miles an hour at 95% capacity. So what about the future? Experts all agree that we have used about half of the world’s oil reserves so prices will increase dramatically in the long term. Better buy that hybrid after all. See update for this post titled Will It Never End.

Improved Parenting*

There is a moment in time when we realize that, despite our best efforts, we have become our parents. As parents there is a corresponding instant when we realize that our children have become just like us. In the end, the best way to improve our parenting might be to improve ourselves, since our children are liable to become us.

Evaluation or Affirmation*

When I ask my wife to look at these blog posts I want an objective evaluation so I can make improvements. When my son asks how I like his latest drawing I offer compliments and encouragement because he’s looking for affirmation. I have learned to pause when people ask my perspective so I can determine if they want my evaluation or my affirmation. I have also learned to be clear about which I want before I ask people's opinion. Potential contestants for American Idol should consider this carefully and, if they want affirmation, walk away.

External Sources*

A friend of mine who spent most of his life as a minister says that communities grow from the outside in rather than the inside out. Those that attract and nurture new members not only grow their numbers, but grow their understanding of society, their community and ultimately, themselves. Communities that focus inwardly stunt their growth, in all those same ways.

Fix or Forget*

One of the key discussions I have with executives is whether to fix or forget things. Whether it’s an underperforming employee or an ineffective program there is rarely a simple answer, but any analysis contains the same three basic questions.

Worth - What would it be worth if you could fix it?
Cost - What will it cost to make it work?
Likelihood - What is the likelihood it will improve?

Then make a decision and move on.

Who's In Charge*

One of the key principles in psychology is that intellect rules over emotion in mentally healthy people. The three conditions when emotion rules over intellect are mental health disorders, substance abuse and adolescence. This makes adolescence a normal period of psychosis, which any parent will confirm. The other two conditions account for the vast majority of the material for the TV show Cops.

Island Hopping*

In World War II the Allies used a strategy in the pacific theater called island hopping. They skipped over enemy occupied islands that didn’t have strategic importance for the invasion of Japan. The Japanese abandoned many islands without a fight after the Americans passed them by. I recently spoke to someone who used a similar strategy to deal with an entrenched coworker. Her colleague consistently missed the deadline for a critical report but insisted on doing it anyway. Rather than continue the battle to get the report on time she decided to do it herself and let her coworker merrily duplicate the effort. Sometimes it’s better just to go around.

You Can't Hold It Forever*

How many times have you tried to stop an unwanted behavior only to have it return with a vengeance? Like holding your breath, at some point you involuntarily gasp. One option is to find a new pattern of behavior that eliminates the old one. I have a friend who wanted to lose weight but simply couldn’t stop eating late at night. He tried popcorn, carrots and simply not eating, all to no avail. He finally resolved his unwanted late night snacking by going to bed early.

Powerful Quotes*

"Nearly all men can stand adversity, but if you want to test a man's character, give him power." Abraham Lincoln

"Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely." John Acton

"The Autocrat of Russia possesses more power than any other man on the earth; but he cannot stop a sneeze." Mark Twain

2500 Years*

The riots in Athens continue as members of the anarchist movement react to the shooting of a teenager by police. They would like to see the current government overthrown because of its corruption and inability to resolve economic issues. Athens is the birthplace of democracy, which means they’ve been at it for about 2500 years. One wonders how long it takes to get it right. In the end, maybe it’s not the form of government but the quality of leadership that matters.

United Nations Inc*

I was having lunch with a friend of mine in the Cargill cafeteria and noticed two gentlemen at the table next to us speaking French. It reminded me of my international assignments when I worked with people from all over the world. The media and politicians malign corporate culture as cold and inhumane but one has to wonder what the United Nations could learn from multinational corporations. We worked with people from all over the world in an environment of respect, acceptance and cooperation.

Into The Future*

A better understanding of, and comfort with, television appearances contributed to John F. Kennedy’s defeat of Richard Nixon in the 1960 presidential election. Kennedy’s use of televised addresses also changed the relationship between the president and the people. Obama’s use of the internet paralleled Kenney’s use of the media in his campaign victory. In addition, his website, change.gov, invites all of us to contribute thoughts and ideas to his team. This gives him an incredible e-mail list to speak directly to those who participate.

Greatly Disciplined*

In Jim Collin’s booklet “Good to Great and The Social Sectors” he points out that both financially driven businesses and mission driven non-profits rely on discipline to achieve greatness. As I watched Obama’s weekly address on the internet, I was struck by his commitment to bring results oriented discipline to government programs. I don’t know if he will pull it off but I sure like that he’s going to try.

