leadership dot #2876: clock building

Are you a clock builder or time teller?

In the book Built to Last, authors Jim Collins and Jerry I. Porras outline the difference between the two: Having a great idea or being a charismatic leader is “time telling” but building a company that can last beyond any one person is “clock building.” It’s the difference between the realization of a great idea or the creation of a system that lives on for much longer than a single episode.

It is so tempting to be a time teller. You can have a great idea (or several), implement them and bask in the glory. Clock building is grunt work, often behind-the-scenes and you may or may not be around to realize its impact. But, and here’s the rub, it’s clock building that makes programs, systems and companies “built to last.”

The difference is often pronounced with new employees who want to make their mark. I remember a situation where one of my staff wanted to spend his time developing a whole variety of programs for college students – rather than creating the process, documentation and system for others who came after him to be able to do so. Doing the actual events was far more fun; creating a methodology was far more impactful.

As a supervisor, you need to be clear with your staff members what you are seeking from them: time telling or clock building. They have radically different timeframes and outcomes so it’s important to outline expectations and rewards. And if you’re the leader yourself, you need to keep your eye on the clock building prize, spending your time and energy on the infrastructure and long term (even now when just time telling can be challenging). Individually we like to be the ones who can tell time but remember that a clock maker made it possible for all of us to do.

Source:  Built to Last by James C. Collins and Jerry I. Porras, 1994, p. 22-23

leadership dot #2875: like us

I handwrote 100 postcards for a grassroots political movement to help get out the vote in Wisconsin’s recent primary. They did not support any particular candidate but encouraged voting in the primary as a proven way to increase voter turnout in the general election.

After much research, the organizers landed on this as the most effective message in their testing: Dear (Name), Thank you for being a previous voter! Who you vote for is secret, but whether you vote is public information. Vote Tuesday, April 7th.” That was it. They determined that social pressure is twice as effective at increasing voter turnout, or, as thought leader Seth Godin would say: “People like us do things like this.”

The same theory rang a bell when I was watching a PBS special. The show was sponsored by a list of foundations “and viewers like you.” It wasn’t only the wealthy that donated to PBS – their wording implied a social nudge that I should do the same.

How can you encourage the action of your audience by adding in an element of social pressure? People like us fill out their expense reports with integrity and timeliness. People like us help restaurants by getting takeout during the virus. People like us become active participants in our community. People like us put hearts in their window to show support to essential workers. People like us donate blood. People like us shop at thrift stores to help the environment. The possibilities are endless.

Instead of framing your message to talk about the benefits of the behavior, add in an inference that others are doing the action you seek. Ever since grade school we’ve worked hard to fit in. Leverage that desire to achieve some good.

leadership dot #2874: Stockdale

Admiral Jim Stockdale was a prisoner-of-war for eight years in Vietnam. Author Jim Collins interviewed him and asked who did not make it out of the war camp. “Oh, that’s easy,” he said. “The optimists…They were the ones that said, ‘We’re going to be out by Christmas.’ And Christmas would come, and Christmas would go. Then they’d say, ‘We’re going to be out by Easter.’ And Easter would come, and Easter would go. And then Thanksgiving, and then it would be Christmas again. And they died of a broken heart.”

While stay-at-home is nowhere close to a concentration camp, I see parallels with the ambiguity of the situation. Those that thought we would be at home only for the initial 10 days or two weeks or believed that COVID would be under control by Easter – they are likely having a harder time with the continued extensions that are now stretching into June.

Stockdale continued with his story to Collins: “This is a very important lesson. You must never confuse faith that you will prevail in the end – which you can never afford to lose – with the discipline to confront the most brutal facts of your current reality, whatever they might be.” Collins dubbed this the Stockdale Paradox and wrote about it in Good to Great as a central principle that great companies exhibited.

I think that those who are holding up mentally well during this pandemic are those who, whether consciously or unconsciously, have embraced the Stockdale Paradox. They will venture into the world when the time is right to do so but do not have an arbitrary deadline in mind that will come and go to disappoint them. They believe that we will resume social gatherings, eating in restaurants and (heaven help us) hair appointments, but right now are resolved to make the best of how it is. They are taking steps to conserve resources and prepare for a summer like none other, canceling plans instead of making them.

