leadership dot #3667: reply

One of the challenges of communication is when people respond to your question with a tangential thought or another question. It’s a reply, but it isn’t an answer. Examples include:

  • Q: Are you going to the meeting? Reply: Can you believe there is another meeting about this project?
  • Q: Where do you want to go to dinner? Reply: I had a big lunch.
  • Q: Can I consider this report finalized and send it to the boss? Reply: I heard she is getting ready to go out of town.
  • Q: Do you want me to make reservations at 5 pm or 7 pm? Reply: It’s a half-hour from where we’ll be.
  • Q: Are you able to help me with this task? Reply: The new assistant starts next week.

These types of responses do nothing to facilitate progress or move the conversation forward. What does the reply even mean? It certainly isn’t a definitive response to what you asked.

If you pay attention, I suspect you will hear many non-answers to your queries. Be conscious that you aren’t hearing them come from your own lips.

leadership dot #3666: purge

After yesterday’s dot (#3665) about my storage system, a friend asked:

Any advice for me: I have a lot of organizing and purging to do. Office stuff. It’s hard to do when there’s so much. I read an article recently about minimalism and how it’s hard to start when the job seems so big. It seems like it would be never ending and would prevent me from using time now for more enjoyable things. Any ideas on how to make this fun?

Drat! I have no magical advice on how to make boring tasks fun. Susan Power wrote: “The motivation is in the doing.” I think about that a lot (usually when it comes to writing the next dot — I’m rarely motivated to start but the motivation comes from doing.) So, the trick is to start. I’d suggest:

  • Put an hour appointment on your calendar (daily for 2 weeks or weekly for 2 months, etc.) and hold to it like you do for everything else. It’s not “do I feel like purging — it’s My 2:00 appointment says purging time, so I’ll do it.” Stop thinking that it has to be fun to start — it never will be. It will be fun when you finish, and things are organized/clear/etc.
  • Schedule the time so that you have a reward at the end. Do it for 1 hour then watch TV or read or eat lunch, etc. Or do it in chunks — Do 1 drawer then X or this pile then X.
  • See if you can do the purging in a different place than your office. Somehow purging on the patio or in the sunshine is less arduous (says the woman trying to read and sort 3600 dots!)
  • Great music helps!
  • Keep a pile of what you’ve purged (i.e.: don’t take it to recycling/shredding right away) so you can see progress even though it won’t feel like there is any.
  • Depending on the state of things, you may need to sort then prioritize — put things into piles by category, THEN read and purge. (For example, when I cleaned out my Mom’s office, I quickly sorted things by insurance, utilities, medical records, etc. – tossing the very old insurance benefit booklets and obvious recycling as I went – but saved the purging that required thought until a second round after the piles were sorted.)
  • Only keep things where you’re the source. If you have a lot of minutes or documents from work or volunteering, I’d ditch those and rely on the organization to supply them if ever needed.
  • As I said in my dot, I keep things in small folders — each topic has its own so I can find them again. Shopping for office supplies (colored folders, etc.) can make the task more fun but don’t get hung up on logistics of “what goes in the red folder?” etc. As you can see in the picture, my folders are ragged, handwritten, reused — and work perfectly.

Whether it’s with purging or any other daunting task, I guess my best advice is to stop seeing it as “a lot.” As Anne Lamott wrote: “bird by bird” — one step then the next. You don’t have a lot to do; you have a little to do a lot of times. You could complete the first “little” in the time you spend avoiding doing “a lot.”

leadership dot #3665: saved

When I started my first professional job, I took an empty box that held reams of paper and covered it in contact paper, making it my first filing “cabinet.” As rudimentary as it was, the box served as a useful way to collect, organize, and, most importantly, retrieve handouts or resources that I would later use for inspiration or workshop material.

Many years later, that same system has morphed into 39 boxes, some of which have contents older than the people I am sharing them with. What has worked for me over the years is to not only save materials but to create a separate file folder for each topic, no matter how small. If it’s a key article that I use repeatedly, it has its own folder so I can easily find it. If it’s one article on something new, it starts from scratch, too. There’s nothing lofty about it — reused file folders, handwritten titles, Post-its to label the boxes, etc., but this system has allowed me to begin content development from something, never having to face the dreaded blank piece of paper that is sure to cause a creative block.

