Sharpen My Game

Sharpen_HeaderWe all have bad days. I had a doozy not long ago. I found myself standing in front of a room full of people, enduring some very angry and very personal criticism. It was only a few of the people in that meeting, but that did not make it any easier. It was necessary for me to stand alone, remain calm, listen carefully, offer no defense, and attempt to interject a clarifying question when I was able. It was one of the most difficult things I have ever had to do.

The aspect that was most challenging was that the actions of which I was being accused were the very things I had worked for a year to prevent. I had worked hard to eliminate divisiveness and to raise the quality of conversation within the community by encouraging respect for those with whom we disagree. To be accused of being divisive, disrespectful, and of having “dissed everyone” was devastating. Most of the others who were present during the tirades remained, thankfully, silent. I learned later that many were too stunned to react. Whatever the reason, allowing one person to take the brunt of the attack diffused the anger much more quickly than an open brawl would have allowed.

I went through several stages of emotion in the days following. Initially, I was in shock– “gob struck” as a colleague of mine would say. Then followed several days of anger. This surprised me. What happened to the detached composure that served me so well during the meeting? Upon reflection, of course, anger was perfectly natural. The attacks had been personal and had gone to the core of my integrity. At last, anger gave way to sober self-reflection.

 

Sober Self-reflection
Many of my friends advised me not to dwell on the incident. “It was a small faction who spoke out,” my supporters reminded me, “and they certainly did not represent the preponderance of opinion.” While this is true, I could not let it rest there. There were certainly many things that I had gotten right, but clearly I had also gotten something terribly wrong. This was evidenced by the nature of the anger I observed in those individuals . Yes it was personal and in many ways inappropriate. But the key is that it was genuine. What did I get so wrong?

That question, “What did I get wrong?” is a fundamental leadership question. It demands continual improvement in our interpersonal relationships. Such improvement is critical because, as I have written in the past, each phase of our lives prepares us for the next (e.g., Learning from the Big Push). Each thing we learn becomes another tool to be used to improve the world (e.g., Blanket Order). Everything is in some way or another connected (e.g., Fugue). And at the end of the day, we always tend to learn more from our failures than our successes (e.g., My Favorite Failures). Bottom line, there are always more dots to be connected that will make us more perceptive and therefore more effective leaders.

In addition to being a key leadership question, “What did I get wrong?” is also an advanced class question. It is advanced class because it is a question one can rarely answer alone. At the same time, it is also rarely a question another person can answer for us. It requires a combination of personal root cause analysis combined with active listening (or, in this case, reading). It requires a high level of both self-awareness and humility. The latter, in particular, is not a quality that I have in abundance.

In my case, I did not have much opportunity to ask clarifying questions such as “Can you give me an example of that?” or “How could I have better included you in this process?” Even after the fact, those opportunities were not readily available. Nevertheless, I was able to sit down and make a list of events – some of them seemingly trivial in a reasonable, rational world – in which I might have caused offense without being consciously aware of it. A pattern was beginning to emerge but I was as yet unable to bring the pattern into focus, even as a partial picture.

 

Context
The turning point for me came some weeks later as I was enjoying my morning cup o’ joe while reading that day’s helping of sagacity from my leadership guru Dan Rockwell’s blog.   I knew that I was about to strike gold as soon as I began reading the article. As I continued, the picture emerged quickly until…bam! There it was in black and white. What did I get wrong? I had spent most of a year spanking the gorilla.

Before explaining what that means, let me provide some background into the situation that precipitated the attack. Some nine months earlier, I had found myself in a leadership role in a small public institution. This organization has been in existence for only about fifteen years and many of its early staff members remain heavily involved. It is a close-knit community united behind a deep, common philosophy. It is a valid philosophy, but its practice has failed to align with changing government regulations. It has also caused a deep rift with the parent organization.

My team came in with three specific charges. We needed to heal the communication disconnect with the parent organization, bring a professional level of structure to the institution, and increase program funding. Our team was ideal from the standpoint of skills; we brought broad business and life experience coupled with the will to roll up our sleeves and get to work. By and large, we were successful in achieving these three goals. But success required change. Change was what most of our stakeholders desired. Not everyone shared that desire.

In this case, some individuals who had been with the institution the longest perceived change as criticism. For instance, the mere observation that a decline in attendance by one stakeholder group at a particular meeting – even though no speculation was given as to cause – was perceived as a reproof of that group. On the one hand, someone might say, “Well, that’s not reasonable.” My reply would be, “Perhaps it isn’t reasonable, but it is real.” This was a classic case of a failure to practice good organizational change management. Enter the gorilla.

