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Managing Creative People in 2014

ImageRecently I was talking to a client who was struggling with a member of his staff who works in a creative capacity. He said that his staff person does outstanding work, but that she gets easily frustrated by deadlines and takes feedback very personally. As a highly creative person myself, this really struck a chord with me.

To this day, I still often have a visceral and emotional reaction when a new project comes up with a tight timeline. My instinctual reaction is IMPOSSIBLE, CAN’T BE DONE, WHY THE RUSH??? DON’T THEY KNOW THAT CREATIVITY TAKES TIME??

What I have realized over the course of my career, however is how to manage that reaction and make it work for me. Sometimes a tight deadline can help spur my creativity if I am allowed the kind of space I need to generate and work the way that works best for me. Sitting at my desk and slaving over my computer does not work, especially under a tight timeline. I need to get up and move, go for a walk or go sit in nature at a local park or just do something away from the office. I take a notepad and just let my mind wander as I walk or sit in nature. I almost always come away from this time with a plan of attack and the boost of energy I need to get it done.

If you manage a creative person, especially in our instant-gratification, highly stimulating culture, try to find out how s/he works best under pressure and make sure s/he knows s/he has permission to do those things if they help her/him to center and produce with less stress. Maybe s/he needs to let off steam at the gym or draw or paint to get her/his right brain going and turn off the critical noise of the left brain. Many traditional work places don’t look too kindly on that, but as a manager, if you can encourage your creative folks to work the way that works best for them, under consideration of the time pressures and deliverables that are a reality of the job, that might help them relax a bit.

Early in my career, I was also very attached to each of my ideas, and really connected my identity and personal validity to them. Any time someone would give me feedback (critcism) or input (criticism) about my ideas, I would take it as a personal slight (criticism) and throw a tantrum inside my head. Sometimes, I would even go back to my desk and cry because I took the input so personally. I’m sure this came out as immature sometimes, but it’s also a sign of passion…which is way better than ambivalence. If you have managed and tried to motivate a creative person who was also ambivalent, you know that you would MUCH rather deal with one that was passionate! Sometimes creativitiy can come out as attitude (superiority) or criticalness, but it’s usually based on the desire for perfection or doing things in a unique way. Being excellent and also different from everyone else is a hallmark of the creative thinker. This can be a blessing and a curse for the creative person and his/her boss.
 
As I matured and began to understand the way the world works and the benefits of compromise, even if I didn’t love or agree with the direction, I found that for some things “good enough” really was good enough. But first, I had to get over my perfectionistic judging and feeling that I was copping out or selling myself short by “just” doing work that was good enough. I also found that allowing some things just to be good enough helped me save up my creative juices for the projects that gave me time and space and energy to really give it my creative all. It’s easy to burn out as a creative person because you want to be ON and GREAT and SPECIAL all the time.
 
By saving it up and channeling it in a productive, non-resistant way, you can be good and do good quality work most of the time and really GREAT and SUPER SPECIAL work when it counts the most. As a manager, learning to balance your expectations and those of your creative team members can help you know when to encourage simple, quality work that is good enough to meet your objectives and when to push and allow space for something great and special to blossom.

Happy New Year!

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Put It All on the Table: Establishing Priorities and Staying Productive in Uncertain Times

We live in an environment of constant change. Those of us who work with or for the government have been through furloughs, budget cuts and now the government shutdown.  While none of these are within our control (and largely because they are not within our control), they have many feeling apprehensive about how to perform their duties amidst shrinking resources and continuing uncertainty.

It’s only natural for people to feel overwhelmed and stressed during uncertain times like we are facing now.  Sometimes, the pace of change, the uncertain future and the perception that much of what is happening is out of people’s control can cause “change fatigue”, impacting people’s energy, attention, focus, attitudes and productivity.  Despite all of that, there is important work that needs to be done.

During uncertain times, it helps for teams to get together and revisit, review and redefine their circles of influence. Identifying what is under your control and clarifying what the highest priorities are given the current situation often helps people find their balance.

This is an exercise based on a diagnostic model I created as part of the NTL Organization Development Certificate Program that leaders can do with their teams, either using an outside facilitator or on their own if they feel comfortable doing so, to help everyone voice the pressures they are feeling around the work that needs to get done and prioritize those things that are most necessary to address now. It can also help teams feel prepared and create contingencies plans in case another event disrupts daily work.

Put It All on the Table:Table1

Draw a table on a flip chart or whiteboard. Then begin the facilitated discussion below. (You can also just tell the group that the flip chart paper represents a table and not have to draw one.)

Ask: What pressures are you feeling about the work you need to get done right now?

  • Write them down on sticky notes. One per note.
  • Put them on the table.
  • Depending on time, have everyone at least talk about one thing (biggest stressor) they put on the table.

