leadership dot #3675: dinnertime

I (reluctantly!) just returned from a glorious vacation in Hawaii. I’m sure several dots will reflect on my experiences there but what I noticed first is how quickly I adjusted to the time change. There is a five-hour differential, yet after the first day I was eating and sleeping as if I was a long-term resident. Dinner on the first night was at 7:30pm and felt normal, when at home this would have translated to eating at half-past midnight, hours after I am usually in bed.

The assimilation made me realize how strongly environmental cues impact us and reminded me that we need to pay attention to them when creating a culture or implementing a change. We automatically do things that align with our systems and rhythms without thought — or pushback. If we manage the signals that we send, alterations in behavior come much more naturally and soon it feels as if the “new way” is the “usual way.”

So, if you want people to change their actions, orchestrate the environment accordingly and start doing things the “new way” as soon as you are able. Make those restaurant reservations for 7:30pm and it will feel like dinnertime.

leadership dot #201a: cave days

I don’t really like the word “retreat”. It conjures up either literal images of armies retreating and being pushed back in defeat, or the more modern-day images of sitting in long meetings with flip charts posted throughout the walls. I do, however, believe in the power of going off-site and changing the environment in order to do some strategic thinking or more intentional planning.

So we call our version of deep thinking “Cave Days” — as in going away to hide in a cave to escape the daily distractions. I spent yesterday afternoon out of the office at such a Cave Day experience –clarifying the transitions and processes of new staff. The informal environment allows people to be more focused and candid and, as a result, we were able to have discussions that could have never occurred sitting around a table in a meeting setting. By dedicating a significant chunk of time to this topic, it signified the importance of it. I hope it also heightened everyone’s commitment to achieving results and then implementing them.

I encourage you to think about the key things you need to discuss and commit to a Cave Day-type environment in which to process them. Sometimes we need to alter our routine in an effort to alter our thinking — and changing when/where we broach the topic can have an immediate impact on that.

Originally published in modified form on December 19, 2012 

leadership dot #121a: civil engineering

My personal mission statement could be the same as the American Society of Civil Engineers:  “[We] conceive, design and build the infrastructure that supports our community and its economic prosperity.”

I hope that my work accomplishes what the ASCE purports as its mantra, and I think that we would be better off if most people routinely took two of its main elements to heart:

1.  “and build”  I like the concept of not just coming up with the idea, but delivering on it. This isn’t a lofty thinking exercise; ASCE gets things done. Execution is important to them, and to me.

2.  “supports our community  The work isn’t about individual gain or internal purposes; this phrase advocates thinking about the impact on others and how you can help. 

If you build in ways that support your community, we would all prosper. Building bridges of civility. Building partnerships and networks. Building alliances and friendships. Building physical buildings and tangible programs that foster economic health.

Who knew that civil engineers had so much to teach us, but I believe that they do. Engineering civil societies is a great goal for all of us.

Originally published in modified form on September 30, 2012

leadership dot #105a: dive lunches

Once each month, several of us from work eat lunch at a local establishment that is off the beaten path. We call these “dives” but others may call them Ma and Pa diners, greasy spoons, bars, or other similar terms of endearment. It started as a way for me to keep in touch with a colleague that transferred to another division at work, but it has since grown into a rotating group of a dozen or more people who have participated in one of our field trips.  

What makes our “Dive Lunch” crew special is the mix of participants. Our regulars include the president, president emeritus, a retired faculty member, a couple of the vice presidents, directors, assistant directors, faculty, and people from four of our five divisions. We have even been joined by the chair of the board of trustees when we went to a dive she recommended! It is our own mini-version of a cash mob (as most of these places literally only take cash).  
The wonder of Dive Lunches goes well beyond the food — even though we have found that to be surprisingly good. These meals instill camaraderie and build relationships that would never be fused inside a meeting room or office. There is a sense of experimentation, creativity, and risk-taking as we try places none of us have ever visited before. There is a bonding and shared experience that carries over into working partnerships.   
The next time you’re ready to head to the same old place with the same people, think about inviting someone new to go on an adventure with you. We’ve found that those who break onion rings together do projects well together!  
Originally published in a modified form on September 14, 2012

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.

leadership dot #3601: more than

I attended an appreciation dinner for people who had ushered for the university’s performing arts series. As part of the program, door prizes were drawn for students, and comments were made about how few students were working for the facility this year. The director lamented that they were only able to pay minimum wage and lost many students to Target and other retailers who were paying double that. He encouraged those students who were there to recruit their friends and hoped that next year there would be more students on staff.

Only the thing is that the room was primarily full of ushers who had volunteered to do the exact same job — for free. It was an opportunity to see the whole arts series without cost. Many ushers are couples, making their 2 hours of service a cheap payment for a lovely “date night.” And think about the hundreds of people who come to these shows and pay for the privilege of doing so.

It’s not just about the money.