We do need to retain faith that it will be safe to leave our homes AND at the same time we need to confront the reality in which we are living — even though it does not come with a tidy calendar.

Source: Good to Great by Jim Collins, p 85-86.

leadership dot #2873: screaming

Author Margaret Atwood recorded a podcast in which she gave a great analogy about procrastination, likening it to jumping into a cold lake. She aptly described how people waste time by dipping their toe in the water and debating ‘yes or no’ as to whether they are going to go into the cold because they “run in screaming” eventually. She urged that if people were going to do something anyway that they plunge right into the “run in screaming” part and avoid wasting all the time that leads up to it.

Oh, have I been there – both on the edge of a literal lake and dipping my toe in a metaphorical one (writing blogs comes to mind!). Somehow, I always brave the cold but I absolutely could save some time and anxiety if I avoided the pre-jumping ritual.

I should know from experience that, more often than not, the mental buildup is worse than the task itself. If I can get my fingers to the keyboard, a dot will get written. If someone can take the pot out of the cupboard, dinner will be made. If you pick up that phone, a sales call will occur. If someone puts on their exercise shoes, it’s likely that they will head out on that walk.

So, the next time you find yourself avoiding that task that you know you will do eventually, skip the dabbling and go right for the “run in screaming” part. Just as with a real cold water experience, it’s always much better to get fully wet all at once than to prolong the pain by doing it slowly.

Source: Adam Grant’s Work Life podcast The Real Reason You Procrastinate, March 9, 2020


leadership dot #2872: aeronaut

In the film The Aeronauts, two characters from 1862 London ascend in a hot air balloon to conduct scientific experiments about the weather. The movie is loosely based on the actual James Glaisher, a scientist who believed that weather could be predicted.

When Glaisher presented his theory to the Royal Society of scientists, he was literally laughed off the podium. In his era, such a notion was preposterous and the Society would not fund his expedition. Glaisher found a pilot who would take him anyway (a fictional character in the film), and they manage to achieve 37,000 ft. in altitude, the highest any human had ever been at that point in time. Glaisher’s measurements revealed multiple characteristics about the atmosphere and when he presented them, the Royal Society ultimately gave him a standing ovation.

James Glaisher is another of many examples where the innovator is called a fool long before he is praised as a genius. Don’t keep your dreams on the ground because others call them crazy. You may first need to do what others laugh at before they recognize how high your ideas can take you.

(The Aeronauts on Amazon Prime)

leadership dot #2871: fine

“How are you?” “Fine. How are you?”

How many times have we had that “conversation?” In reality, the exchange above is nothing more than a robotic response, programmed into our language without real meaning. And in these days of virtual communication, the phrase is even more hollow and trite.

Behavioral scientist Elizabeth Weingarten has a better solution – 20 of them actually, as opening lines for these unusual times that actually engage people in a conscious exchange. She offers 20 questions to ask instead of “How are you doing right now?” that will hopefully spur actual conversation instead of an empty “fine.”

Some examples include:

  • How are you taking care of yourself today?
  • What’s the easiest part about the quarantine?
  • What’s something you own that feels useful?
  • What’s something that you miss that surprises you?
  • What’s something that you don’t miss that surprises you?

Whether you use them on your Zoom conferences, phone calls with friends or across the dinner table, Weingarten’s questions are sure to evoke a response that is far better than “fine.” Try one out today!

leadership dot #2870: always

The unusual times in which we are living has shifted the spotlight on the behavior of many.

  • Greedy businesses were always there, as were generous ones, but now we hear about them in different ways.
  • There were always heroic health care workers, and robotic ones, but now the positive stories are being told.
  • People always had tyrants for managers and magnanimous leaders, but new conditions have brought those inherent traits to light.
  • We always had some great teachers and some not-so-great teachers, only now parents have a better perspective on who is in each category.
  • We’ve elected proactive leaders and reactive leaders and the crisis is bringing the differences to light.

In short, there have always been both stellar and challenged organizations and individuals, but the change in circumstances alters the window through which we can see them. Governors are now holding national press conferences, teachers are Zooming into our living rooms and nurses are posting pictures about their working conditions. We have a different view of strengths, sacrifices and shortcomings.

