Wednesday, July 3, 2013

You've Never Been Here Before

Beginner's mind is the theme of this blog and a foundation for leadership.  To lead with a beginner's mind, come to know -- deeply -- that you've never been here before.

When you have been in a profession or a specific job for what may seem a long time, and you perceive the work as repetitive, your mind sees patterns in the work processes.  You may perform daily, weekly, monthly, quarterly and yearly routines.  These patterns and routines create the illusion in your mind that "I've been here" and "I've done that."  This is not beginner's mind.  This is "been here, done that" mind.

The structure of work itself -- routine processes, planning calendars, to-do lists, deadlines, tax time, quotas, quarters, budget time, annual trade shows, staff meetings, scheduled time for checking email and voicemail, etc. -- helps create the illusion our experiences are repeated.  Activities like the annual office Holiday Party may seem "the same" year after year.  "The same" tired ceremonies, "the same" people, "the same" venue.  And you may think to yourself "here we go again."

But the reality is, you've never been here before.

This past weekend I camped at a nearby national park.  For a moment I had the notion that "I've been here before."  As a child and many times between I've visited this park.  But this time I realized deeply that I had never been there before.

Sitting still, I observed a mountain peak for about an hour.  It is the largest, most memorable and recognizable peak in the park and I have seen it every time I've visited.  In my mind, this peak is "the same" and has "never changed" in the years I've seen it and "I've been here before."  But I've never seen it or been there before and will never see it or be there again.

Every blade of grass and every leaf on every tree on the mountain is different than a year before and different than it was a minute ago.  The light and shadow on the mountain and the shape, the presence or non-presence of clouds is different every second.  The peak loses some of its surface area every second, snow fields on its face grow or shrink.  Every tree on its surface at every moment is growing or dying.  Some that were alive yesterday are dead today.  Saplings are sprouting.  New wildflowers have bloomed.  Different birds and animals and insects teem on its surface in different places doing different things.  Different air blows across its surface and different water flows down ever changing rivulets.  It is never the same, even for a millisecond.

And these are just the visible changes.  If I could see subatomic vibrations, every bit of the mountain, inside and out, is moving and changing its position at unimaginable speeds, but this happens at such a minute and subtle level it is undetectable to my eyes.  The rocks, which at that level are vibrating, look permanent and unchanging to my eyes.  To me, the substance of the mountain looks "the same."

Now to the office.  The room, the pictures, the books, the computers, and the pictures on the walls look "the same."  I may be sitting in "the same" spot (though I am probably slightly shifted to the left or right, forward or backward).  But the sunlight enters the room from a different angle, the leaves on the trees outside the window shimmer in a different pattern of light and dark, the wind blows them at a different cadence and wind speed, the birds chirp outside in a different pattern and the which birds are out there are also not the same.  The amount of dust on the desk is different.  The air flowing through the room is different.   The shadows cast from the window into the room are different as the sun changes its angle through the day and through the year.

Yet in my mind "here I go again" in the same room, following the same routine, maybe feeling a sense of comfort in the "stability" of the pattern, the routine.  Kidding myself that I've been here before.

Every day at the office we do something over again that we've never done before and will never do again.  "The same" is an illusion.  When we are caught in that illusion, our work seems repetitive and we may feel in a rut, a boring routine.  But with a true beginner's mind, your work will never be routine because, despite how it feels, you've never been there before.

Thursday, February 28, 2013

The Culture / Strategy Linkage

Aspirational Culture is at the top of my Strategic Leadership Pyramid, not vision, not mission.  It is my firm belief that an organization that focuses on building culture first will be far more successful than an organization that focuses on building vision first.

In other words, I'd put my money on an organization with a powerful culture and no plan before I'd put my money on a powerful plan and a weak culture.

Strategic planning is a paradigm in organizational management.  Everyone does it because they believe it's a best practice.  The fact is, organizations succeed or fail in spite of a strategic plan.  Organizations need to let go of the idea once and for all that traditional strategic planning processes are a good use of their time.  They're not.  For a more comprehensive argument on this, read my post Strategic Planning is Old School.

How many times do important strategic change efforts die because the organization falls into its usual routines -- you know, "the way we do things"?  Vision is ripped apart by the buzz saw of organizational culture time and time again.

Some might argue, isn't it the vision that creates the culture?  If you have a powerful vision, can't you create a powerful culture around it?  Perhaps.  But I would argue when it comes to achieving vision, there is a correlative relationship between vision and culture, not a causal one.

Just as individuals have habits, organizations have routines and communities and societies have norms.  Depending at which level you're working (personal, organizational or larger community), before vision, strategies and goals can be accomplished successfully, these habits, routines and norms need to be addressed and put into alignment with desired outcomes.

