Look for What's Working!

May - when spring really starts for many of us in the 'north'.  So, just a short blog - more of a request.  

This week, instead of looking at what's not working all the time, try 2 times, just 2, to find what's working, why it's working and how you can make that happen more.  Try this at work, at home, wherever you want - but please, try it - just twice, that's not asking a lot....

Find what’s working & why! #BrightSpots

Let me know how it goes! Feel free to share!

Pre-Natals vs. Post-Mortems

So often, when a project or product doesn't go well or fails, organizations do "post-mortems" - they go over what went wrong, why, sometimes rushing to blame people first instead of looking at processes.  

What if we started doing pre-natals instead of post-mortems? What if our cross-functional teams, at various steps in project or product development, examined why, what and how they were doing, what was working and why, what wasn't and why, and discussed all the things that could go wrong from that point on and why they could go wrong and how they could mitigate or eliminate those risks?  Then they could prioritize all that based on probability and possibility, make sure they are on top of those and do this regularly throughout development.

This isn't a fail-safe, but chances are a lot of problems could be caught, corrected and learned from before they happen and the more you do pre-natals, the better you'd get! 

Worth a shot isn't it? 

How Big is Your Comfort Zone?

Fly NYON #ShoeSelfies - Aerial view over Central Park, NYC

I’ve been thinking about comfort zones.  Most of the discussion makes it seem like comfort zones are static.  They’re not.  We decide if our comfort zones:

  • Grow ~ because we’re curious, eager to learn, expand our worldview and meet new people doing all sorts of different, interesting things;
  • Shrink ~ because we’ve been burned, failed, or circumstances have made us more cautious and fearful;
  • Maintain ~ because we feel we are just fine where we are.

When people say, ‘get out of your comfort zone’, are they telling us to make our comfort zone bigger? Hopefully, we get out of the zone, try something different and get a little, somewhat or very comfortable in that new area so it becomes part of our comfort zone – maybe at the edge of it, but now inside it.  So if we want to keep getting outside our comfort zone, aren’t we growing it? Sure, maybe at times we got out of it and boy, we wanted to run back in, and we did.  That’s ok. It happens.  But overall, our comfort zones should keep expanding. 

That said, one my students * wisely notes that sometimes, we need to be in our comfort zone to rejuvenate, refresh and refill ourselves. Getting outside our comfort zone should be for a reason, have a purpose and not become idolized. It’s not an either/or, but And… as long as we get out. 

So, this week, what one little thing can you try to make your comfort zone bigger?

*Samanee Mahbub, one of my students, has turned her junior year into a Discovery Year - expanding her comfort zone beyond what many of us would dare to do.  Please read her posts - there is such wisdom and insight for any person of any age!

If Not Now, Then...Later!

Most of us have realized, or at least acknowledged, that life and careers are no longer linear, predictable, plan-able. We are told to be opportunistic (in a positive way) because we never know if the moment will be right again, hence the ever used adage, "Timing is everything." Timing is everything AND timing is not fixed!  Sometimes the answer to, "If not now, when?" isn't Now! Sometimes the answer is, "If not now, then... Later!"  

If not now, then... Later!

This hit me in a discussion with a former student, a few years out of college, who had two amazing opportunities to choose from.  One led to a potentially lucrative exit leaving him financially set to pursue his passions and the other was the quintessential embodiment of his passions with serendipitous timing and uncertain financial stability.  After some long, blunt conversations challenging his assumptions and self-construct, we realized this wasn't an Either/Or, an "if not now, when?" but an And/Both, an "if not now, then...later!" decision.  It was, what he called, sequencing (and urged me to make it part of the Life by Design work). He realized he'll have many more opportunities to gain financial security, so it was an "If not now, then...later!" decision and embracing this unique opportunity to pursue his passion was an "If not now, when?" moment.

The Human Connectome Project: White matter fiber architecture of the brain. 

The decisions we make today, while having an impact on our future, do not have to prescribe our future! It is not fixed, immutable... it is not irrevocable! Life is a set of creative acts, branching out in many different directions, in circuitous paths that we consciously and subconsciously design.

