Tag Archives: leadership

Public Discourse

19 Mar

Two-people-talking-logo

Today’s episode of Ira Glass’ “This American Life” contained two fabulous acts.

The first is a very good piece. I highly recommend that you listen. It’s a rescue story full of second thoughts and bizarre coincidences.

And the second act is even better. It’s about public discourse and why it’s important. In the story, professors at a liberal arts college must make public arguments about why their disciplines are preferable to others, and most worthwhile to have with you if you get stuck on a life raft. These public presentations have been going on for years, and it’s become a contest. The student audience votes for the winner. And at every contest, there’s a naysayer — one speaker who argues that the audience vote for no one.

Every year, one of the professors has won. And every year, much like our political races, the players become more performance than substance, more attention-getting than true to themselves. They use stunts, props, comedy, sexual innuendo and any number of distractions and off-point tactics to gain popularity and win the audience vote. Sound familiar?

In the episode, this year the naysayer wins — for the first time — because he encourages the students to vote for no one. None of the performers get the vote.

A man at the gas station yesterday told me he liked my American flag bumper sticker. Besides just being a flag, it says, “THINK,” across the top of the flag. To me, this bumper sticker is the epitome of being American. It’s why we are all here in the first place. Freedom of speech, religion, press. The ability to make up our own minds and voice our thoughts. A chance to vote and be active participants in a democracy.

Empty rhetoric has become so important in American life. It’s not a good thing. Most of what we hear from our leaders is crap. Most of what the people around us say about public policy — our coworkers, friends and family, and even ourselves — is not based on a lot of thought process. It resonates from pure opinion — usually someone else’s — loudly spewed opinion that we heard on whatever talk radio or supposedly news program. We’re good at mouthing back someone else’s words. Where are ours?

It is overly simplified and sound bite-ish. It’s oratorical, it’s designed — and maybe scientifically tested through polling — to leave an impression, a very specific impression. There’s very little substance behind it. In a word, it’s fake and it’s manipulative. It’s stupid.

What would happen if we only voted for those candidates who actually make cogent and substantive arguments? Not just the ones who convince us through persuasion and emotion. The ones who really say something. Ignore the political parties and just vote for the people who are thinking.

Beyond our failure to create an environment where candidates actually prove a point, we are reticent to get into conversations with one another about politics and policy matters. There’s no discourse in our discourse. It’s one-way. A friend was recently lamenting about this on Facebook.

Why won’t we have conversations with friends, family co-workers, about things that are controversial, about topics that are difficult?

We don’t want to offend. We don’t want to disagree with people that we have daily relationships with. We don’t want to make our lives more difficult.

I think that another reason for this fear is that we don’t know much about what we say. We don’t know enough, and we need to know more. And we need to be less afraid. And we need to have less of a need to be entertained and more of a need to know.

We are Americans, living in a country where our ancestors came here because this was supposed to be a place where you can think and speak your mind. Where you can engage in public discourse that has meaning and impact. Will you? Will I?

Executive Elements Blog

14 Jan

Dear People of the Blog,

I am now cross-blogging. Note that this is not the same as cross-dressing.

Check out a series I’m doing for Executive Elements, a new blog that focuses on building successful female leaders. Executive Elements Partner and Executive Coach Chasity Kuttrus is a force. I encourage you to subscribe to this blog, not just because of me but because of its quality and substance.

My series of posts is on “mentorly love” — focused on how female and male mentors complement our professional growth. In the series, I’m defining a couple of mentors on my personal “board of directors.” These folks have given me the support and push that I’ve needed along the way, like professional moms and dads.

Here’s the first post.

Enjoy!

Kim

Managing Crises with Finesse

4 Jan
A crisis may feel like this, but remember that everything has a beginning, a middle and an ending.

A crisis may feel like this, but remember that everything has a beginning, a middle and an ending.

The words “crisis” and “finesse” do not belong together, but reputation-master Ronald Alsop combines them anyway. A crisis can be a defining moment for a company: Successful crisis management can separate a company from the pack—in a good or a not so good way.

You cannot prevent crisis, but you can keep it from spinning out of control. No plan is bullet-proof, but get as close as you can. Here are some important components that Alsop and others identify for bullet-resistant crisis management:

