leadership dot #3626: shredder

Our town provided a free shredding service last weekend, and my contribution was about a thousand pages of long-hand writing on notebook paper. I decided it was time to clear out old journals — ripping pages out of dozens of spiral notebooks that contained a mixture of venting, dreams, and nonsense. The term “journaling” sounds so lofty — what I really mean is a free-flowing brain dump put on paper just to clear it out of my head.

I had not read the contents in the past 20+ years (and certainly did not want others to read them!) so I did some spring cleaning and sent them all to the shredder. My housemate who saw my pile commented on all the trees that were “wasted” by my ramblings. Au contraire! Notebooks are the cheapest form of therapy that I know. The mere act of writing things down is a magical elixir — it moves the emotion from a living distraction in my mind to an amorphous nothing on the piece of paper. And, as with all writing, it gives the gift of clarity.

Writing anything down is the secret sauce for me. My millions of lists increase my capacity to remember and to get things done. Putting ideas to paper helps immensely to flesh out a concept (and its pitfalls) and allows me to implement far more than if I had just thought about them. Writing down my finances helps me be a better steward and saver. Writing letters maintains my friendships. And writing dots helps me pay more attention to the world and make connections I would not see otherwise. I rarely know where a dot is headed until my fingers actually touch the keyboard, but once I start writing it’s like there is a muse sitting on my shoulder whispering new insights.

You don’t need to save what you write, or even read it again, but release the untapped power of your subconscious with your pen or keyboard. The value lies in the act of writing, not saving it from the shredder.

leadership dot #3625: thinkers

Outside my classroom hangs an art display featuring stylized portraits of 11 Great Thinkers. I’m fascinated by it — not only because of the drawings but by who the artist chose to be on the list. It’s such a subjective assessment — who is a great thinker in your field may not be as relevant in mine, and someone may not make the list because their impact is yet to be felt, etc.

But the engraver, Mauricio Lasansky, chose these eleven: Sigmund Freud, Albert Einstein, Giuseppe Verdi, Louis Pasteur, Francisco Goya, Michelangelo, Leo Tolstoy, Abraham Lincoln, Charles Darwin, Leonardo da Vinci, and the only woman, Marie Curie. I noted that they aren’t all philosophers or “professional thinkers” but were able to exert their influence through art, music, writing, politics, medicine, science, and psychology — many excelling in multiple fields.

We place great value on “doing” but too often fail to reward or even recognize the virtues of thinking. Perhaps you can add your own gallery of great thinkers from your organization — people who have had the foresight to envision something that others could not see, who influenced those that came after them by how they performed their craft, or who caused others to pause and reflect about what was even possible. Great thinking precedes great doing.

leadership dot #3624: dissonance

When I was touring Smith College, my friend pointed out the interesting juxtaposition of some of their buildings. The practice of the college is to build new additions with the current style rather than trying to replicate the historical nature of the structure they are replacing. As a result, there are modern buildings next to ornate brick architecture. Sometimes, the two styles are even seen in the same building as is the case here:

At least there is a neutral transition in between — which is not always the case. I was in an art museum enjoying a wonderful display of Rock ‘n Roll photographs. These were displayed on deep purple walls — but right around the corner was a display of 17th Century Flemish oil paintings hung on a pastel background. There was no runway in between and no transition — you moved from a black and white shot of Keith Richards to a heavy oil painting by William van de Velde the Younger!

Our brain likes patterns. Whether you are designing buildings, hanging a gallery, or even giving a routine presentation when you choose to mix things up, allow some processing space in between. People need a moment to reconcile the dissonance that contrast creates.

leadership dot #3623: streamline

One of the highlights of last summer was working at the Major League Baseball Field of Dreams event. I was so hoping that I would be chosen to repeat the experience this year.

When I first was hired, we were required to complete an application, background check, and interview. Yesterday, I received an email: “Hello Field of Dreams Staff Alumni! We would love to have you back on our team for 2022. If you are a returning team member, there will not be an interview — the job is yours!” Yeah!!

Not only is this exciting for me, but it also makes so much sense from their perspective. Why take the time and trouble to put people through a process when it is very likely that they will pass it? But we do it when we require internal candidates to interview even though we plan to hire them. Or when we make people repeat information that is already in our system instead of just asking if anything has changed. Or when we have blood donors go through a lengthy intake questionnaire even if they are regulars.

Before you implement a process, consider whether there is a way to streamline who needs to use it. Give those you know the benefit of that knowledge with an intentional walk to first base.

leadership dot #3622: courier

Over the weekend, I watched the movie The Courier, a true-story drama about the smuggling of Soviet Union secrets during the Cold War. A senior Russian official, Oleg Penkovsky, had grave concerns about Chairman Khrushchev’s stability and intent, so he volunteered to leak nuclear secrets to the West. Greville Wynne, a British businessman, was recruited for the spy effort to avoid the suspicion which naturally enveloped any government personnel. Wynne could frequently travel to the USSR under the guise of doing business and couriered over 5000 top-secret military documents before being discovered.

The film centers around the bravery of the two men who valued avoiding nuclear annihilation ahead of their personal risk. Ultimately, Penkovsky paid with his life and Wynne endured years in a Russian isolation cell but they are credited with avoiding a 1962 nuclear showdown in Cuba.

