Archive | December, 2011

Business Ethics: Integrity, Truth and Love

13 Dec

Image: dan / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Originally published in March 2009…but an evergreen topic.

Recent well-publicized excesses have clarified the strategic flaw in letting money be the sole driver for excellence. Success is not about ripping off investors (Elie Wiesel, for goodness’ sakes) as did Madoff. That’s failure…of strategy and execution. Of course, money is a welcome byproduct of hard work and successful follow-through, but it should not be the focus. Madoff’s decisions exhibit an epic deterioration of values.

Core values drive vision and mission, which come before strategy and tactics and should be the foundation for day-in, day-out, year-by-year business operations. Most people would say that a successful business person has to override their emotions and lead with their head. Is it so? I hope not. Being successful in business requires reading people—which means that some sense of emotion is incorporated into the mix. I’m not talking about a constant group hug or self-help group kind of business. What I mean is a basic appreciation for what’s right and wrong, which is based on some appreciation for others. Call it heart or call it mutual respect, in some sense value-driven business management includes love.

Think about it. Values are built upon what’s true, honest and right. They have some appreciation for natural order—not a religious backbone but a basic tenet that says, “These are the rules of the game. To not follow the rules in the world of business will give me a yellow card, then a red card.” Like the world’s most popular sport, football (soccer for Americans), the players so love the sport that they play by the rules. So it goes in business.

Business leaders are tasked with making the decisions no one else wants to make. Power brings a dash of glory and a ton of ugly responsibility. These days, here’s what that looks like: Who gets to stay? Who can’t we afford to keep? How can I navigate the uncertainty of the future for my business, with so many people dependent upon my ability to discern what is right or wrong? What should I think as I see family members’ and friends’ businesses failing, clearly because of the market? Shouldn’t I do whatever is necessary to get a competitive edge?

There’s plenty of gray area. That’s the problem. If we get lost in the shades of gray, we can lose track of what’s right and wrong. Staying grounded in core values is a necessity for today’s business leaders. These are the three cornerstones of business ethics staying power:

Integrity – This means, “Know thyself.” What’s staying true to your standards, and what is not? Simple as that.

Truth – Never, ever lie. Not to make yourself or someone else look good. Not to win. No need to say more or less.

Love – See the world through the eyes of your fellow human beings, be they colleagues, investors or employees. Your passion for innovation (in whatever profession) should never trample over another human being’s dignity. Can we compete on a level playing field? Yes. Is it productive to operate out of anger just to get ahead? No.

Some might debate the rationale for including “love” in this post about business ethics. I think that without it, there is no case to be made for core business values.

Inspired by Fr. Vinny of the Newman Center (3/8/09 homily, 12 noon).

The Black Keys

11 Dec

Image: Pixomar / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

I rarely get the chance to go to concerts, so when I do it had better be worth my money and time. March 4, The Black Keys are coming to Columbus, and I am going with someone who likes them as much as I do and is willing to pay what I paid to scalpers for great seats. Who’s in?

Since I started playing guitar again, I’ve become more interested in the band. My guitar teacher knows the guy who is their recording studio technician. They record on tape (analog), not digitally, which makes their raw sound even more “real.”

Another interesting item of note: They tested out the sound of their last album, “Brothers,” at local custom guitar-building experts Fifth Avenue Fret Shop (owned by the inimitable Phil Maneri, who is my kids’ godfather). They wanted to listen and compare the sound of the CD to the playback on tape, and Phil has all of the right equipment.

These guys are down-to-earth Ohioans who also happen to be very talented. Kind of amazing that their hometown, Akron, also produced Chrissie Hynde and Devo. It’ll be a bit strange seeing them in such a large venue–at the Schott.

Anticipation for this sure to be stellar show is another way to get through winter.

Dad’s Christmas Miracle

9 Dec

Kenneth Norbert Ratcliff's senior picture: 1956

I just watched the latest Modern Family episode, “Express Christmas.”

Makes me think of my family: Full of idiosyncracies but lovable nonetheless.

Here’s an interesting family story, from our resident storyteller, Dad (who calls himself “The Lone Ranger”).

Forty-four years ago, shortly before Christmas (in late November, but close enough), Dad and his friend Cletus (yes, that is his name) were out on Buckeye Lake duck hunting. It was pretty cold.

Somehow, the boat overturned, and they both fell in. They were in the water for about half an hour, long enough to get hypothermia, and they were too far from shore to walk/swim back.