It Takes a Village*

One of the kids who takes the bus with my children has no siblings and both his parents work, so he comes over to our house quite a bit. He’s basically a good kid but we have to monitor and guide him as if he was our own, which can be a hassle at the end of a long day. As my wife and I talked about why we take him we realized that we don’t do it to help out his parents but to help him become a healthy, productive member of our community. At my dad’s funeral a number of young men came up and talked about how he was a second father to them. Our house often had kids from the neighborhood hanging out at the kitchen table talking to my mom or dad. Children need communities to raise them just as much as they need families.

Mirror Mirror*

I had lunch with an old friend today who I haven’t seen in years. We picked up right where we left off and quickly caught up on our most recent adventures. We just shrugged at each bit of news and told anecdotes of how we seemed headed in that direction years earlier. What struck me was that he could see my path and potential much better than I could, and visa versa.

I Got The Power*

People in powerful positions with malicious intent can cause great pain and suffering. People with an inadequate appreciation for their position's power can unintentionally cause just as much destruction. I once heard a story from an executive who innocently commented on the new color of a freshly painted wall during a plant visit. He noticed on the subsequent visit that they had repainted the wall the previous color. He wondered how many other aspects of the company’s operations he had unwittingly impacted. He realized the danger in his lack of appreciation for the breadth and depth of his authority.

What's Next*

We live in a suburb of Minneapolis where maligning meteorologists is a local sport. Making forecasts of any kind is a complex and difficult task, but one way to assure failure is to assume change in only one factor. People predicted hard times for institutions of higher learning because of decreased birthrates at the end of the baby boom. So why have college costs gone up so much in recent years? Do the laws of supply and demand not apply to academia? Although, as predicted, the number of students graduating from high school has decreased the percentage of graduates going to college has increased so much that college enrollment has actually gone up. Now the number of students graduating from high school is increasing again, just as my kids are ready to go to college...great.

Ideology vs. Humanity*

Although history recounts many inhumane acts perpetrated during times of conflict it also records acts of humanity and compassion. In 1914 some of the soldiers on the front lines of the war in Europe agreed to a Christmas cease fire. There are stories about playful verbal exchanges and soldiers tossing food and tobacco into enemy trenches. Unfortunately the war went on and many of those young men died. More recently, a Dutch warship on patrol to combat piracy off the East African coast rescued a boat full of heavily armed Somalis who had been adrift for days after their engine died. After the Dutch sailors disarmed them and sunk their boat, they gave them medical attention, food and water. Maybe we should put world leaders together in a situation they can only survive through collaboration and then let them decide how to resolve our differences.

Today*

"Yesterday is history. Tomorrow is a mystery. And today? Today is a gift. That's why we call it the present." Babatunde Olatunji

Here is a common variation of the quote. "You can't change Yesterday but you can ruin Today worrying about Tomorrow."

Just a Nickel*

I remember a neighborhood garage sale quite a few years ago where I learned one of my best lessons about consumers. One of the neighbors put some items out for free which went untouched the first day. The second day one of the older, wiser, neighbors went over and changed the sign to 5¢. Everything was gone in about an hour. It seems that anything for free is junk but a bargain is a bargain.

Personality or Prison*

Experts disagree on how much of personality is genetic but they all acknowledge that a significant portion is formed by our environment and under our control. Our personality is certainly not a prison. Martin Seligman did research comparing optimistic and pessimistic personalities and discovered three areas where optimists perceive things differently than pessimists.

Permanence, see negative situations as temporary
Personalization, focus on outside forces that contribute to failures
Pervasiveness, narrowly view a problem’s impact on the rest of life

Seligman proposes that an individual can become more optimistic by choosing to look at their situation like an optimist. His research also correlates an optimistic orientation to higher levels of success in performance based activities. It certainly couldn't hurt.

Who's Minding the Store*

Most experts agree that inadequate regulation of the financial industry caused a significant portion of our current economic troubles. The media has pointed to credit default swaps as an example of one such problem. In simple terms a credit default swap is like mortgage insurance that covers your lender in case you default on your mortgage. Well, imagine if the whole neighborhood could take out insurance on your mortgage, and get paid if you default. Now multiply that by tens of trillions of dollars on all kinds of securities, not just mortgages. Then see what happens when a lot of people start to default on their securities. Now ask who pays.

May I Help You*

I remember when my children began to develop independence, easily recognized when they pulled away while saying, “Do it myself!” Regardless of their ability we allowed them to do it themselves so that they could develop a sense of competence and independence. As adults we need to offer aid in a way that allows others to retain their dignity, regardless of how much we think they might need our help. Allowing someone the opportunity to decline help shows them honor and respect.

Cybereality*

Lori Drew was convicted of three counts of computer fraud, with a possible three year prison sentence and $300,000 fine, for creating a false My Space identity to torment a teenage neighbor girl who had allegedly spread gossip about her daughter. Sadly, the deceit contributed to the suicide of Megan Meier who thought the teenage boy she had befriended on the internet was suddenly rejecting her for mistreating her friends. It’s difficult to parse out all the lessons contained in this story about good parenting, civil behavior and social responsibility. One thing is for sure, you can’t assume that what happens in cyberspace stays in cyberspace.

