When everyone is special, no one is…

I have talked and written a lot lately about my struggle with career stagnation and professional alienation. Over several years I have become more and more emotionally detached from my trained profession (medicine), and more and more drawn into my avocational pursuits (music, writing, film). With each passing year I understand better and better that these things are choosing me, as the saying goes. Yet as much as I’d like to tell you all an uplifting story about my courageous and bold leap from the safe to the fulfilling, it simply hasn’t happened.

Part of my stasis has been some very legitimate and necessary considerations for my family’s financial, educational, and geographic stability. But deep down I’ve suspected and feared that, even if those considerations were eventually covered, I still might not have the fortitude to make a change. Today, one of those suspicions surfaced long enough for me to really grab hold of it and take a long look.

Its roots go way, way back. Long before the years of clinical practice, before the rigors of residency, before the chaos of medical school, maybe all the way back to a kid who was forming his first sense of personal identity and ability. Somewhere along the line that passes through all these stages, I really started grooving on being special. And letting go of that groove may be the biggest hurdle between me and moving on to something that fits.

I’ve learned a lot along the way, but I haven’t been a rank beginner at anything for two decades and almost everything I had to do before that didn’t really make me suffer for it.  Not, at least, in any way that would make a meaningful and compelling story. This isn’t a boast of universal competence.  It’s just that when I’ve chosen things, I have regularly steered myself to the ones that came easy (with one notable exception, thank you dive school).

But when things choose you, you not free to steer anymore. You either get at peace with going somewhere off the charts, or you drop anchor and go nowhere. Most days I think I am probably standing at the gunwales, anchor in hand.  The thought of a new project or role that might highlight my ineptitude sets off something deep under the surface that makes pitiful excuses about how I don’t really want what I want.  It is a miserable sophistry hiding two simple truths. That the opportunity for most growth comes before you are ready to pay, and that you have to pay for things to matter. The issue isn’t whether I am ready for and brave enough to change. It’s whether I am brave enough to pay, ready or not.

Not sure how this will all turn out, but I will tell you that the anchor drill is getting kind of old.

Credit where credit is due

Been taking a little break in the run-up to the holidays, so my apologies to those of you dying to hear the next installment in my mason jar performance evaluation series…all three of you.  🙂

In the meantime, I wanted to share something I almost did really wrong today.  I was handed my first impossible mission for next year.  You know, one of those things where you’ve spent months on a business case, one of the few where the factors are clear and there really is a compelling course of action.  You might even have taken that compelling strategy all the way to completion, then been told we are going to go back and completely reverse that approach, that we are being driven by less tangible considerations into a strategy that does not have the business case as it’s central driver.  So please come up with a justification for going back to the way we used to do it.

Anyway, not the point.  One of my staff came by as I was roughing out my strategy for tackling this project next year.  She is not directly involved in the staffing model I was about to deconstruct, but was interested in what I was working on, so we chatted about the dilemma.  In one of my proposed models, she mentioned a way it might fill a need in another area where we didn’t currently have enough labor allocated.  It was a brilliant and elegant fix that could make the whole thing a huge win.

I didn’t intentionally rethink this as my idea.  It’s just that the comment was so off-hand, and I was still so in the mode of teaching her about the issue, that I didn’t realize she was making a suggestion for a solution.  After she left, I sat down to process what we had talked about and one of the things she had said triggered something that felt a lot more like my own idea.  It took a real deliberate effort to stop myself and wonder if that wasn’t the suggestion she meant all along.  There was literally a moment where my brain was stuck between telling my boss what a great idea I had, and going to my employee and asking her if “my” fix was what she had in mind when she made her comment.

Who and what we are as managers and leaders is nothing more or less than the sum total of what happens in these split second moments.  Happily, today I got it right.

The exquisite art of being present-MJPE #8

Quality performance feedback

Strip #8:  “You gave me your full attention in our meetings; I appreciated the feeling of being heard.”

Okay, confession time.  This can be SO hard for me.  My brain loves field trips, and heads off on it’s own at the drop of a hat.  Virtual meetings are the worst, especially if there is anything in it that is a weekly recurring topic.  My brain takes one look at the agenda and goes “Right…boring.  Later.”  Off it goes to play among the email and IM apps, while simultaneously tripling the amount of open browser tabs I’ve got going.

