leadership dot #4010: thoughtfulness

I have written before about David Ambler’s Guidelines for Working with Students (dot #1362) and frequently reference his ten points as ideals that apply to everyone. One of my colleagues agrees, and in preparation for him to share the Guidelines with his staff, I dug out the letter that David Ambler sent me almost 25 years ago.

I had been using the Guidelines for many years — with attribution, but without a backstory. Then, a former staff member took a new job that happened to be in Ambler’s division. When the dots connected, I wrote Mr. Ambler a note thanking him for his work and sent a copy of The Alchemist book as de facto royalties for my usage. I received a thoughtful letter in reply that shared the context for his writing and his original version of the guidelines that had been modified through the years. He also praised my mentoring of his new team member and was sure to copy her in the correspondence.

Re-reading this letter — on real letterhead via US mail — I think of how much more meaningful it is than a quick email zipped off to someone. This letter took thought to craft for a total stranger who required no reply, and yet he took the time to respond to me, praise his staff member, and provide context that made the Guidelines even more impactful for the hundreds of people I have shared them with.

Now there are eleven guidelines to learn from David Ambler — his initial ten, plus the value of intentional, thoughtful correspondence. Decades later, his lessons remain powerful.

leadership dot #4009: health

Yesterday (dot #4008), I wrote about taking advantage of existing distribution systems rather than creating new ones. That seems to be the operating principle for Amazon, which is now branching out to Amazon Health and Amazon Pharmacy. I guess they are taking “A to Z” literally.

On one hand, it makes sense to utilize the complex distribution system that spans from ordering to delivery stations, even though transporting restricted substances is much different than leaving a book on someone’s doorstep. Delivering a service — including in-person primary care and 24/7 virtual care — is also a big leap from transporting commodities.

Amazon is large enough to absorb any missteps or risks, and big enough to invest the capital required to begin two new enterprises. But for most of us, staying closer to our core may be the path to a healthy organization.

leadership dot #4008: seed balls

This week, 60,000 riders started the 500-mile route to participate in the Register’s Annual Great Bike Ride Across Iowa (RAGBRAI) While they were pedaling, many riders were also helping nature by tossing 8,000 seed balls* onto roadsides to increase the growth of milkweed.

Much of the native milkweed habitat has been destroyed, so to replenish it, Milkweed Matters hosts educational events where participants from schools, scouts, garden clubs, etc. help roll seed balls, and then it works with large-scale bike events like RAGBRAI to encourage riders to distribute them along the roadsides.

Milkweed Matters has developed a wonderful distribution system that integrates education, volunteers, and existing events to fulfill its mission. They serve as the conduit but allow others to execute their work. Take a lesson from them and capitalize on infrastructure that can be scaled, rather than starting from scratch. Little seeds of collaboration can grow into greatness.

[*Seed balls consist of soil and clay, rolled together like a meatball with milkweed seed and nectar flower seed added to the mix. It’s important to grow milkweed for Monarch butterflies which can only lay eggs on that plant, and it is the only plant its caterpillars can eat.]

leadership dot #4007: meeting popcorn

One of the tricks to running an effective meeting is to control the “conversational popcorn” that seems to frequently creep into gatherings. Popcorn is when people interject topics outside of the agenda (or ignore that they are on the agenda later). The discussion bounces from one topic to another — making it hard to come to a resolution about one thing before moving on to the next.

As a convener, I’d much rather have spirited members who want to contribute their thoughts and ideas, rather than have the proverbial crickets of silence, but sometimes that passion plays out as popcorn and actually detracts from the message. Others become frustrated and tune out to what the enthusiast is trying to convey because of the off-topic manner in which they are saying it.

If you’re leading the meeting, try mightily to limit the amount of popcorn that takes you down rabbit holes or diverts you from the original business at hand. Utilize a “parking lot” to capture the topic for later, or firmly bring the group back to the agenda. And if you’re a meeting participant, be conscious of the time and place where you speak up. Save the popcorn for the movie theater.

leadership dot #4006: innovators

I’m reading a fascinating book, The Innovators, by Walter Isaacson. In addition to describing the evolution of the digital revolution, the book focuses on the innovators themselves and the societal impacts that led to (or detracted from) the development of technology.

Today’s nugget was about the Alto computer — an early prototype of what came to be the personal computer. It was developed at Xerox’s Palo Alto Research Center (PARC), specifically designed for innovation apart from the bureaucracy of headquarters in New York. The brilliant scientists and engineers at PARC did exactly what they were assembled to do, but Xerox corporate managers were not ready to embrace change at the rate it was occurring.