What if we are sequencing the doors we open, close and re-open over our lifetime?

If we haven't yet learned that life is And/Both, not Either/Or, we should now.  It's all around us. What if we aren't permanently closing and opening doors? What if we are sequencing the doors we open, close and re-open over our lifetime? Wouldn't that dramatically change our outlook? Wouldn't that make Life by Design more powerful, meaningful and fun?

Many many thanks to my incredibly wise, loving, bold students who teach me so much every day!!

3 Key Questions #LifebyDesign

There's tons of questions we can ask ourselves to assess our lives, careers, goals, etc.  Studies have been done and courses taught on scientifically proven methods to do this assessment.  For me, questions should get us to think, to dig deeper and to look at possibilities - not to lead to quick, "do this and you'll be happy" answers.  So here are the 3 questions I ask to start a Life by Design.

What do you like/love to do and are good/great at doing?

Make a list! These can be hobbies, skills, work, stuff you like learning or doing, anything - don't restrict yourself, take a holistic approach of you - personal, professional, academic, etc. And, if you want, try prioritizing them.  You want to do a lot of these things in your life.

What DON’T you like/love to do and are good/great at doing?

Make another list.  Same guidelines as above -  hobbies, skills, work, learning, etc. and try to prioritize them.  The goal is to minimize these - maybe you can even eliminate doing some of them, but we all have to do things we don't like so at least do less of them.

What do you want to learn, explore, discover, experience in the next 2, 3 or 5 years?

A few years ago, one of my students asked me to help her lay out her 10 year plan.  I told her to write it down, put it in a drawer and then we'd talk about the next 2-5 years. Our world is changing too fast to plan what we will or want to do 10 years out, but we can plan, to a degree, who we want to be, what we will stand for, and what we won't stand for. 

Think about the next 2-3 years, maybe 5. What do you want to learn, explore, discover, and/or experience? Learn how to code, make bookshelves, do graphic design, become a product manager for 3D-printed products, understand the Patagonian ecosystem, discover biomedical uses of Antarctic sea anemones, para-sail?  Here's mine ->

Start thinking about the steps you can take to start! What does it entail? Who do you know who can help or inform you? What 1 or 2 small things can you do tomorrow to start? Go for it!

The Lego Kit of Life (by Design)

What if I said that life was a set of Lego® bricks ~ all sorts of sizes, shapes, colors with a few bricks fixed together, unbreakable, but mot of them easily taken apart and rearranged?  If you're like me, you love (yup, you still do, face it!) playing, building, creating with lego (that's why I hang out with engineers and makers).

Life is a set of legos, all sizes, shapes, and colors. What will you build today?

Our life's lego bricks are made up of family, friends, pets, hobbies, curiosities and interests, experiences, physical-mental-emotional-spiritual health, knowledge, education, street smarts, common sense (or lack thereof), culture, rituals, beliefs, values, skills, talents, accomplishments, places lived and visited and more.

Take a look at your Lego set.  What bricks do you want to toss, just plain get rid of? What bricks do you want to get more of or even create (a new color or shape or size!)?  What bricks do you want less of? How would you like to rearrange your bricks for tomorrow, the next 2 years, or maybe even the next 5 years? I'm serious, think about this.  There is so so much you can do with your bricks and very few of them are permanently connected together!  

What did you learn from pondering and organizing your bricks? What's holding you back from tossing some bricks, adding new bricks, rearranging bricks? Why? What are you afraid of? We're all afraid of something.  What would you do if I took away those bricks and gave you the ones you wanted? What would you do if you weren't held back or scared anymore? 

What would your best friend, significant other, colleague or mentor advise you to do with your bricks? How would they arrange them for you? What if you looked at yourself that way?  

Here's my challenge to you - try thinking of your life as legos.  Decide which ones you want to keep, toss, rearrange for now and the next couple of years.  What does that look like? What could it look like if you had not brick-limitations? And hey, if you need to go buy a set of bricks, this is your excuse! Take it! 

