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Bloom Where You Are Planted

My mother said this often and had incredible resiliency coupled with an unwavering focus both on moving forward and not dwelling on the past.  In fact, if something bad happened to you, she’d give you license to be upset for 24 hours, and then, in her mind, you should be ready to “move on”.  She was very consistent in her approach, whether it was dealing with one of her seven children, or the cancer she died from 16 years ago.

These traits are somewhat unique from my own self observations and those of other people.  Mom had the perspective that bad things will happen to good people, but it was more about what you did about it than commiserating about why.  My college friend Bob Bell was injured when we were freshman and became paralyzed.  He ended up writing a great book on the topic, and I remember someone in an interview asking him “Why do you think this happened to you?”  His response: “Why the F* not me?”

At work, many of us have been through some significant challenges with reductions in the workforce.  These initially are devastating –I know personally—and leaving on someone else’s terms is devastating.  I remember one leader lucky enough to leave before “the date” saying that leaving on his own terms was the most difficult decision he’s ever made.  At least he was in control, and I remember questioning and being angry about his use of the word “difficult”.

Difficult is having to tell your family you’ve lost your job–leaving them speechless–except the 9 year-old who asks if you are going to lose your house.

Others, in organizations that have provided job stability for decades, do not even have context that employment is fragile for many of us.  To some of those folks, getting reorganized into something they don’t want to do—and keeping a job—is like the end of the world.  To them, laid off people would say, “at least you still have a job.”

Each of us has our own context and perspective about a given situation.  But in all contexts, it’s about adapting, overcoming, and making the next steps be on your own terms.  Simply put, moving on.

When we experience some difficultly, whether it is a layoff or a reorganization, fundamentally we all still need to decide for how long we want to analyze and dwell.  Mom would apply the 24 hour rule and recommend that we get on with it and ground ourselves in the reality that this is where we are planted–right, wrong, or indifferent.

What holds us back?

Well, blooming forces us to take action and be creative, which is hard and scary.    It forces us to eliminate excuses and complaints, which makes us vulnerable.  It forces us to reach out to our networks and ask for help, which can be embarrassing.

Someone close to me lost their job about a year ago.  Just recently he accepted a position to teach a college course, something he likely would have never have had the chance to do without the job loss.  He told me that was the best news he’d heard in 52 weeks, and was always something he wanted to do.

Me?  I can’t believe that 9 months later, I’m in my dream job.  It took a lot of support and help to get here.  To those that supported me, I’m forever grateful, for all of it–the phone conversations, the text messages, the coffees, the lunches, the LinkedIn messages, and the hugs.  I’ve vowed to help anyone I can—day or night—who needs help with job transition and networking.

Mom, I’ve “moved on”.

Seeds can be planted and flowers can bloom in the least expected places.  Bloom where you are planted—you are in control, it just sometimes doesn’t feel that way initially.  But you are.

Is Your Bathtub of Ideas Overflowing?

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I’ve said before, “All ideas are great ideas, but which great ideas are you going to prioritize into projects?” A father of one of the kids on my basketball team and I were talking after practice one day.  He is the CEO of a small company.  He said, “the ideas you implement should do one of two things–increase your revenue or decrease your expenses.”  Beautifully simple, I thought.

Think of your organization’s ideas for projects as the water coming out of the bathtub faucet.    The controlling mechanism to the flow of ideas is the constraints in your system, or in this metaphor, either slowing down the water, or increasing the size of the drain.

If the ideas are pouring into the tub at full speed continues, but your constraint—the drain–(e.g., people, dollars) is not getting bigger, then you’ll end up with a mess.  Too often I’ve seen organizations not realizing the impact of the faucet part of the equation (idea generation); and under appreciating the constraint side (ever heard, “just figure out how to make it all work!”)

