A Question of Community

There’s a continuum (and a conundrum) between the social distancing mandated by the coronavirus pandemic and the vitality of our communities. Ancient Athens and a Nazi concentration camp remind us how much we need each other.

Surrounded by my four walls, I’ve been thinking about ancient Athens, which for a single generation, from 454 to 430 B.C., erupted in pure genius. In a perfect storm of creative class-like action, its citizens founded the Western world. Our systems of government, science, philosophy, law, the arts and education are outgrowths of those 24 years.

Athenians valued civic life above all else. Rich and poor lived in similar kinds of housing and ate the same plain fare. People congregated: the rich mixed with the poor, foreigners were welcomed, eccentrics praised, and differences tolerated. The author Eric Weiner writes the condemned Socrates chose death over exile from his beloved Athens.

In time, what Weiner describes as a “creeping vanity” set in. The global city grew insular. The rich built big, showy houses. The streets became wider, the differences between the haves and the have nots, more glaring. Foreigners were shunned. Political divisions erupted. Athens went to war with Sparta. Farmland was destroyed. Tolerance dwindled.

https://knowledge.wharton.upenn.edu/article/eric-weiner-genius-book-interview/
Ancient Athens was a place of genius where life was lived in the public eye. Photo/Wharton School of Business / The Geography of Genius by Eric Weiner

In 430 B.C., a plague killed nearly two-thirds of this dense city’s population. One of its victims was the great Pericles, who had been censured in the city’s political upheaval. A series of despots and tyrants rose to power. After a brief period of peace, war resumed, and Athens was absorbed into Sparta. Some historians have postulated the plague was caused by the Ebola virus, a coronavirus.

The density conundrum

https://www.worcesterart.org/exhibitions/past/hope-and-healing/sweerts_plague_detail.htm
Plague in Ancient City by Michael Sweerts. Photo / Los Angeles County Museum of Art

Years ago I visited the concentration camp Terezin outside of Prague. More than 150,000 Jews were sent to the camp; some 17,000 survived. I remember a guide commenting that the very act of crowding the Jews together so densely gave them the power of community. Artists, philosophers, musicians and scientists suffered alongside their fellows. There were no differences among them.

In 1944, the composer and conductor Rafael Schächter conducted a chorus of 150 prisoners singing Verdi’s massive “Requiem.” The performance was part of a Nazi propaganda initiative for a Red Cross inspection, and as chilling as the story is, I can’t help but wonder how much strength that beautiful project gave Schächter, his singers and their imprisoned audience.

The Czech composer Rafael Schächter conducting a chorus of Jewish prisoners at Terezin in their performance of Verdi’s “Requim.” Schächter was sent to the gas chambers soon afterwards.

The other thing I remember about visiting Terezin was a compulsion to leave as quickly as possible and never return, so vivid is the stamp imprinted by the place.

The need for foundations centered around people

We are not victims. We’ve ignored the Cassandras and their warning signals. We’ve pushed the natural world to a state of dry tinder and its inhabitants to homelessness, starvation and flea markets. There is a natural cycle to things, a cause and effect.

Will technology to save us? It will certainly help those who have the time and tools to use it, hopefully including both children and adults in need of a good education. It will continue to enrich those who create and dominate it. But, without guard rails, it will also drive us down the same path we’ve been on.

Dr. Vivek H. Murthy, a former surgeon general of the United States, has championed the role of happiness in health, including maintaining a vital social safety net. Quoted in a recent column on social distancing, he says:

“If we want to be a stronger, more resilient society, we have to focus on rebuilding foundations centered around people.”

Dr. Vivek H. Murthy, author and former surgeon general of the United States

If we learn anything from history, it’s that nothing lasts forever, and everything has its price. Oh, and leadership matters.

Observations Made During a Search for Provisions, Day 7 of the Covid-19 Pandemic

Is insatiable hunger a symptom of Covid-19?

Everyone is talking about how things will be. How will they be? I have no idea. What I do know is that people are afraid, which makes them very hungry. Some also feel the need to explain why they’re not following the usual courtesies. Some observations made today, Day 7 of the pandemic:

A man scanning the empty aisles of our largest neighborhood grocery store, “I guess I better come early in the morning. They clear the shelves by afternoon.” Indeed, all the raisins are gone. Ditto the Goya beans, my favorite. Ah! I snag a box of golden raisins, pushed to the back of the bottom shelf. Who are “they,” I wonder, and where are “they” putting all of this food?

