October 28, 2009
The latest cover of Wired (17.11) magazine shouts FEAR in bold letters (cover article is about vaccination fear) and a popular writer (Rabbi Kushner) just published his latest book, Conquering Fear, and even my favorite blogger (Seth Godin) is blogging about fear. Seth reminds us that news inherently amplifies the emotional, flaming fear. Seth also reminds us that we live in a choice rich world causing us to fear our own decision-making. Purveyors of fear then are all around us, yet we must master our fears to live healthy satisfying lives.
When I was out running the morning that the news reported that the body of Somer Thompson had been found in a nearby garbage dump (7-year-old Florida girl that was abducted and murdered), my mind wandered to those tidbits. During that moment, I was suddenly seized with fear from an old, yet vivid memory of a stranger asking me if I wanted a ride in his car when I was about 10-years-old.
I remember being very frightened at the time, yet knowing that I needed to show calm. That stranger had tricked me into talking to him by playing to my insecurity of being a tomboy – he asked, “are you a boy or a girl?” I was indignant to the question and immediately asserted that I was a girl, quickly realizing that it was an unsafe conversation. When he asked if I wanted to ride in his car, I told him that my mother was waiting for me because we were making cookies (yet it was only myself making cookies since my mother was at work). Following my attempt at a polite excuse, I leapt onto my bike, clutching the small bag containing the vanilla extract that I had purchased, and escaped as fast as I could the back route to home.
I’ll never know if the situation was actually benign, but I was afraid then, and the memory drove a surge of adrenaline as I ran for exercise last week. My pace and breathing quickening and the fear I felt was as real as if I had been ten again. The fear passed quickly and I was again relieved that I was safe. Mostly, I was surprised at the intensity at which it momentarily enveloped me. As Rabbi Kushner notes in his book, “there is nothing that reaches us more deeply into our souls than the experience of facing danger and being spared.” Yet we must be outraged deeply in our souls too by the unfairness and tragedy of those like Somer and her family, who were not spared.
When Robin Roberts of Good Morning America was interviewing the mother of Somer Thompson, who, like my mother was at work at the time of the incident, said to her, “You cannot blame yourself,” I deeply concurred. She must not blame herself rather she must blame the perpetrator. With the randomness of terror like this, Somer and her family are simply tragic victims who deserve our compassion; it could have been any of us. My long view advice:
- We must stay calm in the face of adversity.
- We must not isolate ourselves and/or change our behavior because of intimidation.
- We should be alert but not frightened, vigilant but not paranoid (Kushner, p.39)
- We must act decisively when faced with daunting complexity based upon the information that we have.
- We must accept the knowledge that we must make choices and not second-guess our decisions based upon the information that we had in the moment.
Being the anxious perfectionist that I am, taking this advice is hard even for me, but I desire to live in a world where I am not afraid. Do you?
October 19, 2009
Someone once told me that the most powerful person in an organization is the receptionist. Although it may not be entirely true, there is a kernel of wisdom in that advice, because the receptionist touches everyone that comes through the door of a business. The process of touching allows the receptionist to develop a sense of order about vendors, staff, and clients, allowing her to come to understand the underlying structure of the organization and be able to successfully assess and courteously triage access to executives and other staff.
I recently ran across a director-level staff person not yet ready to relinquish known workarounds and seize the opportunity to transform his work by touching data flows (such as cleaning up a client database). The rationalizations were typical, “I’m too busy” and “Maybe we could hire someone else to do that?,” failing to recognize the long-term benefits of gathering information oneself and understand the underlying limitations.
I was saddened by emphasis on the short-term urgencies and the limited investment in the important (long-term) that I observed, but this was a case where I did not actually have any influence. Because I care about the organization, I asked too many questions, so my advice to self is to stop asking such questions, but I digress…
When I look at situations like this one, I recognize that organic learning is often required, because organizations tend to grow organically – they fail to document along the way, they fail to create processes for review and archiving (until it is a crisis), and they allow single person specialists to emerge (that can leave with the organizational history). Yet it is important (and tedious) to gather, consolidate, or validate information when trying to move an organization to an improved future. The hard news is that such work often requires tedium and/or assimilating the unknown. The good news is that the most valued people in every organization are the people who learn, think, and transform by doing this. As such, my long view advice:
- Seize the opportunity to touch key data flows and learn the limitations of the current system.
- Spend time on the important (learn, think, transform) even when your schedule is filled with urgencies.
- Do not be above tediousness; participate in the tedium and gain appreciation for the efforts of others who complete tedious work regularly.
Are you touching important data flows, learning from them, and creating transformation?