I take my method for granted since I’ve been doing it for so long, but it was brought to consciousness by author Dan Pink. He isn’t a resource-hoarder like I am, but he shared that he gets an empty box when he is just beginning to consider a new project. Then when he discovers resources as his idea incubates, he tosses them into the box — books, articles, etc. Once he’s ready to get serious about writing, he has a ready-made collection of places to start.

If you’re not proficient and devoted to one of the sophisticated and powerful tools that are now available to help with the curation process, give the humble box method a try. It has saved me (as well as saved my resources) so many times, proving over and over that it’s much easier to turn something into something more.

leadership dot #3664: external context

A recent article caught my attention:

“Thousands of people marched through [the streets] on Saturday in a protest over the soaring cost of living. Huge crowds flooded into [the city] for the rally to demand that the government do more to help the people faced with bills and other expenses that are rising more quickly than their wages. [The leader] has been criticized for being slow to respond to the cost-of-living crisis. Inflation has been surging…Prices were already rising before the war in Ukraine, as the global economic recovery from COVID-19 pandemic resulted in strong consumer demand.”

It sounds like something that could be written about any city in America with President Biden being blamed by many for the economic state of affairs. But the article above was written about Britain — the protests in the streets of London and criticism directed at Prime Minister Boris Johnson.

Knowing that financial pain is not a localized phenomenon may not do anything to improve an individual’s situation directly, but it does illustrate that the problem is more complex than one person can address.

The article provides an external view and perspective — something that is valuable for leaders to do on any topic. By helping people in an organization understand where they stand vis a vis others like them, people can more appropriately calibrate their reactions and response. Knowing that they are not alone in confronting a problem often provides solace and lessens the distress (see dot #3629).

It’s easy for leaders — and, in turn, those in front-line or middle management positions — to be consumed by an internal focus. Wise leaders turn their attention outward and intentionally share an external context to help everyone have a more realistic view of where they stand.

Source: Thousands protest soaring costs in London by the Associated Press in the Telegraph Herald, June 19, 2022, p. 23A

leadership dot #3663: village

It’s easy to list the amenities of living in a larger town, but sometimes we forget about the opportunities that come from living in a village. Mineral Point, Wisconsin (population 2,400) capitalized on its smallness to provide special recognition for its high school graduates. Senior pictures were printed on banners that adorned the streetlights throughout Main Street, showcasing each student in a public moment of glory.

Mineral Point High School has a total enrollment of 200. I’m sure they have faced challenges due to their limited size, but it also allowed them to make this display possible.

No matter where you live or work, there are advantages and disadvantages relative to size. Capitalize on the pluses that align with your scale to balance out the inconveniences that also accompany it.

leadership dot #3662: playtime

A warm-up question for a recent meeting asked each participant: “What games did you play as a kid that children today wouldn’t know?” We received a host of animated answers including freeze tag, kickball, kick the can, capture the flag, croquet, badminton, flashlight tag, sardines, and Wiffle ball. What did they have in common? We all played outside!

The common theme in our reminiscing was that we self-entertained — playing whatever, wherever — and “making it work with kids you barely knew.” If there was a game and kids willing to play with you, that’s all it took — until the street lights came on, of course. Then it was time to go home!

But children today have quite a different experience. The CDC reports that those ages 8-18 spend only 4-7 minutes/day in unstructured outdoor play — not the hours that occupied us as youngsters. Contrast that with a reported 7.5 hours/day in front of screens, not even counting homework.

Role model make-your-own outdoor play for the people around you. Maybe it’s reading a book out on the patio, taking a walk, riding a bike, or just playing fetch with the dog — but do something this weekend that isn’t inside. Appreciating nature and creating intrinsic satisfaction are valuable skills for everyone to cultivate.

leadership dot #3661: creating

Jim Henson, the genius behind the Muppets, wanted to work in television from the moment he saw his first image on the small screen. It was a new medium then and not many opportunities existed in the field. When the call went out for teenagers who could “manipulate marionettes” for Roy Meachum’s Junior Morning Show, Jim knew that this was the opening he had been waiting for.

So, this enterprising high school student checked out two books from the library, taught himself puppetry, and landed the job — for three weeks before the show was canceled for violating child labor laws!

This is just one fascinating anecdote from Jim Henson The Biography that has entertained me this summer. Henson was a master businessman as well as a creative genius but my takeaway from his story is to just start. The original Kermit wasn’t a frog, but rather a generic hand puppet made from his mother’s blue wool coat. Obviously, Henson continued to modify it and give it personality, but only after using the rough version in several shows.