Luckily, there was a member of the Wolfe family (owners of the Columbus Dispatch) looking out the window of their house on Wolfe Island, in the middle of the lake, with a spotting scope. He saw them and reported to emergency officials, who went out onto the lake to fish them out.

What a happy lifesaving. About a month later, on Dec. 20, 1967, I was born.

Dad, I’m glad you made it! Even though we drive each other nuts, if I didn’t grow up with you I’d never have realized how much alike we are. Thanks for being in my life.

Aliens at Work

7 Dec

A version of this post was also published on the Executive Elements blog earlier this year.

At work, we can sometimes sense that we’ve been dropped onto an alien planet. I’m very fortunate to be working for and with people who are from “my planet,” but I’ve been in places that felt alien.

Don’t think you’re alone if you find yourself pondering:

  • What is this strange language that’s being spoken, and why don’t I understand it? Will they understand me if I say, “Plergh?”
  • Why are decisions made without any seemingly rational train of thought?
  • Is this a bad dream, or am I really awake?
  • Where’d I park my mother ship? I need to get back to Earth!

If you’re having these feelings, don’t despair. We’ve all been there. Every workplace can be awkward or downright difficult at times. Even the most healthy workplaces have their moments.

But if there’s a pattern of dysfunctional behavior, recognize it and take stock. In some sense, it’s all relative. Each of us has a different tolerance to workplace problems like aggression, passive aggression, professional neglect, workplace bullying or general incompetence. One person’s abyss is another’s heaven.

Don’t accept unreasonable behavior that jeopardizes your career growth or negatively impacts your ability to perform. Work is hard — that’s why it’s called work. But it should not kill your soul.

I’ve realized over the years that I have a high tolerance for environments that are not conducive to human life. Out of loyalty or pride (“I won’t give up!”), I’ve let myself suffer for too long at times. Don’t make that mistake.

If you are caught in the alien planet dilemma, here are some survival skills:

  1. PERSPECTIVE – Talk with someone outside of work about your situation. They can help you to get some perspective.
  2. CAMARADERIE – Blow off steam over lunch or coffee with a coworker that you trust. Chances are if you are feeling off about something at work, you’re not the only one. Don’t wall yourself off from your colleagues and make yourself feel more isolated. By commiserating, you may also find some humor in the madness.
  3. STAY POSITIVE – I remind myself that having a positive attitude and healthy self-esteem can’t change other people’s problems. What it can do is to help keep my head clear and my heart clean while seeking out what’s next.

Remember that it’s possible — and preferable — to thrive in the workplace. While it says something about a person’s endurance and fortitude to be able to to survive in challenging conditions, sometimes enough is enough.

Over time, I’ve realized that it’s important to go with my gut instincts when I start feeling as if things just aren’t right. A decision to move on when the time is right is not a failure. It is simply a decision to make a change.

Making Mistakes

5 Dec

Image: pakorn / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

To Know Better is no saint and has been known to make less than stellar decisions from time to time.

We’ve all been there. Those who say they don’t make mistakes are either lying or not doing much. The more you try, the more you fail. And the more you have a chance to succeed.

I’ve had some stinging failures from friendships. Trusting people is a risk, and it doesn’t always work in your favor. But I’ve grown beyond that lost trust to build new friendships that have stood the test of time, where I can believe in myself and know that my friends support me as much as I support them.

Effort does make a difference. If I’ve put my all into something and I don’t succeed, I still try to have some sense of accomplishment. I have a tendency to throw myself into projects at work and put a lot of personal ownership and investment into the process and the outcome. I enjoy getting constructive criticism to help improve my work, but if the person I’m creating something for just doesn’t “get it” I feel like I’ve wasted a lot of time. To keep from having that feeling, I try to use the work for another purpose. Did I do research for it that helped me to learn something new? If so, then the process was worth it. If it’s something I’ve written, can I use it for my portfolio or a professional association blog post? Repurposing supposed “failures” makes them feel more worthy of seeing the light of day.

As a favorite mentor of mine often asks: “What is the lesson?” This helps me to see my way beyond the mistake, even when it feels as if “this is the end.”

Failures are not sins: They are learning opportunities–valuable data to help get it right the next time.

Everyone has their weaknesses. Missing the mark is human and can be fixed. Never trying, or not being honest with myself about what really matters, is the greatest disappointment.