At a corporate conference, there was a display of Altos for attendees to have hands-on experience with the amazing new machines. The all-male executives were uninterested in experimenting with the Alto, but their accompanying wives embraced the machines and began playing with them as intended. “The men thought it was beneath them to know how to type. It was something secretaries did. So they didn’t take the Alto seriously, thinking that only women would like it,” said PARC director Bob Taylor. Because of this narrow mindset, Xerox failed to capitalize on the inventions of its scientists and fumbled the opportunity to be a financial and global leader in the billion-dollar personal computer industry.

Think about your comfort with change. Are you like the Xerox leaders who say they want change — even fund an expensive research park specifically to promote it — but then revert to old habits and fail to take risks when change is presented? Or are you like the male executives who see only one application for something and are unable to consider new possibilities and audiences? Or (hopefully) are you like the wives who could see potential and were anxious to experiment and learn?

As Isaacson points out, being an innovator goes beyond just having good ideas. Push through the discomfort of change to truly embrace innovation in all of its glorious, messy forms.

The Innovators: How a Group of Hackers, Geniuses, and Geeks Created the Digital Revolution by Walter Isaacson, 2014

leadership dot #4005: canceled

I just spent time putting together the agenda for a committee meeting tomorrow — and noticed that it looked remarkably similar to the one this group had last week. So, I canceled the meeting. If we’re just in the “updates-on-the-project” stage of our work, there is no need to gather in person to do that.

Too many times, we meet because there is a meeting scheduled on the calendar. Doing agendas in advance is a good way to prevent meeting “just because.” If there isn’t meat on the bones, do yourself and everyone else a favor and hit the delete button.

Time is the most valuable commodity. If there isn’t a compelling need that warrants in-person interactions or decisions, don’t hold a meeting and instead, do updates by email/Teams/Slack, etc. Save your convenings for work that truly matters.

leadership dot #4004: it’s you

One of the myths of management is that you will always have others to do things for you. In reality, there are many times as a leader when you come to the undeniable realization that the task falls to you.

Usually, these tasks are either unpleasant or unremarkable. My friend who is the de facto project manager on a new building (dot #3996) remarked that it fell to him to determine what trash cans would be located throughout the building: the types, locations, and attention to their consistency so a limited number of different bags would be required. I’ve been in situations where a committee was charged with a task where I thought the chair was the one to make the planning decisions — but instead referred the vendor to me as the point of contact. In many leadership roles, the burden of getting things done sits at the head of the table.

I am reminded of the young organizers’ adage in the civil rights movement: “If not me, who? If not now, when?” If you are responsible for a committee or unit, you have to be the one.

leadership dot #4003: micro

I know dogs are part of the family — but apparently, they are part of many weddings too. Petsmart has an entire display of “attire” and dog toys to celebrate owners’ nuptials.

The store also has a full line of birthday treats and accessories — special leashes and collars for the pet celebrating its special day. While I love my dogs and buy them a bigger-than-usual treat for their birthdays and “gotcha days,” I stop short of attire and other adornments. It all seems to be a bit over the top, but there must be enough of a potential audience to develop new product lines.

While you may not buy a tuxedo or special collar for your bestie, you can emulate the concept and think micro about your audience niches. Toast to that with some Bark & Bubbles champagne!

leadership dot #4002: explicitly

The ReStore (dot #4001) keeps tons of material out of the landfill, and that alone would merit applause. But the store goes one step further and helps people think creatively about new uses for broken products.

Throughout the store, there are pictures to stimulate people to think of how they may repurpose something in a new way. For example, a broken chair can become a plant shelf. A broken rake can hold fruits for birds. Old buckets can be creatively hung as planters. I’m sure that Pinterest or other sites have many ideas for upscaling or repurposing but the Restore makes it easy for customers to visualize items’ potential in the moment.

It’s best not to rely on others to connect the dots. Take that extra step to explicitly make the connection and facilitate the next steps.

leadership dot #4001: weigh

I wrote yesterday (dot #4000) about the importance of recording cumulative steps on a project, and an organization that exemplifies this is the local ReStore. Sponsored by Habitat for Humanity, it accepts donations of unneeded appliances, housewares, building supplies, doors, windows, furnishings, plumbing, and hardware — all for resale to benefit Habitat building projects.

Before the ReStore sells these items, it weighs them. Last month they kept 4.4 tons out of the landfill — and they tell me that it was a slow month!

By weighing all their goods, they are able to document (and use for grant purposes) the impact that they are having on the environment and community. It may have been easier for them to say we accepted X donations or sold $X of goods, but weight is a much more powerful indicator of success.

Think about what your critical number is and find a way to track it, even if it requires effort on your part to do so. The right data has power.

ReStore, 4949 Chavenelle Road, Dubuque