 

Whetstones
Imagine my thrill as I read Dan’s post “Don’t Spank the Gorilla” and watched my own “pachinko balls” finally drop into place. He brought the full picture into focus for me near the end of the piece. “Don’t spank the gorilla. Give him what he wants. Appeal to his inner motivations. Make him feel safe.”

Make him feel safe. With those words, I saw my error. I had not recognized that even the slightest change might be threatening to someone who had pursued a labor of love in relative isolation for so many years. As a team, we did not seek a way to validate the effort and achievement that had come before us, much less manage acceptance of the need for change. Time was against us, but that is no excuse.

Dan wrote another paragraph in his piece that is one of my game-sharpening whetstones. “Start with others. Leaders who begin with themselves come off as arrogant and pressuring. That’s because they are. But leaders who start with others come off as humble and inviting.” It wasn’t that I had avoided this advice. It was that I failed to recognize that not everyone has needs and perceptions that can be addressed in the same tempo. Some people will become secure in a relationship and ready to accept change reasonably easily. For a variety of reasons, others may require more personal contact across a longer span of time before they might, if ever, be ready. It may have been tacit arrogance, but it was arrogance nevertheless. It is a difficult trait to admit, but it explains why the anger was so personal.

 

Connect the Dots
While there is much wisdom in this world, I do not believe that anyone has a monopoly on that commodity. I certainly do not. Dan Rockwell would be the first to admit that he does not either. But there is something in the way Dan looks at people and relationships (and writes about them) that helps me to connect my own dots. At the same time, I am convinced that the man has my office under surveillance. The morning after I had completed the first draft of this post, Dan published “10 Statements that Eliminate Misconceptions.” This short piece, too, is worth your time to read. One paragraph in particular drives my point home. “You interpret your heart. Others interpret your behavior.”

As with most bad days, something good came from it in the end. I sharpened my game by honing it on a combination of new whetstones. Restated, “What did I get wrong?” became not just a crucial question, but one that is best asked and answered in the context of honest self-reflection in conjunction with an awareness of how others perceive our actions. Lest I repeat this error, I have hung the photograph of a gorilla across from my desk. I trust that she will be a sufficient reminder.

What strategies do you use to sharpen your game? How do you help your organization manage change?

The League of the Pimpernel

Pimpernel_HeaderI have often wondered what it was like to be one of those human beings who through the sheer force of character, perseverance, and vision change the world.   You know whom I mean.  I am talking about those rare captains of industry who revolutionize our lives by delivering tools we never knew we needed.  I am talking about the statesmen, all too few in any age, who can galvanize a country or culture to lead it through desperate times.  I am talking about those truly saintly individuals who bring hope and succor amidst adversity, and thereby sow the seeds of gradual improvement in the world. I have never aspired to be one of them, but I have long sought to understand them because they all have one important characteristic in common. They all embrace change.  It seems to be built into their DNA.

I will return to the visionaries, statesmen, and saints (the VSSs) in a moment.  Allow me to transport to the opposite pole and quote from Dan Rockwell.  “Dairy cows walk the same path, following each other. The grass wears away. The ground grows hard. They know where to go.  Every morning and night, when I was a kid, I opened the gate in the electric fence to let them into the barnyard and then into the barn. When they left, after being milked, I closed the gate.  Everything runs smoothly for cows, as long as gates stay in the same place. But, move the gate and the lead cow will walk to the place where the old gate was. Drive her to the new gate and she’ll dig in, fearful to step through. Cows run from new gates. There’s no path. It’s unfamiliar.”

The difference between members of the VSS Club and the cows, of course, is that the former really get change while the latter do not.  The rest of us are scattered throughout the vast interstice of those extremes. Some of us embrace change better than others, but most of us still fear it at some instinctive level.  Clearly, most of us still have some bovine DNA.  But why should that be so?  Why do we hesitate to go through that new gate?

Change represents the unknown, and is thus destabilizing for people.  This is an important concept in organizational change management and why the discipline is integral to large-scale BI projects.  In fact, unless we are routinely used to working outside our comfort zones, change (or the anticipation of change) causes intense emotional responses.  Here are some of the typical feelings about change.

  • I might fail.
  • I will lose power or authority.
  • This is all that I know.
  • I am confused.  Which way do I go now?
  • I might be wrong.
  • I cannot handle stress.
  • I cannot handle the confrontation.

