Monday, June 27, 2016

Something to strive for

Number 10 jersey, FC Barcelona

“Es normal,” the taxi driver said. I’d just mentioned one of our first stops in Barcelona would be the famous Camp Nou stadium, or el templo de Messi, as my eldest son calls it. That elicited a laugh, and agreement, and then her telling comment. He’s a great player. Y es normal: well-adjusted, normal, ordinary.

It’s international soccer season as I write, with the Copa for the Americas just finished and the Euro still underway. And last night was another frustrating one for the Argentine national team for which Lionel Messi plays, with a loss in penalty kicks to Chile, including a tough penalty kick miss by Messi. But this piece isn’t about soccer per se; it’s about how much being well-adjusted stands out in a world of jostling, attention-grabbing, big-mouthery, and pride. “I tried my hardest; it’s been four finals but I was not able to win,” Messi told journalists after the loss. Notice the extraordinary in that statement: a taking of responsibility, a genuine dejection at defeat, and an action step (leaving international soccer). No blame for the setting (a narrow field), painful misses by teammates, rough play on all sides, and a game strategy that fell flat. Nope; instead, personal responsibility, humanity, and a pretty refreshing dose of vulnerability.

In Barcelona, we visited Camp Nou, and we saw displays about the remarkable history of FC Barcelona and the stunning goals by its current star. And like thousands of kids around the globe, my kid bought a number 10 Messi jersey and wears it with pride. It’s not the ball skills of his idol that I hope he’ll aspire to emulate, though. It’s the well adjustment I hear in public comments and actions by a person who could easily choose otherwise. To be at the top of our personal game and well adjusted: how about we all strive for that?

Wednesday, January 13, 2016

Design for Change

Sculpture at Canyon Road gallery, Santa Fe, NM (Oct 2015)

This observation is deceptively simple, my colleague told me. Systems are perfectly designed for the results they produce.

My colleague and I had been talking about organizational change – the challenge and necessity for systems to adapt and evolve and do something different.

Lots of creative and talented people have given thought to understanding change and the kinds of cultures that unleash the creativity and collaboration that can fuel change. My favorites at the moment are Bob Sutton (Scaling Up Excellence) and Ed Catmull (Creativity, Inc.), as well as IDEO CEO Tim Brown. If you've read them, you'll see their influence on this post.

The observations of my colleague, as well as those published by Sutton, Catmull, and Brown, and lived out by many folks in the city where I live were what came to mind when a student recently asked me about what I thought it would take to change the status quo on an issue on campus important to her. If one would like to change a system --both the processes and the culture that produce current results-- the work of change needs to be thoughtful, based on close observation, and ideally, built around existing bright spots. And because I try to hold myself to the same standards I advocate in print, in this case, that “Questions Make Better Answers,” I gave her a series of questions to consider:
  • What results does current system actually produce with regard to that issue?
  • What kinds of actions by students on that issue are good ones, as "good" is currently articulated by respected national and international organizations that convey standards for the field?
  • Where are the existing bright spots, that is, places where actions by students most look like what those standards articulate?
  • What might be done to make those bright spots brighter AND also scale them up --that is, replicate them and connect them to new bright spots?
  • What reward structures are in place to incentivize collaborative work around the "creation of bright spots," such that existing and new ones take shape through dialogue between those on our campus and those off?
  • Is the administrative, campus leadership culture one pre-disposed to remove obstacles, encourage risk-taking (new ventures are inherently risky), and model deep listening and an encouragement of a mindset of growth through constant learning and collaboration? If it's not, can it be? This point is important because without effective leadership at the top, it's very hard to scale up good work.

For readers, a series of questions: are you part of a change effort –wanting, leading, or sustaining a change to the status quo? How do you and your collaborators answer those questions above? What does the culture you create around you encourage, model, and do?

Thursday, July 9, 2015

Are you scoring all the points?

 Climbing wall

“It’s great to bring new people into leadership roles,” my collaborator observed. We were chatting after he’d passed the baton to a woman in our community group (and she’ll do a fantastic job). I agreed and also thought how much better many organizations and groups would be if effective leaders like my colleague conscientiously made space for others.

Simply occupying a leadership position doesn’t make you a leader. And being a leader doesn’t mean you’re a great leader. Great leadership means creating a space for others to engage, to use their strengths in the service of your common cause (workplace, community, social, etc.), and to shine. Being a great leader often means getting out of the way, or expanding the circle, and creating the conditions by which those around you can take on a new challenge.

If you think being a leader is about racking up titles, scoring all the points, and winning all the marbles, you’d best be in a solo sport. Otherwise, ask yourself some searching questions: how many times have I moved out of the way and, in so doing, let another person occupy a space where she’d shine? How often do I stop to see talent around me and draw my community’s (or my boss’s) attention toward talent that might go unnoticed for too long?

My colleague opted to create a space for another person to grow and shine. By doing so, their working relationship had an opportunity to develop and deepen. And our organization, to gain a new perspective and continue to thrive.

What are you developing today? Or are you just trying to win in your solo sport?

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Culture Matters

Wood Carving, Metropolitan Museum of Art (2012)

She’s really turning things around, a colleague of mine remarked of a senior leader at her institution. “She’s made it clear she’s got the courage to take on the stone-throwers, the ones who object to everything. And she completely lives and breathes the mission of the University, and reminds us of it when we’re slogging through tough changes.”

