Look for Unexpected Leaders, Or Be One

I’m finding myself inspired by unexpected leaders: people I think I know, people I don’t know but am surprised by.

We crave leadership when tragedy hits. A young colleague of mine was killed on Saturday in a late-night car wreck. She was 23 years old, a single mom who left 3-year old son. Very few people know what to do when a tragedy likes this hits the workplace. An all-hands meeting was held, tears were shed, flowers brought, work efforts encouraged. It was another colleague, a man who’d raised a son, who said, “All I can think about is my son,” and volunteered to set up a scholarship fund for the boy, an action that could change that child’s life.

Then, driving home, I heard a familiar twang on the radio newscast.  It was former President George W. Bush taking full aim at, if not the sitting president directly, his actions on:

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Former President George W. Bush with his wife, Laura

  1. Immigration
  2. The free press (think about that one, coming from a man who was tarred, feathered and ridden out of town on a rail by the aforementioned press)
  3. Pre-election communications with Russia.  Will Bush, like his predecessor Nobel Prize winner Jimmy Carter, it his leadership stride after his presidency ends?

Did Laura put him up to it?  We’ll never know. But we listen to people who have survived and learned from failure and blame.

Credentials don’t make a leader.  I was reminded me of a conversation I’d had in late December with a friend who knew U.S. District Judge Janis Graham Jack.

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Federal Judge Janis Jacks

In 2016, Jack ruled that the Texas foster care system violates children’s rights.  Essentially, she sued the State of Texas for its appalling, ongoing neglect of the children consigned to its care. She sued the state.  My friend, who knew Judge Jack early in her career, commented on her lack of high-powered credentials.  “Can you imagine,” he said, “She took them all on (the State of Texas elected officials) to take care of our kids.”

In these interesting times, look around for leaders — or be one yourself.  Take positive action, be clear and pave the way for others to follow. We need you.

 

Women: If It’s Your Talk; Lead

I recently sat in on two consecutive presentations given by women – the first, by a software consultant; the second by a director of marketing for a startup company.  Both women were somewhere around 30, casually dressed and clearly competent. One controlled her audience; the other did not. Here’s what happened:

“Your opinion, while interesting is irrelevant”

The  audience of about 50 software engineers sat quietly and took notes during the consultant’s presentation. Maybe they were younger and less experienced. Maybe their mothers taught them good manners. They photographed slides and asked a handful of questions during the presentation but mostly waited for a discussion period at the end.

In loved the quote the second speaker opened with, You opinion while interesting, is irrelevant.” She then poked fun at herself, saying she was director of marketing because there was no one else in her department. She characterized her company as simple and straightforward; her market as full of people who were bored on Fridays.  She got as far as her first slide before two men began critiquing her process. Their comments, though interesting, were irrelevant to the rest of us, and time-consuming.

Be like Beyonce:  Ask for feedback. Look for it. Give it. 

I wondered if she wanted to have more of a collaboration with her audience  rather than a traditional presentation. But 30 minutes and two slides into the pitch, it became clear that she was not in control. We’ve all been there at some point in our careers, and I know this woman will learn from this experience.In fact, in describing how she shares her data with others in her company, she told a story of  Beyonce’s immediately critiquing each of her performances, sending night-of feedback to her back-up performers.

Be professional; never, ever minimize your professionalism or what you have to say 

Speaking to a group of people you don’t know is a challenge, any way you cut it. But there are ways to hedge your bets and set yourself up to be successful:

  • Dress the part. Don’t fool yourself: Men can get away with dressing more casually than women can.  Dress the part you’re playing. If you’re an executive, look like one.
  • Define your expertise, don’t inflate it but don’t minimize it either.
  • Set clear guidelines for your audience. If in doubt, use the tried and true
    • Tell them what you’re going to tell them: “I’ll spend 20 minutes outlining my process, leaving 15 minutes for your questions and comments …”
  • If someone in the audience insists on interrupting, stick to your guns:  “Let me finish outlining my process, then your question will make more sense…”  Practice this; you’ll become more witty and charming, always a good thing.

 

Image result for facing an audience

Should You Be Following @Alexey_Pushkov?

Get used to Google Translate. The conversation is global. The subject ranges from cars to politics to espionage to health care, but the message is the same: keep your ears open and your eyes on the road ahead because it’s not going to look like the one behind you.

 

This week alone, Ford’s no-factory-in- Mexico announcement, which yes, was about jobs – fewer, higher-skilled jobs for people who can help build the company’s leadership in “autonomous” (self-driving) and electric vehicles. The IP may stay in Michigan, but it will be tested and applied globally in some of the world’s most “challenging” traffic conditions. Because the future is about renewable technology and multi-modal transportation.