It’s selling an on-campus job for its convenience, flexibility, time off during breaks, relationship to an arts or hospitality management or technical major, ability to cultivate relationships with people you will see throughout your time on campus, opportunity to learn new skills, a chance to work with friends, and a way to feel belonging and connection to the university they have chosen as their home. It’s not just the paycheck — and if that’s how it’s promoted, it’s no wonder the students are working at Target.

If you promote your next job opening strictly based on salary, you had better ensure it’s a generous one. Yes, people work for the income, but there is oh so much more to be gained from a healthy work culture. Sell that.

leadership dot #3589: gulp

A colleague just submitted a proposal for a year-long consulting arrangement. With multiple in-person visits and regular virtual connections over twelve months, it carried a hefty price tag. I suspect that the initial reaction of the client will be a gulp, but I hope that the next response is “let me think about it.”

We often provide an instantaneous “no” when something surprises us or pushes us out of our comfort zone. It’s easier to avoid the deep contemplation than it is to truly consider the opportunities the scary idea provides. We can justify our rejection with things like “it’s too expensive” or “that will never fly here” — which may be true — but they may not be.

All change provokes angst and fear at some point in the process. Of course, it’s a risk to go out on a limb to propose something audacious. And yes, it’s a gamble to invest big bucks on something new. But don’t dismiss an ambitious approach without giving serious consideration to the benefits the project could provide. Incrementalism is rarely a wise strategy.

leadership dot #3569: satisfaction

In his book The Truth About Employee Engagement, Patrick Lencioni writes that there are three root causes that will make a job miserable:

  • Anonymity — Employees need to feel that they are known as people with lives outside of work. “People who see themselves as invisible, generic, or anonymous cannot love their jobs, no matter what they are doing,” Lencioni believes.
  • Irrelevance — People must understand how the work they do makes a difference for someone else, whether that be customers, colleagues, or aiding the manager.
  • ImmeasurementIt’s Lencioni’s made-up word to mean the opposite of measurement. To achieve satisfaction, employees must be able to measure on their own what progress looks like and be able to have frequent (daily) means of assessing success.

And who is responsible for this? Gallup research confirms: “It’s the Manager.” Supervisors play such a key role in ensuring the factors that make for a negative culture are not present. They can take a bit of time to really know their employees and make those personal connections to show that they care. Supervisors can help employees articulate the impact of their work and understand the explicit connections between what they do and who benefits– beginning in the onboarding process. Employee engagement and satisfaction also increase when supervisors help employees craft a workable measurement (quantitative or qualitative) so employees are able to see when they are making a difference.

The surprising thing to me was that this book was written in 2007, long before the hiring challenges and “Great Resignation” plagued employers. Yet, addressing all three of these issues can be done without cost! Invest a bit of time on a daily basis to do the most important work of a supervisor — keeping your great people committed to the organization.

Source: The Truth About Employee Engagement: A Fable About Addressing the Three Root Causes of Job Misery by Patrick Lencioni, 2007

leadership dot #3554: brush strokes

I attended an Immersive Van Gogh experience where the works of the 19th-century painter took on a new life. Thanks to innovative technology, paintings were expanded to several stories in height, allowing participants to view them from a totally new perspective. The magnified dimensions allowed us to see the individual strokes and uneven depths of the oil paint — providing a whole new dimension to the works.

The exhibit reinforced that even masterpieces are a series of brush strokes — one after another that combine to create the finished painting. Van Gogh’s genius may have been knowing what to paint or what color to use, but he also had to function as every other painter does by applying the oil one stroke at a time.

We often focus only on the finished work and forget what is behind it. Songs are written after a few notes are paired with one thought, and then another. Buildings are constructed one board or brick at a time. Cultures are created by a series of small comments or decisions.

The next time you need to analyze something, consider it from a micro view and examine the individual components that make up the content. By seeing the brush strokes, you may learn how to create a masterpiece of your own.

leadership dot #3553: debrief

Throughout my teaching and coaching, I have learned to become much more explicit in sharing the details behind some of the actions I take. I try to provide a seamless experience for the meeting or class, but before we adjourn I take a moment to process what made the session play out as it did.

For example, after the first night of class, we talked about what I wore (knit pants and a blazer) and how it might have shifted the dynamic if I had come in wearing a professional suit and heels — or if I had left on my jeans and a baggy sweater. We also reflected on the difference it made to move the tables and chairs into a horseshoe vs. remaining in typical classroom rows. I take these things for granted, but by consciously talking about them, it helps the students understand how they can replicate the environment in their own situations.

After concluding a meeting on a sensitive topic, I shared steps I took to allow for a respectful and robust discussion to occur — setting ground rules, allowing people to express varied opinions in earlier conversations, honoring silence from some members, and keeping the conversation focused on the topic vs. digressing into more charged tangents. This taught the junior participants how to actively and intentionally facilitate tough discussions rather than leaving them to chance. When I meet with a novice coaching client I talk through such details — and they are grateful for the insight they may not have received any other way.

Consider sharing your “behind the curtain” lessons and teaching others how to intentionally shape an experience. All the feedback I’ve received says that people are hungry to learn it.