He started doing appearances on others’ shows, before creating his own commercials, then worked on Sesame Street, then his own television show, and eventually branched out into movies. The evolution of his empire was incremental, gradual, and the result of much trial and error. He continually fought the “puppets are only for children” stigma, struggled to get funding, and had many setbacks during his career. But Henson always found a workaround or waited until the timing was right to try again and achieved great success as a result.

Henson made pieces of cloth and feathers come to life — as vividly as he did with his dream to work in television. Take a lesson from him and keep creating ways to get one step closer to your goal — even if the path isn’t at anything like what you imagined it would be.

Source: Jim Henson: The Biography by Brian Jay Jones, 2013

leadership dot #3660: game changer

Fifty years ago today, women made great gains in accessing the developmental pipeline of organized activities with the signing of Title IX of the Federal Education Amendments. The essence of Title IX reads: “no person in the United States shall, on the basis of sex, be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any education program or activity receiving Federal financial assistance.” 

The landmark legislation’s definition doesn’t use the words female or athletics, but that is where the law has had the most visible impact. When the law went into effect, approximately 300,000 girls were high school athletes. Now, close to 3.5 million females participate in high school sports, to say nothing of the increase in collegiate athletics, the Olympics, and professional teams.

Title IX did far more for women than promote co-curricular involvement — it shaped their habits and mindset for generations to come, and in turn, changed the country. When the law went into effect, there were 2 female senators and 13 female congresswomen. Now, there are 24 female senators and 122 female congresswomen, an increase of 873%. In 1972, Katharine Graham was the only female CEO of a Fortune 500 company; now there are 44 women. Today, just in professional sports, we have a female general manager of a Major League Baseball team, executive director of the National Basketball Players Association, NBA owner, NFL referee, NFL agent, and many more women in other roles. While many factors contributed to the slow evolution, Title IX is certainly one of them.

When crafting policies or laws, it’s hard to know the long-term impact of the change you are making. While there is still a long road ahead to achieve full gender equality and acceptance beyond just male/female, today celebrate the gains that have been made thanks to the foresight to codify Title IX.

[And if you want a personal account of the impact of the legislation, may I recommend Christine Hawkinson’s book 50 Years in the Bleachers: What modern sports parents can learn from a Title IX pioneer.]

leadership dot #3659: one-of-a-kind

At the end of the Watergate 50th Anniversary coverage by the Washington Post, the moderator pointed out an odd item that had conspicuously been sitting on the table. It turned out to be the actual doorknob that was taped open in the Watergate burglary! The mechanism had been saved (miraculously!) and mounted — and eventually purchased by Washington Post/Amazon owner Jeff Bezos who loaned the artifact for the occasion.

How cool would it be to own such a unique piece of history? It got me thinking about what one-of-a-kind thing I would own if money and logistics were no problem (and assuming the item still exists). For me, maybe the “Bartlet for America” napkin from the West Wing. Others suggested the flag from Iwo Jima, the quill used to sign the Emancipation Proclamation, or Luke Skywalker’s original light saber.

Some takeaways from all this: 1) think about what you would own if you could — it’s a great reflection question that you might need to ruminate on for a while; 2) it’s also a great icebreaker question, even for people that know each other fairly well, and 3) keep the future in mind. Someone had the foresight to preserve that lock — be that someone for a piece of your organization’s or family’s history.

leadership dot #3658: distracted

As part of a workshop I attended, we participated in a group exercise where we had to plan a fundraising event. We were deciding on a location and the question arose whether it should be indoors or outdoors. “Definitely indoors,” one colleague said. “Outdoors all it takes is one gnat and you lose their attention. All the focus goes to the gnat.”

It’s so true. A friend was chilled at an outdoor concert and could only pay attention to her goosebumps instead of the music. I’ve been diverted the same way over a very itchy mosquito bite that momentarily overruled any other input, and by a developing blister that consumed my mind during my walk. And just ask Mike Pence about how much attention was paid to the fly on his hair instead of his words at the vice presidential debate!

We develop strategies to mitigate large distractions but it’s often the smallest ones that derail us. Take the details into consideration if you are hosting an event or meeting: aspirin, bandages, bug spray, tissues, etc. Keeping participants’ attention requires more than good content.