Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Tangential Topics to SAIS Presentation

I touched on all of these topics or used them as deep background thinking in my presentation at Southern Association of Independent Schools Annual Conference this past weekend:

Alan Greenspan on Education


Important Questions: 1) What do you do that brings you joy? 2) What are you good at? and 3) Does the world need you to do it?

Learning Between the Lines

The Risk of Mediocrity

Managing Uncertainty

Niceness Hurts the Organization

SAIS 2008 "Developing A Whole New Mind"

One of the most influential books that I have read in the last three years is Daniel Pink's A Whole New Mind. I had the pleasure of sharing how I have used his "six senses" as a leadership development and innovation tool with school leaders. You can view, print, or bookmark the presentation here:

Developing "A Whole New Mind" At Your School SAIS 2008


SCRIBD is tool used to post presentations and documents on the web. It is also a community of content producers who want to share their work, to learn from each other. It is easy to use, reduces emailing presentations individually, stores documents for you so that you can bookmark a document instead of downloading. Downloading and printing are also available.

Thursday, October 23, 2008


I love when the messages that are out in the universe trying to reach you finally catch up to you. I regularly eat at various Vietnamese restaurants, especially in cooler weather, because I love pho, and I love hoping that a little wisdom will be imparted to me via the fortune cookie.

I also love a calendar that gives daily advice or food for thought. My 2008 calendar is Tom Peter's Re-Imagine! It is full of incredible snippets for the brave, imaginative warrior like I am.

Today's advice is this:

Opportunity now lies,
not in perfecting routines,
but in taking advantage of instability --
that is, creating opportunities of the
daily discontinuity of the turbulent marketplace.

I don't think that Tom Peters, as smart as he is, could forsee the market crash that we are experiencing, but I love that his advice is so fitting. Here is my interpretative application of this advice from the master for finding opportunity in instability:

1) Get over it and deal with the reality at hand. Start to talk and plan for decreased customers and a cash poor operating environment. This applies to a manufacturing plant as much as it does to a church or a school or the neighborhood deli. Look for the opportunities you have to change the conversation with your customers to one that focuses on the value that you provide.

2) Reign in account receivables. I am just starting with a new client that is generous to a fault. He extends credit to distributors and waits more than 90 days to receive his payment. All the while, his suppliers have their hands out. He is getting squeezed by his own doing and it is draining him unnecessarily because he has to worry about cash needs too much. When I was the GM of a hotel, one of the innovations that I introduced to that system was to pay the first room night including taxes upon making a reservation. All of a sudden, no-shows went down dramatically. And the cancellation policy within 72 hours was a penalty of the first night's stay, which we had already collected. It is especially dangerous to get strung out in cash positions in this cash poor environment.

3) Instead of perfecting routines or the same old-same old way of doing things, the current environment is a perfect excuse to pull the trigger on the things that you might only have been thinking about. For example, there are tremendous cost savings to be had in communicating to your customers through technology that is by and large FREE. Online publishing and strategic use of email far exceeds producing and sending paper documents. Evites are part of daily life, why can't they be used for institutional life. I just received an Evite to my college reunion and I can look to see who is coming and RSVP at the click of a button. No telling the hard dollars saved in printing much less the design effort and stuffing and sealing efforts. I am sure on the other end, many steps are decreased in creating guest lists etc because the database is built from customer responses. You will save in paper costs, labor costs, mailing costs, and message ignored costs if you go paperless. Extending your organization down the status quo path when the market fundamentals are so dramatically new and unusual is dangerously naive. Dramatic change in fundamentals requires a re-evaluation and re-consideration of all previous assumptions and directions.

4) Invest in learning and innovation. Now is the time to find ways for everyone in your organization to be able to give more and to be able to work more effectively and collaboratively as a team. Also, to create an environment where employess feel they receive more in the form of meaning in their jobs helps fulfill their spirit when raises might not happen for a few years. Together, there is more leverage in coordinated effort than in many uncoordinated efforts. We all with have to get used to accomplishing more with less. I anticipate expectations of service and communication and value will dramatically increase while resources for expansion in programs and personnel will decrease for the next few years. Asking how and what we can do that is more with less will be a fruitful conversation for all organizations to have.