Prioritization is like a 4 letter word, and I often wonder why it tends to scare people.  I guess saying yes to everything is easier initially, but its shortcomings become very evident later.  You need an organizational culture that appreciates both the merits of generating new ideas AND the value of determining the right approach to vetting and prioritizing those ideas—not one or the other.  Additionally, prioritization can be about saying “no” to certain ideas as well, but that’s much harder to do.

Here are three of my keys on how to approach the topic:

Ideas should tie to organizational goals and objectives

If your organization has declared what it wants to do, then ideas that are prioritized should at some level enable the organization to achieve its goals.  Beware of ideas that creatively seem to align to every goal and objective or ones where it’s a real stretch.  But minimally you need to be able to answer why you are doing it.

Ideas should have a business case

Company dollars should be considered sacred.  Assuming money doesn’t grow on trees or is printed out of the company printers, decision makers should know how much money the idea will return to the company. In addition, when promises of returns and revenue are made when the idea is pitched to the company, targets and budgets should be adjusted accordingly after the capital is spent and the idea is implemented–that’s just a good culture of accountability and it forces people to think critically.

Ideas should have to compete with each other

Competition for the company dollar will bring out the best of each idea.  You always hear about sports teams fostering competition, why is your company any different?  It gives incentives to people to creatively think about the timing, sequence, and scope to deliver the most potential value.  If your organization does not require some level of competition for which ideas move forward, you should ask yourself “why not?”

This practical approach will ensure you’re getting “A” grades on 10 things, not “C” grades on 50 things.  I’m not suggesting that you should stop coming up with ideas; rather, I’m suggesting you move forward with the ideas that will add the most value to the organization, and if done in concert with the constraints you have, you could just be swimming in success!

What is the Business Problem You Are Trying to Solve?

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A friend of mine was telling me a story about how he had a project that had $100,000 left in its budget.  He and his team wanted to use it up, since the norm was if you didn’t use it, your budget would be cut by that amount the next year.

Sound familiar?

I asked what they wanted to spend the money on.  He said, “USB video cameras.”

Then, I asked, “why?”

“Because we’ve rolled out a video capability to the company.”

Interested, I continued my questioning.  “But don’t the laptops people use (and the company has already purchased) have a video camera already built in?”

“Yes, some of them do.  We want to buy cameras for those laptops that do not already have a camera and to create a spare pool.”

Good recovery I thought, but I wasn’t quite done, so I asked “But isn’t everyone already on a list to get a laptop refresh, where they all eventually will have a laptop with a built in camera, making these USB ones obsolete?”

“Well, yes,” he said.

I was intrigued because I kept hearing about people putting a piece of tape or a post-it note over the laptop camera for fear they might be accidentally captured on video when they didn’t want to be, so further investment in it raised some red flags.

“Do you even know if people use the video feature?  What’s the data tell us the usage patterns are?  How many video sessions are you doing in a day?  What are you going to do with all the cameras after the laptop refresh?”

I admit I was Feeling like Tom Cruise questioning Jack Nicholson in the movie “A Few Good Men”.  He was at his breaking point.

“No.  I don’t know any of that.  No usage data.  No trend analysis.  No strategy post rollout.  We just thought we should buy the cameras because the budget had room,” he said.

Needless to say, he didn’t buy the cameras.  No business case, no understanding of the business problem he was trying to solve, and no data.  Common  sense prevails.

I think generally, most good intentioned people are action oriented.  While not a bad thing, I think sometimes we make decisions without all the inputs.  Other factors and incentives drive us to do things that perhaps we wouldn’t do in our own personal lives, but at work we can ignore some common sense questioning that can get us in trouble.  If we all treated our work, or work decisions, like we were the owner of the company, my feeling is that different decisions would be made.  I think it’s always a good exercise to stop ourselves and ask what business problem we are trying to solve.

In that context, we might just make different decisions.

But what do you “Want” to Do?

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It seemed like a simple question at first, but as I answered, it became clear that the answer is complicated if we have not spent the time to think about it.

So I spent some time thinking about it recently.

