Open Door, Closed Mind

“I believe in a Open Door Policy,” said the candidate for the position, arms crossed, leaning back in the chair.  “I’m accessible 24/7/365.”

The interview panel looked up from their notes, shifted in their seats, then looked back  their notes.  Each member of the panel is a seasoned leader and each felt the momentary tension that such a “policy” creates.

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As a leader, manager, supervisor in a complex environment, accessibility is important.  But, it can also be a liability.  It can unintentionally create a habit in the work group that results in laziness and supervisor-pleasing.  Running to the “boss” or supervisor or leader for everything, just because her door is always open, assumes that she has all the information, the larger perspective, and the time, to address every challenge that arises.  It assumes that the risk of decision-making is solely hers.  This habit results in a subtle re-definition of the job: one moves from “doing a better job” and toward “doing what the boss wants so she will be happy.”

I’m a supervisor, a leader, a manager.  I like being happy.  But, making me happy as the central goal, will usually mean the best ideas are left behind.  Oh, I’ll be happy—eventually.  But pleasing me is not an early indicator of success.

So, I have learned to cultivate an Open Mind.  To do that, I often have a closed door.  I’m not accessible 24/7/365.  I step away, to do the deep work required to learn, and to see through my own psychology.  I invest my best time and energy in building an environment in which my teams can flourish.

Even though my door is often closed (or it’s open but I’m not behind it), I’ve learned to cultivate a voraciously open and curious mind.  Especially when it’s uncomfortable.  I measure my success in large part by how much learning I’m engaged in.

So, next time you hear, “I have an Open Door Policy,” pivot and ask, “How often do people change your mind when they walk through that open door?”  That’s what the interview panel asked the candidate.  Now it was his turn to shift in his chair.  He dodged the question.  He couldn’t remember the last time his mind was changed by someone he supervised.

We wish him well.  Just not with us.  IMG_0194

 

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That doesn’t make sense!

Remember the last time you listened to someone and thought, “That doesn’t make any sense!”  They explained themselves, but you still thought they were illogical or irrational.  If the subject mattered to you, it is likely you tried to “talk some sense into them.”  Or, you tried to help them see the logic of your view while implying that theirs is unreasonable.

How did that work for you?

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Recently, I sat in on a presentation to a group of leaders in which the speaker encouraged us all to work at understanding the “customer’s logic.”  I was struck by that idea.  She moved on to another theme in her talk, but I stopped listening.  The simple idea of appreciating another person’s logic, and the assumption that, regardless of how irrational his logic appears to me, I would do well to assume that it appears utterly realistic, lucid and compelling to him.

That thought is intriguing to me.  And, with that gentle reminder, Ive been able to take a deep breath, lean in, ask really good questions and discover the internal logic of another person.  Especially of those people who are a little recalcitrant; a little rigid and final in their thinking.

Try it today.  If you are working with (or living with) someone who is just plain wrong-headed and irrational, assume their conclusions are completely logical and rational…to them.  Starting there, respectfully understand their view.  You may be surprised.

Or not.  Maybe they are just wrong, wrong, wrong.

Image credit: Jim Westergard, Society of Wood Engravers

Who Wants to Fight?

On a street corner in downtown Seattle stands a small man in his late 50s, skin darkened by years of outdoor living… or, outdoor shouting, to be precise. He’s always there. If you’ve visited the Pacific Place mall, you’ve seen him. He is always yelling, “Who wants to fight? Who wants to fight?” His gravely voice echoes above the din of crowded sidewalks and traffic.

I’ve watched him many times, sipping my Pike Place roast from the nearby Starbucks, curious about his back story. One sunny Saturday I approached him to find out. “I don’t want to fight, but why do you?”

He looked up at me, through me actually, and continued his challenge as if shouting at someone behind me. I retreated, content to watched people as they passed him. (A favorite hobby: Watching people watching people. Very entertaining.)

Almost everyone passed with eyes down or averted to the side, as if the question was personal. It seemed that no one really saw him. Or, if they did, they recoiled at the invitation to fight.