  1. Create a crisis team comprised of a balanced set of expertise. It should include representation from PR, legal and IT, in addition to line function representation. Everyone on the team should be quick-thinking and accurate to a fault. The leader should be the President or CEO, and the spokesperson should be a cool-headed and seasoned (not too much seasoning) member of the PR team.
  2. Define possible crisis scenarios. These can be grouped into various categories, such as natural disasters, human error (e.g., employee misconduct, corporate ethics issues) and product or service flaws. In order to best define these, work with your line managers. Ask them what they worry the most about—what keeps them up at night. Also make sure to list any crises that have been faced by your competitors, because it is likely that you could face the same issues at some point in time.
  3. Prioritize crisis management based upon probability of occurrence and level of risk to the company’s reputation  if the crisis should come to pass. You can set up a grid and work through each scenario based upon the combination of these two factors.
  4. Map out a plan of response for each scenario. High probability/high reputation damage risk  scenarios should be explored first because a crisis management approach is most crucial in these cases.
  5. Set up a crisis command center. The command center should be a “war room” where the team can convene and extend its tentacles as needed to take action.
  6. Create a crisis reference book. This should include all relevant contact information, protocols given various scenarios, templated releases for categories of crisis (natural disaster, human error such as corporate misconduct and product issues), and flow charts stepping through key steps in the reaction process.
  7. Put your staff through their paces with crisis simulations. The crisis team, and other staff, should routinely be exposed to mock crisis scenarios to test response time and accuracy. These can be announced or unannounced by management. Fire drills are a good test of your company’s crisis smarts.

When the GPS is Wrong…O, Canada

4 Jan

Over the holidays, my husband and I had an interesting bonding experience and marital trial re: the GPS. We were heading home from Maine, with my husband in charge of driving and navigation (never again on this one) since he brilliantly decided to leave at 12:30 am.

“What else am I gonna do? I’m awake, so I’ll drive. All you have to do is sleep!”

Right. Sleep. I vaguely remember that we left the resort by turning left (internal compass: “Why are we heading north?”) and then convincing myself that we’d eventually hang a hard left and end up going southwest.

My sleep lasted all of 40 minutes. When I was rudely awakened by bright lights and a red and white striped gate that read: ARRETEZ!

Capital letters and French, 2 am. Where’s my cafe au lait? Where the hell am I? In Canada?!?

Yes, it turns out we’d stumbled into Canada. Briefly. Just long enough to remind myself of my French and swiftly apologize to the border patrol. My husband, meanwhile, sat beside me stunned and pondering. “Huh. How’d we do that?”

There was no “We” in this faux pas. It was most assuredly not this map-lover’s fault. Mais non!

After about 10 minutes of proving our identities — which required waking up both children so that they could personally verify their birth dates and locations — we passed back safely onto American soil.

Lesson: The GPS was right. The fastest route from northern Maine to Columbus, Ohio is through Canada. But it didn’t factor in passing through a border that now requires passports, which we do not have.

We should never have relied on the GPS, with its myopic point A to point B incremental algorithms. There’s so much more to consider. Like much of life, it’s good to step back and take the big picture view with a large map in hand.

I’ve taken this lesson to heart as a good New Year’s reorientation. You can’t just putter along between points on the map and let the GPS do the driving. You’ve got to get situated, know where you are, where you’re headed and what’s the best route for any given moment in time. Rules change, and it’s good to be in the know.

Life has a way of lulling us into a false sense of security that we’ve found the quickest way, when in fact we’re always better off if we stay awake and aware of our surroundings, watching for signs to point us home.

Working Motherhood

14 Nov

Today I was chatting with a friend who mentioned an interesting workplace concern:

Mothers who do not pull their own weight due to “kid commitments” — doctor appointments, school drop-offs, parent-teacher conferences and the list goes on.

In all honesty, I have very little patience with this rigmarole.

Walk in the shoes of a working mother or father for just a day. It ain’t pretty.

The juggling act of a parent with a professional position requiring anything beyond 40 hours a week of work is backbreaking. I’m not saying that those without kids don’t work hard. What I am saying is that those with children manage a high-wire act difficult to imagine unless personally experienced.

Spare time is nonexistent. With what little time there is in that grey margin of time just before and after work, the trade-offs are make-or-break:

  • Please a client by going the extra mile one evening by writing another op-ed or go to the ballet recital.
  • Make the boss happy by attending a client reception or be at home for dinner with the family.
  • Delegate to junior associates or do the work myself while my son is going to sleep.
  • Work on the weekend to catch up on the email and “thinking work” that I’m too busy to complete during workdays filled with meetings, or let it go and spend time just being a mom.
  • Have a tough conversation with my boss with the phone on mute while I am transporting my extremely loud and arguing kids to X evening activity, or set the limit that we’ll need to talk about work tomorrow.

Kids remember when we are not present. And so do coworkers, bosses and clients.

Being a parent and a professional are both serious business. Frankly, the only way I’ve found to do both is to do quite a bit of work while my children are sleeping or otherwise occupied on the weekend.

I often have the sense that I’m not paying enough attention to one or the other, but the simple fact is that I devote well beyond “full-time” to each. I know that most parents feel this way, too. Not all workplaces are sympathetic to working parents’ challenges. Children interrupt us at work, just as work interrupts us at home. It goes both ways. With the encroachment of technology and the stressors of the “new economy” — constantly feeling like we have to prove ourselves in order to stay ahead of the next layoff at work — it is often not fun.

For the most part, the policies of my employers have been open-minded to the situation of the working parent. I’ve been lucky in that regard.

What’s surprising is the attitudes of co-workers. Probably the most frustrating thing for me during my 14 years as a working mother has been the judgment of colleagues.