 

 

How to Create an Amazing Life by Design ~ 5 Fundamentals

From the floorboards of Jackson Pollock's studio in the Hamptons, NY. The paint spatterings can be traced to specific pieces of his art.

Two and a half years ago, I was invited to share my story, Life by Design, at Brown University's Creative Mind Lecture series.  Since then, it's taken on a life of its own with my mentees who now use it as a noun.  They've asked me to formalize it in case I get hit by a bus, so here's the start.

After several years of mentoring and advising, I've discovered 5 (at least) fundamentals to creating an amazing Life by Design (through very non-scientific methods).

1. Very little you do in life is irrevocable.

Aside from dying, very few of the choices we make in life are permanent and can't be undone, redone, mitigated or benefited from.  Even losing a limb is no longer necessarily life-altering.  Once we view life that way, opportunities are endless sources of learning and exploration.  We don't need to be afraid that if we do X today, we're stuck doing X for the rest of our life.

2. There are many paths, solutions, answers, right choices - not just 1.

Following #1 above, rarely in life is there just one way to do something - there are many ways.  Many times we feel the path a role model or someone we admire took is the only path to get to the same place. Unfortunately, our education system reinforces the one way - there is THE right answer or way not A right answer or way.  Well, guess what, rarely is that the case.  Life isn't binary.

3. Your major or job isn't destiny.

The world tells us that our college major and even our current job is destiny.  Engineers should only look for engineering jobs, not design, product management, etc.  English majors should only look for writing or PR jobs, not design, product management, etc.  Drop the "should" - it's a horrible word!  Our job or major is not our destiny.  By looking at how that major or job has taught us to think, approach problems, communicate, see connections and patterns, apply to different situations, we can use our experience in so many ways!

Kandinsky - Composition V1, 1913

4. "Man plans, G-d Laughs"

This age old yiddish proverb is so true.  A student came to me a few years ago asking for help laying out her 10yr plan. 10 years!!!! I told her to write something out, put it in a drawer and then come back and we'd discuss the next 2-3 years.  Think about life in 2-3 (maybe up to 5) year chunks - what do we want to learn, experience, explore, discover over the next 2-3 years, why, and what are the best places and ways to do that! Yup, it's that simple... but not easy.

5. Experiment -> Learn -> Apply -> Iterate

At the age 99.5, my grandmother said, "The day you stop learning is the day you die." Life, personal and professional, is a continuous experiment - we try things, we hopefully learn, we apply those learnings and experiment again - til we die.  Learn to be curious, love to learn, try stuff - often, question your assumptions, question your questions, as why, why not, what if, and one of my favorites, where is it written (e.g., is it a rule or guideline?). 

Next week? I'll share my view of Life as lego blocks! Your comments and thoughts are welcome!

What Do Respect and Agreement Have to do With It?

If I say it louder, then you’ll agree.  If I say it more, then you’ll agree. You must not be listening or hearing me if you don’t agree with me.  And, if you don’t agree with me, you don’t respect me!

Sound familiar? Maybe you grew up in a house like this.  Maybe your management treats you like this.  Maybe you treat your employees like this. Guess what? It’s total BS.

Growing up, my parents made me read things that disagreed with my view to help me critically hone, or change, my opinions, understand different perspectives and learn.

The last several months have shown us the depth of disagreement in our families, cities, country and world.  Saying it louder or more won’t make it right and make it so. We need to listen to others respectfully and thoughtfully, and then agree or disagree, just as we want them to listen to us. Disagreeing does not and should not mean, by default, lack of respect.

So, how about trying at least once this week to really listen to someone you disagree with.  See it from their perspective.   You don’t need to increase the volume or frequency, just talk and listen.  Maybe you’ll learn that respect and agreement aren’t synonymous.  So, try it! Model it, encourage it – and let me know!

The Paradox of Noisy Silence

New Year’s celebrations are usually full of noise – parties, fireworks, noisemakers, bowl games, you name it.