I understand it, I guess. Most of us don’t want to fight. We don’t like conflict. We use words like confrontation, struggle, battle, challenge, war, to describe (often with dread) the impending doom we anticipate from even the smallest conflicts. We spend hours, or days, thinking about the storm of conflict, imagining motives, reactions, outcomes, before ever addressing an issue. Most of the time, we don’t address the problem at all but choose to let it linger in our minds and conversations and it becomes much like spilled milk in the carpet of a car. We react to the spill, dab it up, tell stories about it, but never deeply clean. Eventually, the smell becomes part of the car, unnoticed by the owner, but repulsive to passengers.

As a people-watching people-watcher (someone is probably watching me watch people watch people), I’ve also noticed that some folks are skilled at managing conflict. I’ve noticed that they consistently do three things.

First, when addressing a problem, they begin by making an Observation: I noticed you didn’t show up for the meeting on time. Or, I noticed that you created this product with several errors. Or, I noticed that you didn’t complete the work like you promised. Their tone is even, casual, calm. Their expression (if in person) is open and gentle.

Second, they ask a question. They Inquire: Can you tell me about that? As the listener responds, they follow up with another round or two. Can you tell me more about that? They are motivated by genuine, respectful curiosity. (I’ve often felt that I know more about you through the questions you ask than through the answers you give.)

Third, they Confirm. They confirm agreements, expectations, values, schedules. They usually say, “Ok, let’s confirm: the meeting begins at 9:00 and we expect you to be here, fully prepared”. They confirm the reason behind the expectations. They confirm the next steps. They also confirm commitments. “So, you are committing to be here at 8:55 for these meetings, fully prepared, beginning with the next meeting. Correct?”

This simple, direct approach I’ve called the OIC: Observe, Inquire, Confirm.

When employed, this tool usually results in the exclamation, “Oh, I see!” by one or both parties.

Using this approach, I’ve found that I lean into conflicts very early, before they have a chance to morph into something beyond my ability to manage or solve. Try it. Try it even when there isn’t a conflict. I’m sure you will get so good at it that you’ll shout, “Who wants to fight??”

Perhaps that’s going a little too far, but you will never avoid an uncomfortable conversation for more than a few moments again. Trust me, it’s one of the most effective tools I’ve ever learned.

 

3 Things I learned from a White Horse

Casper was a huge, white Thoroughbred.  My Uncle loved him.  I didn’t.  Reminiscent of  Will Rogers who said, “I joked about every prominent man in my lifetime, but I never met one I didn’t like,” I’ve joked about every Thoroughbred I met, but I RARELY met one I actually liked.  Maybe it was just me, but Casper was the most Thoroughbreddy (is that a word?) of them all.  He was stunningly beautiful, muscular, tall and shimmering white.  More accurately, he was considered grey, with dark eyes and skin but his grey coat appeared completely white.  Under that beauty lurked a deceptively mean animal.  At every opportunity he made his dominant attitude known.  And, he appeared to enjoy it.  If horses have a sense of humor, Casper laughed when he threw us, or stepped on us, or dropped a load in the trailer.  Which made my Uncle Marv chuckle.  And, made me jumpy.

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As difficult as he was, Casper taught me three things:

First: Beauty on the outside and beauty on the inside don’t always correlate.  He was the most beautiful horse I’ve ever seen.  He was athletic, graceful and proud.  His white coat made him stand out and his personality made him crave the attention.  But he was so high maintenance.  To know him was to be irritated by him.  “He’s beautiful, but…” was the common refrain.   Because of Casper’s bruising contribution to my life, I began to learn at fairly early age to look beyond presentation, under appearance, and discover the  underlying characteristics of horses, motorcycles and sometimes of people.  Now, when I see something or someone with striking beauty, I say inwardly, “Wait for it….”   I’ve learned that saying “No” is a great way to test for inner beauty.  Any time I said no to Casper, he stiffened, resisted and revealed his inner meanness.  Except when doing what he wanted: running in a straight line as fast as he could. People are like that sometimes.

Second: Casper taught me when in pain to pull it toward me.  I was cooling Casper down after a long workout, combing him out, when he looked at me and planted his left forehoof squarely on my toes.  I think he even leaned in and squinted.  I pushed him with all my might but with no effect.  He was unmoved and I was in agony.  My uncle shouted, “Pull him toward you!”  It was counterintuitive but I did it.  And, feeling off balance, Casper shifted his weight and I freed my bruised and broken foot.  My curses echo still in the hills.