Ask: Where do those pressures come from?

  • Outside the organization (give examples)
    • Government leaders
    • Economic pressures
    • Customers/public
  • Inside the organization (give examples)
    • Budget concerns
    • Leadership or team issues
    • Constant changes
  • Have the group move the stickies into outside and inside lists – outside on the left side of the table, inside on the right.

Ask: What can we do something about now? Or, what needs to be addressed now?

  • Have the team identify those items and keep those on the table.
    • Ask: Are any of these similar or is there overlap? Can any be combined?
    • Narrow down the number as much as you can, but don’t lose the integrity of the content. Make sure the person whose sticky you are removing, editing or combining with another is in agreement.
  • Put the others aside for now.

Make a list of those still on the table on another flip chart.

  • Ask: Of the items on this list, what is MOST important?  
    • Have people vote with dots on the top 3-5 priorities (depending on how many things are on the table).
  • For the issues receiving the most votes discuss WHY they should be priorities.
    • Ask: What will solving/resolving/addressing these issues get us?

Ask: What do we need to get these important items done?Table3

  • These are the legs that hold the table up, that keep it stable and balanced.
    • Strategy/Goals
    • Leadership/Accountability
    • Resources (People/Money/Tools/Time)
    • Structures/Plans/Processes
  • Ask: What else? What’s missing?
  • Go over these for each priority.
    • Make sure each priority has at least a leader and a goal established. The leader will be responsible for follow-up work after this session.

Questions

  • How do we know these are the right priorities?
  • How can we work together to make sure our priorities get done?
  • What can we do to prepare for another change/shutdown/furlough, etc.?
  • Is there anything we need above all else to keep our table from collapsing under the pressure or buckling in the middle?
  • What will we do with the pile  we took off the table?
  • Is there anything we hide under the table, or anything that is stuck there like a piece of old gum that we need to address to move forward with the priorities we identified??
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Shut Down by the Shutdown

I returned to the office today after more than two weeks of undeserved, unpaid vacation, courtesy of the US Federal Government. As a contract worker, I will not be getting back pay for the time off, as my government counterparts will. And yes, I’m bitter. Many of us are.

But it’s more than the loss of income. I wasn’t just financially shut down. For the large majority of those long weeks, I was also mentally and emotionally shut down…I pretty much still am, as are most of my co-workers and team members. All the good work we had been doing, the momentum we had gained with our clients, the progress we were making, all of that stopped – and was forever changed – by this event. Worst of all, we are facing the same fate in another 90 days. And for what?

The thing many of those who inflicted this situation on us don’t seem to understand is the high cost of ambiguity, chaos and distrust and the ripple effect these will have on the system for a very long time to come. Many leaders are touting that it’s back to business as usual now that they have “flipped the switch” and brought everyone back. As if we can just magically emotionally erase all that happened and go back to things just as they were before all of this happened. Here’s a clue: we can’t.

Hell, I don’t even remember what was I was doing before all of this happened. It has had a dramatic and traumatic effect, and it will continue to do so, especially as the threat of a repeat performance continues to dance in our heads. Losing my income was one thing. Losing my optimism, positivity and trust…well, that’s something else all together.

For those who don’t care about that, who live in a world where emotions shouldn’t impact a person’s work, consider this: Disengaged employees — those who don’t trust their employer or are unsure about their fate on the job — don’t try as hard because they don’t see the point, they don’t feel valued or they don’t feel safe. Why spend the energy when it’s all going to go up in smoke again? Gallup has estimated that employee disengagement costs the overall US economy as much as $350 billion every year.

I wonder what that number would look like right now for those of us who serve the US Government…? My guess is that the country will lose more in disengagement costs than it is paying out in back pay for those furloughed federal workers who returned to the job this week. Just a guess…

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Leadership: Duty or Priviledge?

This morning, as I walked the dog, I drafted several posts in my head. The first was an angry, Lewis Black inspired rant full of venom and curse words, well…one curse word in particular in several clever and colorful variations. The second was a sad attempt at an appeal to reason.

I settled on this one, because I hoped that it might inspire something in someone somewhere who might at some point be in a position to do something about anything. I know that’s a somewhat vague hope, but at the moment all I have is somewhat vague hope myself. I have a feeling this will not be as eloquent as it could be. I am still awash in emotion and struggling to express myself. But I’ll give it a try.

As I thought about the situation we find ourselves in here in the US today, with our government shutdown based on the inability of our leaders to compromise, I couldn’t help but recall the statement of an old friend:

THOSE WHO DESIRE POSITIONS OF LEADERSHIP OR POWER SHOULD SEE THESE POSITIONS AS A DUTY AND NOT A PRIVILEGE.