Assume for this exercise that the question is aimed higher than just answering that you want a job or title, like “I want to be a CIO.”  Think about it more in the spirit of answering what you are all about—the package an employer receives when they hire you.  Not the titles they are filling or a comparison between size of budgets and number of employees they have, and your experience levels within each of those those specific things.

Not so easy, is it?

In my case, many themes circled around my head as I contemplated the answer.  Here are some of them:

  • I want to lead in a collaborative, engaging, and inspiring way where everyone is proud of the work of the team
  • I want to make a meaningful difference in the lives (work and outside) of the people I work with
  • I want the impact my teams deliver to be significant, measurable, and not just “talk”
  • I want to help people and organizations change the way they work and lead to stay relevant
  • I want the team to win, and to know when we win, or what we need to do to win
  • I want my team and organization to have my back, and I to have theirs

The challenge becomes how to succinctly summarize what you want.  Forcing yourself to speak and write about it simply is never easy.  And because of that, we take the easy way out and just talk about the jobs and titles we want.

So here it goes…

I want the opportunity to make a difference by leading, engaging, and inspiring others to be proud of their work, feel valued and trusted, and deliver meaningful and measureable outcomes of value for the organization, the team, and themselves.

With pride and trust come outcomes, yet both are developed over time through challenging conversations, debates, and pushing ourselves out of our comfort zones to listen to unique perspectives.  This can only come if we have the same shared and simplified goals.  I want those too.

That’s what I want to do.

So, what do you want to do?

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My Secret to Strategy Execution

At one point early in my career, a re-org put workers into two camps.  You were either in the “strategic” camp, or you were put into the “non-strategic” camp.  I remember feeling like kind of a loser when my name appeared on the non-strategic camp list.  Like the right-fielder of the workplace.

So the strategic camp (shortstops) talked about what we “should do”.  Here were our problems, and here’s where we need to go, they said.

That was cool, but as time went on, I found myself asking (from right field) “hey, are we winning the game?”  It was hard for me to actually know, because we didn’t have a way to measure if the strategy was actually working.

And then it hit me.  I had uncovered my own secret to strategy execution:

They are not separate camps–they are one and the same.

Let me explain.

Strategy does you no good if it is not executed.  When the strategy “setters” don’t actually play the roles of the strategy “executors”, it’s a recipe for, well, not getting a whole lot accomplished.

The biggest miss that I see is not having an effective measurement system or control plan for the execution of your strategy.  Without it, pure strategy setters are more comfortable, because we are not really held accountable to anything that can be measured.  But, it can drive strategy executors crazy because we don’t know what we need to do to win.

I want to win; therefore, I need to know what winning looks like (not just feels like).  In most other things, like sports, it’s a score.  So why not at work?  Why at work does one team think we are winning, while another can feel that we’re not?  The answer is that it is because you do not have a shared measurement system.

But with an effective measurement system, progress (good or bad) can be regularly monitored and because of that, course corrections can be made.  It’s even better if you can ground yourself around one be-all-end-all measure, to rally everyone around the “one thing” that will happen upon the successful execution of your strategy.  This can also help you filter out good ideas from mediocre ones by asking how implementing that idea would impact that main measure.  .  The simplicity of focus on one goal is liberating.  You feel energized along the way, dying to see the numbers and progress when you get into work on Monday morning.  People who doubted you along the way start to believe, and in the end you’ve executed your strategy.

Teams also get too enamored with what they should measure instead of what they can measure.  Too much time spent on speculating about what you should measure will prevent you from even starting to measure what you can measure.

Remember, a Strategy leads to an outcome.  An outcome requires a measurement system.  A measurement system helps you see if you are making the right kind of impact.  That’s the secret–they are all one in the same, not separate camps.  Then, rinse and repeat.

Toughness

Two major events intersected for me at the same time recently, causing me to think about both in context of each other.  The first was an anniversary of mine; the second was a large corporate layoff close to me.  Both required toughness.