In-person meetings tend to keep us more honest, but it’s still all too easy to be somewhere else.  You can’t let it happen there, and you absolutely cannot let it happen one-on-one.  Yes, I know there are a few people out there who are completely oblivious to your inattention.  You almost certainly have some working for you, they are almost certainly in the minority, and you’ve almost certainly misidentified them.  Don’t risk it.

Besides, this is another one of those things where people seem to have really good radar no matter how good an actor you think you are.  They may not be able to pin down exactly why talking to you isn’t a positive experience, but don’t be fooled.  In their daily subconscious mental calculus, their brains will tend to progressively diminish the value of bringing things to you.

This is an easily avoided death-spiral that will choke off the vital supply of what I’ve come to think of as “lagniappe” communication.  A lagniappe is a term, mostly associated with Louisiana in the U.S., that refers to a little extra given beyond what is owed in a business transaction.  I’ve never met a successful leader who wasn’t bringing in loads of this daily, and who wasn’t working extremely hard to protect it.

Bottom line: People always notice, at one level or another, when you are not engaged in listening.  You’re not fooling them.  Don’t fool yourself.

-These quotes are from a jar that my team presented me as I was leaving to accept a promotion.  They are the impressions, thoughts, and ideas that they had come to associate with me during my time there.  I’ve decided to share them, and what I remember of how they came to be, with my readers as I draw them at random-

Mason jar performance evaluation-#7

Quality performance feedback

Strip #7:  “Thank you for the ALWAYS full candy bowl”

This is just one way of delivering on today’s bit of advice: Figure out a small thing that is really appreciated by the team, and provide it regularly. I kept a bowl of chocolate candies on the conference desk in my office.  I tried really hard to keep the good stuff in there (well, the nice Costco truffles anyway), although I must admit it occasionally held leftover Easter or Halloween candy.  The point is, when a day is getting out of hand, a small luxury can be the only high point.  It brought people to my office for something besides business, helped me spot who had drawn the short straw for pressure that day, and it probably didn’t hurt to create at least one positive association about being in my office, right?

Today’s bonus insight is perhaps a bit obvious but here it is anyway:  NEVER shrink from stealing someone else’s good idea.  I had watched someone on a previous team provide this same creature comfort to fellow employees.  I watched the ebb and flow of traffic around that office week after week.  Badness flowed into it and goodness flowed out.  Of course, I shamelessly stole the idea.

Look, these people are working hard for you and for the business.  They come in each day with the hope of being able to do a decent job, keep the business out of trouble, find problems before they get out of hand, and leave their mark on some achievement.  You can say “I appreciate that” every minute of every day, without saying anything.  Hell, without even being there.  How hard is that?

And if they are not coming in each day with all those hopes, let alone delivering on them?  Do it anyway.  This is step one of the trust cycle and you have to come out from behind your hill first.  Treat them as if they are pulling for you one hundred percent and make life a little nicer.  You can differentiate performance in lots of other ways.  Just pick something you can live with and use that one thing to treat everyone like a highly valued contributor.

Bottom line: There are lots of different kinds of carrots, but all sticks are pretty much the same.

-These quotes are from a jar that my team presented me as I was leaving to accept a promotion.  They are the impressions, thoughts, and ideas that they had come to associate with me during my time there.  I’ve decided to share them, and what I remember of how they came to be, with my readers as I draw them at random-

Mason jar performance evaluation-#6

Quality performance feedback

Strip #6:  “You do what you say you will do…keep it up!”

I’ve talked about this in a couple previous posts, so I am not going to spend too much time on it.   “Promises made, promises kept” seems to be making the circuit these days as the catchphrase for this concept, but I’ve found leaders often have blind spots here.  It’s all too easy to  subconsciously hedge, even if just momentarily, on whether a promise was ever made.  This is really risky behavior.  I could sacrifice almost any other leadership principle and survive, but never this one.