It seems to me that the idea of leadership as a duty has been lost in our culture, both in our nation’s government and in many organizations and companies as well. In my experience, too often, those who seek positions of leadership do so not out of the desire to serve and support others but out of the ego-driven desire to achieve status, delegate rather than take responsibility and/or based on the belief that leadership means taking advantage of the privileges without assuming any of the burden associated with doing the work.

I have seen people who I thought would be wonderful, responsible. collaborative leaders because they were wonderful, responsible, collaborative workers change into ego-centric, flippant, lazy divas the moment they were promoted into a position of greater authority.  Heck, I have seen this happen even with folks’ whose jobs didn’t change, but their titles did. It’s sad.

Perhaps some will argue that those who are causing the disruption in our government today are doing so out of a sense of duty, but I disagree. Those working out of a sense of duty would not gladly continue to collect their pay while thousands of those who work under them go without. Those working out of a sense of duty would not put the values of the few over the good of the many. Those working out of a sense of duty would buckle down, break a sweat, tell the truth and do what is best for the whole, and support the values of the system despite their personal feelings.

We have a system in breakdown. And unfortunately, I don’t see it getting better before it gets worse. All I ask, for those who choose to lead, is that you do your duty…that in and of itself should be a privilege.

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Re-eVALUE-ating

The first time I did any work with my personal values was in 2007, as part of an organizational leadership 360 assessment process and organization development effort conducted by a consultant certified in the Barrett Values Centre Culture Transformation Tools (a tool I eventually received my certification in as well.) The process opened my eyes to the power of discussing values on a personal and organizational level.

As part of that assessment, I had to identify my top 10 most closely held values. This was the list I came up with at the time (in no particular order):

• creativity
• humor/fun
• supportive
• reliable
• openness
• listener
• counseling
• intuition
• clarity
• balance (home/work)

I did a deeper dive into my values in 2010 during a Velocity workshop. Using their trademarked prioritization process, I identified my six most closely held core values and defined what they meant to me. I had these posted in my office for more than a year:

CORE VALUES 12.2010

Recently, I conducted a session on personal values and the ways we bring our values to work for the organizational effectiveness team of which I am a part. After that session, I realized my list of core values had evolved (they tend to do that as we grow, evolve and have different life experiences) and decided it was time for a revisit. It took quite a bit of inner debate and really considering what is MOST important to me, but in the end I came up with the following:

CORE VALUES 2013

If you are interested, you can take this free personal values assessment from the Barrett Values Centre, which will provide you with not only a list of your values but a report highlighting the impact of those values across various levels of consciousness and some worksheets for further exploration.

I also found the criteria included in this document from the Mason Law Group in California helpful when narrowing down and getting to root of my top core values:

“Core values are essential, universal, and personal. They are essential because it feels as though you cannot live without them. For example, if respect is one of your core values and you are told that respect will never happen, ever, you would say, ‘Then what is the point of life?’ It is so fundamental; life would be meaningless without it.

Universal means that your core values apply everywhere, all the time. No matter where you are or when it is, your core values are important. This is what separates core values from other important values. This is true whether you are at home, at work or in line at the movie theater…

They are personal because they are based on your life experience. If you and a coworker both have a core value of respect, you would each describe it differently. This is because you have different life experiences and thereby different definitions…”

Being aware of your own values, and working to understand the values of those you live and work with, can help you understand what drives people’s behaviors, enhance your communication and improve your relationships.

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On Not Being a Typical Achiever in a High Achiever’s Culture

Sorry I have not been blogging lately. I have been focused on acclimating at my new job! I will be blogging less, but still will be blogging, so please don’t give up on me. :-)

An assumption I have been carrying around for the majority of my career is that the working world in the U.S. seems to be predicated on the belief that success is the direct result of being driven, competitive and check-the-box-DONE!-on-to-the-next focused (with the possible exception of the government, but we’re not going there today.) “Get ‘er done,” and all that.

My upbringing by two teachers, whose working lives were dictated by lesson plans, strict schedules and standardized testing, combined with my former career in communications, publications, marketing and public relations, all very deadline oriented, sequential and process driven endeavors, served to solidify that assumption.

Success = The stress of DO DO DO DO DO x pressures of TIME + the relief of DONE DONE DONE DONE DONE and repeat to infinity.
For most of my life, I have stuffed myself into the box of this kind of achievement, believing that was “the way things worked.” And for most of my life I have been silently (okay, maybe not so silently in some cases) suffering.

I honestly believed that there was something wrong with me because in the back of my mind, a small voice kept saying, “Is it really that serious? What’s the point? Where are we all going so fast, and to what end? What if I don’t know what the next step is, or – OMG – what if I don’t really care? Oh man, I SHOULD care…I SHOULD feel like this is really important and be in a big hurry to get it done. Everyone else feels that way. WHAT IS WRONG WITH ME???”