October 16, 2009
I received a personal note from a friend who attended graduate school with me. She commented on the topic of my blog post Incongruence, noting that in her professional life in a foreign country, she finds little congruent or predictable yet she finds success. In fact, she specifically said that she has had to “adapt from my sort of square, orderly, American way of thinking and doing things (so I have been told) to the go-with-the-flow / be-ready-to-switch-gears-next-week way of doing things in the foreign environment. To my surprise, both methods can lead to successful ventures.”
I am glad she wrote because it offers me an opportunity to clarify my mixed message observation. I described the incongruence of mixed messages through the generalization of the broad communication problem of not everyone having the same priorities. However, in the specific example I cited, although the small biotech’s message was mixed (incongruent), it was really their failure to communicate that I found disagreeable.
I agree with my friend that being nimble and adaptable are important business success factors because all businesses are subject to shifting priorities due to changing environments and new information. What I challenge is the extension to the person. Once a personal relationship has been forged in the name of business, a commitment to get back to someone is never relieved by a changing business landscape. The message might change and/or an assistant might deliver it, but a commitment to communicate persists once a relationship exists because it is the relationship that carries trust, credibility, and honor.
It might seem easier to dismiss and excuse, “its just business,” rather than take responsibility to communicate when inconvenient, when the message will be difficult, or when anonymous (no one is looking). Yet the long view position requires that we dignify human interactions with the minimalist “do unto others as you would have them do unto you.”
Done consistently, cumulative nurturing of personal respect cultivates and amplifies trust, loyalty, credibility, and honor (long view attributes). This is part of congruence.
Do you communicate consistently in your business relationships?
October 10, 2009
I was recently involved in a recruitment dance at a small biotech ready for manufacturing scale-up. The organization had some very interesting and valuable technology and was looking for someone with mastery in manufacturing scale-up (me). Initial impressions suggested an excellent match to my skills, interests, and passion.
I talked to the organization a few times over the course of several months. Although I was in no hurry to find my next full-time professional adventure, I was delighted to be considered for the position and was eager to get traction if there was to be a successful match. At my last meeting, I met with a recently hired executive that assessed my ability to fit into a start-up culture. He emphasized and reiterated the urgency of the scale-up effort, suggesting only weeks remained before a crucial deadline. How would I handle that pressure? I answered his questions truthfully: I am not a miracle worker, but I am extremely competent with a track record of success even under crisis conditions. He thanked me for my time and promised to get back to me by end-of-day and no later than end-of week. A week came and went and there was no follow-up, so I sent a brief email requesting an update. What followed was a series of emails trying to set a time for a phone call. By the third email, it was quite apparent that my candidacy for the position was not a priority.
Although I am confident that I could have helped them technically, I finally realized that I was not a culture fit for their organization because I was frustrated that their actions were incongruent with their words. How could they claim excessive urgency for technical scale-up deadlines yet be so delayed in getting back to candidates necessary to meet the deadline? This example, was one of several examples of inconsistency that could be rationalized singly, but together created a sense of pervasiveness.
This journey got me to thinking deeply about the importance of congruence and consistency. I began to notice it everywhere. In fact, I categorize three broad types of incongruence:
- Harmless/Intentional Incongruence that is part of comedy. In this context, incongruence works because it is intentionally funny. An example is the intentional incongruent dialogue and props in the performance of Monty Python’s Spamalot. Similarly, my accompanying photos are funny because they are incongruent.
- Annoying/Incomplete Design Incongruence that is an omission of an overall review of the customer experience. An example is the mixed use of manual and sensor-based equipment in the ladies’ restroom at my local mall. The toilets flush by sensor, the soap is dispensed by sensor, and the towels are provided by sensor. However, the water is delivered from the faucet by turning the knob. I no longer recall how many times I (and others) have felt like an idiot waving my hands under the faucet trying to make the water come out then realizing that I need to turn the handle! This situation is just an annoying omission, no one really thought about how a customer would experience the facility after several sensors have been presented – we expect sensors for all interactions.
- Damaging/Short View Incongruence that results from mixed messages. An example was my opening story.
Congruence is an important long view attribute because it creates predictability, reduces uncertainty, and increases credibility – people know what to expect and how to behave. My long view advice:
- Create priorities and communicate them profusely.
- Strive for consistency and congruence in your messages (story) and be aware of the potential for misunderstanding.
- Be intentional with your actions; actions speak louder than words.
It was emotionally hard to call and decline the technical opportunity with that small biotech because I had already imagined success on their behalf and I felt invested. However, because I sell process confidence* (requires congruence), I declined the opportunity. I wish them a successful future and I will keep looking for the right fit for my next adventure!
*Note: see my superpower statement at Entrepreneurial Athleticism
Does your story match your actions/behaviors?