Is insatiable hunger a symptom of Covid-19? (Lauren Canterberry/Community Impact Newspaper)

Pet food, fully stocked. Should I worry about the cats and dogs? My staple Earl Grey tea, all brands. Gone. And I thought I was surrounded by coffee drinkers.

The checker at the same grocery store. He’s about 18. I try to make him laugh by asking where all the groceries were going. I get a smile as he shakes his head. “I don’t know. Don’t they know things go bad?” Together we wonder when we’ll all settle down, perhaps to a very large shared meal with lots of beans and raisins.

A woman opening the door of the UPS Store with her elbow as I approach sheltered behind a 36-in by 36-in box (the lamp my sister has rejected which I couldn’t return to the store which had closed overnight from the day I called to see if they were open): “I’d open the door for you except for this coronavirus thing.” The door closes just as I reach it. I’m impressed that she explains her actions to me.

Is it time to shop online? Should I worry about the environmental implications of paying Amazon Prime $13/month to bring me tea and raisins instantaneously? What about all those young delivery people who have no health insurance? Perhaps a victory garden in the flower pots on my balcony would work.

Like Scarlet O’Hara, I vow to think about it, not tomorrow, but next week when I run out of greens.

Take care. Be safe, and yes, if at all possible, stay home.

Communicating During a Crisis

Six takeaways from the U.S. response to the Covid-19 pandemic

In a crisis, nothing is more important — aside from saving lives — than clear, consistent communication. Our present crisis, the Covid-19 pandemic — offers some vivid lessons in Crisis Communications 101.

(1) Take responsibility. Have a plan. Trust is everything.

Leadership, leadership, leadership. At the helm of crisis management is a trusted, credible leader supported by a project team with a designated spokesperson and a group of experts germane to addressing situation, each with a clearly-defined role. This team is the source — through multiple channels — of clear, consistent messaging and regular updates.

(2) Deliver the facts clearly, accurately, and on a regular schedule. (Do not lie, obfuscate or bluster.)

A crisis is not the time to wing it. Don’t lie or offer false reassurance. I understand the pressure to deny the reality of a bad situation. But in the end all is revealed, and it’s just not worth it.

We’ve been blessed in Dr. Anthony Fauci, the director of the National Health Institute’s National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, who has the credentials (2008 Presidential of Freedom for his work with HIV/AIDS) and credibility to steer a rational response and call a spade a spade.

Brene Brown reminds us that we are at our worst when we’re in fear. Address the why/who/what/when to lessen isolation. Help communities figure out how to care for those who don’t have the money, mobility or transportation to prepare. Consider how to give people opportunities to help, despite social distancing. Despite an uptick in first-time gun sales, you probably don’t need an AR-15.

A dedicated website. If Google is developing it, that’s great, because a central repository of accurate information is pivotal.

Microscopic view of Coronavirus, a pathogen that attacks the respiratory tract. Analysis and test, experimentation. Sars. 3d render (Getty Images 1200706447)

(3) Stay out of the forecasting business.

Fact: No one knows the future. Set realistic expectations based on the information on hand and leave prognostication to soothsayers. They have disclaimers.

No vaccine or treatment exists for Covid-19. It takes 18-24 months to develop a vaccine for an unknown virus such as the one that causes the disease. The timeline is mandated by federal law which regulates the licensing of vaccines which require a series of clinical trials, animal and human. Here’s an interesting take from Dr. Jason McLellan, a scientist at the University of Texas who has been studying coronaviruses for years, and is working on a Covid-19 vaccine.

Given our proven lack of forecasting abilities, setting a deadline for the end of a crisis, particularly as it unfolds, opens the door to panic and blame.

(4) Use clearly-defined terms.

Hats off to Wired for a clear explanation of the pandemic’s terminology. Coronavirus refers to a family of viruses; SARS-CoV-2 is the name of the germ that causes the disease, and Covid-19 is the disease itself. Coronaviruses are so-called because the germs that cause the disease latch onto cells in a circular formation, like a crown or corona (see the image, above).