I shared that frustration this morning with a particularly intuitive, empathic colleague. I was struggling with a project and feeling lost, uninvolved and behind the 8-ball, when the checklist of to-dos (many of which sit squarely in my in-box) seemed so clear to others. I told her the reason I thought I was struggling was that “I’m just not an achiever. I can’t seem to understand the urgency here. There’s something I am not getting…”

Her response was that – to the contrary – my way of slowing things down; giving things some space, strategic thought, and perspective; seeking information and understanding; looking for what’s missing; refusing to check the box just to check the box and move on is my way of achieving.

What a revelation! So today, I am going to try to sit in the power of that, validate my own knowing and trust that no matter how fast everyone is driving, no matter the sense of urgency, my eye on the destination and foot hovering over the brake are necessary to the work being completed well, not just fast.

As the old saying goes, “sometimes you have to go slow to go fast.” Phew. Time for me to take a breath and step back.

P.S. Thanks Kris!!

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My Uncle Vaughn’s Last Gift to Me

Uncle VaughnMy Uncle Vaughn Burnside passed away on Monday, May 13, 2013 at the age of 70 of a rare and very aggressive form of cancer. He was diagnosed just five weeks before he died, and I am still somewhat in shock.

This Tuesday, my brother Pete and I were honored to speak at Uncle Vaughn’s memorial service, sharing memories of the man we remember growing up as part of a very close extended family in Northwest Indiana.

He gave us all so many gifts across his life. Pete recalled how Uncle Vaughn’s laugh filled a room and filled Pete with a sense of approval whenever he could coax a laugh out of the normally soft-spoken, somewhat reserved man. I remembered a time when I was maybe two or three, and Uncle Vaughn sat on the floor with my dad and played with me. One of the best gifts Vaughn gave his sister (my mom), Pat, was the gift of compassion and support in traveling from Iowa to Indiana to help transition their mother (my grandma) into an assisted living facility after she began showing signs of dementia.

For me, the last gift Uncle Vaughn gave me made a lasting impression. Two weeks ago, I flew from Virginia to Minnesota and drove down to Cedar Rapids, Iowa with Pete after receiving the news that Vaughn would only live another three days. He had been moved from the hospital to a beautiful hospice facility when Pete and I arrived with our parents. We were fortunate that he woke up and was lucid shortly after we arrived. We all went to his bedside, one-by-one, to touch him and talk to him.

I walked up and leaned over him. “Hi Uncle Vaughn. I love you,” I said. He spoke, but I couldn’t hear, so I bent close to him. He repeated his words: “You get more beautiful all the time.”

I was so moved I had to step away. Physically I knew I was anything but beautiful that day. I hadn’t showered, I wore no makeup, and my hair was a mess. And yet, I felt beautiful because of the love and respect I have for this man and his family. That’s what he saw and that’s what he spoke.

Hearing him say that, knowing that I needed to hear it, gave me the gift of clarity and perspective and served to underline something I have always known but sometimes forget in the rush and crush of everyday living.  In the end, it doesn’t matter what we look like on the outside, as long as we show up – really show up – with an open heart, love and respect.

Uncle Vaughn did that with his family all the time. He showed up, he was beautiful and he was a gift to this world. His legacy of love will live on in all of us who knew him. In his memory, I plan to do my best to show up, open-hearted and loving every day, because that’s what makes life beautiful.

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Tightropes and Bridges

tightropeSometimes, communication inside an organization or team can be like walking on a tightrope, especially during the process of significant change. One false move, and down you go!

From a management point of view, tightropes are easy to construct. Connect point A to point B, add tension and send people on their way.

But from the perspective of an individual or team trying to navigate from one point to the next, the process of walking the tightrope is difficult at best, treacherous at worst. I have worked in organizations in which there seemed to be a web of tightropes, none of them connected. We were all so focused on staying balanced on our own, that we couldn’t afford to help anyone else out. Our own paths may have been clear, but they certainly were not easy and often inspired fear.

Bridges on the other hand, take a lot of thought, engineering and time to construct properly and safely. They are much more difficult to build than tightropes. But once they are built, they are relatively easy to navigate for those who must use them.

Organizations who see the creation of internal communications plans and processes as bridges, helping staff safely and clearly move from one place to another, are those who take the time to understand the infrastructure and construction of a conscious, clear and consistent communications strategy. They take their people’s feelings (and fears) into account and build their communications structure to support and address those. The best ones engage their people in helping to build the bridges, to ensure they are complete. These organizations don’t dismiss or resist the element of tension – bridges require tension to do their job effectively – but remain aware of managing the tension so as to keep the structure stable and people safe.