Smart Leadership is Social

5 Dec

Image: Ian Kahn / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

As I continue to read the Steve Jobs biography, two things are clear to me:

  1. Steve Jobs was a genius. He could envision the market demand for the substance of what his developers could build, and his product marketing skills delivered it with style.
  2. Steve Jobs was able to motivate his team intellectually, but often his social deficiencies worked against greater accomplishment. Bullying and berating his people had to create an organizational black hole of missed opportunities.

In my own experiences and through what I hear from others, in particular those of us in the creative class of workers, having a socially intelligent leader is critical. Daniel Goleman and Richard Boyatzis describe the concept in this Harvard Business Review post.

Socially intelligent leadership can leverage the intellectual capacity of teams, and enhance that capacity by upping everyone’s game through social connectivity. This means that each team member is given permission to perform to their fullest potential–and they are also encouraged to work WITH one another to push that potential into the unexpected. This type of innovative teamwork delivers disruptive innovation. When teams are led by someone with social intelligence, they create products and services that take their craft to the next level.

Let me give a couple of examples.

1. This first example comes from state government–shocking, I know. While working at the Ohio Department of Education, I was on a team assigned with creating a  report card to inform parents how their child’s school was doing on key performance indicators.

This was a new concept and required the team to tap into design, copywriting, and technology that would deliver thousands of these reports–each unique to a school–in such a way that parents would care to read them. Our leader helped us to imagine what the reports could be, and she created a team environment where we were free to put our all into delivering the reports we envisioned. She was not dictatorial. She asked more questions than she answered. She lifted us up when we made mistakes and thought we couldn’t do it. And she celebrated our successes with us along the way and when we did deliver the reports, on budget and on time.

2. My second example is from my current workplace, a nonprofit focused on educational transformation for schools. There’s a lot of innovation going on here. My role is a combination of client-facing and internal strategy support. The creative in me enjoys having the time and space to roll up my sleeves and “make stuff” (which for me means writing and doing information design) that is useful to internal and external clients.

My leader in this setting is an ace at managing demands and matching the best people to excel in meeting those needs. There’s been more than one situation where my big ideas have gotten the best of me. I have a tendency to “think big” and not consider the time commitment I’ll need to make to get to “big.” She knows this tendency of mine and encourages me to be vocal in asking for more resources to help reach the goal, rather than killing myself in the process of getting there by pulling all-nighters. What I appreciate about her approach is that she gives me the room to exercise my creativity, and she offers me the support I need to get there. In short, she saves me from myself.

Socially intelligent leaders ask questions, clear the path so that their team members can achieve, and help them find ways to pace themselves to sustain their creativity (and not burn it out) over time.

Riding with Sir Gawain and the Green Knight

2 Dec

I am getting excited about my annual tradition of rereading Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, which I do every year between Christmas and New Year’s. The action unfolds in Medieval England and begins on New Year’s Eve, finishing a year and a day later.

Image Courtesy of Hurley Century Arts - http://www.cjhurley.com/artwork/gesso-green.php

My favorite translation is a relatively new one, by English poet Simon Armitage.

I am fascinated by the story (an alliterative romance, for the experts) for lots of reasons:

  • Setting – The story is set in the North West Midlands, the general area of England that my ancestors came from. It just seems right that I should be reading this poem.
  • Symbolism – The author (unidentified) interweaves sexual tension and hunting (deer, boar and fox), temptation and self-control (including losing one’s head and giving away a girdle), nature and civilization, the mores of chivalry and courtly love. What else is there to discuss?
  • Story – This poem is an adventure to read. The story stands the test of time. There’s suspense, even though the themes are mostly about human nature. The writer does keep you guessing. And I’ve found that each time I reread it I pick up on a nuance I missed in previous readings.
  • Language – For me, this is the best part. (Caution: My undergrad honors thesis was on Cajun French morphemes. I’ll admit it: I geek out on words.)  I recommend a side-by-side translation. The original was written in Middle English, enjoyable to read because if you abandon all fear of the unknown the language is surprisingly understandable. Just don’t try to decipher every word. Think of the process as an adventure! Anyone who’s learned to read in a different language knows what I mean. The Armitage translation is lovely, because he’s a poet and knows how to do justice to the rhythm, sound and meaning of each word and verse.

Do yourself a favor and give the Green Knight a careful read. Steep yourself in language, and storytelling, at its best.

For those who have interest in learning more about how to intersperse your writing with Green Knights and other such characters, I recommend checking out this  Joseph Campbell book: The Hero With a Thousand Faces. I just found this helpful review from the Fuel Your Writing folks and am planning to give it a read.