leadership dot #3344: utilitarian

If there is to be one symbol of the pandemic beyond facemasks, I nominate the cardboard box. Never before has such an unglamorous, utilitarian item played such a major role in our day-to-day life.

It took just one glance at the weekly recycling bin to realize the number of items shipped in the lowly container. Boxes became pervasive during the pandemic, delivering everything from food to futons. Where would e-commerce be without cardboard?

But cardboard wasn’t just used for shopping. Countless organizations utilized boxes in an attempt to package up some of the emotion that was lost from not being in person. You name it and swag was being sent via mail to commemorate an occasion: graduation boxes, Christmas boxes, birthday boxes, conference boxes, and more. Boxes full of love to simulate connection.

The box also served as a make-shift play toy, entertaining kids for hours. Whether it was making a fort, a robot, or a doll bed, cardboard could be fashioned into just about anything. It fascinated kids enough to earn a spot in the National Toy Hall of Fame.

Cardboard is the unsung workhorse of our daily life. You don’t think about it but look around. Your food boxes, toilet paper rolls, tissue boxes, Amazon deliveries, Chewy boxes, furnace filters and so much more rely on this sturdy paper.

Think about what is the equivalent to the “cardboard” of your organization — that piece of unnoticed infrastructure that drives so much else. Are you maximizing its value? It’s often what we don’t pay attention to that offers the greatest opportunity for leverage.

leadership dot #3343: tags

I spent about two hours searching for the tags that fell off my dog’s collar. We retraced all the places she had been in the past day, tore apart the beds, couch and crate, and posted on the neighborhood Facebook page for others to be on the lookout.

As I considered why I was distraught about this, I realized it was because her tags are truly the only thing that is exclusively hers. The next dog will take up residence in “her” crate, play with the same toys, and even repurpose her collar. But the tags — they are Iris’. So we looked, and re-looked, and scoured the yard — before I remembered that had she escaped from the fence for about a minute when the neighbor’s dog came over — and sure enough, the tags were on the neighbor’s hill where she rolled while reveling in her freedom. Relief!

The episode was a reminder to me to be clear about the “why” behind your actions. I was not searching for functional reasons — I could easily have the ID replaced and she certainly doesn’t need the collection of rabies tags that are too worn down to even be legible. The hunt wasn’t about financial reasons either as it would only require a modest sum to get a new tag. No, I looked purely for sentimental purposes; to have “her something” when she’s gone. It explains why it consumed me for the better part of the morning and why I wouldn’t stop looking even when all logical places were thoroughly exhausted.

Understanding the motivation behind actions — yours or others — can go a long way in making sense out of the behaviors that result. Tag those emotions, and then act accordingly.

leadership dot #3342: consistency

The local grocery store also operates a series of gas station/convenience stores. While they carry the same name and branding, they each operate independently and set their own policies. For example, one store discounts for soda refills while another does not. One location has a punch card that requires 12 punches for a free drink while the others only need 10. I think they have as many differences as similarities.

When I go into a franchise, I expect consistency. Part of the reason people go into McDonald’s is that they know they will get the same thing at any of its locations. Other franchisees strive to achieve the same. Organizations with regional or functional chapters are essentially “franchises” bound to follow the same principles.

Don’t confuse your customers. If you want to function with autonomy you should operate as separate organizations under different names. A franchise — or subgroup of a larger organization — requires a commitment to the whole. If you take the name, you take the entire package.

leadership dot #3341: versatility

It used to be that live performances brought truckloads of sets to evoke different emotions depending upon the song. Today, all that is accomplished through lighting.

The Trace Adkins concert featured synchronized lighting with a different array for each song — or even each stanza of the song — and used high-powered spotlights to bring the stage into the crowd. The lighting was a show in itself independent of the music, featuring colors, patterns, rotations, and choreographed movements.

But all with the same lights.

What is the equivalent to spotlights in your organization — something that you use for one purpose but could be expanded to provide much greater utility? It may be a piece of equipment, a resource, furniture, space, services, or personnel — but think hard about what you are using in one way that could serve you better by leveraging its versatility and impact. Hoping the light bulb goes off for you!

leadership dot #3340: screen time

I attended a Trace Adkins concert at the county fair and thoroughly enjoyed an evening of entertainment. Maybe I liked the show so much because I purchased the tickets in 2019 (!!) and was finally able to use them. But beyond that, a key factor was that there was no Jumbotron or filming, forcing you to watch it “live” instead of on a screen. I think it caused me to pay better attention and to focus on the stage instead of all the activity going on around it.