There are great opportunities in instability. Only those that actively engage in the exploratory process of discerning the needs creating by this new instability will find them.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Create The Future You Want

I had the distinct joy last week of hearing Cory Booker speak to over 900 leaders in my city of Memphis. Booker is the mayor of Newark, New Jersey who has set out to rescue his city from urban decay and reposition Newark as a world class, family friendly place to live. Mayor Booker spoke eloquently and passionately about what it takes to influence change in an entrenched, tolerant, complacent environment that suffers from a mindset that says this is the way we do things here. "The problem," he said, "is that people suffer from lack of imagination and are paralysed by fear."

The solution for Mayor Booker's efforts in Newark, and for any leader attempting to create a culture of innovation and creative progress, is "to have a clear vision, bold ideas, and the willingness to work long and hard despite the many, many people who do not believe that it is possible or necessary."

The engine of his change machine is instilling a sense of personal responsibility for the future in each individual. He called for the citizens of Newark to stop tolerating less than -- less than in their school system, less than in the crime occurences, less than in the quality of city services, less than in the fabric of their neighborhoods.

Mayor Booker inspires hopeful action, "The current times - despite economic difficulties; despite fear -- are an opportunity for us to show our mettle, our strength. That is what we, as Americans, do. We endure. We invent. We commit to values that our current realities show that we have lost sight of."

Mayor Booker envisioned a better future for Newark. This was his guiding vision as he set out to reinvent his hometown:

Newark will set a national standard for urban transformation
by marshaling its resources to achieve security,
economic abundance and an environment
that is nurturing and empowering for families.

Booker carries a slip of paper with this vision statement on it in his pocket. In essence, he wears this vision and works to create it in every action and interaction.

The enemy of bold imagination and bold action, Booker says, is incrementalism. "You just won't get where you want to be my trying to retool irrelevant and outmoded ideas and systems. Better," Mayor Booker advises, "is to work backward from the vision and let the process of meeting a challenge and problem solving flow downward from the vision. Life is too short," he says, "to not know what you stand for and not to believe in your ability to accomplish your dream."

If ever you get the chance to hear Newark Mayor Cory Booker, go early and sit in the front. It is an inspiring experience. Go, not because you care about urban planning, but because you believe in dreams and because you believe, as he does, that our greatest talent and strength and human desire is to be creative.

Sunday, October 19, 2008

A Culture of Wisdom

In this time of economic stagnation and uncertainty, it is of utmost importance that organizations of all types (even if you think you are the type that doesn't need to) need to start the conversation about value: Are we offering value? Do our customers perceive what we do as value-added? Critical to survival in economically stressed times will be to offer value, convenience, and efficiency. Internally, effective and efficient management will be of supreme importance as organizations will have to do more with less for potentially a long time.

A good way to enter this conversation is to start to talk about what it means to develop a culture of wisdom. A culture of wisdom has three key ingredients:

shared knowledge (arrived at by the discipline of reflection)
shared ethics
a valiant sense of responsibility to self, to peers, to organization's mission.

A wise culture leverages the knowledge of each individual to create shared organizational knowledge. In addition, a wise culture actively creates new knowledge of various forms. They learn, learn, learn all the time in order to increase their knowledge, their efficiencies, and their effectiveness.

A wise culture is driven by shared ethics of what it means to work effectively with the other members of the organization. In a school, this would include working effectively with peers, administrators, students, parents, and community partners.

The shared ethics would also extend to the commitment that each individual makes to learning to improve their contribution to the whole effort on a daily basis. Learning and improving and sharing with others becomes a deep personal responsibility. Thus, everyone is a leader in a wise culture as each strives to model optimal learning and sharing habits and behaviors.