The new year at work starts off with a bang too – a bang of hectivity – things that didn’t get done last year, catching up from being away (even tho most everyone else was too). 

Yet, silence is necessary and hard and at first, incredibly noisy.  Therein lies the paradox (and you know I LOVE paradoxes).  I used to be great at finding time to be silent (silence, meditation, whatever you call it) and that was when I was traveling weekly and didn't have kids.  Now I’m trying to get back to silence.  And you know what? It’s hard!!! Yet I crave it!

The music is not in the notes, but in the silence in between.

— Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart

At first, my head is full of noise – ideas, to-do’s, reminders, errands, etc. go through my head like an Indy 500 race. It’s hard resisting the urge to write them all down – to just Let Them Go.  I’ve finally realized if they are that important, they’ll come up again sometime. Eventually, it gets easier, the race turns into a slow drive and then, sometimes, totally stops – the noise is gone, it’s complete silence. That silence is an incredible gift, a rejuvenating, calming and intellectually stimulating gift.  Yup, a paradox.

There is a lot of literature on the importance and power of silence – intellectually, emotionally, physically, spiritually.  But knowing and doing are two separate things.

So, join me in an experiment.  I’m going to try to set aside 10 minutes 2 times a week to be silent.  Not every day, not every other day – just 2 times a week for 10 minutes.  I’m going to start small, give it shot and if it works, build up.  Try it with me; tell me how it goes; and remember, this is an experiment so it’s ok to fail and try again…. 

The New Year: Going From "I-It" to "I-Thou"

Pemaquid Lighthouse, Maine © Mike Taylor & Sonia MacNeil http://miketaylorphoto.com 

2016 is coming to a close, and not soon enough for some.  2016 (well, most of the 20th & 21st Centuries) has been a year of I-It* – where the I (yes, that’s us folks) treat others as It’s – as functions, transactions, products, services – provided for our benefit and happiness. In an I-It world, our happiness, satisfaction, and worth are externally driven and temporary, requiring the next happiness "fix" and rarely requiring much, if any self-sacrifice.

So, let’s make 2017 the start of an I-Thou epoch.  In 2017, let’s treat others as Thou’s – as fellow humans in relationship with us, as people we are willing to make sacrifices for, not as functions for our benefit.  In an I-Thou world, we can both disagree and argue with each other AND still listen and value each other.  Our sense of satisfaction is intrinsically created from the breadth, depth and diversity of our relationships with Thou’s (not It’s).  This is a more permanent, fulfilling sense of, well, Joy - not fleeting and addictive as happiness.

Let’s make 2017 the start of an I-Thou epoch.

While the I-It of 2016 will greatly influence 2017, we don't have to let it control our personal and professional lives.  Join me in making 2017 the start of the I-Thou era in all aspects of our lives.  I believe - I know - that the beacon of light from a few I-Thou’s, actually from many I-Thou's all over a county, a state and a country, will light the world.

Shalom,

 

*Martin Buber, I-Thou

How to Interpret Truth From Facts

When is a fact true? This is a major question we’re asking given the pre/post-election. Sometimes, the answer isn’t a simple yes it’s true or no it’s not true. Sometimes the caveat “it depends…” provides critical insight into the context, constraints, veracity and therefore, applicability of the fact.

Let’s take 2 seemingly contradictory facts we’ve heard this past year:

  • Violent crime is up
  • Violent crime is down

According to the FBI and other studies, overall violent crime in the USA is at historic lows over the past 30, 10 and 5 years.  Yet, when you examine the data in the same studies, it becomes clear both statements above are true:

  • There is a 5.5% rise is violent crime from 2015 to 2016 with half of that coming from LA and Chicago and yet, the overall rate is still at the “bottom of the nation’s 30-year downward trend.”
  • Chicago accounts for almost half the increase in murders from 2015 to 2016 with decreasing murder rates in Baltimore and Washington D.C. and New York as one of safest big cities.