(5) Set clear guidelines and explain why.

At heart, we’re all children. We need rules. So give us clear guidelines, tell us why, and enforce them. That way, we know how to respond. The guardrails are in place.

Covid-19 differs from other coronaviruses in that its more contagious. With no vaccine in place, curtailing the virus’ spread is step one. If this means curfews, tell us and make it a national rule. We’ll adapt. Voluntary compliance is rarely effective. If you doubt this, check your neighbor’s (or maybe your) recycling bin. You’ll find the definition of “clean glass, paper and a very limited range of plastics” is far broader than you could have imagined.

(6) Remind people what’s most important.

Our culture is built on community. That’s how we earn a living, worship and create family and community bonds. And therein lies the biggest hurdle (and lesson) of Covid-19. I have no doubt that how we respond will define us for the foreseeable future. There are some really interesting things happening virtually which I’m exploring and will write about in a future blog.

Let’s learn our lessons well. My take: Give us accurate information. Deliver it consistently, through sources that we can trust. That way, we can follow the rules, take care of our neighbors and the vulnerable. And remember to take care of the environment because ultimately, that’s what we depend on.

Meetings Aren’t Getting You Where You Want to Go? Try Something New

Are you getting the most out of the time you’re spending in meetings? Try Liberating Structures, a set of tools that cultivates a focused purpose and broad participation.

I thrive on early mornings but shun early-morning meetings. For me, morning is thinking time. Even summoning the power of speech before 9 am takes an effort. Nevertheless on Valentine’s Day, I led a group from the Women Communicators of Austin in dismantling their usual way of doing things to try a different approach.

Juggling bowls of oatmeal and cinnamon rolls, we took the bull by the horns and experimented with Liberating Structures, a set of collaborative tools that focuses shared participation on an articulated purpose. In this experiment, the purpose of the meeting was the answer to a question: “What is keeping you from doing what you want to do?”

Never start a meeting without a clear purpose. Here, Monique Correon, WCA Careers Over Coffee coordinator, focus on how we can get the results we want.

Harnessing the collective problem solver

Most people approach meetings the way they do weddings and funerals: This is how we do it, making the results predictable. According to the Harvard Business Review, 90% of the people at your last meeting are daydreaming. Seventy-three percent are doing other work. If you care about your time and productivity, it’s a problem.

But we are social creatures; shared ideas and approaches are our secret sauce, the can of spinach Popeye pops open to defeat his arch-nemesis, Brutus. When we harness the meeting format, those shared ideas are transformed into what the New York Times columnist David Brooks recently described as “gatherings” where:

“…traits (like): open-mindedness, flexibility, listening skills, team-building skills and basic human warmth. In this saga, leaders are measured by their ability to expand relationships, not wall them off.”

Too blue sky?  Maybe not.

Too much control or too little structure?

The answer to the meeting conundrum lies somewhere between fluidity and control, neither so tightly orchestrated the meeting’s structure sucks the spontaneity out of the discussion, nor so loose it degenerates into interminable chaos. Liberating Structures uses simple exercises based on 10 basic principles:

  • Never start without a clear purpose
  • Practice deep respect for people and local solutions
  • Include and unleash everyone (each person is given equal time)
  • Build trust as you go
  • Learn by failing forward
  • Practice self-discovery within a group
  • Amplify freedom and responsibility
  • Emphasize possibilities:  believe before you see
  • Invite creative destruction to make space for innovation
  • Engage in seriously playful curiosity

What we did: an early-morning example, with oatmeal:

The session began by establishing its purpose, why each of use was there. Because we were a diverse group with different roles and backgrounds, I made it a personal challenge, the answer to my question, “What is keeping you from doing what you want to do?

What followed was a series of linked exercises, each prompted by a question related to their challenge. Participants moved randomly around the room, sharing their challenge with others, deepening their understanding of its nature and sharing commonalities.

To rediscover forgotten resources and insights, each person worked alone, then sequentially with one and then three others, to share a personal success. Finally, we explored, individually and in small groups, what actions can be now to address the challenge. To respect everyone’s time, each exercise was timed.  

Liberating Structures builds trust and engagement by starting with small interactions and building to larger ones. Here, WCA President Jenny Magic (right) talks with Laura, a new member and new Austinite.