Letter to The Editors*

I want to make the posts for this blog clear, succinct, impartial, relevant, insightful, provocative and, when possible, entertaining. I could not do this without the feedback I get from my wife, and other readers. Mark Twain saw the importance of editors to keep his writing clear and concise. "I hate editors, for they make me abandon a lot of perfectly good English words.”

Simply Secure*

With security measures, sometimes less is more. I worked in an organization that had so many project code names we couldn't keep them straight. We wanted to limit code names to critical projects but our boss, who had an affinity for bureaucracy and secrecy, suggested we regularly send everyone a master list with all the project names and descriptions. This would have been an even bigger security risk than not using code names at all. Another company I worked for decided to require a new network password for each user every month. After about four months people could no longer remember their passwords. At least half the computer screens in the building had a post-it with the user’s current login password.

Walk More Slowly*

I went trekking in Nepal a few years ago. During lunch one day I joked with my guide about his incredible stamina. He just smiled and said, "Don't worry, you are doing fine. When clients need lots of breaks I just tell them that we will arrive much more quickly if they will only walk more slowly."

An Act of Compassion*

A client recently said he had reached the limits of his tolerance with a colleague's inexperience and management's decision to put him in the position. Since there was nothing he could do, and his patience was at an end, I suggested that he be compassionate toward his coworker. Certainly he could empathize with being new and inexperienced. Although compassion and understanding aren’t always our first reaction they can be considerably more positive and abundant than our tolerance or patience. His attitude improved quickly and so did his colleague’s performance.

Virtually Stressed Out*

An article in the New York Times reported on a research study that found elevated levels of anxiety among people who use the internet to self diagnose health problems. Since internet diagnostic tools don’t consider the likelihood of a particular condition, or the emotional impact of a diagnosis on the patient, it’s the equivalent of having your doctor nonchalantly say, “Your headache could be an inoperable brain tumor, a terminal case of ALS or eye strain.” Apparently this phenomenon has led to a newly coined condition called “cyberchondria.” That’s all we needed.

Just Ask The Expert*

In one of my postgraduate classes we watched an interview with Salvador Minuchin, one of the founders of family systems theory and the creator of Structural Family Therapy. We listened intently as he recounted his experiences helping families attain healthy dynamics and saving countless children from the wounds of dysfunctional family systems. Toward the end of the interview someone in the audience asked him what it was like raising his own children. He didn’t even hesitate, “It was impossible.”

He Grew Out Of It*

My son was born ten weeks premature so we were told he would have developmental delays. When he was eight, a neuropsychological assessment indicated he would struggle with math. Last year, he failed seventh grade math so he had to repeat the class. About two months into this school year he told us that he would like to move up to eighth grade math. We put together a plan to help him, hoping he would not be devastated if he failed. In three weeks he has completely caught up with no help from me or the teacher. We're still scratching our heads.

Should You Be Ashamed*

People feel guilt when they do something bad. They feel shame when they think they did it because they’re bad.

Is That So*

For the fourth time one of my students tried to turn his homework in late. I told him I wouldn't accept it but he explained that his Uncle had died and that the school policy permits absences for funerals of family members. Not wanting to add to his trauma, I graded the assignment and gave him a copy of the school policy stating that there are no excused absences of any kind. He apologized and turned the rest of his assignments in on time.

Guilt or Consequences*

Despite my request to keep his cell phone number confidential, my son gave it to a couple of his friends. Here is our conversation.

Son: What are my consequences?
Dad: None, you‘ll just have to deal with what happens.
Son: But why don’t I get any consequences?
Dad: You’re old enough to take responsibility for your actions.
Son: But my friends get consequences.
Dad: Don’t worry, you'll pay if your account runs low.
Son: Can I have some consequences?
Dad: Why do you want consequences so badly?
Son: So I won't have to feel so guilty.

Good and Evil

The 9/11 attacks and the wars in the middle east have caused us to face the nature of good and evil in the world. Except in extreme cases, we all have the potential for both good and evil. Since we tend to judge others by their behavior and ourselves by our intentions, we are left only with our current choices and honesty about our past mistakes to determine our true character.

What Scares You

Michael Moore’s “Bowling for Columbine” examines the role of a fear-based culture in the Columbine shootings. Candidates talked about a “Culture of Fear” as they attempted to neutralize messages that leveraged fear in the recent election. Normal levels of fear serve to keep us away from danger. Excessive fear of disappointment and loss make our lives smaller as we become controlling, selfish and reluctant to take risks. Pathological fear makes us paranoid and incapable of normal social interaction. In the end, it is only through acceptance of our limitations and vulnerabilities that we prevent fear from ruling and ruining our lives.