Bottom line? Both facts are true.  What you do with those facts depends on the questions you ask about those facts. What you ask with the subsequent iteration of answers and questions, is critical for making wise informed decisions.  So try asking:

  • What is the timeframe?
  • Are there outliers?
  • What did/didn’t these facts (and underlying data) take into account (what’s missing)?
  • What do these facts assume?
  • How long will these facts be true?
  • Who did the study and who paid for it?
  • What other questions arise from this fact?
  • What would it mean if this wasn't true? Who would benefit or be harmed?
  • etc.....

The ability to interpret truth from facts is a critical skill for success - in business and in life.  So starting today, or okay, tomorrow, ask questions when you're presented with facts - sales, recruiting, efficiency, inventory, market trends, anything - just start and see what you learn!

 

How to spend $200+ Billion for a Train Wreck

Once upon a time, a paragon of American innovation lost its way.  It embodied Einstein’s definition of insanity, spending over $200B for a train wreck… and they’re doing it again. The story starts in the last century and my part about 28 years ago.

In the early 90’s at AT&T, I was on a ‘special project’ with some friends to design the next generation core domestic network.  We were from Bell Labs and had “grown up” with the Internet (Arpanet, initially).  We were young and idealistic so our designed was based on the TCP/IP protocol.  This let us move anything over the network – email, faxes, images, movies, songs, phone calls, photos, anything – in real time.  We knew that with enough bandwidth, routers, redundancy and diversity, someday we’d watch or listen to concerts and movies live.   This way, we only needed 1 network (with tons of security & safeguards obviously) to handle everything.  The days of a voice-only network built on big expensive switches was over.  We presented our design to the powers that were. Answer? Nope! They thought it was the dumbest thing they’d ever heard.  [About 13 years later, a friend asked me if I still had the designs because they were looking to build that network.]

The 90’s were a battle between the network/telecom providers (AT&T, MCI, etc.) and the PC/Software maker end points (Microsoft) deciding where to put the ‘smarts’.  Microsoft et. al., felt they owned the smarts and just needed commodity dumb pipes to connect them together.  The networks knew if they didn’t have any ‘smarts’, they didn’t have any differentiable value from each other.  The smart ends would win the battle, forever commoditizing the networks. I saw this and worked on this firsthand.  It wasn’t pretty.  It led to a lot of spending with little success:

  • 1999: AT&T pays $44B to buy the cable company TCI, creating AT&T Broadband.
  • 2002: AT&T sells AT&T Broadband to Comcast for $47.5B after having invested about $58B more for a total of $102B in AT&T Broadband.
  • 2015: AT&T buys DirecTV for $49B.
  • 2016: AT&T offers to buy Time Warner (not the cable, the content) for $85B (and I don’t think this is a bargain price).

The networks lost the smart-dumb battle.  So, if it hadn’t worked before, why now? Is “Media” that different from smart-ends? Really? Maybe this is what they’re thinking:

  • AT&T is losing wireless customers with decreasing revenue/customer; 
  • DirecTV is losing customers because of cord-cutting;
  • Content drives revenue (yup, heard that 20 years ago); it uses lots of bits and time;
  • “New” Media companies are becoming networks– Facebook, Amazon, and Google (take special notice of Google – if I were AT&T, I’d worry about them non-stop).

Over 17 years, AT&T spent about $236B (BILLION) dollars to get in, out and back in to the cable and content business.   Having lived through some of this and trying to show why it wouldn’t work financially, strategically, innovatively, and a bunch of other ‘ly’s, here are at least 6 lessons I learned:

  1. If you can’t figure out how to add value to your own stuff, buying other stuff to bolt on, without understanding markets and customers, doesn’t work;
  2. Culture matters, first and only; Making acquisitions outside your traditional space is hard, it’s virtually impossible if your cultures are radically different;
  3. If you’re losing customers, DON’T buy a company in the same situation!!!
  4. If you keep repeating solutions that don’t work STOP! Either figure out something different or figure out how to be a profitable commodity… it works for Coke!
  5. Check the C-suite egos at the door; hanging out on the set of Game of Thrones isn’t worth billions to shareholders.
  6. In my next life I want to come back as a company AT&T buys.