In managing or guiding a wise culture, management should focus on creating the future by growing the systems and individuals of the organization to make that future a reality. Jim Sinegal, CEO of Costco, says, "management's job is to teach, teach, teach." He says, "Management's goal in teaching is to grow the future of Costco."

Jim Sinegal's belief about planning:

You have to schedule it. You have to plan the opportunity to think about your business and plan what you're going to do. Otherwise you're just a hamster running on a treadmill; you're never going to get anywhere. You've got to schedule it. Strategic planning is an important part of running any business and the more so for businesses that operating in multiple states and countries.

A big part of that planning, which is an often and ongoing thing, not a twice a decade thing, is to plan the learning that you are going to infuse your culture with so as to create a culture of wisdom.

21st Century Standards

If we value them, we will learn to foster them and measure them. This article from Education Week, "States Press Ahead on '21st Century Skills'" by Catherine Gewertz tells about what some schools are doing.

Friday, October 17, 2008

21st Century Survival Skills

The work of Thomas Friedman and Daniel Pink does a great job in providing evidence that a new world, one that is fast and dynamic, is here to stay. They make the case that we indeed have experienced a massive paradigm shift to a global, interconnected, technology-driven way of communicating and interacting as people and as organizations. As a result, all types of individuals and organizations are struggling to respond and stay in sync, to remain relevant. Some do this willy nilly and others are trying to devise plans such as personal learning plans, organizational learning plans, or sustainability plans. The basis for these plans is this question: What will it take to survive in a new, fast, flat world?

A recent article in ASCD, "Rigor Redefined" by Tony Wagner, outlines 7 critical survival skills for us, as adults, trying to be in sync and us, as teachers, charged with preparing students for their challenges and opportunities in the 21st century. It is worth assessing where we are in relation to these skills:

1. Critical Thinking and Problem Solving
2. Collaboration and Leadership
3. Agility and Adaptability
4. Initiative and Entrepreneurialism
5. Effective Oral and Written Communication
6. Accessing and Analyzing Information
7. Curiosity and Imagination

How are we further evolving these skills in ourselves?
How are we explicitly teaching these skills to our students?

Thursday, October 9, 2008

Managing In a Recession

"It is time for us to stand and cheer the doer, the achiever, the one who recognizes the challenge and does something about it." - Vince Lombardi

This quote seems timely for the current treacherous environment. I think the most natural reaction is this: because I am not directly involved in the capital markets, I will steer clear, stay away, keep on keeping on. I don't think any business in any industry will be able to address this current crisis in this innocent way because of the tremendous ripple effect it will have on consumers.

The hard part is ascertaining what to do and when. Some things seem obvious and essential.

Everything is on the table. Bring all operations to the surface - the strategic plan, the marketing plan, the advancement plan, the learning plan, the growth plan, the succession plan and question all of the assumptions that fueled these plans.

Investing in human capital in appropriate. Build the capacity and expectations of each person working for you. In analyzing the plans, a combination of defensive and offensive thinking will be vital. Plan for at least a 20% decrease in customers. But, don't just shrink accordingly. A better tact is more nuanced. Find efficiencies in everything. If you don't outright cut some things, then find out how you can get more out of the outlay. Look from the smallest routine item like coffee, drinks, and snacks which were benevolently available to energy efficiencies in plant management to combining tasks and roles so that much more is accomplished with the labor force that is in tact. Been waiting to go paperless? Now it is the time to highly leverage free, creative, paperless communications - more intimate, higher quality, more convenient for sender and receiver, file-able and retrievable.

Attracting new customers is vital because of the loss of customers that will occur. Finding ways to build relationships and add value in ways that do not cost is very important. Quality, supportive, authentic relationships with our customers is paramount. Constantly adding value above and beyond expectations will keep people buying from you. Email is free, phone calls are free, handwritten notes cost next to nothing. Build relationships. Everyone in the organization should become relationship savvy and relationship sensitive. Reach out. Be visible. Have voice that illustrates your value.