Legacy*

When we adopted our first child I wrote down three things I wanted to give our children. My fourteen year old was reading the framed copy on my desk today so I asked him if we had given him those things. I’ve never been so nervous waiting for a response. He nonchalantly walked away, as teenagers tend to do, and said, “yup.”

Love, so they always have a place they’re accepted.
Confidence, so they believe in themselves.
Understanding, so they know their place in the world and what gives life meaning.

What Goes Around, Comes Around*

Some time ago home owners in our area voted down a school bond referendum. I spoke with someone who clearly hadn't considered the impact that the quality of the local school system has on their home values, not to mention national economic and social stability. They saw education as an expense rather than and investment.

We Have Arrived

Because of John F. Kennedy, I grew up knowing that anything was possible for an Irish Catholic American. Obama’s election has impacted my friends of color, in much the same way.

Not A Prophesy

Military planners have a wonderful saying, "The first casualty of any battle is the plan." Although this maxim expresses a fundamental reality, it does not make planning or plans irrelevant. In fact, in a dynamic environment, a well conceived plan can help detect significant changes and quickly adjust strategies and tactics to take advantage. Just remember that a plan is not a prophesy.

It's Odd

Advances in medical diagnostics have changed the way we view physical and mental ailments. In my youth, I wondered why people no longer died of blood poisoning. I found out later that people still died of blood related illnesses, the classifications had just become more exact. A friend of mine has a child with aspergers. A hundred years ago we would have simply considered him odd. The dark side of these advancements is our growing tendency to pathologize anything about people we find unusual. In the end, some people are simply unique.

What Do You Owe

Why, in a society so committed to individual freedom, do people so readily accept the imprisonment of debt?

Mastery*

People become famous when they accomplish something extraordinary but we rarely see the effort required to develop their talents. Mozart’s genius wasn’t that he could write a beautiful symphony in his early twenties but that he could write a symphony at all when he was eleven. It still took him a decade to do it brilliantly.

“Unlike reality TV, there is no overnight success." Spike Lee

HAL

HAL was the ship's computer in the movie “2001 A Space Odyssey” that killed almost the entire crew. By 2001 computers looked a lot different than the film makers had imagined. They did get one thing right, the way a computer can destroy life as we know it. I decided to install some software on my new PC that I had installed on my old computer with no issues. I selected yes when the computer politely asked permission to uninstall existing software, restarted my computer, and you can guess what happened next. I had to use my phone to e-mail an S.O.S. to my technical guy.

It's Complicated*

One must realize that the second most complicated thing in the world is a human being, and that the most complicated is a group of them.

This is an axiom, or maxim, I use often in my work with executives and students.

Axiom: In traditional logic, an axiom or postulate is a proposition that is not proved or demonstrated but considered to be self-evident. Therefore, its truth is taken for granted, and serves as a starting point for deducing and inferring other (theory dependent) truths.

Maxim: The succinct formulation of an ultimate truth, a fundamental principle, or a rule of conduct. The word derives from the Latin word maximus, "greatest", via an expression maxima propositio, "greatest premise".

I Cracked Up*

“It’s a glimpse of heaven, at the gates of hell.”

Quote from a recovering crack cocaine addict reflecting on his initial experience with the drug.

The Face of Corruption*

During the adoption of his daughter in Mexico City the attorney of someone I know paid the clerk to get official copies of the documents they needed. He was incensed when it took almost two weeks to get the copies because he assumed they had paid a bribe to speed up the process. It turns out that the five dollars per document they paid was not to speed up the process but to avoid the fifty dollar per copy fee charged by the court. A friend of mine living in Switzerland was upset that the Swiss DMV clerk would not take a bribe so she could skip the driver’s test. She didn’t hate the corruption back home, she actually missed it. Bribery of government officials in China is common but the Chinese FDA Minister was executed this summer for taking them. Corruption, and the reaction to it, is not as straight forward as one might think.

Are You Being Psychomanaged*

A client and I were discussing a previous boss of hers, who I labeled a micromanager. She got very agitated and said, “More like psychomanager.” As we discussed it further we defined a micromanager as someone whose anxiety about results, and lack of trust in the competence of others, makes them overly controlling of operational details and processes. A “psychomanager” is someone whose pathological need for control eclipses their concern for results.

Double Edged Sword

Technology tends to produce both wanted and unwanted outcomes. The development of nuclear technology gave us significant advances in medical and other technologies. It also amplified international tensions to the brink of annihilation. Makers of Motrin recently launched this viral video ad which takes advantage of emerging social dynamics on the internet to broadcast an advertisement. That same techno social phenomenon blew up when women who disapproved of the ad's portrayal of mothers started blogging and twittering their objections. The ensuing magnification of their protests created a PR nightmare for the company. Read the Fast Company Article

Abundance or Scarcity

In my travels around the world I have noticed that the poorest people seem the most willing to share and that people generous with their time and resources believe they receive more than they give. Although this abundance mentality might not be a formula for financial success, it could be one for happiness.