 

What's Not There?

What a lovely home, probably somewhere out in the country.  From the crops on left, this must be a farm. From the swing set, they probably have kids (or grandkids).  The house seems to be fairly modern (look at the windows) and well maintained.  The horses look healthy.

What’s the story about this house and family?  Are they ‘weekend’ farmers who commute to jobs during the week?  Does one of them, or both, work from home? Are they full-time farmers, with the land being the main source of income?  Hard to know.

But what’s missing? Look at the photo; what’s missing?

See any cars or trucks?  Maybe the people are not at home – they’re at the store or work or a kid’s soccer game. Look closer.  Do you see any power lines going to the house? Hum… Maybe the power lines are buried.  That could be, but given the size of this house and probable acreage, I kind of doubt it. 

This is an Amish house in Lancaster County, PA.  

What if we look at what’s missing instead of just what’s there?

What if we ask why something we’d normally expect to be there isn’t?

What are we assuming is in the picture because it usually is?

What if folks are just fine with not having what’s missing?

What if they didn’t know they could even have what’s missing?

What will we discover if we start looking at what’s Not There? 

Who Are You?

When you meet someone at a party, an event, in the store, at a school, what do we usually ask? “What do you do?” or if you’re in college, “What’s your major?”

There are many ways in which others define us and we define ourselves:

·      Job, title, level;

·      Mom, Dad;

·      Daughter, son, sibling;

·      Aunt, Uncle.

·      College, university, and major or degree;

·      Home town, city, country;

·      Ethnicity;

·      Nationality(ies);

·      Religion;

·      Political leaning;

·      Talents;

·      Causes, volunteer efforts;

·      Board roles;

·      Combinations and integrations of the above;

·      None of the above – something else.

How do you really want to be identified? To be known? You may answer differently depending on where you are in your life and what matters.  That’s normal. But when you strip away all your functions and roles, at a very fundamental, who are you? What do you want to be known for? And why? 

Are You Obsolete?

Do you say, "Can you tape that show for me" when you'll be out missing a TV show or "Will you roll up the window?" when you're in the car?  When your friend keeps repeating himself over and over do you tell him he "sounds like a broken record"?  How often do you "hang up" the phone, "dial" a number or "ring" someone up? Think about it - 25% of the USA population doesn't know what it means to dial a phone let alone hang one up! Many of our idioms and phrases are tied to outdated technology and behaviors, and while some are still widely used (e.g., Stereotype, Pipe Dream (ha!)), the younger generation has no clue what they mean.  They are obsolete, meaningless. 

I wonder - if some of our language is becoming obsolete, are we as well? We can rue the loss of life as we knew it or we embrace the future.  Every generation has dealt with this, but today is different.  Today, we live longer. Our children (and some of us) have multiple careers, tweet, snap, text, google without hesitation while we 'flip through the channels."  It's a choice. We can choose to become outdated or to be relevant.  What will you choose?

Also published on Medium ~ Finding Blue Lobsters

10 Timeless Thoughts on Work & Life

Though she's only 20, Samanee Mahbub's insights into her 10 weeks in NYC are important for all of us at any age.  How many of these thoughts do you identify with? They are timeless, universal and very human.  Please read and reflect.

"On New York, and on life

After ten weeks in this city, I have a lot to reflect and think about on my last day before I embark on my next journey. This post has no clear theme other than what’s been going on my head. Thoughts about New York, about being lost, about feeling useless, about feeling useful, about adventures, about learning, about healing, about loving, about everything and about nothing. Hope you enjoy the thought ramble :) ...."

Who actually told us that feeling lost is bad, and that we actually have to have everything figured out?

Live your life with as much enthusiasm so other people can benefit from it.

Four Lessons From My Great Bosses/Mentors

Posted this in Medium this week.  Given all the discussion on Women in Tech, Silicon Valley biases, etc., I thought it was time to repost ...  and learn

My first boss at Bell Labs had a habit of yelling. While he was an equal-opportunity yeller, when he shouted at me in my first department meeting, I got up, told him when he wanted to talk, not yell, I’d be in my office and walked out. I was 20 years old, just out of undergrad, and sitting among a group of aghast Ph.D.’s . Perhaps this was not the best initial career move. But about 30 minutes later, he walked into my office and apologized...