How much time do you spend considering and constructing your internal communications practices? Are your people walking on tightropes?

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Top 10 List for My Entry-Level Self

notes to younger selfRecently I was inspired by a post written by my friend Meghann Scherrer to her young careerist self. (Meghann was inspired by a similar post by Karen Vitale on Ragan.com.)

Ever since reading these posts, I have been thinking a lot about what I would tell a young me, just striking out into the wild world of work. My list is below.

Top 10 List for My Entry-Level Self

1. Speak up. I have extolled the importance of speaking up, telling the truth and using your voice in past posts, so I won’t belabor those points. However, speaking up isn’t just for when you have an idea or concern. Don’t understand? Find out. Don’t know? Say so. Need help? Ask for it. Think something smells funny (literally and figuratively), SPEAK UP.

2. Slow down. Yes, I know, going 100 mph is in the genes and you can’t “rewire” your central nervous system. But everything is not an emergency. Any time something feels so urgent you just want to slam through it, slow down. Mistakes are made by those in a hurry, and you’ll miss a lot of the really good stuff if all you are doing is rushing around checking boxes and yelling “DONE!” It’s a paradox, but consider that perhaps you are rushing through things just so that you can relax. And then try to relax anyway.

3. Jump in. Stop waiting to be invited. Stop waiting to be seen and recognized. Stop waiting for things to be just right before you make a move. Jobs aren’t like school. The tests aren’t scheduled. They happen at random, and you may or may not feel prepared. You just have to jump in and trust yourself. Hold your breath (or your nose) if you need to, but jump.

4. Chill out. Seriously. It’s not that serious. And if it seems that serious, it’s even more important to chill. Oh yeah, and you can stop holding your breath now. The key to chilling is to breathe, baby, breathe.

5. Hold on. When the going gets tough, gather up your values and hold on tight. Hold on to who you are when no one is watching, or when you don’t care who is. Hold on to the knowledge that you are smart, you are capable and you are going to be okay. Hold on, girl. It’s all good.

6. Let go. Let go of your mind’s attachment to the belief that things “should be” other that they are. Let go of the story. You can only work with what is real and true. When you catch yourself mired in doubt and fear, let go and trust your gut. Let go of thinking all the time and start feeling instead. Let go of defensiveness; let go of resistance. When in doubt, let go and see what happens.

7. Move forward. You are not going to want to do everything that is given to you to do. When that happens, just move forward. You are not going to always know what’s next. That’s okay. You can move forward slowly, one little step at a time. There are times when it’s going to hurt to move, when you feel really stuck, or when you feel like you aren’t ready to move. Move anyway, but always forward.

8. Step back. Sometimes you are going to feel so close to something that you can’t see it anymore, can’t deal with it anymore. This is when you need to step back and try to see it from another perspective. Talk to someone you trust. Ask “what would a person I admire see or do here?” If something is smothering you, step back. Give it space. Let it, and yourself, breathe. (Haven’t you heard this somewhere before?)

9. Rise above. Hard fact: not everyone has the same values you do. Not everyone values hard work, responsibility, accountability and open communication. People can be shady. People can do and say terrible things out of fear and insecurity. People will try to stab you in the back. If you rise above, they won’t ever be able to reach your heart. Take the high road. Stay true to your values. Rise above the fray. Oh and when you make a mistake, own it but don’t beat yourself up. Rise above your feelings of shame and realize that there is no growth (or innovation or creativity) without mistakes.  Rise above the persuit of perfection and learn that you are enough.

10. Dive under. Things on the surface are not always as they seem. Dare to dive under and learn what’s really driving you, what’s really beneath your motivations, your fears, your desires. Dive under and see that the darkness is only darkness until you shine the light on it.

This exercise was an act of radical self-kindness for me. I’m really good at judging myself and not so good at supporting myself. I’m also still not great at some of the lessons I shared above (like the breathing thing…) But I’m moving forward. :-)

What would you tell yourself if you were just starting out?

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You CAN Handle the Truth

I’m a truth-teller. Actually I’m a recovering, frustrated truth-swallower who is becoming a brave and daring truth-teller. In my work now, telling the truth to clients is part of the deal. That’s why they pay me, and I tell them up front that I will tell the truth as I perceive it, even if it might be uncomfortable.

The truth must be told, otherwise it becomes a cancer.

I’ve always know this, but thanks to the great data-grounded work of inspirational researcher Brene Brown, I am finally able to breathe into it and say YES! We must share what is not pretty, what is not comfortable, in order to move forward and create better products, better services, better solutions. We can’t create from a place of subversion and spin. True creativity only comes with freedom of expression, free of judgment and shame.