Sometimes disappointment, pain, difficulty are unavoidable. The best approach is to pull it toward me. To embrace it.  The act of pulling it toward me somehow changes me and it.  If it’s significant enough, it becomes part of my story; part of who I am.   And that is not an awful thing.  Every scrape, bruise and challenge of this sort serve to enrich me.

Third: Don’t hook a plow to a race horse.  Casper also taught me something about other horses (and myself, and my teams).  He was built to run.  Any time we asked him to participate in someting that required him to move slowly, or stand still, he hated it.  If horses could have ADHD, he had it.  Until he ran.  In a full-out run, whether competing or not, Casper was fully alive and fully himself.  We are like that too.  Perhaps you were built for the storm.  Or, built for the run.  Maybe you were built to dig in, plow through.  If you are over the age of 19, you have started to figure yourself out.  Go with your strengths.  Working day and night to develop a strength far from your core competencies  is like hooking a Thoroughbred up to a plow.  You can do it, but the field won’t look very good and you’ll be cantankerous.  There are others who made that work look easy, and love it.  Join their team.

So, thanks to Casper, one of my toes still hurts when the weather changes.  And, thanks to that beautiful, challenging horse, I am slightly better at pulling, rather than pushing.   Maybe you are, too.

I didn’t see that coming!

If you ride a motorcycle, you are keenly aware of the danger of rolling along in the blind spot of the car or truck in front of you. To a lesser degree, drivers of cars (or cages, as we like to call them) pay attention to blind spots as well.

Last week, on my early morning ride to work, I was reminded again of the importance of managing for other people’s blind spots. As I approached in the left lane a red, late model, sedan trolling in the right lane, the driver wandered slightly over the line at exactly the moment I entered her blind spot. I saw her drifting my way and was able to maneuver smoothly and avoid the hazard. Then, as she became aware of my rumbling, Harley Davidson presence, she looked up from her phone, twitched her shoulders, and jerked the steering wheel to the right, overcorrecting her mistake before gesturing apologetically as I passed. Her expression suggested that her adrenal glands were working well. I was, once again, keenly aware that I am responsible for managing other people’s blind spots.

As I continued the ride, I pondered my responsibility to do that in other situations. Blind spots, by definition, cannot be recognized easily. Sometimes they are structural: she could not see through the metal side posts of her car. Perhaps you work across the building, or country, from your team mate. Sometimes they are mental: she wasn’t expecting a motorcycle. Perhaps your expectations actually create blindness for you. And, sometimes, blind spots are there because of habits: she didn’t habitually look in her mirror, turn her head, signal, and only then begin to change lanes. Maybe your habits cause you to overlook early indications of opportunity or challenge. Regardless of the source of the blind spots, the results are always the same. “I didn’t even see that coming!” All of us have had this experience many times.

When riding in a group, especially one comprised of experienced riders who know one another well, shared responsibility for managing blind spots all but eliminates them. We watch each other, comment on riding ability, warn and signal when hazards approach, collectively sharpen our skills, and therefore our enjoyment, each time we ride.

My work teams are just like that. We get to know the structural, mental, and habitual blind spots of our teammates and take personal responsibility for managing their blind spots. In every high performance team I have had the joy of experiencing, this practice has made us stronger and more effective. And, it glues us together. Each time we point out and adjust for blind spots, our team grows. Incrementally, our willingness to receive candid feedback, even criticism, grows and so does our trust. We get better at our work. We win more often, and winning makes us want more of what it takes to win.

So, rather than trying to overcome my blind spots alone, I’ve learned to be a little more open to help from others on my team when they point them out to me. I’m learning to rely more on them to help manage the deficits as well. I know I have them and can change my habits and restructure my life a little to help, but I also know that some of my blind spots will continue to exist. So, I need my team to help me manage them. And, I do the same for them.

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Entering a blind spot. I’m responsible for managing the blind spot. Most of the time, the driver won’t.

