leadership dot #2254: last leg

When I was touring the Old Courthouse in St. Louis (now a museum), I came across a pile of boxes pushed off to the side of an exhibit. One was open, so, being the marketing geek that I am, I will admit that I peeked into the Federal property to see their latest National Park Service campaign.

What I found wasn’t their newest marketing efforts, rather a previous one. The thought, expense and effort that went into it were all wasted as it sat, nearly untouched, in the corner. The planners had presumably done due diligence on the front end but failed to get buy-in from those who would actually implement it.

How many times have we each been guilty of doing the same thing? Administrators create a sensible new policy but don’t share the rationale with those on the front end. Product developers create the latest new gadget without asking targeted users whether it meets their needs. Politicians enact new regulations without understanding the impact on those who must follow them.

Don’t stop short when you are doing your planning. Handing off the baton is not enough; you must stay engaged in both strategy and implementation until the finish line, not just until completing your leg of the run.


leadership dot #2253: elephant

One of my favorite landmarks in St. Louis is the Eads Bridge. Built in 1874, it is an intricate structure that was one of the first steel bridges in the United States. It is much more beautiful than the concrete giants that span the Mississippi now, and at the time it was considered revolutionary…

…but the structural stability of steel was severely doubted. No one had ever seen a bridge built in quite this fashion and there were predictions that it would fall into the river when the first load of cargo crossed it.

To allay his detractors, designer and builder James Eads staged an elaborate grand opening where 14 locomotives and a real elephant crossed the bridge first. Not only did they make it safely, but the bridge is still operational today, almost 150 years later.

Eads could have performed stress tests or shared loads of data with the public, but nothing would have made the same impression that a live elephant did. While an elephant actually “only” weighs about 10,000 pounds, it is perceived as a giant. The elephant was the visual that made the safety real.


The next time you need to convince doubters or establish credibility for one of your projects, don’t forget about the elephant. The impact of visuals stomps all over the impact of data any day.

leadership dot #2252: parkway

The Gateway Arch (now the Gateway Arch National Park and not just a National Monument!) recently received a $380 million renovation to the interior, infrastructure and grounds. I was quite impressed with the outcome of the whole project, but my favorite part was that they hid the nearby interstate.

I-44 runs through St. Louis and crosses very close to the Arch grounds. Previously, the pedestrian crossing was treacherous, and the magnificent Arch was disconnected from the heart of the city. You can’t really realize the grandeur of the Arch unless you are right next to its imposing size, and thousands of visitors to the Cardinals stadium, convention center, etc. never made it that close. Now, the Arch grounds seamlessly flow into a park that connects with the Old Courthouse (another monument and the site of the Dred Scott trial) and not just allows but invites, people to walk closer. Hooray!

The park renovation could have focused solely on the building and inside elements, but someone wisely dedicated resources to the exterior as well. Take a look around your building. Do you have the equivalent of a functional yet unwieldy crossing? Are you sending mixed signals to your clients that simultaneously indicate welcoming and aloofness? Should you create your own version of a parkway to create cohesion of your overall story? The physical environment around your organization sets the tone and is a legitimate part of your brand story. Don’t focus just on the forest and forget about the trees.

Interstate 44 is directly behind these trees — but you can’t see it or even hear it now

leadership dot #2251: bedrock

One of the displays at the Arch highlighted that “hundreds of lightning bolts strike the Arch each year.” Instead of that causing a problem, engineers planned for such occurrences and attached a series of lightning rods on the top of the Arch and grounded them in bedrock so no adverse effects were created by the storms.

What is the equivalent of lightning in your organization? Maybe you need to create “lightning rods” to absorb seasonal fluctuations in revenue. Perhaps your lightning takes the form of unexpected transportation delays and you need to have alternatives on standby. Or your lightning could come from external policy proposals that require you to have good community connections as shock absorbers.

Just as lightning frequently strikes the Arch, the atmosphere of your organization will be hit with random disruptive shocks. Best to place your lightning rods into your bedrock in advance.

leadership dot #2250: sensory

The Museum of Westward Expansion that is underneath the Gateway Arch was totally redone as part of the park’s renovation. Even though the subject matter did not change, there were no new artifacts to add to the collection and the location was still the same, it was a striking example of how much museums have improved in the last few decades. The museum has become a sensory experience for everyone, not just those able to read.

All throughout the museum, there are aids to make the visit interactive and tactile. An “orientation hub” provides a scale model so that people can get their bearings and blind visitors can feel the size and shape of the layout. (For example, to help illustrate the massiveness of the Arch, a school bus is scaled next to it.) Exhibits have models where air puffs come out to allow the visually impaired to follow along with what is being described. Sound recordings bring interviews and displays to life. Braille and large print text flyers are provided in each area. Music, sounds of the river and other audio enhancements fill the area. A scale model of a boat allows visitors to climb in it and have their picture taken as if on Lewis and Clark’s journey.

Think of what you can do to make your office space or organization’s environment into a sensory experience. Can you add audio from your leadership instead of just a 2D photo or bring your strategic plan to life by having the leader describe in on a video clip that shows in your lobby? Maybe you could add dimensional visuals that orient your visitors to the whole campus or complex. Or perhaps could you develop a recording of sounds that are intentional for your space instead of generic.

