Tag Archives: leadership

Herbert Hoover’s Tennis Game

9 Oct

Image courtesy of Dan / freedigitalphotos.net

Back in the early 1930s, my great-grandfather and his farmer friends had a date with President Herbert Hoover. At the time, the productive farms in Ohio’s Ross and Vinton Counties were struggling–like most other “real people” during the Great Depression. These farmers combined their limited resources for a trip to D.C. to talk with the president they helped to elect, to explain why they so desperately needed low-interest loans to help them get through those tough times.

A bit of background about these farmers:

Like my family, most had settled in the Scioto River Valley in the late 1700s, when Ohio was still the Northwest Territory. They built the towns like Richmondale, Eagle Mills, and Ratcliffburg. They planted and put down roots in the little dales surrounding the Salt Creek, where they could forge their own way for their families and generate enough of a profit to feed everyone and lead good enough lives. By no means wealthy, they were satisfied with the self-sufficient way of life that they had developed through their own hardscrabble and grit. Most among them were “traditional conservatives”–Republicans who had voted for Herbert Hoover in 1928.

Everything changed with the Depression. My grandmother, a teenager and young woman during most of the Depression, counted herself lucky to be just one step away from having to wear a flour sack for a dress. When my great-grandfathers George Washington Brown and Noah Ezekiel Ratcliff made the decision to travel to Washington with the dozen or so other farmers, it was a calculated risk.  They pooled their resources with the group, thinking that it was a worthwhile investment for the future of the land their families had worked for generations.

But the end of the story was not a happy one. When they arrived in D.C., they were told by the president’s scheduler that he was double-booked for their meeting. Instead of keeping the date with them, the president was playing tennis.

What a foreign concept to a group of farmers. How could someone have enough time to do something as frivolous as play tennis–let alone do that instead of keeping a scheduled appointment with constituents? Later in his administration, under pressure, Hoover did end up making a decision to create low-interest loans for farmers, and then FDR expanded the program.

But it was too late for my family. They like many others around them lost their farms. My Grandfather Ratcliff went to work at Meade Paper Plant before moving up to Columbus, where he got a job in construction and became one of the first presidents of his union affiliate, Local 44, representing asbestos workers. My dad went on to follow him in that role, both as a construction worker and union president. I grew up living in twin singles for much of my childhood–hardly the life that is often portrayed for a “union boss’s” family. But I never felt less than successful or well cared-for, so the move north was a positive one for the family overall.

As they say, things happen for a reason. If the family hadn’t moved out of Appalachia, I probably would not have had the same incentives to attend college. And there’s a larger lesson in this bit of family history.

Being insulted is not something easily forgotten in a “culture of honor.” Certainly my family, like other families who came to America from isolated areas such as Northern England or Sicily, continued to maintain a stubborn and independent streak in order to survive in the post-American Revolution “Wild West.” This way of life and attitude is what helped them to succeed as farmers, and what motivated them to make a change in party after the tennis game incident.

My father tells this story today, not to emphasize the reasons behind my family’s change in political party, but to explain the difference between wise and unknowing leadership. Timing and thoughtful decisions make a difference, for real people.

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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).

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.

The Goldilocks Communications Principle

3 Nov

I’ve never been a big talker. Unlike most communications professionals, I am closer to the middle on the Introvert-Extrovert scale. My preference is to mull over and percolate what I learn before I discuss it. I tend to be a minimalist in terms of what I say and write–at least compared to others in my field.

I was always the girl in high school that you could share your secrets with, because I wouldn’t broadcast them to the world or judge you for them. Professionally, this style of being a confidante and thoughtful communicator has served me well in working with clients in crisis situations, where a lot of information needed to be collected, shared and processed by a small team before it is ready for public consumption, to avoid spreading rumors.

Yet there are situations where it’s actually MORE comforting for people to have information, even if it is incomplete and still messy. I’ve had to fine-tune my communications approach during my career based upon the situations I’ve been in, and shaped by the people involved. In business and in life, how much communication is not enough, too much or just right? Not always an easy question to answer.

It’s all subjective, based upon the needs of the audience and the circumstances prompting the communication in the first place. Even with the same group of people, the communications needs can change based upon the situation. I call this “The Goldilocks Principle” of communications. Here are the stages, described by caricatures from my own career:

  1. Goldilocks tries to eat Papa Bear’s porridge–TOO MUCH! Early in my career, I wrote A LOT of detail in my business communications–emails, reports, talking points for communications. At that time, I thought that you needed–and really wanted–to know everything that I knew, exactly how I knew it. Because I identified as a writer, by God you would see my writing…and have to determine for yourself what was most important, buried somewhere in the long sentences and James Joyce density of it all.
  2. Goldilocks moves on to Mama Bear’s porridge–BETTER BUT STILL NOT RIGHT! As I progressed in my business writing skills, I tapered back and began to position my writing so that the reader would not have to wade through so much and would know more about what was really important to understand. I was also given counsel at this stage of my career that even if I had limited information, sometimes it was best to share it in the moment because I worked for a person who wanted to have all of the buzz. For this audience, I needed to inject more of my gut reactions and not “filter” out what I often perceived as people’s over-reactions to situations. Trying to compensate for being overly analytical and not “human” enough in my communications, I put more of myself, and more emotion, into this stage. The thing is, not every Goldilocks wants Mama Bear’s feelings…
  3. Goldilocks tries Baby Bear’s porridge–JUST RIGHT! On most days I am here, but it’s always good to be reminded of what the audience needs to know and can truly benefit from. It takes more time to communicate just the right amount of information, positioned in just the right way, to meet the needs of all the right people. A heavy dose of emotional AND intellectual intelligence gets poured into this porridge. “Just right” is usually about telling them what they need to know, but in a way that it’s framed as a story–something that they will BOTH “get” AND remember.