Rush to Discover, Don't Rush to Solve!

http://www.jeshujohn.com/

Oh wow! A problem.... let's go solve it! It's our first reaction, right? It's human.  We see a problem and our instinct is to start fixing it, solving it.

What if, instead of rushing to solve it, we rushed to discover as much as we could about the problem - like, why is it a problem, why is that a problem, why, why, why?  What are people doing when this is a problem? Is it only a problem when they are doing that? Where is it a problem? Only there? When is it a problem? Only then? What is the weather when it's a problem? What mood were they in when it was a problem? See? You learn so much when you Rush to Discover first.  You learn what really matters and why.  And guess what? Then you can work with the people who have this problem together - to create solution(s) that will really make a difference - that will work when, how, where it's a problem.

Rush to Discover. Don’t rush to Solve!

So, next time you see a problem, stop, discover and learn.... 

Human Assets or Asses?

img.jpg

Yup, I said it and mean the double entendre. 

What company doesn’t say people are their greatest asset? How many companies really treat their employees like assets? Not as many, and less than we’d like to think.  Too many companies still treat employees like Asses –beasts of burden, tools for labor.  And then, managers* get surprised (duh!) when employees act like asses – non-caring beasts of burden and seemingly stupid, stubborn people.

Golden Rule: It’s a Rule, not an Exception!

How employees act and engage all depends on T – on how you Treat them.  Remember the golden rule? Guess what, it’s a rule, not an exception.  Try Treating everyone you encounter this week, especially your employees, as an asset.  You might see some Asses become Assets (even you?).

* Not leaders, cuz real leaders don’t treat their employees like asses.

 

 

Creating Effective Social Impact Leaders (or, Leaders!)

Leadership: is "Social" Leadership really that different? I submit it isn't and this guest post is by Robin Pendoley is Founder & CEO of Thinking Beyond Borders, should make you think. See Robin's bio below - after you read this great post!  

The social impact sector does a lot of harm. Often, our victims are those who we set out to support -- the people and communities that are already vulnerable in our society. This is not something we like to talk about. As practitioners, funders, and do-gooders we want to believe our good intentions and good technical skills have prepared us to do good. But, examples from history and the present day show this isn’t the case. While there are many things we can do to reduce harm and increase meaningful impact from our collective work, there is one step we can take that represents our most important leverage point: create more effective social impact leaders.

The Core Competencies of Highly Effective Social Impact Leaders

As this question is core to our mission at Thinking Beyond Borders, we examined some historical examples of exceptional social impact leadership: Mahatma Gandhi, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Nelson Mandela, and Prof. Muhammad Yunus. By reading about the movements and change efforts they led, and reading their personal writings, we noticed two key areas in which they all excelled: critical consciousness of themselves and the world, and building and leading institutions that were truly mission-centered.

Impact through Critical Consciousness

These leaders each pursued critical consciousness of the world and themselves as a fundamental part of their social impact work. To do this, they each developed key capacities: 1) They rooted their purpose and direction in a constant critical examination of their values and beliefs; 2) They were humble but powerful learners who valued questions over answers; 3) They strived for higher order empathy. While I’ve written about these capacities elsewhere (here and here), it’s important to note that on a daily basis, each of these leaders used these skills in working with stakeholders and in maintaining their own personal and professional focus to create a more just society.

It is these capacities that ensured that the Indian Independence movement did not become a violent revolution against the British. These capacities resulted in Black communities of the US Deep South finding love in their hearts and actions in the face of violent and vicious racism during the Civil Rights Movement. It was leadership of this sort that spurred creative protest and a reordering of society, not simply an inversion of power. None of their respective movements were without flaws, nor were they complete. But, their approaches to social impact resulted in that rare and exceptional impact that brought greater equity and justice to society.