Across my career I’ve had my fill of the-things-we-don’t-talk-about-around-here. I always wanted to know why not? I WANTED to talk about those things and figure out a way to work with them. I’m pretty sure other people did too. I knew the reason was that people were afraid, because I was too, that’s why I didn’t speak up. But what I see now is this: The things we don’t talk about become more powerful the less we talk about them. And the more energy we put into not talking about them, the less energy we have do really great things.

Wait a second. Am I suggesting we allow FEELINGS at work? Or worse, am I suggesting we allow people to TALK about their feelings at work? Yep.

Sure, we all know the saying “It’s not personal, it’s business.” But the truth is, if you are employing human beings, it IS personal. People cannot check their humanness at the door, turn off their feelings, flaws and fabulousness…at least not in a way that is healthy for them or for your business. Tony Schwartz knows the power of truth and practices truth-telling as part of his company culture, allowing people to be themselves at work. Imagine!

How? Well, the how is different for every person and every business. But I can suggest a starting place. Be brave. Realize that you CAN handle the truth, even if it’s uncomfortable. Know that the truth has healing power if it is shared in a safe environment.

Not ready to jump into the fire of truth just yet? Hire a coach to help you untangle your fear and resistance (email me if you want a referral, I know LOTS of compassionate and courageous coaches who will walk with you!) Then, become the truth-teller you were meant to be by starting to model openness and receptivity.

Read this Leadership Manifesto from Brene Brown for more mojo.

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Communication Best Practice: Contracting for Clarity

The very first class I took as part of the NTL Organization Development Certificate Program was one that focused on the process of entering into a relationship and contracting with a client. I approached the class with some resistance, as I presumed it would be centered around legal processes and other “very serious” things which intimidate the heck out of me.

I couldn’t have been more wrong. The course and the contracting process itself provided the missing link that shifted the way communication strategy was done and elevated the image and effectiveness of the communications team at The Entrepreneurs’ Organization during my final year there.

As many communications professionals know, the communications function is often seen as a purely tactical one in many organizations. Communications staff are often seen as the ones who make things “pretty” in writing, messaging and design, which usually means they are the last to be involved in any project.

The conversation, such as it is — more often than not it’s sent in an email and isn’t an actual conversation at all — usually goes something like this: “We want people to (insert desired action here) so we need you to make us a brochure/one-pager/webpage/email blast…oh and can you do it by tomorrow?Kthanksbye.”  Magnify this request by the number of departments, teams and/or projects competing for “make it pretty” bandwidth and you create a communications hairball from which no real results have any hope of emerging.

Enter the contracting process. Here are the basics. Just because I can’t help it, I made them into an acronym for CONTRACT:

1. Conversation

As my contracting instructor, the incomparable Susan M. Gallant, would say, “The end is in the beginning.” Every email request was responded to in person, either with a visit or a phone call, to chat about the project and create a plan (aka. contract) for its execution.

2. Outcome

I say it on my home page and I’ll say it again. Effective communication isn’t about what is said or what is heard. Effective communication is all about what happens as a result. So, in order to build an effective communications plan, we needed to know what the desired result or outcome is.

3. Negotiation

Here is where we walked the tightrope a bit. Most often, or at least in our case at EO, the person making the request for the brochure/one-pager/webpage/email blast wasn’t the one who decided on the ultimate deliverable. And most often, the requested deliverable was not what we knew would actually produce the desired outcome. Negotiation of the final deliverable often included a second conversation with the decision-maker to ensure that he/she understood that we weren’t saying no to their request, but that we had some suggestions (often guised as questions) to deliver the results they wanted.

4. Timeline

Creating a timeline is crucial to effective communication plans. I encouraged my team to set metrics, based on the desired outcome, and plot them along the timeline, building in if-then scenarios in case the results were not tracking with the tactics. (For example: If we don’t have the minimum number of registrations by April 1, we will begin to make phone calls to member leaders.) This can be tough when the requests come last minute, but as a former boss of mine used to say, “You can get it done fast or you can get it done well.” Last minute requests were always respected, but we made sure part of the conversation included a discussion about the time necessary to create effective communications. After a while, most of the last-minute, wait-and-hurry-up requests subsided (most of them…)

5. Responsibility

This one is simple: Who is responsible for doing what and when? In the contract, this would look something like: “Message draft will be completed by M and sent to L by April 1. L will review and respond with edits, suggestions or approval by April 10.”

6. Accountability

This one is not so simple. What if M doesn’t get the draft done by April 1 or what if M never hears from L on April 10? To ensure accountability along the way, I was copied on all contracts so that I could check in periodically with both my team member and the person with whom they were working to ensure everything was being done as agreed, work through any conflicts or facilitate tweaks to the contract if necessary.