It is so easy to miss that a seemingly trivial request, something I gave just half a nod to yesterday, is the most important thing a team member is waiting on today.  You have to listen deliberately and answer every question with conscious commitment.  You have to be continuously aware in every exchange.  Not so much about whether you are making a promise, but about whether you are generating new expectations.  Your mental accountant has to be completely on point.  If 10 expectations get created, 10 answers are due, and part of you can’t rest until 10 are delivered.  You can be right on this a hundred times but if you get it wrong once, you’re back underwater again.

Bottom line: You really, really want this feedback.  From every employee.  On every team.

-These quotes are from a jar that my team presented me as I was leaving to accept a promotion.  They are the impressions, thoughts, and ideas that they had come to associate with me during my time there.  I’ve decided to share them, and what I remember of how they came to be, with my readers as I draw them at random-

Mason jar performance evaluation #5

Quality performance feedback

Strip #5:  “Your optimism has been a source of encouragement to keep the team working to improve…”

Hmmm…lots of subtext here, none of it comfortable.  There were some very hard times in this group in the year or two leading up to my joining them.  There were plenty of hard times after.  It would be easy to focus on the “optimism” and “encouragement” in this feedback, and not pay attention to the “…keep the team working to improve” bit.

There was desperate need for improvement, and no margin left to take our time achieving it.  We had to set a pretty relentless pace for change in the first several months, something I try very hard not to do in the first weeks of a new job.  The recent troubles had bred default  conservatism, risk aversion and widespread resistance to anything new, particularly if it involved judgement calls.  There were two things that had to be done immediately.

First, we had to set a completely different tone and expectation for the consequence of failures.  We established that our organization would become so good at achieving and maintaining quality, that other groups would want to model us.  We would develop recognized best practices for monitoring data, identifying abnormal patterns, troubleshooting the causes, and implementing fixes.  To this end, we expected everyone to redefine failure as an opportunity to learn how to be this organization.  Most importantly, I committed to a firm rule that the last person to touch a problem would never be offered up as the cause.

Second, I had to completely deliver on these promises.  Hence came the optimism.  Understand, I am a true believer in the systems approach to root cause analysis.  Not the 1950s “who is the root cause” kind of analysis, nor the 1980s “what is the root cause” kind, but the 21st century “why does our system allow errors to propagate into the failure we observed” kind.  I love this analysis.  It’s complex, it’s interesting, and it identifies all kinds of fixes that will actually work.  Huge possible wins here.  But you have to get the personalities and the personal blame out of it, or you will never get the defensiveness out of it, and the defensiveness will ensure no change lasts in your absence.

Every time we had a failure, I was the happiest guy in the room.  I was happy for the skills that had identified it.  I was happy for the courage demonstrated in reporting it.  I was happy for the work that was done to contain the problem.  I was happy for the fix ideas that were already being worked on.  At the risk of stating the obvious, this happiness does not simply refer to my inner emotional state.  It was what I was broadcasting all over the room, in every meeting, in every sidebar, in every email.  You have to win the messaging war on this one, and you do it by using every message to reward the behavior you want.

But never, ever forget: You will kill all of this forever the first time you point the finger at the last person who touched the failure.  Absent gross negligence, this kind of lazy management should always be off limits.

-Bottom line: Believe in what you think the team can be, make sure that belief is genuine, make sure they hear that belief in every way you communicate, and create a safe environment for failure.

-These quotes are from a jar that my team presented me as I was leaving to accept a promotion.  They are the impressions, thoughts, and ideas that they had come to associate with me during my time there.  I’ve decided to share them, and what I remember of how they came to be, with my readers as I draw them at random-

Mason jar performance evaluation #4

Quality performance feedback

Strip #4:  “To the best mediator, facilitator, delegator, and leader…you will be missed”

I hope this doesn’t seem too self serving, but after the last post where I was characterized as the chief leader into the weeds, I needed to build myself up a bit.  🙂

Not that this is really about me.  Remember, we are mining this feedback for insight into what the team values.  Whatever I did or didn’t do to bring it about really isn’t the point.  Look at what this person valued, and the order it was phrased.  Mediator, facilitator, delegator, leader.  Each one deserves its own mention.