Go beyond accommodation and embrace sensory enhancements that bring your organization to life for everyone.

leadership dot #2249: axed

I have seen a lot of unusual team-building activities in my day, but this was a new one to me: axe-throwing seems to be an actual thing! In little areas reminiscent of batting cages, participants throw an honest-to-goodness real axe at the wall in hopes of hitting near a target (and not the person throwing next to them!).

When I saw the first facility, I thought it was a fluke, but there were at least two locations in downtown St. Louis that offer the experience. It is billed as a “corporate team-builder” although I can see many subliminal emotions that could be expressed by people’s inner Paul Bunyan.

When you are choosing a team builder for your organization, take into account the temperament and characteristics of those in your group. Some may love the physical challenge of axe throwing, while others may be more suited to the mental stimulation of an escape room or scavenger hunt. It’s one thing to take your team outside its comfort level and another push the boundaries so far that it does more harm than good. Assess whether you would want to ax this activity for your organization or determine that it could be ax-actly what your team needs!

leadership dot #2248: rangers

The Gateway Arch grounds cover 192 acres, making it difficult for the Park Rangers to be visible and present at all times. To help expand their presence, the National Park Service instituted a Bark Ranger program where trained volunteers and their canine companions can walk the grounds provide service and observations when the official Rangers are unavailable. At the Arch, Bark Rangers monitor the ground and answer questions for tourists. At Glacier National Park, the Bark Rangers keep visitors away from the goats!

Apparently, many downtown residents routinely walk their dogs throughout the park, and this is an ingenious way to capitalize on their willingness to be a resource. For the price of a bandana and t-shirt, the Park Service unleashed dedicated fans to help them. Who is using your service already that you could more formally deploy to assist your organization?

leadership dot #2247: technically

There are rules, and then there are ways to get around the rules. In Missouri, all casinos must float on the Mississippi or Missouri rivers. The original regulation envisioned “riverboat gambling” but did not require the boat to be operational. This led to floating casinos – either on boats or barges — that are literally on water but are anchored to the riverbank and essentially function as permanent land structures.

But Lumiere Place Casino pushed the letter of the law to the limit. This gaming facility is located 1,000 feet inland and was built on a foundation that floats in a man-made moat. Water is pumped in from the Mississippi River, satisfying the requirement to be located on the river, but the “river” is purified river water in a surrounding basin. The net effect is that the casino is a stable structure, several blocks away from the water, but technically legal.

I’m not advocating that you always test the boundaries to this degree, but it is more likely that you give in too easily. The next time you are thwarted by a rule or regulation, think about Lumiere Place. If they could build a floating barge on a moat and make it happen, maybe there is a way for you to avert your barrier as well.

leadership dot #2244: pocket of greatness

At the supervision workshop, we received some questions about how to implement the strategies we discussed when their boss wasn’t a great supervisor, when others had lower standards than we were suggesting or when the previous supervisor had not established expectations. My answer: “pocket of greatness.”

It is a term used by Jim Collins in the uber-influential book Good to Great and the accompanying Good to Great and the Social Sectors. Collins writes that “It might take decades to change the entire systemic context, and you might be retired or dead by the time those changes come. In the meantime, what are you going to do now?” He goes on to write: “Every institution has its unique set of irrational and difficult constraints, yet some make a leap while others facing the same environmental challenges do not….Greatness is not a function of circumstance. Greatness, it turns out, is largely a matter of conscious choice, and discipline.”*

To all the aspiring superstar supervisors we had in the workshop – and to all the readers of this dot – I would urge you to heed Collins’ advice and focus on what you CAN do and start there. You can have a great department, even if the rest of the organization is dysfunctional. You can become an influential boss, even if yours isn’t. You can change lives, even if you are the only one doing so.

We often become overwhelmed thinking about how big the problem is when we would be better off focusing on the small steps we can take to make things even a tiny bit better. Consciously choose to start today toward creating your own pocket of greatness.

*p. 30-31 Good to Great and the Social Sectors – A Monograph to Accompany Good to Great by Jim Collins, 2005

leadership dot #2243: supervision

I recently had the privilege of co-facilitating a workshop specifically targeted at new supervisors. One of the things I love about those new to supervision is that they genuinely want to do the right thing but just have not received training on what that is. Sure, everyone had examples of good bosses to emulate and bad bosses to model the opposite behavior, but few had been given the opportunity to learn supervision in a formal way instead of via trial and error.

I wonder why that is. There is a host of research that indicates the front-line manager (supervisor) is the key factor in employee retention and departmental productivity, yet organizations routinely promote people with no supervisory experience and expect them to be successful at this key new component of their job.

Because organizations provide so little formal training, those new to supervision sometimes assume that there is a checklist or quick list of actions to take to make them competent in this role. What we tried to teach was that there is no cookie-cutter method to becoming a Superstar Supervisor; that it is as much about diligence and resilience as anything else, and that the STAR framework can serve as a guiding principle to frame behaviors and prioritize supervisory actions.

We attempted to carry the “SuperSTAR” theme throughout the workshop, and on the first day ordered “star-shaped pretzels” as our snack. What we received only loosely resembled a star and lovingly became known as the “octopus pretzels”! On day 2, we fared better, and our star-shaped donut actually looked like the intended design.

I think supervision is a lot like our snack offerings. You can be a supervisor in title only – just as the pretzels were minimally star-shaped, or you can actually learn to be impressive in that role as the giant star donuts were. You choose the amount effort you are willing to invest in the right resources to get you there.