Innovate. Now is the time to invest in distinguishing systems, distinguishing messages, and distinguishing products. Customers will become more value conscious than ever before. They will be searching to spend wisely and to become involved with organizations that are efficient, effective, and progressive. Spending money for less will feel painful, wasteful to customers. Innovation is the antithesis of inaction, staying out of the way, steering clear. Innovation is about intentional, disciplined re-thinking, re-considering, re-strategizing based on changes in the current environment. Innovation is essential like never before.

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

Searching for Familiarity

In listening to the post-debate coverage, opinion writer David Brooks uttered a phrase that captures the ethos of the age as well as the current crisis: we are all searching for familiarity. In dealing with this financial crisis, everyone is searching for a model, an analogy, something familiar to help us understand the details of the unraveling of our economy. But, there is nothing familiar because we are dealing with interconnected, highly leveraged complexity that is completely new, global, dynamic, technically very sophisticated.

Beyond the financial markets, we are all searching for familiarity. And, it eludes us in more things everyday. The rate of technological innovation renders even those of us who are trying to stay relevant out of sync at times. Managing the speed of change, the volume of new information, and the complex interrelated nature of everything is unfamiliar. It used to be if you just didn't make a mistake, if you just didn't offend anyone, life was good, manageable. If you just managed your life and your business in the comfortable, familiar way, you were fine. No more. The current dynamic environment is dynamic and unfamiliar. Competition in all industries, from healthcare to consumer goods to education is fierce. The consumer is more educated and discerning than ever before, armed with scads of information and comparison data one click away. Inaction is a decision that widens the gap between your organization and contenders in the marketplace.

Where can we find the comfort of familiarity when we are chronically surrounded by the demands of this dynamic environment? I think the answer is in focusing on the process we use to manage complexity and to make decisions. We have to rely on our values and a strong sense of our strengths to lead us to find a path through information and considerations to clarity. The leader needs to understand that he or she is leading into unchartered territory and become comfortable with the discernment and decision-making process of his or her team. Here are a few critical tips;

1) surround yourself with smart, industrious people;
2) surround yourself with people who think differently than you, who will bring out often unconsidered perspectives and challenge assumptions; learn to highly value differences for the stretch they inspire;
3) clearly define and express your values. Use them as lens in making decisions;
3) take in information from sources you trust. Ask your team to actively engage in broad learning as well; share and transfer knowledge among your organization;
4) engage in invigorating pre-decision debate and analysis. Encourage deep thinking and deep discussion in order to fully consider all perspective and concerns; Be concerned if this is not happening;
5) start at the end: what do we want to accomplish? what values do we want our decision to reflect? how does this decision meet the needs of our customers and distinguish us from our competitors?

While we may all be dealing with issues that are unfamiliar and situations that are completely new and unanticipated, a robust process of critical thinking, strategic alignment, and creative problem solving that holds our performance outcomes as the top value should be something we can hold dear as completely familiar.

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

Managing Uncertainty

The current plight and panic of global financial markets is unlike any event ever in world history. I have yet to hear from all of the sideline analysis any true explanation and comprehension of the complexity and scale of this current crisis. Needless to say, there are no models from which to extrapolate logical and comprehensive solutions. It is quite possible that we will be faced with a great deal of uncertainty in our economic futures for some time to come.

It is helpful to understand how the brain perceives uncertainty. According to Australian neuroscientist David Rock, author of "The Neuroscience of Leadership," the brain perceives uncertainty as a major threat. Threats are equated by the brain with pain. So, the current financial crisis is causing our brains to experience great pain, which causes the limbic system to become hypervigilant, activating its fight or flight stress reaction. The impact of this stress reaction on the brain, especially if endured for a long term, is quite dangerous. Stress and anxiety severely limit out capacity to engage in effective cognitive activities. In other words, stress and anxiety limit our abilities and capacities to think, eliminate our ability to be creative in finding solutions, and cause our normal ability to manage the complexity of our work and of our daily lives to falter.