It's My Honor*

In our effort to fairly compensate others we can lose sight of opportunities to honor them. We pay a modest “honorarium” to guest speakers where I teach. Many of the speakers for my business class are highly successful, highly compensated people. I still make sure they each get a check because I want to honor their contribution, even though I can’t sufficiently compensate them. I also try to graciously receive what people offer me, even for things I’m willing to do for nothing.

Why Change

I owe a great debt of gratitude to my mother, who made me take typing classes long before the creation of the personal computer. Interestingly, the QWERTY keyboard owes its odd configuration to the limitations of early mechanical typewriters. Although experts have proposed more efficient layouts, this throwback to an ancient technology persists. Like language, typing skills become “hard wired” so most people don’t think it’s worth the effort, or possible, to make the change. Many other skills operate in a similar fashion, and provoke the same resistance.

A Better Culture

Organizational consultants propose that cultural change can significantly improve the effectiveness of an organization. That may be true, but organizational culture is like individual personality, it tends to be very persistent. Here is a quote from Ed Schein, Professor Emeritus at MIT’s Sloan School of Management.

“The term ‘corporate culture’ is frequently misused and misunderstood. We talk about a corporate culture as if it were a thing that can be shaped and molded at will. But, culture is much more complicated than that. At a minimum, it factors in the underlying assumptions about the organization’s goals and what the company has learned from its successes and failures over the years."

But I Assumed*

During the depression, when many farmers simply walked away from their farms, my grandfather drove a hundred miles to the bank to tell them he couldn’t make his loan payments. The banker told him that no one else could either, so he should go back to farming and when things improved they would sort out the loan. He kept his farm and became one of the most successful farmers in the county, all because of that one bold act.

Command and Control

I got an excellent explanation of command and control from a client who is an ex military officer. You are in control when you are in physical control of something. You have a key, a password or some other device that puts you in control. You are in command when you have legal authority over someone or something. There are legal consequences if a command is not obeyed. In both cases there are repercussions for the person in command or control if something goes wrong. In the military you can go to Leavenworth and in civilian life you can get fired. Because command and control both create bottlenecks in an organization they should only be used when necessary. They should also be pushed down in the organization, the company president should not keep the keys to the company cars.

How Do You Know That

One of the best, albeit most difficult, bosses I ever had would regularly ask, "How do you know that?" Even if a fact was widely accepted, he wanted substantiation if it was a key factor in a decision. We changed quite a few decisions because of his inquiries, and lost a few colleagues who couldn’t get the hang of it.

Hey Stupid*

I remember telling one of my teams at General Mills not to make me call the president of the division stupid. Of course they didn’t understand so I explained how it would occur. First, we would base our recommendation on a prediction of what the president would do. Second, he would tell me that the recommendation was “stupid” and ask why I made it. Finally, I would tell him that we made it because we thought it’s what he would do. I challenged my group to always think for themselves regardless of whether or not they thought the president would agree.

Humility

“The gift of humility is relief from the burden of needing to be right.”
My Wife

"Humility isn't thinking less about yourself, it's thinking about yourself less."
A Friend

Are We Negotiating*

I remember a negotiation we settled for significantly less than we planned because the other party did a poor job of negotiating. They negotiated by justifying their demands which served only to give away their position. All we had to do was listen. Although skillful reconciliation looks much the same, the dynamics and outcomes are significantly different. Whereas negotiation minimizes what you give, reconciliation maximizes the respect and honor you show. Pushing the other party to understand you first serves only to widen the divide you are trying to close. What you need to do is listen.

Killing Creativity

Many executives struggle to find a response to bad ideas because they don’t want to kill the creativity that could also generate good ideas. A colleague of mine once suggested I articulate the virtues of the idea then follow with a request to meet additional requirements. Truly creative people respond positively to both the praise and the subsequent challenge. There are, however, people who do not realize that the difference between an idea and an innovation is utility.

“I never perfected an invention that I did not think about in terms of the service it might give others.”
Thomas Edison

Say What*

"When written in Chinese the word crisis is composed of two characters. One represents danger, and the other represents opportunity." John F. Kennedy, Indianapolis April 12, 1959

It's such a profound insight into eastern culture that people have used this quote for decades, with one small glitch, Chinese experts say it's wrong! How many times have we repeated something we heard only to have someone tell us that it's misinformed, naive or downright ignorant? Unfortunately, we can also suffer this humiliation by association.

"The problem with the French is they don't have a word for 'entrepreneur'." George Bush

My friends in France made fun of me for weeks, since the word originates from French.

Advice

What kind of friendship is this when friends give advice?
I wish they knew healing or simple, ordinary sympathy.