7. Communicate

Once the conversation had been had and all the details hashed out, my team would write up a contract to communicate their understanding of all that had been agreed upon. The contract itself was a simple email that followed a structure like this:

  • Project name and contact person
  • Desired outcome
  • Timeline with metrics, tactics and responsible parties assigned
  • Request for agreement, clarification or changes from the person receiving the contract

Work on the project would not commence until all parties had reviewed and agreed on the content of the contract.

8. Touch Base

After the project was complete, I would touch base with everyone involved to find out how the process went for them, celebrate the wins and discuss any challenges.

Implementing this contracting approach not only helped us create more strategic and effective communication programs to support our organization’s external efforts,  it also created a stronger internal communication structure, earning our team a seat at the table early in the planning process.

You don’t have to be a communications professional to apply a similar approach to your work. Try it today and see what will transpire.

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Your Point-Of-View is Your Gift

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As a young professional in the early days of my career, I used to get so frustrated that when my boss and co-workers would continually ignore important details or choose not to talk about the possible impacts their decisions would have.  I would sit there incredulous at their choice to be blind to what I believed was obvious.

One day, I just couldn’t take it any more and blurted out that I thought what was being proposed was a mistake and listed the reasons why. Slowly everyone turned to look at me. I was sure I was in trouble for “speaking of the unspeakable” but instead I saw some nodding from a few and from the others heard a chorus of “oh…right,” and “I never thought about it like that,” and yes even “huh?”

It never occurred to me that they just didn’t see those things, or at least that they didn’t see them the same way I did. It also never occurred to me that they were seeing things I couldn’t see.

Turns out, by sitting on my perceptions  and silencing my voice based on my assumptions and by tuning out the voices of others who had different perceptions than I did, I was contributing to both my own frustration and the struggles of the organization.

When I became a leader, the first thing I did was tell my team that I valued and wanted to hear their voices. I knew that whether we needed creative thinking to brainstorm ideas, brass-tacks analysis to unravel a thorny problem or a step-by-step approach to create effective processes, we would need every relevant perception, perspective and point-of-view on the table.

Unlocking your own voice and learning to use it in support of your team, your department and your organization may not be easy or comfortable depending on the culture in which you work, but stifling your point-of-view and going along to get along isn’t the answer either.

This week, pay attention to the times when you don’t speak up. What assumptions are you making that might not be true and how can you test them out? What is the cost to you, your team, department or organization if what you perceive isn’t heard because it is never voiced?

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Trickles, Floods, Blockages and Leaks…

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How does your organization’s communications flow?

Is it just a trickle, leaving people thirsting for more? Does it come in a flood that drowns everyone because it’s just too much and too all over the place? Is there a blockage along the way that causes things to back up, creating pressure that could eventually lead to a really nasty problem? Or maybe there’s a leak somewhere, eroding the system and rotting the foundation.

Your communications pipeline is the key to a happy and healthy organization. Keep it clean, keep it fresh and keep it flowing.

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Surrender!

This is the second of two essays I contributed to a World Book of Values, being compiled by Belgian consultant Patrik Somers. My last blog post on intention is my other contribution.

I chose to write about surrender because it is a value I struggle with daily. Coming from a culture that values doing, independence and control, the idea of surrender seems like giving up, giving in, copping out or becoming a victim of circumstance. America is not a place that values surrender. “Don’t just sit there, do something.” “Do or die.” Just the other day I saw a sign that read, “Sink or swim.”  

These beliefs, steeped in hundreds of years of struggle, still drive so many today. But often those of us not struggling to survive tend to “swim” out of resistance; we don’t want to be where we are, so off we go, flailing wildly in an attempt to be anywhere other than here. And yet, the more furiously we swim, the more energy we burn.  We sink when we have burned our energy and can swim no more, or when we are so overwhelmed by our resistance to what is happening that we give up and go under.

There is another option: to float, which is the essence of surrender. It’s the deep breath that keeps our heads above water and allows us to lie back, relax, assess, and accept what is. Surrender is not about quitting. It’s about accepting circumstances as they are and being fully present, whether we like what is happening or not, whether we are in control or not. As Byron Katie says, “You can argue with reality but you’ll always lose.” Sometimes it takes surrendering control to gain control.

My first year as an entrepreneur has been all about surrender. I plant seeds about my work here and there and surrender, hoping that Deepak Chopra is right that, “You find your path not by thinking, feeling or doing but by surrendering.” So far, so good.