After my son was born, I took off nearly three months to be with him. Some thought this was too much time for someone in a leadership position like mine and let me know how they felt, but I don’t regret it to this day. You cannot get that time back.

Although I started working half-days before I returned, I still was not back at work full-time until my son was 12 weeks old. And when I was back, I took two 15-minute breaks and a 30-minute lunch every day. The breaks were to pump breast-milk that my husband could feed him while I was at work, and the half-hour-long lunch was so that I could be with him to feed him in person. I did this every day for about six months. And I worked more than 8 hours each day — usually something like 50-55 hours a week. Both the nursing and the work were priorities, and I did them both.

Because I took the breaks and the lunch on a regular schedule, often they interfered with other meetings that occurred at work. And that got noticed. I felt it. And there were one or two female colleagues without children who seemed resentful. It was stressful. I often felt rushed, running out of meetings to do the pumping or meet my husband in the parking lot with my son, so that we could sit in the car together for 30 minutes or so to nurse.

A few years ago, I was leaving work to attend a Girl Scout outing with my daughter — time that I made up after-hours. The following day, another working mom colleague shared with me that I needed to be careful about taking this time. She was subtly warning me that doing this was not generally acceptable at our workplace. I thanked her for the heads-up and took note. I also took note that people who left early to play golf did not seem to experience the same judgment.

Now that my kids are older, it’s not as stressful, but I often need to leave work right on time, or I arrive 15 minutes after our “official” start time. And I wonder whether it makes a difference or not that I am working well over full-time to make up the difference in the evenings. People can and do make uninformed judgments based upon what they see in the workplace.

The honest truth is that flex-time is over-rated. Because some of the time unfolds outside the regular work day, it’s easy to pass judgment that the time is “less than,” and thus the work itself and the commitment of the working parent are inferior.

I have no easy answer to this dilemma, for myself or for any other working parent. My own choice as a supervisor has been to support high-quality work and the people that do it, whenever and wherever they are able to complete that work.

There’s more to be learned here. I’m sure that I’ll get more clarity on this over time, but for now it’s just hard. It may sound like the easy way out, but I’m glad that I’m now counting down from nine years to the end of my time as a working mother of school-age kids.

Another Winner!

21 Jan

This contest round’s winner of an annual subscription to Harvard Business Review is the extremely opinionated Mr. Brad Hunt. Brad offered his reflections on 2009 and prognostication for 2010 a few weeks ago.

Brad, congrats on the win. I will look forward to your informed musings fueled by HBR. Will be in touch to get your details for snail mailing.

Checklists As Memory Aids

6 Jan

I heard this bit on NPR yesterday about Dr. Atul Gawande’s new book, The Checklist Manifesto: How To Get Things Right. It made me think a lot about the value of documented repeatable processes, and how often I fall into the trap of thinking I’m too smart to have to use a checklist.

Dr. Gawande spends his “leisure” time writing for The New Yorker when not performing operations at Dana Farber. Clearly, he is a man with time management on his side. The bottom line, he says, is that no one is too good for a checklist. In fact, we should use them more often. When he asked surgeons whether they would use the checklists, 80 percent said yes. For the holdout 20 percent, he was curious. Would they want THEIR surgeon using a checklist prior to operating on them? Ninety-four percent said yes. No surprise.

The doctor analyzed pilot reliance upon checklists and applied that practice to the O.R. — with very positive results. He catches himself at least weekly forgetting something from his checklists, and his colleagues report similar results. My sister-in-law is a surgeon, and I know smart when I see it. If a surgeon can admit to needing a checklist, it must be worth doing.

And I read this piece last night on The New York Times site, about a new study confirming what the “middle-aged” crowd (defined as 40-60, therefore including me) already knows:

We forget more, but we can claim mastery of locating patterns in the midst of chaos. And we can become quickly distracted.

Shiny ball syndrome is our weakness. An apt quote that pretty much sums up my daily existence:

Brains in middle age, which, with increased life spans, now stretches from the 40s to late 60s, also get more easily distracted. Start boiling water for pasta, go answer the doorbell and — whoosh — all thoughts of boiling water disappear. Indeed, aging brains, even in the middle years, fall into what’s called the default mode, during which the mind wanders off and begin daydreaming.

I look forward to using this “default mode” excuse the next time my gray matter wanders astray. It gives meaning to something I’ve always blamed on character weakness.

Where was I? Oh, yes.

One point from the memory study is that we middle-ageists can resuscitate our memory abilities by learning new information, in particular information that runs contrary to our own set of beliefs or expands our current knowledge base.  Simply put, we need to take the road less traveled, in order to keep our thinking young.

It strikes me that memory-building involves both Dr. Gawande’s recommendation for relying on tried and true to-do’s and the exercise of stretching our brains to connect up neural pathways through new learnings. In other words, we can make ourselves smarter with memory aids like checklists and becoming (or continuing to be) lifelong students.