From "My Destiny" by Mirza Asadullah Khan Ghalib 1797 - 1869
Translation by Robert Bly and Sunil Dutta

Why Do You Believe

"Religion is for people afraid of hell, spirituality is for those who’ve already been there."

One of my Dad’s favorite sayings.

Back to Basics?

I had lunch with our financial advisor yesterday. He has navigated us through the financial crisis brilliantly. He continues to examine which fundamentals will change as the financial markets worsen. People are most at risk during a crisis when they assume that basic principles, on which they have always relied, will continue to hold true.

Protect Me

The key difference between a protector and a bully is the way in which, and the purpose for which, they use force. I read an interview in Harvard Business Review with Joseph S. Nye, Jr., a professor at Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government, that challenges the way our country conducts itself in foreign affairs.

Cause and Effect*

There’s an old adage that, “figures don’t lie, but liars figure.” One example of this is politicians who take credit for positive changes to economic and social conditions they had no role in changing. This kind of thinking isn’t limited to politics. I see businesses draw erroneous causal conclusions from correlated data all the time. Well, my son once thought that if I slept in late the sun wouldn’t come up. It came up anyway, and now that he’s fourteen he no longer makes those kinds of mistakes about my impact on his world.

The authors of Feakonomics, a wonderful book dedicated to this topic, now have a blog. Link to Blog

Hidden Gifts

I watched the cat jump effortlessly onto the counter this morning and then walk away like it was no big deal. That's fine if you're a cat, but I see people treat their talents with the same disregard. Don’t mistake this for humility. At the very least, this blind spot prevents them from fully appreciating and utilizing their gifts. What's worse, they tend to assume everyone else has the same abilities and become frustrated with people less capable than themselves. Much of my work with executives and students involves creating a better awareness and utilization of their strengths, and compassion for any lack of these skills in others.

Getting to Wonderful*

“You can't get to wonderful without passing through alright.”

A quote from Bill Withers, the award winning songwriter who performed "Ain't No Sunshine," "Lean on Me", and "Just the Two of Us".

Who Do You Love

A neighbor talked to me about the bizarre behavior of her ex daughter-in-law. The dishonesty, lack of empathy and singular focus on self fulfillment leaves her thoroughly perplexed. She’s probably dealing with a narcissistic personality. People with narcissistic personalities may appear arrogant but the behaviors stem from a lack of self esteem rather than an over abundance of confidence. They’re so defensive they’re usually impervious to feedback and self reflection. The only way to get along with them is to massage their ego and avoid any hint of criticism. They have difficulty forming normal relationships and may have behavior so destructive they should simply be avoided.

Tell Me A Story

A longtime acquaintance spoke to my business class about his highly successful design and branding firm. He gave a thoughtful presentation on his passion for the business and the lessons he learned along the way. At his request, I asked the students how they liked his presentation and they responded positively enough. When I asked what he could do differently someone said, "more stories," and the class heartily expressed their agreement. It was clear that the lessons contained in the stories he told were by far the most impactful.

Didn't See That Coming

Predicting people's reactions and behaviors is a bit of a fools' game. In Richard Attenborough's biography of Gandhi, Gandhi has this response to the revolutionary rhetoric of an Indian separatist, “It’s a clever argument, but I’m not sure it will produce the end you desire.” One question I often ask executives is, “What reaction would make you wish you hadn’t taken this action?” It usually works better to prepare for a broad range of reactions than to attempt to predict or provoke just one.

Arriving Early

My intercultural training and experience has taught me at least one important lesson: it’s not the cultural differences you expect that get you. When I was on a business trip in Switzerland I showed up about ten minutes early for a meeting with a Swiss colleague. It was our first meeting and, being American, I didn't want to risk insulting him by arriving late. I fully expected to wait patiently in his outer office until the time of our meeting but he came out in a flurry and whisked me into his office. It took me a bit by surprise when he mumbled, “You Americans are always in such a hurry.” It turns out that Swiss punctuality is intolerant of both earliness and tardiness. Who knew.

Do The Math

Something I learned from my experience in marketing is that consumers don’t always do the math. I know people who drive five to ten miles out of their way to pay two cents less per gallon for gas. They spend more than they save. What’s even more surprising is the people I meet who follow similar emotional reactions for business decisions. I had a very good friend, and boss, who wanted to buy a used piece of production equipment. Even after I showed him the financial analysis he had a very difficult time buying the newer, more efficient equipment.

Mouth and Ears

There's an old adage that God expects you to listen more than talk, which is why he gave you two ears but only one mouth. I recently read a wonderful Harvard Business Reveiw article written by the Global CEO of Chanel that supports this insight for executives.

Time to Rethink Capitalism?