Mediator: “Group conversation” is really an oxymoron since verbal communication just doesn’t work well in group environments.  Our brains can’t process more than one person’s input at a time, and they do a horrible job of taking 5 different opinions expressed in series, and integrating them all into a unified conclusion.  To make things worse, most of us aren’t really listening to those 5 different opinions anyway.  While they are being delivered, we are generally still thinking about what we want to say next.  I’m much more effective shutting up and monitoring the “shape” of a conversation, where it’s moving and how it’s changing as each voice is heard.  Once I think I have it, I’ll re-formulate where I think we are for the group, watch for the head nods, and then throw the reins back to them.  I try to contribute very few of my own thoughts or ideas.  I have plenty of other forums I can use to bring my them forward.  The team re-orients towards its goal, presses forward, and the whole cycle repeats until we arrive at agreement.  As tempting as it is to contribute, team meetings are for the team to be heard.

Facilitator: I hear this over and over again.  The help my teams want most is for me to get things out of their way.  They know what they want to do, they are confident they know how, but there are obstacles in the way that they simply don’t have the authority, access, or network contacts needed to remove them.  When I get a barrier moved, the team excels.  When I try to grab the wheel and show them how to drive over it, we often founder.

Delegator: If my boss is doing my work, what am I here for?  Teams will naturally fall into this line of thinking…because it is logical and factual!  Any remotely insightful team will come to this conclusion whenever you try and do their work.  Such a simple principle, with so many different ways to screw it up.  I think the reason is because our brains staunchly hide the truth from us every time we succumb to meddling. We get impatient and we get risk averse and both create un-admitted, unconscious anxiety, followed immediately by profound denial.  But you say no one really manages this way anymore, right?  Micro-management is such a well established no-no, there’s no way I’m doing that.  Right.  Well, like so many other things in life, there is a gap between what what we think we do and what we’re doing.  It’s like faking orgasm.  20% of people say a partner has faked, and 80% admit to faking.  You do the math (but not too carefully since my faking data is entirely made up and probably borrowed from Seinfeld: fake, fake, fake, fake).

When we let that anxiety create unconscious excuses to meddle, it is a breach of contract.

You heard me.  The “social contract” of management, often unspoken but at the very core of what we do, is “more risk for more money” or power, or perks, or whatever.  Most of that risk is wrapped up in the anxiety-provoking (yet absolutely essential) aspect of leadership that requires us to be responsible for the things others do.  Yet many of us renege on that contract all the time when we fail to delegate.  It’s a cheat.  It cheats the company out of innovation, and it cheats the team (us included) out of critical professional development.

Bottom line: Help your team communicate, move things out of their way, and let them fly on their own.  And no, I didn’t forget “Leadership”.  It’s just that if you get the first three, you’re kind of already there on the fourth, aren’t you?

-These quotes are from a jar that my team presented me as I was leaving to accept a promotion.  They are the impressions, thoughts, and ideas that they had come to associate with me during my time there.  I’ve decided to share them, and what I remember of how they came to be, with my readers as I draw them at random-

Mason jar performance evaluation #3

Quality performance feedback

Strip #3:  “Your ability to get an entire group of people off track and into the weeds so quickly will be missed”

Right.  Well, can’t say I didn’t see this one coming.

Meetings are funny things.  You can make agendas, set ground rules, and choose outstanding facilitators, and they will still grow legs once in a while and wander off.  Then there’s guys like me who occasionally feel the need to grab the wheel, swing left on the first unmarked road, and take the team off on a little off-road jaunt.  A sure sign that I’m getting bored.

I do have the best of intentions.  I have a bright group of analysts and they thrive on entertainment.  I am an entertainer at heart and the temptation is often just too great.  This isn’t always a pure distraction.  When I see that things are getting a bit too serious and that rigidity is creeping into the conversation, a good story does a lot to reset everyone back to a more neutral frame of mind.

You don’t have to put on a song and dance for breaks like these to be effective.  I often use this time for training, on topics that range from basic leadership, to logical analysis, to policy development, communication, critical thinking, and team building.  I’ve had a lot of money spent on me for both formal and informal training and these are great opportunities to share that education with my team.  Before I’m done, I try to aim the subject matter back towards the task at hand and we generally settle right back on track.