The sacrifice of the two men can serve as a reminder to all of us to put the interests of the whole above our own comfort. Would you be brave enough to help avoid a catastrophe by committing international espionage? I doubt I would. But we can be brave without fearing our lives — and with that luxury comes the obligation to do so. Speak up when someone is facing isolation. Step in when you see aggression. Apologize. Define and hold people to organizational values. Question things that don’t seem right. Contribute to causes that advocate for human dignity. Volunteer to help others.

And work for peace. The next nuclear showdown may not have a Penkovsky and Wynne to avert it.

leadership dot #3621: café

Capital One may be best known for their “what’s in your wallet?” commercials, but in Harvard Square, they are also known for their coffee. In an effort to reach consumers where they are, the banking giant runs a community space and café where people are able to use wi-fi, get coffee, and relax. It has an ATM but is not a traditional bank branch (although there are Capital One ambassadors available to answer banking or financial literacy questions). And while non-customers are welcome, Capital One account holders receive 50% off café purchases — quite the incentive for regulars.

When Starbucks envisioned a “third space” between home and work, I don’t think they expected competition from Capital One. But a wise marketer realized Harvard Square was a mecca for young customers-to-be who like coffee and need a place to hang out and suddenly banking via a café setting emerged.

Think about where prospective clients of yours may be and consider whether there is an innovative way to reach them through an intermediary environment. If your audience doesn’t come to you directly, maybe you’d be wiser to go to them.

leadership dot #3620: smart cookie

Crumbl, a cookie and ice cream chain, recently opened in our town. The response has been crazy, with people waiting in lines outside the building to pay almost $5 per cookie. At first, I couldn’t understand it, but I succumbed and tried one and can now understand much of the buzz.

Some lessons I learned from my visit (besides the fact that their cookies are de-licious):

  • Quality matters. People are willing to pay more if they feel the product or service has value. Even though the cookies are expensive, they are also huge. The cookies also come heated or chilled as appropriate — a real bonus.
  • Presentation matters. The cookies come in a signature pink box, making them feel more special than eating them from a generic box or paper bag.
  • Focus matters. Each week, the store sells a collection of six cookie flavors and six flavored pints of ice cream. That’s it. They concentrate on what they do and do it well. They aren’t trying to be a bakery or even dessert capital — just cookies and cream.
  • Uniqueness matters. The standard chocolate chip version is the only staple on their menu. The other five flavors rotate weekly with flavors such as passion fruit, New York cheesecake, key lime pie, Kentucky butter cake, and piña colada. This isn’t “just another cookie,” but rather something you can’t get most places.

Crumbl is carry-out only so they aren’t trying to cultivate a “third place” as Starbucks did but they have followed much of the same business model as the beverage giant. Instead of trying to cut corners or make the cheapest product around, maybe you’d be one smart cookie to pursue the premium route instead.

leadership dot #3619: thirteen

When I was in college, I was randomly assigned to room 1313 Washington Hall. It worked out fine for me, but even being on the 13th floor bothers some people so much that many hotels and skyscrapers skip the number 13 when designating spaces. The elevator is marked from 12 to 14, thus reducing the fears of those who are superstitious or feel that the number is somehow unlucky.

But think about this for a moment. Just because you skipped 13 on the elevator button does not mean that there isn’t a thirteenth floor. Of course, there is. It’s purely a mind game but easier for the owner to play than dealing with pushback or undesirable real estate. The trepidation may not be logical or warranted but it is still real for people.

Is there a “13” in your organization where through a simple renaming you can avoid angst or anger? How you label something can make all the difference.

An elevator panel that skips the number 13 (Source: Wikipedia)

leadership dot #3618: imposter

A client lamented that they had imposter syndrome — that self-imposed feeling that you’re not qualified to do what you are doing — because there was a new element to their position that they had yet to master. I tried to explain that there was no expectation on anyone else’s part that they know everything — and that needing to learn something did not make them unfit for their current role.

The negative voice in our head too often jumps to generalizations — “if I don’t know one thing then I must not be qualified overall.” Quell that defeating self-talk by reframing your lack of knowledge as just that — something you need to learn — rather than incompetence. And don’t lose sight of the fact that you likely have a whole spectrum of skills and abilities where you do have confidence — keep things in perspective.

The next time you find yourself with a dilemma or scenario that’s new to you, rather than see yourself as an imposter, treat yourself as a learner who can take in new information, solve problems, and grow.

leadership dot #3617: reflect

In a podcast, culture expert Daniel Coyle proclaimed that “reflection is the most underused power source of any group.” I agree!

He noted how the world is constructed to put things in front of us for either action or reaction, and as a result, too often reflection doesn’t happen. People don’t pause, he notes, so questions such as what the organization is about or what your personal purpose is are left unconsidered — and the culture suffers.

Coyle advocates for the power of pausing — to learn from what went wrong, to remember what went well, to align the organization’s purpose in concrete ways that help people know what is best to do, and to create relationships that foster a sense of belonging and vulnerability. One of his Playbook exercises is to define your “True South” — what you are not going to do — as a way to gain clarity on your True North and guiding principles.

As the workforce shrinks, culture becomes a distinguishing factor that determines which organizations are able to succeed. You can spend your time recruiting and training new employees — or invest that time in reflecting on what is/is not working in your organization. I hope you take a timeout to invest in the latter.

Learner Lab podcast with Daniel Coyle and Trevor Ragan (41:04) April 2022. Coyle is the author of the best-selling The Culture Code and the brand new The Culture Playbook: 60 Highly Effective Actions to Help Your Group Succeed.