I recently read a very provocative Harvard Business Review article written by a professor at IMD in Geneva. He points out that investors have historically governed businesses because, in an industrial economy, their capital is most at risk if the business fails. He goes on to suggest that investment in large corporations has become so dispersed that employees now bear a more significant risk than investors. In addition, the knowledge and skill base of the workforce has eclipsed access to capital as the key source of strategic advantage. At first, his proposition for shared governance seems socialistic but his reasoning is much more strategic than social.

Dishonesty and Denial

Everyone hates a liar, but what about a denier? Denial is a psychological defense mechanism: defined as an unconscious mechanism for the purpose of lowering anxiety. The key word here is unconscious. Lying is a conscious act, denial is not. Confronting a liar with the truth usually produces either an admission of guilt, or another lie. Confronting someone in denial usually makes them more defensive. Except in critical situations, it might be best to leave them alone. Therapists avoid breaking through defense mechanisms too quickly because it can make patients so anxious, and then depressed, they become suicidal.

Time and Energy

When a task comes across our desk the first question we ask is, "Who has time to do this?" Experience teaches us that interest, passion and energy are usually more important considerations than time so maybe we should ask, “Who would love to do this?” If the answer is no one, perhaps we should reconsider doing it at all. In addition, people who consistently turn away work for lack of time may actually lack passion. It might be time to reconsider them too.

I Had A Dream

We have all gone to bed with a problem on our minds, exhausted by attempts to find an answer, only to wake up the next morning with the perfect solution. We experience a similar phenomenon when our first instinct is more accurate than the subsequent analysis. Instincts, intuitions and other unconscious phenomena are the voice of our experience. Accomplished people learn to listen to them.

"The only real valuable thing is intuition. " Albert Einstein
Link to the Fast Company Article, "What's Your Intuition?"

Feed Me

Feedback is the bread and butter of executive development. As a consultant I make sure executives seek, receive and act on relevant feedback. I also make sure they have the tools to continue their development after I’m gone. The trick is to get them to embrace openness and humility over defensiveness and hubris.

Link to Fast Company article "Dying for Compassion"

Assertive Anger Management

I was on a flight with a sales executive who had a useful perspective on assertiveness. He counsels his colleagues to be more assertive at the beginning of a process so they'll be less frustrated, and aggressive, at the end.

Calling All Cars

This was posted outside the cubicle of one of my favorite administrative assistants.

"A lack of planning on your part does not constitute an emergency on my part."

Ockham's Razor

"All other things being equal, the simplest solution is the best."

William of Ockham (14th-century English logician and Franciscan friar)

Original Quote; "Pluralitas non est ponenda sine necessitate" (plurality should not be posited without necessity)

Teaming With Life

Many of my clients and colleagues throughout the years have confronted a team determined to stay together long after it has outlived its usefulness. Like an organism clinging to life, a team confronted with dissolution can present significant resistance. An empathetic message with a reasonable explanation for disbanding the team may not completely eliminate that resistance but it has a much better chance than a simple, “Stop working together on that.”

Humor and Wisdom

My Dad was one of the wisest men I ever met. Everyone who spoke at his memorial service mentioned two things about him, his wisdom and his sense of humor. It made me realize that every wise person I ever met also had a keen sense of humor.

Prayer

My Dad was a very spiritual man. Last night, at his memorial service, my sister read his favorite prayer. Here is the abridged version.

God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
the courage to change the things I can
and the wisdom to know the difference.

How To Teach

Teaching, training and delegating all involve learning. One useful learning model has three modes; study, observe and do. Most people employ all three modes in their learning process but have a preferred sequence. Some choose to try something out first while others would rather begin with study. Understanding the learning style of your individual students, subordinates and trainees allows you to work with them more effectively. For group work you can present material in all three modes so no one is left out. That said, some skills require a particular pattern. We wouldn’t want doctors to begin their learning process by doing open heart surgery and teaching your son to skateboard probably won't start with a trip to the library.

Seeds of Revolution

In business school about 50 of us marched in a community parade as “The Briefcase Brigade.” To the crowd’s delight, we executed coordinated turns and spins with briefcases at our sides or on our heads. Unfortunately, we thought it would be funny to sing the alleged Harvard Business School fight song. “That’s alright, that’s OK, you’re gonna work for us some day.” The smiling crowd became considerably less friendly when they heard that song. I particularly remember the scornful look from one of the crowd control officers. Even as a joke, they didn’t appreciate a display of arrogance from a group aspiring to positions of power and authority.

Leadership Essentials

The successful leaders I’ve worked with and studied exhibit three essential characteristics.

Vision, to give supporters and followers a sense of direction.
Competence, in the skills necessary to lead the effort.
Service, to the success and well being of others.

Although they all do it differently, they all do it.