Mission-Centered Institution Building

Generating meaningful social impact and building the institutions that will sustain that process are two related but different practices. Knowing how to build an organization effectively is important. What was exceptional about the great leaders we examined was how they combined business and funding models in a manner that allowed the organization to operate and evolve based on the need of the impact work rather than the organization’s bottom line. They established management and leadership structures that encouraged their teams to be responsive the impact work. They developed communications that inspired stakeholders to engage in creating social change rather than simply build brand loyalty.

It was this type of leadership that led to peer to peer ride-sharing to sustain the Montgomery Bus Boycott, long before Uber gained a multi-billion dollar valuation. This leadership led Grameen to establish lending circles that created spaces of mutual financial and personal empowerment for women in their home communities, long before the banking industry pursued micro-lending profits in large scale. As these movements evolved, and as equity and justice advanced, the institutions these leaders created fell victim to changing politics. But, the impact they created remained because the communities they worked in solidarity with had not been encouraged to become dependent upon them.

Lessons for Developing New Leaders  

While it’s easy to hold Dr. King, President Mandela, Mahatma Gandhi, and Prof. Yunus up as superheroes of social impact, it’s important to note that they were (are) mortals like the rest of us. If we focus on developing the skills that made them exceptional, we can generate a uniquely qualified cadre of aspiring social impact leaders.

As educators, we’ve identified a set of principles for developing leaders of this calibre:

  • Focus on Impact - Aspiring leaders need support in thinking critically about how to define equity and justice, how an effective and ethical pathway is shaped, and what the impact leader’s role in the process should be. These are dynamic and challenging topics. Unfortunately, the social impact sector rewards those who pursue large scale, brand recognition, and specific business models. Teach aspiring leaders how to handle these tensions and maintain their focus on the impact that will lead to greater equity and justice.
  • Value Questions Over Answers - Asking good questions that illuminate dynamic topics is a crucial skill. Disappointingly, most education systems generate students who believe they are successful learners when they can present a convincing answer rather than a well refined set of questions. Create learning environments that place value in asking questions and pursuing greater understanding that can be translated into even better questions. Require learning to center around identifying and questioning the core assumptions of arguments and one’s self.
  •  Instill Humility - Great leaders are great listeners who reflect constantly on their potential and limitations. They admit their mistakes, provide space for others to lead, and are the first people to applaud the successes of their peers. However, great leaders are often driven and ambitious, determined to achieve their goal and overcome obstacles. Support aspiring leaders with learning environments that provide opportunities to wrestle with this tension as teams and individuals. Provide mentors who can support them in their highest and lowest moments. Identify heroes whose struggle with the tension between ambition and humility is made plain and relatable.

The social impact sector invests countless resources in working toward equity and justice. Our global society and local communities reflect the passion and commitment of so many who have shaped their lives in this pursuit. Yet, our present day and all our days past also reflect efforts wasted, misdirected, and many that inadvertently caused harm. As a sector, we can be more effective. It starts by being more intentional in how we create our leaders.

You can learn more about how Thinking Beyond Borders is working to create highly effective social impact leaders by reviewing our programs. Our high school summer abroad and gap year programs help students begin the pursuit of critical consciousness related to creating social impact. Our college study abroad programs teach the skills to lead mission-centered and mission-effective institutions. 

Robin Pendoley is Founder & CEO of Thinking Beyond Borders, an educational institution helping students develop the skills and capacities to lead highly effective social impact careers. Born and raised through his early childhood in a working class community in the San Francisco Bay Area, Robin learned that equity and justice are complex but worthy pursuits. Through study, travel, and work in urban and suburban public education, he concluded that meaningful social impact is difficult to create and requires a rare combination of skills and capacities. In 2007, Robin co-founded Thinking Beyond Borders with the vision to create an educational institution that develops highly effective social impact leaders. Robin earned a B.A. in International Development Studies from UCLA and an EdM from the Harvard Graduate School of Education. His blog posts on education and social change have been featured on Forbes, Ashoka, and Innovation Excellence.