My colleague nailed an important key for any organization, especially ones facing big changes. That key? Organizational culture, and the important responsibility leaders have to signal it matters to everyone.

My colleague works at a great institution, with a long and venerable history. Its mission statement, like many in American higher education, is lofty and civically-minded. That institution also has thoughtfully-designed institutional structures. And not much of that mattered until … you got it … good signaling from leadership energized those who execute daily on mission. Culture matters. When that administrator took on the stone-throwers —by listening, engaging, and drawing attention toward common purpose— she created space for people who wanted to work and had been choked out by negativity. She signaled there was space for the change agents on campus, people like my friend who were willing to take risks and try something (but didn’t want to take a rock to the head to do it). “Living and breathing mission” was shorthand for consistency, credibility, and ultimately, trustworthiness. That leader’s reputation was not “ego” and “short term gain” or “up and out.”  And reminding her constituency of a big vision they all share, while also acknowledging the daily grind, asked people to live a big purpose even, and especially, when change was hard.

So what’s my takeaway from this example? We’re all part of organizational cultures —in our workplaces, our homes, our clubs and faith communities, and in a shared civic culture. We need to be talking about how much culture matters. When we lead something, we ought to ask ourselves, “How can I make the culture of this endeavor one where people really engage, flourish, and maybe even have fun together?” When we’re followers and contributors, we need to invite our leaders to be consistent communicators of mission, and to live it, and to give us the space to be our best selves. And when they’re spot on, go ahead, like my friend, and tell their stories. Shape a better culture.

Saturday, November 1, 2014

Pieces in other places

Wofford students at Hub City Farmer's Market (Aug 2014)

Dropout? Yes. Slacker? Yes, yes I am. I'm a serial MOOC dropout, and now I'm a slacker in the blogosphere ... no new posts since June! The truth is, my writing has migrated to other places for the last fews months. This piece here, for Wofford Today, shares how rewarding it's been for me to teach and learn in a community of caring, fun-loving people. And this piece, for a startup grocery cooperative of which I'm a part, shares a story about the food on dinner plates and the big collective dream people have to build a better local food economy and a culture of food entrepreneurship in Upstate South Carolina.

It's fall, and the leaves have turned, and like the birds migrating over my neighborhood, I'll circle back soon to this place for story-sharing, with new tales to tell from the months away.

Monday, June 30, 2014

Environmental crisis, humanitarian crisis, and you

Image of shrimp farms (from top to bottom: 1986, 1999, and 2011) 
in Gulf of Fonseca (from NASA's Earth Observatory)

Small children huddled under blankets on the floor. Women holding babies and toddlers amid scrubby brush in the desert. Border patrol officers looking at kids the age of their own children, who smile at them hopefully, imagining that their journey has ended in a happier place.

All the above are images national media outlets have shared over the last month of young families and “unaccompanied minors,” mostly from Honduras, El Salvador, and Guatemala, detained at the southern U.S. border. As a parent, my heart breaks at those pictures and stories, many of which have been shared by friends and colleagues who live in border states. As a Central Americanist by training, I’m relieved realities of the region are confronting more people and hope we do not lose a moment to ask questions that probe a layer deeper than (important, and oft-told) stories of drug violence and poverty. One untold story that begs thoughtful question-asking is the story of the environmental crisis behind the humanitarian crisis of Central American residents at the U.S. border.

What environmental crisis? Consider Honduras, arguably the epicenter of Central American out-migration at the moment. The General Mining Law of 1999, passed in the wake of Hurricane Mitch, paved the way for dramatic expansion of open pit gold mining in Honduras. Since then, 30% of Honduran territory has been granted in mining concessions. My Honduran friend tells me of confiscated lands, high fences, open pits of cyanide-contaminated water, and an epidemic of skin lesions and cancer in her home village. Peer-reviewed, public health articles tell the same story. And while mining expanded in the Siria Valley, shrimp aquaculture expanded in the Gulf of Fonseca, eliminating mangrove habitat, displacing coastal communities, and making the region vulnerable to shifting climate patterns, including strong tropical storms that slosh farmed shrimp (and the chemicals they require) out into vulnerable coastal ecosystems. Meantime, local weather patterns have changed in departments like Olancho, where illegal logging is rampant, streams have died amid deforested hills, and landslide risk increases in a sparsely forested landscape. Mosquito-born diseases like dengue, endemic in Honduras, surge in disturbed environments and in crowded conditions; dengue and dengue hemorrhagic fever has been on the rise in Latin American and the Caribbean over the last 40 years.

Why tell this story behind the story? Unless those of us who read news coverage think about the complexity behind crises, and act on our growing understanding, crises continue unabated. So, here’s a challenge for you (same one I give myself): next time you read a story about an unaccompanied child, from city-or-country-X, Google that location. Read up. Then open your fridge or your jewelry box, and consider what’s there. Think about the place of origin of that beautiful mahogany boardroom table, and ask yourself: what kind of world do I want to live in? What do the dollars I spend say about how much my ideals and my actions match? Then, make one change. Or two. And share that story.