Paying attention is not easy.  What stood out in reading David Sanger’s analysis of the American intelligence agencies report on Russian influence on the recent election, was not that the intrusions were undetected, it’s that so much going on, it was impossible to see the forest for the trees. Then, lo and behold, Alexey Pushkov, a member of the Russian Parliament, is tweeting about how silly you are to imagine such things. The future will continue to be a global one and maybe not the one we imagined.

I tend to be goal oriented but have learned to pull back and consider that the most unlikely outcome may be the one that comes to fruition. Having a role in sales has been particularly instructive:  focus on possibilities, not outcomes. There is no magic bullet, only a reminder to get enough sleep, keep your skills current and stay open.

NOTE:  Getting back to Google Translate, if you’ve haven’t read Gideon-Lewis Kraus’ “Going Neural,” make it a priority. Think about it in terms of our fear of change.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Weighing the Trans-Pacific Partnership on a Larger Scale

Two statistics alone — that 96 percent of the world’s consumers and 80 percent of the world’s purchasing power are outside the United States — should insure our attention is riveted on the first of President Obama’s signature trade deals, the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), as it bobs before an un-receptive Congress in a lame-duck year.

 

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Ambassador Charles Rivkin, the State Department’s assistant secretary of Bureau of Economic and Business Affairs

This week TPP evangelist Charles Rivkin was in town to talk about the state of the deal and its benefit to the small businesses and tech startups that make up 95% of Austin’s economy. Ambassador Rivkin is no empty suit. His blue-chip credentials in technology, entertainment and business include negotiating the $1B sale of the Jim Henson company. A self-effacing speaker, he cited a nickname, “Don Quixote,” for promoting causes he believes in (like President Obama).

 

Trade is a complex topic that quickly becomes emotional. But Ambassador Rivkin did something interesting:  he inched the discussion out of the “what” category (jobs) and into another, more properly labeled “how.” Framing TPP as a once-in-a blue-moon opportunity to “raise the standards of international trade” — climate change, endangered species, human rights — while also touting the benefits to specific sectors of the economy. In technology, for example, TPP is the first trade deal to address intellectual property.

Windmill alert:  Watchdog groups like the Electronic Frontier Foundation and Public Citizen oppose the deal, which doesn’t go far enough for their respective publics. EFF in particular is worried the deal will hamper investigative journalism and openness while endangering privacy. Nobel Laureate and Columbia business professor Joseph Stiglitz, an advisor to Mrs. Clinton’s campaign, is also against it, pointing out that financial industry, as always it seems, gets off lightly, as do pharmaceuticals and big business in general.

But other voices support Ambassador Rivkin’s argument. The New York Times’ Nathaniel Popper’s nonlinear look at trade deals cites  TPP supporter David Autor (“China Shock”):

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Courtesy of Paul Windle, the New York Timescites TPP supporter David Autor (“China Shock”): TPP:

 

“The gains to the people who benefited are so enormous — they were destitute,m and now they were brought into the global middle class…The fact that there are adverse consequences in the United States should be taken seriously, but it doesn’t tilt the balance.”

In other words, trade can be seen as a tool to offset economic aid, or as Popper concludes, the benefits of trade have to be evaluated on both sides of the transaction.

Nobel Prize winner Paul Krugman is a bit pithier: “Politicians should be honest and realistic about trade, rather than taking cheap shots. Striking poses is easy; figuring out what we can and should do is a lot harder.”

Any way you cut it, I’m glad we have a savvy Don Quixote at work on TPP.

 

 

 

 

Look for Opportunities to Experiment and Master

The term “entrepreneur” is becoming synonymous with a fearlessness in taking the next step,   be it in business, the arts, urban planning, engineering and the sciences.  Fascinating piece about Mark Rabineau, a cultural entrepreneur who is spearheading a program to train musicians for the world we live in –  diverse, disruptive, uncertain. One of his guest lecturers is the cellist Yo-Yo Ma whose ever-expanding repertoire spans classical, jazz, Americana, pop and — my personal favorite – Sinatra.  I’ve never heard Ma labelled a jack-of-all-trades, a generalist or a dilettante. Because he’s made each of these classifications his own: the music is his, not vice versa.

I’ve been thinking about this balance between experimentation and mastery. I haven’t yet had the opportunity to apply Liberating Structures in any meaningful way.  But I look forward to

Two (or more) heads are better than one when there is a disciplined process in place.

doing so soon.  This representation of an LS work session (right) shows how a team approached a backlog issue. I want to compare it with the Agile folks’ approach the same kind of problem.  LS recommends a long butcher-roll paper stretched across a wide space for participants to mark their own thoughts and ideas. It’s reminiscent of a Sunni Brown doodle-thinking tool, executed on a the scale of a group.  Then, how do you to take the idea to the executive team?