Whether your work is shared widely or you do it in isolation, act as if the world could see how you perform. Be one of the good ones, if only for yourself.

leadership dot #2869: maker mix

As many have paused during this interruption of routine and are reflecting on how they want their world to look in the days ahead, a simple framework from design firm IDEO may prove helpful.


In an IDEO podcast, Bill Burnett suggests that you sort all of your activities into one of three categories: how you make money, how you gain meaning/impact and how you find expression. This “maker mix” goes beyond your job to look at the multiple components of life and allows you to design a target to achieve the mix you’d like.


For example, maybe you have a job you don’t love, but it provides the income so you derive your meaning or impact from youth coaching and you express yourself through your hobby. Perhaps you have a job you love that doesn’t pay well but it provides meaning so you supplement your income through your expression and selling your craft. Or maybe your job provides the income, your family the impact and your hobby is what fuels you.


Burnett suggests that you look at where you mix is now and compare it to where you’d like it to be, then take tiny steps to move in that direction through developing relationships, trying things (called prototyping in IDEO lingo) and becoming a great storyteller about your value.


We too often rely on one job to provide income, meaning and expression but maybe we would be happier if we gained those components from different facets of our life. Identify the components of your mix today and spend some time reflecting on whether it’s time for a change. What’s one thing you can do now to start the shift?


Listen to the 45-minute podcast here.


leadership dot #2868: earth

If COVID taught us nothing else, its lesson clearly demonstrated how interconnected the world is. Despite attempts to limit immigration or close off supply chains, there no longer is an “us” and “them.” We are all inhabitants of the same Earth.


So, today, as we celebrate the 50th Anniversary of Earth Day, it’s an appropriate moment to consider our actions and how they impact global climate issues. You may already be taking small steps to lessen your personal impact, but if you’re inspired to do more, you can take the Earth Day 22-day Challenge.


We primarily tend to think of environmental issues on a personal level, but when is the last time you added the topic to a staff meeting agenda? Have you reviewed your organization’s practices lately to see where there is energy waste, unnecessary packaging, single-item purchasing, or unnecessary travel? (You can find other tips here and here.) Your initiatives can provide financial as well as environmental benefits for your organization and create an avenue for you to play a leadership role outside your defined job.

On this Earth Day, commit to raising your environmental consciousness in your organization as well as at home, starting with taking one sustainable action. What new practice can you begin today that will improve our interconnected community tomorrow?

leadership dot #2866: doors

I recently enjoyed the Temple Grandin movie that chronicles the life of the film’s namesake, an autistic woman who grew up to become an international figure in autism – and cattle handling. (I wrote about the unusual pairing of careers in dot 2150).

What impressed me most was the number of barriers that Temple overcame before she achieved success. Think about it:

  • She was autistic and often had difficulty reading social cues, causing her to be called a freak and be ridiculed since childhood.
  • She was a woman attempting to forge a career in the ultra-macho male world of cattle handling.
  • She was only a graduate student when she first published her revolutionary ideas on cattle handling, challenging ideas long held by those far more experienced than she.
  • She was a trailblazer and innovator, and like others who have gone first, she was dismissed with skepticism and called crazy.

Any one of her challenges could have stopped a less hearty person from pursuing their dream, but Temple persisted in the face of all four simultaneously. She bought a pickup truck and covered it in mud to fit in and drive past security at the feed lot. She talked her way into getting a press pass to gain access to the cattle ranches. She got her idea published in a trade magazine to give it credibility to do her master’s thesis on the variations of moo-ing (technically called the “agitation of cattle”).

Temple’s mentor told her to visualize her transition from high school to college as being a door that opened up onto a whole new world. “All you have to do is decide to go through it,” he said. She used that metaphor to persevere and go through doors throughout her whole life, no matter how uncomfortable it was for her to do so. And because she kept walking through these doors, over half of the cattle in North America are now handled in humane systems that Temple Grandin designed.

What door do you need to walk through to make your impact? If an autistic, female, graduate student can revolutionize cattle handling, you can achieve your dreams, too.