In people, habitual responses are recognized as a "personality." My habitual response to conflict or stress, for example, may be to people-please.  You know people with a people-pleaser personality.  You also know people who when faced with conflict habitually engage in a "my way or the highway" -- the "fight" end of "fight or flight" response.

Habitual patterns allow us to respond automatically without having to think each time a stressful situation arises "how will I deal with this?"   Instead, we have subconsciously chosen a "winning formula" for facing the world that creates what often feels like an instinctual, automatically triggered response to situations in life.  These habitual responses become "hard wired" in us (I can't believe I people-pleased and let myself get walked all over -- AGAIN!).

Other habits we pick up along the way that are less hard wired than our core personality, and they can be overcome, but not always easily.  Like poor diet and sedentary lifestyle. (For a fantastic book on the neurology of habits, and how to overcome them,  read The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg.)

Organizations have personalities, too, but we use the term "culture" to describe organizational personalities. My definition of Organizational Culture is: a combination of principles and values that drive routines.  Culture consists of a set of habitual responses within an organization.  Much like personality traits, these routines allow an organization to respond internally and externally without thinking, in an automatic, almost instinctual way.   These habits and routines are critical for productivity and efficiency and are necessary and good -- as long as they are aligned with the desired outcome and vision of the organization.  Frequently, they're not.

People who become part of an organization begin to learn about and adopt the routines (or end up leaving either of their own accord or by force.  Think of the song "I Fought the Law and the Law Won."). If an organizational change effort comes along that doesn't align with the routines, it will either be reconfigured to fit the routines or rejected altogether.

The problem with strategic plans, and why they fail as a tool for vision attainment, is that they focus too much on prescribed action, rather than aligned action.  In other words, they are focused on producing specific actions, rather than on the principles and values that drive aligned actions.

What drives vision achievement is clarity of intention and aligned action, not a plan, not a prescribed process -- though those might be present.  Successful organizations act on principles and values, first.  Not plans.  Plans are a great tool for organizing thoughts around completing tasks and projects and "getting things done."  They are also a great tool for managing projects that have clear milestones and specific short or long-term outcomes.  But they're not great tools for strategic leadership.

Strategies, plans and tactics help a team win games, but it is culture -- the principles and values that drive routines and habits -- that gets them to the championship.   As leaders, therefore, our job #1 is identifying the routines and habits that align with the organization's vision and ensure that those routines become the ones that are "automatic" and "instinctual" in our organizations.   Once aligned action is automatic in an organization, fulfilling the vision is almost a certainty.

Thursday, January 31, 2013

Lead from the Widest Circle First

I am going out on a limb with this and my previous post, as I'm delving into a leadership topic that, outside of religious or spiritually-centered leadership literature, is generally avoided: namely, love.

Certainly it's nothing new from a human resources perspective to state that sincere praise, recognition, public acknowledgement and the like are generally of greater motivational value than money for employees.  But in a business context we rarely refer to this management behavior as "love" since that's a bit too woo-woo and mushy, not to mention it might be confused with the romantic notion, which is a slippery slope in the work environment.

Nevertheless, in an organizational leadership context, if my actions are governed by love, I will be an exceptional leader. 

What does that mean, exactly?  I believe love requires action.  It must be demonstrated, not simply "felt" or "expressed."  An organization's strategy means nothing if it does not allocate its resources -- time, money and operations -- to its strategy.  Simply stating what its strategy is (much like an individual saying "I love you") is meaningless if it isn't backed by aligned action.

In my last post, Poems in a Drawer, I wrote about the connection between love and leadership on the one-on-one level, using the example of my father.  When we love others, we want them to fulfill their greatest potential and we take specific action in support of that outcome.

But a second aspect of love in leadership, beyond the one-on-one, is a concept that often falls into the category of "business ethics," "sense of public responsibility," or "serving the greater good."  Many times it finds itself in lofty vision statements, especially in organizations founded for the public good, such as charities and religious organizations.  I think it's unfortunate that it doesn't make its way into every organization's organizing documents and strategies, or at the very least, leadership conversation.

I would suggest considering strategic decision making from the context of love, drawing the widest possible circle first  (the planet, humanity), then drawing consecutively smaller circles from country to state to city to community to organization to family and, last,  to self.  Ask first: how does our work improve (or at least not hurt) humanity and help (or at least not hurt) the planet; or, put another way, how are we demonstrating our love of humanity or the planet through our work?  Then, ask similar questions in concentric order about country, state, city, community, organization, family and, finally, yourself.