These are all valid emotional responses to every kind of change that we experience.  In other words, whether the changes are imposed upon us (either by other human beings or mere circumstance), or whether we initiate change ourselves, these are the fears that may hound us.  I say, “may” because there is a broad range in the degree to which these fears impede our progress.  It is one of the reasons I am so intrigued by the VSSs. They seem more immune to fright impedance than most folks.  Or are they?  Perhaps it is just a matter of having a life perspective that gives them better coping mechanisms.  Consider the following responses to the above fears, representing both poles of thinking.

  • I might fail.
    • The Cow: People will think I’m a failure, and so will I.
    • The VSS: So what if I do? I will learn from it and try again.
  • I will lose power or authority.
    • The Cow:  I will no longer be in control.
    • The VSS:  Do I really need power or authority in order to succeed?
  • This is all that I know.
    • The Cow:  I will be left behind
    • The VSS:  Here is an opportunity to learn something new.
  • I am confused.  Which way do I go now?
    • The Cow:  I had better stop.
    • The VSS:  There is no path down which I have gone so far that I cannot change course.
  • I might be wrong.
    • The Cow:  People will think I am stupid.
    • The VSS:  I might gain a new perspective.
  • I cannot handle the stress.
    • The Cow:  I must avoid this.
    • The VSS:  Perhaps I will take a walk.
  • I cannot handle the confrontation.
    • The Cow:  I must avoid this.
    • The VSS:  Confrontation only exists when it is two-way.

Until now I have discussed change from the standpoint of why people fear change and why some are better at managing change than others.  But this was not at all the point I set out to make.  Rather, my goal is to evangelize for change. By that I don’t mean change for change’s sake, but genuine change that makes something better.  I mean change for my client, my family, or my community that makes the world a better place.  How do we benefit?

  • Change introduces new challenges that in turn generate new ideas.  These new ideas find their way into new products, services, viewpoints, and opportunities.
  • When well managed, change stimulates growth even if it might not appear so at first.  Atrophy leads to stagnation and extinction.
  • Change forces us to see the world differently (unless, of course, we are in denial). We may not always agree with it, but we can see what is working and what is not and then strive to improve the latter.

So you may be wondering about the title of this piece.  In the language of flowers, the pimpernel often represents change.  Consequently, as an evangelist of change I propose the League of the Pimpernel, a league of change.  This is germane to Business Intelligence because the benefits of BI are essentially the same as the three points articulated above.  The fact that BI is a microcosm for the world at large is just the creamy nougat center of the confection.

Membership in the League of the Pimpernel is not de facto.  On the contrary, it is a practice like any other undertaking; it is like BI. This brings me back once more to my initial ponder about the VSSs.  Why are the VSSs so good at it and what can we learn from them to improve our own resistance to fear impedance?  I actively follow some of the people alive in the world today whom I consider to be members of the VSS Club.  I have also read about many that are no longer with us.  I have extrapolated the following set of practices that these folks clearly make a part of their lives in varying proportions.  These are now my personal challenges.

  • I will think about something every day that connects people and their ideas with other people and their ideas and then act on it.
  • I will volunteer in my church, school, or community – somewhere that will change me as well as others.
  • I will make it a point to engage regularly with people with whom I disagree.
  • I will do something each week that takes me out of my comfort zone.

At the end of the day, the important thing to remember is that the only thing that separates the members of the VSS Club from those of us in the League of the Pimpernel is the scope of change for which we are recognized individually.  Membership in the VSS Club is reserved for those responsible for epic change.  The League is for those of us who make incremental changes and improvements at work, at home, and in our communities every day.  The effect of the League is as great as that of the Club even though it is measured as the aggregated effect of countless smaller changes.

So leave the cows behind and join the League of the Pimpernel. It is up to each of us to make a difference somewhere.  Improve that process.  Revolutionize that product.  Create that new opportunity that could, in turn, generate new jobs.  Share those skills with colleagues and neighbors. Connect the dots.  Engage, give, and do.  Abandon the status quo and become an evangelist for change.

In what other practices can we engage in order to embrace change?  How has change improved your life?

It is not your Grandma’s Quilt

Quilt

One of the blogs I follow is Dan Rockwell’s Leadership Freak.  Dan posts almost daily in a pithy, near bullet-point style.  It is all good stuff, although a little like trying to drink from a fire hose if you try to consume it every day.  Nevertheless, one of his articles especially resonated for me recently.  It was entitled “How Hard Work got Chris Fired.”  I will let you read it for yourself, but it started me thinking about how essential relationships are for those of us in Business Intelligence.

Consider for a moment the integrated nature of BI within an enterprise.  Even if the BI program is departmental in scope, the reach of the relationships is necessarily broader.  Not only are there executives, managers, and analysts within the department with whom you will be working, but also the managers and coders in the IT department as well.  And rarely does just one department own the requisite data, so there are executives and managers and analysts in other departments who become stakeholders and participants in the program.  They may also become your customers.  If you are a consultant, multiply this by the number of clients you have.