 

Here’s what I’m learning:  Tap into other disciplines. Find your tool set. Stay open and work hard. Look for opportunities to practice and experiment.

 

 

 

 

Trying a New Approach to Collaboration, Large and Small

When I think of horrific meeting experiences, my mind rewinds to a hands-on seminar I led years ago for Apple. The objective was to introduce teachers to Apple’s desktop. It was a group presentation with auditorium-style seating and keyboards for participants to use in conjunction with the talk. About 10 minutes into my sch-peel, a tiny grandmotherly-looking woman stood up and said to the group: “We’re not idiots. Why do we have to listen to this person, let’s just do this!”  And away they went, clicking happily along in utter chaos. That was point my boss walked in. Needless to say it was an interesting debrief.

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The 20th century approach to informing, educating and convincing a group of people. 

I thought about that woman this week during a Liberating Structures workshop led by Keith McCandless (who wrote the book) and Anna Jackson who spearheads an LS meetup group here in Austin. Is there a better way to inform, collaborate, teach and motivate a group of people?  I’m a newbie but I’d say the tools they introduced me to are the best I’ve seen so far. I can see how they could work in all kinds of organizations. The idea is to tweak the feng shui of group interactions – topic, space, pacing, participation – and deploy a set of tools that better focus and distribute the conversation among the people who matter.

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Are there more possibilities here? Bigger group, more leaders. See the 1-2-4-All tool.  

You can read more on the Liberating Structures website. It lists all the tools and gives you a menu of when/how to apply them.

Since I haven’t applied it yet, the results are theoretical. But hey, if it works for The World Bank and The Gates Foundation, I’m all in. I’m intrigued about seeing how the tools would work cross-culturally, in situations where some of the participants are remote (there’s a technology conversation) and when selling one’s ideas to executives.

More to come.  I only wish I, like Merlin, could live backwards: Just think how I could have helped and gained from that woman who was so frustrated and anxious to learn so long ago.  I hope she’s running a company somewhere.

 

 

Stuck in a Habit: Is Predictive Adaptation Possible?

Editor’s Note:  I was thinking about this post in terms of a session on Predictive Adaptation I sat in on last month. Dr. Liz Alexander moderated. She is considering a book on the subject which boils down to:

Can we stay tuned in enough to adapt prior to a change in our marketplace?

As the shelf life of companies grows shorter and shorter, the ability to adapt is on the short list of survival strategies. How do we cultivate it? One way is to not be stuck in our habits.

I’m a tea drinker, I have a teapot with an infuser, numerous immersion devices and a cabinet stuffed full of teas – black, herbal, medicinal, green. When I drank coffee, it was the same scenario, with different props. My freezer was full of Peets’ (now, alas, part of Starbucks) Major Dickinson blend and my cabinet, coffee brewers — drip, stovetop, percolator, French and Italian press – you get the drift.

Habits can lock us into rigid ways of thinking and doing.

Habits can lock us into rigid ways of thinking and doing. The solution?  Try something new.

Two weeks ago I ran out of tea. I reordered in a such a panic that I used an old address.  My tea — a special blend I’d grown to depend on to get me out of the door in the morning — never arrived. The tea blender refused to fix the delivery snafu.  So I didn’t reorder.

That’s how one habit (getting in a snit when things didn’t go my way) forced me to re-evaluate another (my tea drinking compulsions).  I was forced to rethink that morning ritual. Now I’m brewing tea bags (Choice) I buy at the grocery store.  I don’t enjoy my tea nearly as much, but it’s saving me time. Unintended consequence:  I’m actually getting to work on time.

Habits can be helpful, but they can also lock us into position. I’ve noticed that whatever it is hoard is a habit – wine, ice cream, tea, coffee, graham crackers. In the same way, my response to the tea blender was a habit — he chided me about my carelessness, I felt like a bad child, and I didn’t want anything more to do with him.  Other habits I’ve flagged since my tea disruption:

  • Who I greet in the morning
  • Where I walk the dog
  • What I do with my spare time
  • Who I telephone to spend time with
  • How I think about my abilities (and shortcomings)
  • The books I read
  • How I view people with ideas that are different from mine

A search on “habits” took my to former Googler Matt Cutts’ Ted Talk, “Try Something New for 30 Days.” (Editorial note:  Why is the guys can look like slobs and the women have to look like they’re ready for the Academy Awards?)  Regardless, I’ve resolved, for at least 30 days (when Choice tea bags will probably already be my new habit), not to reorder tea.  We’ll see what happens.

Who knows what I’ll discover.