Although ironically, just today I was feeling the anxiety that comes when I am not surrendering and am pressuring myself to produce and perform.  I was feeling guilty and stressed and under pressure to write this essay, yes this essay about surrender…Ha!  So I turned my friends on Facebook and asked them what they do when they are feeling unmotivated. These are the responses I received:

  • Just go with it……when I have zero motivation to work I go out (or stay in) and do something fun and resign myself to the fact it just isn’t in the cards to work that day (or week)!
  • Accept the fact that things are a bit off and go with the flow. There’s nothing good or bad about having an off day or week!
  • Be with it, it will pass and you may get to ‘notice’ something you are intended to.

My friends had no idea I was stressed because I was unable to surrender and yet, they all encouraged me to surrender. So I did. And as soon as I stopped resisting and surrendered, as soon as I stopped swimming and started floating, the words came.

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In Tension? Check Your Intention.

“Your intentions create the reality that you experience…Therefore, be mindful of what you project…What you intend is what you become.” – Gary Zukav, The Seat of the Soul

Whether we know it or not, whether we admit it or not, every experience we have is guided by the intention we bring to it. The outcomes of our every action and interaction are always aligned with our strongest intentions, whether we are conscious and aware or whether we are hiding or in denial. I have watched myself and others create suffering and joy, skepticism and trust, fear and comfort through the power of both conscious and unconscious intention.

As a child, I used to get so irritated when my brother would make a smart-mouth comment and be rewarded with laughter, whereas if I said the same words in the same context, I would be scolded. I used to think this was unfair. But looking back now, I realize my brother’s intention with his comments was usually to lighten the mood and make others laugh. My intention, on the other hand, was to bring attention to something I was feeling – something I didn’t like and wanted changed—in a passive-aggressive way.  No wonder the reaction was different!

It’s hard work getting to the bottom of our true intentions. We tell ourselves so many flattering and unflattering stories about what we want, what we mean, what we intend, that getting to the real truth of the matter requires the development of awareness that is not taught in most cultures. Gary Zukav, author of many books on consciousness, explains:

“What most people call intentions are actually out-tentions…the application of your will to accomplish a physical goal. An intention is the quality of the consciousness you bring to an action.”

It’s taken me many years, and many consequences, to realize that any time I feel  “in tension” before, during or after a choice, I need to check my intention. What do I consciously intend to be the outcome of this situation? Why?…Then why again and again until the real truth is revealed, gently, with reverence and gratitude. For it is only by uncovering my true, unvarnished intention that I can make a conscious choice and take (or not take) thoughtful, aligned action.

In order to live, work and approach the world with clear, clean, conscious intentions, we must be willing to deeply know and accept ourselves – shadows, blemishes, strengths, gifts and all. We must learn to watch and question our thinking, our feelings, our patterns and our behaviors at all times. We must learn to question ourselves before each choice, action, interaction or transaction to check our true intention. And last, we must ultimately be willing to forgive ourselves and our humanness when, believing we hold one intention, we find ourselves face to face with the consequences of an unconscious intention, no matter how much work we have done.

What are your intentions for this day? How can you bring your consciousness to them?

Old Habits

I worked from home over the holidays. There wasn’t much going on, as most of my coworkers and clients took the time off. And yet, I sat, poised and tense, in front of my computer sending as many emails as I could to prove to as many people as possible that I was working.

Eventually, I ran out of things to email people about. (It didn’t take long.) And, since most of the people I emailed were out, I wasn’t going to get a response until the following week. So then I sat there, feeling guilty and trying to create something to do so I didn’t feel guilty. All of this made me even more tense.

After a while, I took a break from sitting tensely at my computer trying to generate work and took the dog for a walk. The whole time my mind was churning with all of the shoulds it could come up with, all the ways it could berate me for being a lazy slacker.

When I got home, I picked up my journal and started to write all of the messages the critic in my head was telling me. I wrote “I am afraid I am going to get in trouble for not being a hard worker.” And then I had to laugh out loud when I wrote, “when I am an old person, I will finally be able to stop worrying and will be able to say what I am thinking without caring what other people think!”

Wow. I am almost 47 years old. But apparently those old “be a good girl, be a hard worker” messages from when I was 7 years old are still playing in my head. How old is too old to worry be worried about “getting in trouble?” Do I really have to be an old person to stop worrying? Or will worrying make me into an old person…?

I have decided the expiration date on my worry about “getting in trouble” has passed. I also have decided that I am doing no one any favors by stifling myself and trying to be a good girl (especially since I am a grown woman.) And finally, I have decided that it might actually be fun to throw caution to the wind and risk getting in trouble (just a little, and not in the legal sense) just to see what happens.

Old habits do die hard. But taking a good hard look at them is one way to minimize their power. I don’t expect to suddenly let loose and start running my mouth off willy-nilly at work, but I do expect that I will catch myself when I find I am in my “good girl” mode and start to push myself to take a few more risks, ask a few more hard questions and not worry about getting in trouble.