Failing forward

Monique Carreon, the meeting coordinator, a marketing manager at EOS, a tech startup that uses Agile methodology. Agile is terrific for software development, but it doesn’t solve the problem is giving each participant the opportunity to engage. Monique was completely engaged from our first conversation. We debriefed afterwards here’s what we’ll do differently next time:

  • Arrange the space for movement and flexibility:  This was my biggest oversight. Open space encourages engagement. Finding the room already set up with a single long table, I opted against dismantling it. More space would have made it easier to reconfigure the groups and maximize networking.  As a result, although the small groups were active, there was minimal overall group contribution.
  • Engage everyone equally:  I timed the small groups, but I did not time individual contributions. Had I done so, it would have equalized each person’s talk time and more fully encouraged listeners to talk.
  • Clarify and reinforce the meeting’s purpose: To be valuable, the discussion must tie back to the reason for the meeting. I didn’t brief latecomers and as a result, they were unable to participate fully.  

Nothing Ventured …

As WCA member, mentor and attention management expert Maura Nevel Thomas advises, “If you’re a leader, I encourage you to collaborate with other managers to take a fresh look at how you handle meetings.”

Liberating Structures is a living online collaborative. Over 30 structures are posted on the website, ready for application. If you have a virtual team, try using it with Zoom! for team meetings. Questions? There is a dedicated Slack channel. LS is used by the Gates Foundation, the World Bank, the U.S. Army, IBM, many nonprofits, and just maybe — you. Meetups and collaboratives are alive worldwide, so check it out:

Meetups in Austin, Texas; check for one in your area:

Room set up makes a big difference. Our interactions would have been more broadly distributed if the long table had been dismantled into smaller groupings. Even so, our approach got people thinking and talking about how to have better meetings.

Trading the Eagle for a $ Sign

The eagle is America’s canary in a coal mine: As global warming accelerates, the agencies in charge of managing its impacts on our health will no longer issue clear-cut guidelines to protect Americans from life-threatening pollution and habitat loss. Rather, the government has decided to take a case-by-case approach to protecting us, our land and the animals we share it with.

When you reach the mezzanine of the LBJ Presidential Library as I did recently, turn, and you find yourself dwarfed by an immense presidential seal. At its center is the bald eagle, the symbol of both the United States of America and the office of its president. The scale and power of that symbol take your breath away.

But the eagle, tagged as the Endangered Species Act’s greatest success story, has fallen out of favor. Our government has decided to measure its value on the open market and reward the highest bidder.

Monetizing the environment

Bald eagles live in trees along waterways where they can nest and fish. Wetlands, prized by developers and vulnerable to hurricanes, droughts, floods, effluence and all manner of disruptions, are rich, bio-diverse ecosystems the EPA compares to coral reefs and rain forests noting, “More than one-third of the United States’ threatened and endangered species live only in wetlands, and nearly half use wetlands at some point in their lives.” 

Like global financial markets, habitats are finely balanced. We tip the balance when we just don’t know any better, which is why clear-cut rules are so important. Water transmutes from rain to groundwater, to wetlands, to streams, each vulnerable in itself and as part of an interdependent ecosystem. Like the DDT which decimated eagle populations 50 years ago, contaminants flow into streams, rivers and seep into wetlands, poisoning fish, animals and humans.

Declaring war against ourselves

The Environmental Protection Agency and the Department of the Interior, charged with protecting our air, water and eagles, have been busy. Among their tsunami of actions is the “modernization” of the 1973 Environmental Species Act. New rules replace the Act’s clear-cut guidelines with a case-by-case approach, inserting subjectivity into legal determinations of whether protection is warranted. If the agencies’ track record is any indication, the government has refused to act even when the science is clear, and its own scientists recommend protection.

Consider the pesticide chlorpyrifos, cited by the EPA as the “most used conventional insecticide” and its own staff scientists as “dangerous.” Chlorpyrifos is sprayed on 50 of the crops we eat (broccoli, anyone), animal feed. Plan to call Mosquito Sam to get rid of those mosquitos in your yard or on the golf course?  Chances are Sam will use chlorpyrifos. The ear tags used to identify cattle in feed lots are treated with it, as are wooden fences. It travels into our homes via indoor bait traps and the produce we eat. It’s been found in carpets and on children’s toys. If studies on rats are any indication, it attacks the nervous system and can cause attention-deficit disorders and hyperactivity in children. It kills birds, bees and is absorbed into the tissues of fish and whatever eats them, just as the DDT decimated our eagles decades ago.