Bottom line: Agendas and team focus are essential to the success of any meeting, but don’t be afraid to let things spin out into the dunes once in awhile.

-These quotes are from a jar that my team presented me as I was leaving to accept a promotion.  They are the impressions, thoughts, and ideas that they had come to associate with me during my time there.  I’ve decided to share them, and what I remember of how they came to be, with my readers as I draw them at random-

Mason jar performance evaluation #2

Quality performance feedback


Strip #2:  “Always acknowledge a fault frankly.  This will throw those in authority off their guard and give you opportunity to commit more.” -Mark Twain

This quote is at the bottom of my company email signature.  Funny?  Yes.  But also so, so true.  I’m really glad someone on the team picked this one.  I love it because it covers so much  essential truth in such a short time.  That’s Clemens for you.

First, there is the unequivocal admonition to admit error, and to do it quickly.  He doesn’t say “If you have a cool boss”, or “if you are sure you won’t be blamed”.  The rules are “always” and “frankly”.  Absolutely brilliant.  I don’t know about you, but I haven’t met the problem yet that got smaller and more manageable with age.  A team member who comes to me quickly with a problem gives me the best chance to minimize the damage.  I’ve tried to do the same for my own leaders and rely on them to reward my trust with trust.  On base, this strategy has always bought me more than it cost me.

Second, there is the expectation that leaders will find such disclosures surprising, disarming even.  It’s kind of a sad commentary on the state of leader-team relations, but it’s also very human.  We don’t naturally value the admission of error, and leaders often forget to establish it as a cultural norm and create a safe environment for it.  Explicitly setting that expectation, and always delivering on the promise of  safe disclosures, has never failed me in overcoming the human reluctance to self-report.

Finally, there is the promise that this behavior will be rewarded, the bookend to the extension of trust at the beginning.  I used to think he referred to the opportunity to continue messing things up while those in authority were off their guard, or that that fessing-up would mitigate the punishment for your original screw-up (after all, you can only commit other faults if you are still employed).  From a more optimistic perspective I see, rather, a banking of good-will that occurs when disclosure enables deft recovery.  This is currency you can draw upon on the next time (and there is always a next time).

Bottom line: Get trouble on the table fast and never miss an opportunity to reward it’s disclosure.  In the uphill race against mistrust, you can’t afford to miss this even once.

-These are from a jar that my team presented me as I was leaving to accept a promotion.  They are the impressions, thoughts, and ideas that they had come to associate with me during my time there.  I’ve decided to share them, and what I remember of how they came to be, with my readers as I draw them at random-

Mason jar performance evaluation #1

Quality performance feedback


Strip #1:  “I admire that you make time to read…”  This one also includes a quote from Harry S. Truman: “Not all readers are leaders, but all leaders are readers.”

It was probably a familiar sight each day around 11 to see me close up my office and head for the cafeteria, Kindle in hand.  I have always been an avid reader, although I must confess that I am not remotely an intellectual reader.  You will find a lot more of J.R.R. Tolkein, Stephen King, Orson Scott Card, Anne Rice, and Frank Herbert on my Kindle than, well.. I don’t really know what authors to put here, since the point is I don’t read them much.  I have some friends who are very astute, literarily speaking, and there have been a few uncomfortable pauses in our conversations over the years, as they have mentioned an essential author that I’ve never heard of.

Still, there are biographies, histories, scientific reviews, and social analyses in my library.  Not just old textbooks or gifts, but ones I’ve actually gone and picked out myself.  Admittedly, it’s probably 1 cerebral work for every 10 fun pieces, but I have finished every one and am certain they have broadened they way I look at the world.

The other important part of this ritual isn’t so much the reading as it is the break from the schedule, from the pressures of the day, to re-set and recharge.  I often use this time as much for quiet thinking as I do to read what I brought with me.  It really helps to evaluate where I am on the day’s tasks, and to be much more efficient as I start working through the second half of the day.

Bottom line: keep putting stuff in your brain, but take time out to process it too.

-These are from a jar that my team presented me as I was leaving to accept a promotion.  They are the impressions, thoughts, and ideas that they had come to associate with me during my time there.  I’ve decided to share them, and what I remember of how they came to be, with my readers as I draw them at random from the jar-