The reason most organizations' public service work is cynically viewed as a public relations or marketing effort rather than altruism, is because the decision to serve was made within the context of the smaller circles, not beginning with the largest circle first.   We've all had the experience of someone saying they're "doing us a favor" when, in fact, they were clearly thinking of their self-interest first and the fact that it benefited us was purely ancillary.  We see through it as a shallow, self-interested gesture.  It's no different at the organizational level.

If others don't believe that an organization's vision is driven from a love of humanity, but is rather driven for a love of whatever the organization considers is in its best interest, without consideration of whether it serves the largest circles first, then any attempt it makes to appear altruistic will be viewed as as exactly that: an attempt to appear altruistic.

When individuals and organizations get into trouble, I guarantee they aren't "leading from the widest circle first."  They chose a smaller circle, perhaps the smallest: how does this benefit me?  Or, they go no further than the organization circle:  what's in the company's best interest (it's profits), then to the smaller circle of self (my profits from the company's profits).   Frequently, the widest circle politicians lead from is the constituency circle.  Or, at the highest levels of government, the national circle.  The worst behavior in government comes from this type of leadership.

Conversely, the best in leadership comes from those who lead from the widest circle first.  One need only think of the most admired leaders and organizations.  They all start from the widest circle first: how does my/our work make the world better for everyone?  Though they may have been interested in advancing the well-being of a constituency (civil rights for minorities, for example), they led from the context of a better world (a world where people are judged by the content of their character, not the color of their skin).

There is a word Zen monk Thich Nhat Hahn has coined: interbeing.  Isn't it obvious, he says, that we "inter-are"? I didn't farm the food in my refrigerator or generate the electricity powering my house. I depend on the the farmer or the power company for these, and they in turn depend on me to pay for these items so that they can feed their families and pay their employees.

In other words, I cannot take a small circle action (not paying my power bill, for example) that doesn't affect someone else.  And when it affects someone else, it affects me (my rates go up to compensate for the non-paying customers like me).  The more globally intertwined organizations and economies become, the more obvious it becomes that, as among cells in a body, sickness and wellness spread quickly.

If you have trouble calling it leading with love, call it leading from the widest circle first instead.  Either way, if you practice it, you will be an extraordinary leader.

Thursday, January 10, 2013

Poems in a Drawer

We are born, then we die.
There is so little time in between.
Why do we waste it on the trivial?
The greatest legacy we can leave is love.
Love is a legacy passed on to those who may never know us.
Love is the only legacy passed on forever.
-- Lenny Arnold (1943-1989)

I'm just months short of my father's lifespan, which was about a month shy of 46. It's hard for me to fathom now as an expiration date.  In many ways, I feel as though life has just begun.

Had he been given another 45 years, what would he have done?

Last year on my vision list I wrote "Live the last half of Dad's life."  Whatever that means.  My intention, I suppose, was to fulfill the unfulfilled dreams I imagine he may have had or perhaps simply to live as though I were given a gift he wasn't.  One should live that way regardless, of course, because, well, you just don't know.

For a couple of years after his mother died, my father wrote a series of poems.  Then he put them in his desk drawer.  He never attempted to publish them or share them.  I don't know what a poetry critic would say about them, but I think they're quite good.

The poems remained in his desk drawer for 10 years until for his funeral service they were printed and bound in a small book, which was distributed to friends and relatives.  A poem was read during the service, the one quoted above.

I've been conflicted for years about the meaning and impact of my father's life.  I write of leadership, here, and the strength of vision, strategy and goals.

By the usual definitions of leadership, my father didn't fit the bill.  He was a pretty ordinary guy who didn't demonstrate much ambition.  As he was dying, a process that took several months, he didn't seem compelled to check off a bucket list or do anything extraordinary.  In fact, he just spent time at home with the family doing ordinary things like playing video games.  And telling us he loved us.

While he may not have made a major impact on the world, no one, I think, has had a greater influence on me as a leader. 

When I was nearly failing out of sixth grade and I came home with a report card with an F and three D's, he didn't get angry.  He simply said, "If I knew this were the best you could do, I wouldn't be bothered by it.  But I know you.  You can do better."  The following semester I had all A's and B's, no C's, D's or F's.  By the end of the next year, I had straight A's.  I was among the top 3% of my class upon graduating high school.

Many times he said, "I'm proud of you."  I remember a few years after he died, I was mowing the lawn and suddenly started sobbing, thinking to myself, "Who's going to say they're proud of me now?"

I had a new insight on what leadership is.  It's love.  Nothing has been a more powerful motivator for me to succeed than to hear my father's voice inside my head saying, "I'm proud of you."