Exactly 17 years ago, I had been a first time father for two months and found myself in a very scary medical situation.  I had experienced migraine-like symptoms for the first time in my life, and just to make sure it was nothing, I had a CT scan.  I knew immediately something was wrong when the Doctor came back after the test more quickly than I was expecting.

“You have an AVM on your brain,” he stated to me.

I inquired, “Will I be OK?”

“They tend to bleed,” he replied in a matter-of-fact way.  “We must take care of it immediately.”

I can still hear those words exactly as he said them.

A whirlwind of appointments and consults later, I found myself getting radiation treatment, called Stereotactic Radiosurgery.  A halo was screwed into my skull, and I went through with it.  The aftermath was more difficult than the actual procedure.  With brain swelling comes steroids and follow-up appointments.  About five years later, I was given the all clear.  It had worked.  I guess that’s toughness.

Recently, I wrote about A Second Chance.  We all have our unique stories, and I keep coming back to 2 themes: perspective and toughness.

We are reminded by large events in our lives on the anniversary of those events.  I’ve written that our current perspective is just one of many that we will have on a topic over time.

Last week, no less than a hundred people reached out wondering if I was part of a company layoff.  I was not.  It had been the 15th layoff in my career that I had survived.  1,700 people were let go.  Losing or keeping your job in the short-term will force you to have a perspective, and will require some toughness.

Two events coming together at the same time.

For those that lost their job, I felt bad.  But I wondered why I felt more peace leading up to the event than I’d had the 14 earlier times.

My only explanation of this feeling of peace is I can’t remember one person over my entire career that languished for years after being laid off.  In fact, the opposite is almost always true.  As time goes on, you generally hear about the success stories, how someone found something new, or actually had the time to pursue their passion that had been seemingly put on hold while they held their old job.  We can have things happen to us, or we can make things happen for us.  Whether it’s a second chance or not is in the eye of the beholder.   As Jay Bilas says in his book, Toughness, “There is nothing more powerful, motivating and inspiring than having people in your life truly believe in you.”  Those 100 people that checked on me believe in me—thank you for giving me that peace.

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Blog: Have We Lost Our Ability to Wonder?

“Ohio,” my father said out loud in the middle of Sunday church.

Puzzled, I looked at him, and he just smiled back.  The biggest smile I’ve seen from him in a while.  I must admit, I wondered for a second if he was losing it.  I tilted my head, shrugged my shoulders, and moved on.

Later that day, he was hanging out with my family.  Someone had posed a question about what year an athlete had played on a local team.  One of my children, seemingly on auto-pilot, quickly looked up the answer on his device and blurted out the answer, like a robot reading from a script.

“Don’t kids have any sense of wonderment anymore?” my Dad asked.  “No, not really,” I responded matter-of-factly.

Dad’s right.  Whatever ability we’ve ever had to truly ponder and think about something, to rack our brains for the answer, seems gone today.  Vanished, like hand writing a letter to someone.  We’ve all been out with friends to have “that guy” in the group who is always on his phone looking up answers to questions that are posed.  Our ability to actually dialog on topics like this seems to be fading.

I suppose one could argue whether or not there are any unintended consequences for this, but I admit I worry that the value mental problem solving, and the sweat equity involved to do so, is missing from our youth today.  I remember thinking about work problems for days, only to solve them days later in a moment of silence.  I felt happiness from that, figuring out something on my own, giving it time, making by brain work for it.

Today, if kids don’t know the answer to something, they just look up the answer.  Done.  Move on to a new topic.  No debates, bets, or dialog.  Like it’s a waste of time to actually sit and think about something.

That night, I asked Dad why he said the word “Ohio” out loud during mass that morning.  He said that days before, his trivia calendar asked to name the three states that were four-letter words.  He immediately recalled Iowa and Utah, but couldn’t remember the third one.

Days later, it came to him: Ohio.  And, with it, a smile.  He had figured it out on his own, at his pace.  Thanks Dad!