In any case, there is a complex fabric of relationships to be developed and maintained.  And in my experience, maintaining relationships is as difficult as developing them.  Each individual in this fabric has a different point of view, a different set of motivations, a different set of problems, a different work/life balance, and different experience upon which to draw. Some enter into relationships readily; others resist.  Some trust first and adjust later while others are skeptical until trust has been developed.  Some will never trust at all.

Trust is the foundation of building and maintaining relationships, and comes at the intersection of three vectors of personal action.  These are capability, delivery, and integrity. It is essential to foster all three if you are to engender trust.

  • Capability:  I am qualified to perform my work, and to communicate with you about it.  That includes an ability to listen to your needs.  I demonstrate competence.
  • Delivery:  I routinely deliver what I say I will deliver on time and on budget.  I communicate issues early and invoke change management in a timely manner.  I deliver quality.
  • Integrity:  My word is my bond.  I demonstrate the same honesty toward everyone that you demand from me.  I can be trusted.

Quilt2

Developing trust along these three lines is neither easy nor is it necessarily the same from person to person.  Here are some ideas that have worked for me.

  • Capability:  Capability comes first.  You are not going to get hired either as an employee or a consultant unless you can prove capability.  It is more than just a resume.  Resumes lie.  The most important tool you have is the set of relationships you have developed, in other words your references.  If others are willing to stand behind you and testify on all three vectors, it is a powerful advantage.  Nevertheless, you need to do more.  You need to speak, write, and listen well because all three telegraph capability.  If you write well, I recommend blogging. Being able to demonstrate facility on a variety of related topics in an articulate manner demonstrates capability.
  • Delivery:  It is not enough for me to say “deliver everything on time.”  For one thing, that is not always possible.  It is possible to deliver most things on time.  But there is more.  Delivery is about providing value habitually.  If it is a project proposal, it needs to be complete and clear.  If it is your weekly project report, it needs to be thorough and on time.  If it is the BI solution itself, it needs to be exhaustively tested, documented, and meet the required specifications.  Deadline management begins during project estimation, and presumes sufficient familiarity with the business requirements to draft a project plan.  Unfortunately, we are often handed arbitrary deadlines that we know to be impossible.  Articulate the risks ahead of time and manage change.
  • Integrity:  Integrity is a way of life.  You can’t turn it on and off.  You cannot appear to be honest in one situation and not in another.  You can never appear to be accepting a conflict of interest situation.  And you can never appear to be going behind someone else’s back, even if it is actually necessary. A good approach might be,  “I am coming to you because I believe you to be the person best qualified to advise me on my next steps.”

There is much to manage here, and much to lose if you don’t.  You can spend years building relationships with your clients, and destroy them in a week or a moment.  Integrity is the most volatile because you may never get a second chance.  You can have a terrific track record, but two major goofs in a row can cause a client or a boss to question your capability.  It is similar with delivery.  If you allow other factors to affect the quality or timeliness of your deliverables, you can lose a client quickly.

I referred above to the fabric of relationships.  I think that relationships should not be treated in the manner of a patchwork quilt where there is Bob and Dora and Ted and Sarah as distinct entities, but rather in the manner of an integrated single fabric.  A relationship with one person depends intrinsically on that person’s relationships with others.  My relationship with Ted may need adjustment because his boss Sarah doesn’t trust him completely.  I may need to manage my integrity vector differently with Bob and Dora because their office romance ended badly.  I may need to answer a question from my supervisor that could negatively impact a co-worker who also happens to be a close friend.  These situations all demonstrate how much of a fabric relationships are, and how important it is to remain aware of the personal nuances.

I think I have been pretty lucky over time.  I have managed the fabric of my business relationships largely by the seat of my pants (okay, right, by the seat of my kilt), but I have been able to maintain some of these connections for over twenty years.  I have drawn on some of the principles above without giving them much thought. But after reading Dan’s blog, my understanding has coalesced around the factors that have worked for me.  I believe I can credit the successes I have enjoyed to having the talents of so many terrific people working with me.

It is difficult to stay in touch with everyone, but I do try to reach out now and again.  So hey!  If you have not heard from me in awhile, feel free to poke me any time.  Good relationships are two-way.  Happy networking!

Do you have some good relationship building techniques or tactics to add to the discussion?  Have you had an “uh oh!” moment where you realized that you had damaged a relationship?  How did you repair it?