What is an eagle worth?

The government will use a mathematical model to weigh the value of monetizing its habitat by say, calculating projected logging revenue against preserving the trees where the eagles nest. The problem?  Subjectivity. A July 2019 analysis by Jim Damicis of the economic development consultancy Camoin Assoc., predicts the logging industry will decline over the next five years “driven by a slowdown of housing construction from recent peaks and from increased foreign competition.” Where’s the money?  More environmentally sustainable alternatives.

As for wetlands, critical to flood protection as well as wildlife preservation?  How does our eagle compare with a new resort?

There will be a reckoning

Outside, the temperature tops 99 degrees. The creek outside my window has been dry for over two months. Maps of the American West are the color of dried blood from drought. Our children are suing our government for its refusal to take positive action on global warming, emboldened by a 16-year with the audacity to sail across the Atlantic and tell Congress to pay attention to the science, and act.

Stacks displaying LBJ’s presidential papers occupy one vast wall of the LBJ Presidential Library.
Photo: New York Times

Standing there on the mezzanine of the LBJ Presidential Library, turn away from the eagle and face the opposite direction. Now you face President Johnson’s papers, bound in red. It’s the reckoning of one man’s efforts to fill what’s been called the most powerful office in the world. Johnson passed the Civil Rights Bill and passed Medicare and Medicaid into law. But he forfeited his legacy fighting a war against a perceived foreign threat.

The current administration is fighting a war against the air, land and water we depend on. There will be a reckoning.

The First Americans’ “Send Them Back,” Retold

“Send them back” is an echo from the first Americans, the Native Americans , whose Ghost Dances were the inspiration for Jeffrey Gibson’s stunning “This Is the Day” exhibit which challenges us to rethink our culture and traditions for a new time.

Walking through Jeffrey Gibson’s extraordinary installation, “This Is the Day,” you hear an echo: “Send them Back.”

Gibson, a gay Native American artist, draws inspiration from the Ghost Dance Movement of the 1890’s, a religious movement that united the Plains Indians in the hope their rituals would banish the white settlers and the U.S. government from their lands.

In one of America’s blackest moments, the tribes’ community terrified the U.S. Army. Fear trumped any better angels, and we are left with the massacre at Wounded Knee.

But this is not the story Gibson tells. He invites everyone to the party, mixing old trading post blankets with Biblical verses and lines from pop tunes. He moves us forward.

“Somehow the past has to situate itself within the present.”

Jeffrey Gibson

“This Is the Day” asks us to come up with a better ending to a story riddled with fear and racism.

A screenshot from Gibson’s video “I Was Here,” which follows Marcy, a trans Native American woman living on a reservation in Mississippi. Gibson follows her as she gets ready to go to work as a waitress in a casino. This still is a ties together a story of courage in the face of racism and prejudice.

Stories can conquer fear, you know. They can make the heart bigger.

Ben Okri

This Is the Day” is at the Blanton Museum of Art in Austin, Texas through September, courtesy of Hamilton College’s Wellin Museum of Art. All the photographs are courtesy of Jeffrey Gibson and the Wellin Museum.

Business and Culture: Transatlantic Business Leaders Offer Advice, Wearing High Heels

Five business leaders walked onto the stage of the Texas-EU Summit to talk about managing transatlantic businesses. Two run European units based in the United States; two developed European units of U.S. practices; and one has done it all. Four wore stilettos.They didn’t have much time, and they had something to say. Not one wanted to be called out for her gender, and not one considered that remarkable.

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(L to R) Ana-Barbara Llorente, partner, Pendas International, moderator; Belen Marcos, president, Cintra US; Cristina Silingardi, Austin managing director, VCFO; Sharon Schweitzer, founder and principal, Access to Culture; and Liz Wiley, partner, Grable Martin Fulton PLLC and honorary consul of France

The hardest thing: Finding and keeping talent

Without question, the biggest challenge confronting a European company in the United States is finding and retaining talent. “Americans’ resumes look great, but you have to train them,” said Belen Marcos, president of Cintra US, one of the world’s largest private developers of infrastructure. Marcos, an engineer by training, noted that in Europe educational credentials are paramount. Americans job-hop more than European hires. They tend to specialize and resist working in areas outside their specialty.