The Best Advice I Ever Got: Michelle Peluso, President and Chief Executive Officer, Travelocity

When Is a Team a Neighborhood

An executive development client was telling me about the complaints from his group regarding the lack of team spirit. But every time he brought them together for a team meeting they complained about its lack of relevance. It turns out that his group might not have been a team at all but a community, like a neighborhood or a village. Unlike a team, their individual outcomes were not directly beneficial to other members of the group. He had much better success when his “team” meetings were more like Amish barn raisings, everyone pitching in to lend support to the member in need.

Warren Buffet on Nudity

The current economic and stock market distress, and accompanying revelations about greed on Wallstreet, bring a couple of Warren Buffet quotes to mind.

"You never know who's swimming nude until the tide goes out."

"Be afraid when people are greedy, and be greedy when people are afraid."

The Mistake that Saved the World*

Yesterday’s election results made me think of John F. Kennedy, who was a young, inexperienced senator when he was elected. History recorded one of his first big mistakes as the Bay of Pigs incident. What is less clearly documented is the way he later applied the lessons he learned to the Cuban missile crisis. We should all be thankful he failed on the former so he could apply those lessons to the later.

Sherlock Holmes on Truth

"It is an old maxim of mine that when you have excluded the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth."

"It is a capital mistake to theorize in advance of the facts."

Take Time to Be Brief*

I remember the opening words to a speech I attended as an undergraduate. It was a large university where we were accustomed to long, dry, humorless technical speeches by brilliant, but socially impaired, research scientists. We were all stunned when the speaker put his notes on the podium, adjusted his glasses, and said, “Before I begin, I'd like to apologize for not taking sufficient time to prepare to be brief.” His speech was still shorter than most and, when he finished, we gave him an unusually hearty round of applause.

"I have made this letter longer than usual, only because I have not had the time to make it shorter." Blaise Pascal

"He can compress the most words into the smallest idea of any man I know." Abraham Lincoln

Resentment

I recently heard someone define the nature and impact of resentment. The word "resent" originates from the Latin word "sentio" which means to feel. To resent is, "to feel something over and over." Under the right conditions, the resulting amplification of emotions results in destructive behaviors. We have all experienced a colleague who uses the same grievances repeatedly to justify their contrary or disruptive conduct.

Belief, Faith and Trust

My dad recently passed away. As I sit in my office reflecting about the impact he had on my life I remember what he taught me about spirituality. He told me that spirituality is about belief, faith and trust.

Belief that there is a power greater than ourselves
Faith in that power's capacity to plan and guide our lives
Trust in the wisdom of that plan and guidance

I will miss him.

Transformed

In the intercultural training I recently attended, the trainer made the distinction between transformational and developmental change. Transformational change happens immediately and spontaneously while developmental change happens over time and requires effort. Many times we give up on our development too early because we expect an immediate transformation.
From October 2008 Caravela Update

Why Quit

Many of my clients get to the point where they’re ready to quit their current position because of conflict with their boss or dissatisfaction with the organization. Before they leave, I advise them to face their issues explicitly and directly. The consequences of such a bold approach are inconsequential since they have already decided to leave. Many of them resolve their situation and avoid the risks inherent to changing jobs.
From June 2008 Caravela Update

Doctor Doctor

A client once told me the process doctors and other medical professionals use to learn new procedures.

Watch one
Do one
Teach one

From January 2006 Caravela Update

Speak With Fire

A client was considering the question of whether to retain or fire one of his underperforming subordinates. With a great deal of frustration and anger he suddenly shouted, "FIRE." After composing himself, he thought it better to give the subordinate another chance. He decided to calmly talk to the subordinate about his lack of performance and poor behavior. I asked him to rethink his delivery. Even if a calm explanation could make the subordinate understand, an emotional message would get him moving.
From January 2005 Caravela Update

Vendor Relations*

As many of you know there has been a shortage of steel, and manufacturers who use a lot of steel have suffered supply issues. I asked one of my clients how they managed the situation and they said, “We have always treated our suppliers as well as we treat our customers so they put us at the top of the waiting list. We have never run out of steel.”
From November 2004 Caravela Update

Listen to Your Gut*

I was having coffee with a former colleague who said a very wise thing in a moment of honest reflection. “I had a visceral reaction to the situation but didn’t act on it quickly enough. The situation dragged out for two years. I wish I had listened to my gut and acted on it earlier.”

Bold Obvious Move*

A client asked me to attended a sales meeting to help figure out how to jumpstart sales. After I suggested a couple of options to break things loose the client sighed, looked at me, and said, “Well, it’s time for the bold, obvious move.” I’m not sure if they used any of my suggestions but sales improved significantly after that meeting.

WHAM*

I was talking with the division president of a company that had just been acquired. He told me that he had finally discovered the basic principle that rules all organizational change...WHAM. I raced through my memory looking for any recollection of the acronym but came up blank. When I asked what it stood for he said "WHat About Me"...everyone wants to know how the change will impact them before they worry about anything else.
From June 2003 Caravela Update

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