I continue to learn lessons about the “Goldilocks communications principle.” What it really comes down to is being aware, pivoting to meet the needs of the audience and acknowledging when you’ve over- or under-communicated. And not forgetting to celebrate when the porridge is “just right.”

 

Delis and Agencies: Lessons in Leadership

15 Sep

I wrote this post three years ago and am reposting due to the good nuggets in there. Made me a little bit sad to read as my first deli boss, Audrey Block, has since passed away.

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I started working when I was 14, at a Dairy Queen in Pickerington, Ohio. My commute involved a short but uphill bike ride to work, and a blissful downhill coast coming back home. Since then, I have worked at 14 places, including: six restaurants, one preschool, one au pair arrangement in France, two PR agencies, one university and one state agency.

Hands down, my favorite places to work have been those where true leadership reigned. The common theme was “here’s how we do it here,” but not in the McDonald’s way. The earliest examples were delis, all of which had standards for performance, built upon years of experience. And they were led by people with the ego strength of titans.

Audrey Block of Block’s Bagels is a good example. She never approved of my crazy mohawk or weird hair color, and made no bones about telling me so. She most liked the more carefully coiffed girls from Walnut Ridge High School who lived closer by. Probably because I was less presentable than these girls, Audrey had me come in to work at an ungodly hour, 6:30 a.m., to help the bakers take bread out of the ovens and pack it for delivery. Working with bakers is tough. They are an unforgiving lot, and I don’t think that they were very happy to be working with a little punk rock girl like me. I have never been quick in the morning, but this job made a keen set of reflexes absolutely necessary.

When you have hot loaves of bread being gunned your way by grumpy flour-covered men twenty years older than you, being light on your feet is a must. There are important people out there waiting for bread, and getting their order right is priority one. Being directly in the line of fire, I learned quickly. This was character-building at its best, both because of having to get up so early and because of not being cut any slack. Today, when I go into Block’s with my two kids, Audrey is always amazed that by all outward appearances I turned out normal, and she makes sure I know it. My kids have no idea what she is talking about and just think she’s a very opinionated grandmotherly figure.

Another common theme among my favorite leadership styles is this: We will teach you how to do it right, but if you want to put your own, individual stamp on the work–if it means adding quality that keeps people coming back–then be our guest. Even more: If you have a personality, please let it be known. It makes working here funner, and it makes our unique approach to service stand out in people’s minds. When waiting on people, throw some personality into it. For goodness’ sakes, don’t be shy. Feel free to give people a hard time if they can take it. They’ll remember you for engaging them in the sales process.

Katzinger‘s is probably the best case in point. This deli is anti-flair (ever seen Office Space?) but pro-individuality. Diane Warren ruled (and continues to rule) the roost. She’s small but mighty. All cheese had to be labeled with a hand-made sign, faced appropriately and wrapped so tightly that customers had a clear view of the goods. There is a special deli secret to doing this, so that you cannot even tell that the cheese has been wrapped.

And another thing…THE most important thing: TELL A STORY. This helps people to remember what you’re selling. Lack of interactivity in sales is a killer. If there’s not a story that goes along with that 15-year-old cheese, then why bother? The story should involve either a monk or a Red Riding Hood Grandmother-esque character involved in making the product. Preferably in an exotic or isolated location.

My deli learnings eventually led me into public affairs and public relations. I’ve found that, when done well, agency leadership models the discipline and passion that my deli leaders upheld. It makes a difference when a leader of any business–deli or agency–comes into the office every day, armed with the rigor and the vigor to make a difference. Sitting quietly in one’s office doesn’t get it. Mingling with the people in the business and constantly thinking about what’s next is what builds a business.

And another thing, which is the true measure of a leader: Let your people live up to their potential. My current leaders set the tone for how it’s done, and they expect everyone to go well beyond. There’s always a better way to do the work. It’s about discipline, getting there early and staying late on some days. But more than that, leadership in the client-focused world is about cultivating creativity, so that our clients’ success reflects back on us. All of us are leaders in one way or another, and the best organizations’ leaders know it. Good agency leaders are not offended when associates ask questions and try to improve business processes. Holding people accountable and expecting them to take on responsibility is the best compliment a leader can give.

In my last eight months at my current agency, I’ve seen this ethic hard at work. There’s always more to do, but the trick is in approaching best practices slightly differently each day. Quality is a given. What should be different is how we constantly improve how we do the work, so that we are always making it more of a challenge for ourselves. This is how we distance ourselves from the same old/same old…how we build business during challenging times.

Who knows, maybe I will start riding my bike to work, just like I did 27 years ago for my first job at the DQ. If it helps me to think differently in the process, then I’m one step ahead of the expected.