“Europeans are generalists. They expect to do many different jobs.”

Belen Marcos, president, Cintra US

Navigating European statutory regulations

Disruptive business models challenge both business and cultural norms. Consider the vacation rentals that have turned many traditional neighborhoods into latchkey hotels. Cristina Silingardi, a Brazilian with deep finance experience, helped Austin-based HomeAway successfully navigate the sticky process of integrating acquisitions in both Spain and Brazil.

“Understand the statutory regulations before you do business … It went off without a hitch.”

Cristina Silingardi, Austin managing director, VCFO

“Contracts are part of the law in Europe,” said Liz Wiley, an attorney and partner, Grable Martin Fulton PLLC. who specializes in intellectual property.

“Very little if anything can be negotiated (in Europe). Expect negotiations to take much longer.”

Belen Marcos, president, Cintra US

Marcos knows a thing or two about the subject. Her company Cintra is part of the Spanish infrastructure provider Ferrovial. She and her team negotiate the construction and long-term management of roads, airports and concessions, many of which are public-private partnerships.

Belen Marcos (holding microphone), president of Cintra US, negotiates infrastructure contracts in Europe and the U.S.: “It takes longer in Europe because of statutory regulations.”

Codes vs. negotiation. Consider privacy.

Europe is not a monolith. Both EU and country-specific regulations come into play when determining who owns what. For example, “the EU has the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), but France has its own data protection authority, the CNIL, which handles GDPR complains and defends the French position with GDPR-related issues,” said Wiley

“The United States is not a code country,” commented Wiley, “We make our own deals.”

Liz Wiley, partner, Grable Martin Fulton PLLC

Wiley, whose practice includes both French and American startups, recommends first filing for U.S. patent protection, then filing in other countries to ward off infringements.

Soft skills matter

“When in doubt, err on the side of formality,” advises Wiley. And in the hurley-burley world of entrepreneurs, she recommends oral presentation training for cautious French startups that compete in the winner-take-all American pitch culture.

Sharon Schweitzer, principal, Access to Culture

Sharon Schweitzer’s company, Access to Culture, cross trains business people to be effective in other cultures. Recounting an incident where two older Czechs silenced their giggling younger colleagues with a steely glare, Schweitzer said the significance of a seemingly minor incident caught her by surprise.

But do high heels also matter?

The specter of political change is everywhere. Here too, dress is brand. This year’s Yellow Vest protests revealed the deep divide between France’s privileged class and rest of their country. As I’m writing this, on the other side of the world, young people in Hong Kong wear black and mourn a man in a yellow raincoat.

Remember Mark Zuckerberg’s testifying before Congress, stripped of his signature t-shirt and uncomfortable in a blue suit? Melania Trump in a white pussy-bow blouse and sky-high heels? Dress is political, and high heels stand unrivaled as a symbol of gender and power. Flip flops may reign in U.S. youth and tech enclaves, but search “business women” and you’ll find women in power in wearing heels — because they choose to.

In another culture where talent and a diverse work force weigh heavily on its future competitiveness, Japanese women unsuccessfully petitioned their government to ban gender-based dress codes (#KuToo), and specifically high heels. My guess is there’s another shoe to drop there.

In 1869, men in the Wyoming Territory needed wives. Politicians in Washington needed more voters in the Western territories. So Wyoming gave women the vote. John Morris wrote to a national magazine promoting women’s suffrage:

It is a fact that all great reforms take place, not where they are most needed, but in places where opposition is weakest; and then they spread.

John Morris, following the Wyoming Territory’s decision to give women the vote

“To be sustainable, change takes time,” Wiley noted. Would this panel have happened 30 years ago? 20? Maybe.

With that thought, I’m pulling out my high heels to wear sometime soon.

Hats off to Ana-Barbara Llorente and Pendas International, for sponsoring the panel, and the World Affairs Council of Austin for hosting.