In this current crisis, it is imperative as leaders that we increase our abilities to think, communicate, and problem solve. Others are looking to us specifically to make some sense of the uncertainty by placing it in the context of our daily work and our daily lives. They are looking to us as leaders to ease their pain, thereby steadying their ability to think and manage their work and daily lives.

How to do this?
Here are a few suggestions:

1) manage your physical needs diligently - good nutrition, good hydration, physical exertion, and sleep. It is a great mistake to turn to anesthesizng pursuits (drugs, food, alchohol, gambling, etc) to ease psychic pain.

2) limit your intake of information to two limited time periods during the day - once in the morning, once in the evening. Fueling your own sense of pain and panic is counterproductive to your call as leader and chief strategist. Stop spectating and start thinking.

3) start to analyze the scenarios and plan for the worst case. As painful and distasteful as it is to have to rethink current and future plans, it is imperative to take a hard look at not only the plans for the future, but how to survive the current declining situation. Pining over lost opportunity for the future can easily distract you from managing defensively in this current environment.

4) assemble your team and get down and dirty with the hard questions. Key questions would be things like what are current receivables and how can we decrease those? What are our current credit needs and how to manage those? How can we protect our current customer base - both size and volume? What sort of reduction in our current customer base can we comfortably tolerate? How can we maintain and strengthen all of our organizational relationships during this time? Where can we restrain spending without hindering our mission? How can we increase capacity and impact in the system now as to rise to new levels of impact and efficiency?

5) pay attention to innovation. Once the current environment becomes less panicked and somewhat stable, customers will appear again with an awareness of value that we have never seen. Sensitive to the difficulty of amassing capital and the possibility of hard and fast lost, customers will choose to spend only for incredible perceived value. Don't wait until the economy recovers to address your value offerings because it will be too late. Make sure you are incorporating all of the pain of these current markets to make your products and services of great value to your customers - new, different, above and beyond value.

Saturday, October 4, 2008

Evolving Beyond Niceness

Evolving beyond niceness means that we develop organizational cultures and teams that value productive work and results in addition to civil and fulfilling relationships with work mates. The first step in doing this, in my opinion, is understanding what we are trying to accomplish when we are nice and polite.

The origin of politeness theory can be found in the work of sociologist Erving Goffman and his 1963 article, "On Face Work." Goffman observed that in verbal social interactions, speakers try to protect their identities and social standing by "saving face." Face is broken down by Goffman into two different categories. Positive face is the desire of being seen as a good human being, maintaining a positive self image. Negative face is the desire to remain autonomous or powerful. Acting to save face, therefore, is the desire to be appreciated and protected. Penelope Brown and Stephen Levinson furthered Gottman's observations and developed a full politeness theory.

Understanding that protection and safety is an essential human need, how do we evolve the communication within our teams to move beyond politeness? I think the answer lies in building committment to a common goal and creating the dynamics that allow each member to become vulnerable. It is in the process of strategizing and problem-solving toward the common goal, that members should be able to shift their focus from self-protection to vulnerability, tapping into whatever methods of problem-solving they offer. It is also of critical importance that each member show great acceptance and respect for the process of developing ideas and decisions so that a team member is not encouraged back into a self-protecting posture by virtue of his or her ideas and opinions being ridiculed. So, niceness and politeness, is replaced by critical thinking, respect, and process.

With time, each team member should feel full satisfaction from the collective work of the team and the individual problem-solving contributions that he or she has made. This sense of accomplishment accompanied by the process of reaching full decisions is infinitely more fulfilling that self-protecting politeness. It is the productive work of selflessness.

Individual members who lack the awareness or perception of inter-personal dynamics, the shared sense of mission, or the patience for the process of thinking as a team will have difficulty in shifting their interactions toward intimate teamwork.