We often think that the addition of technology is a good thing — and it often is — but sometimes doing without the gizmos and gadgets actually enhances the experience. Perhaps consider having your next in-person gathering exclusively be a face-to-face experience instead of a high-tech pseudo-Zoom event that still has your participants watching on a screen.

leadership dot #3339: ingrained

At the conclusion of the drum corps show, members who were “aging out” were individually thanked for their contributions. The returning members of the color guard stood on the sidelines during the ceremony and, without any prompting, all clapped in unison then simultaneously put their hands behind their backs and stood at attention in between each recognition. The 20 or so members in line all acted in unison as if it were a choreographed portion of the show — clap, stand at attention, clap, etc.

At this point in the season, it is ingrained in the corps members how to act when performing — no matter where they are on the field. Standing as they did was as natural to all of them as slouching would be to others. I’m sure they had been practicing that pose all summer and so did it without further instruction or thought.

Think about the behaviors you wish to ingrain in those on your team. An outstretched hand to everyone who walks in? A rigid back when playing an instrument? A certain posture as the game begins? A genuine smile when answering the phone? Intentional repetition of the details will become an automatic subconscious enhancement to your performance.

leadership dot #3338: cultivating

I attended a drum corps show and was surprised when the first group entered the field with only 13 members. Most organizations have more than that number on each instrument and have a total of 150-200 performers in their corps. What was going on?

Then I learned that the first group was in a special category designed for corps who are trying to get started. Called SoundSport, it is sanctioned by the official Drum Corps International (DCI) and strives to help build new drum corps by allowing them to perform exhibitions at DCI competitive events and participate in other SoundSport shows.

DCI realized that it is a monumental task to recruit a full ensemble of musicians and a color guard, but also a necessary endeavor for the future of the organization. To cultivate new corps, they have provided a forum that allows for performances against other corps in a similar stage to keep up the motivation of the initial members while the organization grows. The group that performed for us received a rousing round of applause, for their dedication if not for their musicianship.

What does your organization do to stimulate interest in its next phase of participants? It may not need to be as elaborate as creating a new performance division but encouraging those who will be your future is a tune you should be playing.

leadership dot #3337: rope

The cattle barns at the county fair showcased some beefy specimens — many of them well over 1000 pounds. And although the animals could trample you, they remained in their stalls and were led into the show ring with only a thin rope muzzle.

I think about the elaborate systems that organizations put into place to control their employees but everyone would be better off taking a lesson from the 4-H youth. They repeatedly demonstrate that a small amount of control in the right place is all that you need to achieve the desired behavior.

The steer aren’t allowed to roam freely but neither do they have gates and shackles and heavy-handed measures to keep them in the corrals. Try to reduce your controls to the equivalent of a small rope — enough to provide guidance without oppressive restriction.

leadership dot #3336: driving

If you would have asked me if I had time in July to drive to Boston, and back, and then to Boston again I would have thought you were crazy. But I did the equivalent of that last month when I drove over 3700 miles. About 500 of them were for a vacation in Michigan, but the other 3200 were spent on day trips, airport runs, and in-town adventures while hosting family.

If I had planned a trip to Boston, it would have been a big deal but the local miles did not seem that significant. Yet, at the end of the day, my mileage added up to more than a trip East would have been. It is another example of how small things can accumulate into something bigger.

Think about your equivalent of driving 3000 miles locally. Is it a pile of your artwork that should be compiled into a portfolio or gallery show? Or a daily run around the block that you could use as training for a marathon? Maybe you should turn those notes into an article or novella and pursue publishing.

We often use the lack of time as an excuse but if we add up the minutes (or hours) we spend on the piecemeal components we realize that time is not the issue. Define the big goal you are driving towards and focus your efforts to reach that destination.

leadership dot #3335: goats

I recently went on a goat trek — a delightful hour of walking through wooded acres with 20 goats along for the journey. Sometimes we walked them on a leash (to keep them from eating the grapevines) but most times they were free to roam in the woods and eat to their heart’s content. The owner called it a candy store where all sorts of vegetation were available for their choosing.

The interesting part to me was that goats don’t like to eat grass. I think it’s the stereotype of what people think they do eat, but in reality, goats only like to eat weeds. It makes them the perfect animal to reduce overgrowth along the trails and to save humans from weeding.

Most would see weeds as undesirable, but the goats love them. It’s a good example of matching skills with the right job. How can you do the same with your human employees — finding something that a person loves that others may wish to avoid? Maybe you pair an extraverted job with an extravert or vice versa with an introvert. Perhaps someone loves the behind-the-scenes detail work that would bore others to tears. Maybe someone wants to travel or work in the outdoors while others want a job that keeps them at a computer screen all day.

The goats love weeds but not grass. Find what your employees love and let them fulfill their days with it.