Thankfully, Drifting Donna in her red sedan didn’t get angry and aggressive when she finally saw me. She didn’t lash out, embarrassed by yet another example of something large, shiny, loud, and well-lit unexpectedly entering her world. She corrected, apologized, and moved on. I want to have the same grace with my team when they honk at me about my blind spots. It’s a lesson I continually learn.

And, Drifting Donna’s left side door was dented. Leaving me wondering if she, like me, learns slowly.

Circus of Outrage, in 5 Stages

Outrage sells.  Or, at minimum, it gets attention.

On my way through (yet another) airport recently, I heard a shrill voice rising above the din of a crowded terminal.  And, for a moment, several hundred people in proximity to the shouts paused, looked and listened. Upon identifying the source of the outrage, and her ticket agent target, the throng’s attention moved on to more pressing and personal matters.

I, however, lingered at a distance to observe as the act unfolded in five stages.

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This is not the traveler I describe, but the sentiment is captured perfectly by my friend Ashley.

The traveler passed quickly and dramatically through the various stages of Grief and Loss identified by Elisabeth Kubler Ross.   First she denied the reality that her plane left without her.  Dramatic flourish! Second, she became histrionic in her anger.  Clearly, she had practiced this level of outrage many times.  I guessed that even at the height of her display of rage, her heart rate barely climbed above normal.  Her anger and offense seemed more like a tool than a genuine reaction to injustice.

Third, she moved to bargaining, offering alternating smiles and curses (literal curses on the ticket agent’s day and career advancement opportunities) with such deftness and ease as to leave me enthralled and wishing I had popcorn.

When the reality of her options dawned, as reality has a way of doing with all of us, the traveler’s shoulders sagged, her bag dropped to the ground and she sunk into the fourth stage—depression—accompanied by full-blown dramatic pronouncements of her status as a powerless Victim.

While the traveler was fascinating and predictable, as with any good drama, it was the Alaska Airlines ticket agent who was the calm, respectful, powerful hero that captured my attention.  Lisa was a seasoned professional with 20 years of experience behind the counter and atop a jetway. Her blue-grey eyes twinkled with apparent inner joy and her smile remained genuine throughout the show.  So, when the traveler passed from depression (in about 45 seconds) to the final stage of the drama—acceptance—again, complete with a dramatic flourish, Lisa was able to gracefully move, unmanipulated, to the next tasks on her list.

When I stepped up to the counter and told Lisa how impressed I was at her abilities, she smiled broadly and said, “Well sir, I’m just a ringmaster in a circus of outrage.  It’s a show, it’s rarely real, and some of the performers are better trained than others.”    I laughed, shook her hand and headed for my gate.

But, the “circus of outrage” stuck with me.  That picture gave me a way of thinking about the use of pretended outrage and anger as a tool in our culture.  Perhaps we’ve learned how to get off the stage and use drama and pseudo-passion too well and too often.  I see it in the workplace, in the marketplace, in and on the courts.  Drama is a substitute for significance.  Ranchers don’t go to the circus.  In the absence of effectiveness, we crave the appearance of effectiveness.  Results, real results, are deeply rewarding.  They are worthy of celebration.  In their absence we are left craving drama.

Lisa, the Ringmaster in a Circus of Outrage, actually gets results.  And, I’d guess that is what keeps her engaged and delightful.  So, notice the drama, watch the Circus of Outrage, but remember that it hides a backstage of emptiness and futility.

And, pass the popcorn.

Sunday Afternoons

For years, Sunday afternoons are my time. I look forward to those few hours when my life, and the world in which it unfolds, finds a brief opportunity to pause, celebrate, plan, dream. I don’t recall exactly when it began, but the ritual has been the source of many insights, pivots and redoubled intentions.

This Sunday ritual begins with my choice of the best Scotch and cigar pairing. Then, I settle into a conscious and focused reminder of the very few things that really matter. Looking ahead at the coming week, I deliberately make time in my calendar for the most important things first. It’s a great way to end, and then begin, the week.

Then, part way through the ritual, I am joined by my son Jonathan. Together, we sip Scotch or Bourbon, create clouds of cigar smoke, recalibrate our hearts and minds, and dream. Often, after a couple of hours, we are joined by the next wave of love in the form of my daughter, grandson, daughter-in-law and more. It is always the best part of my week. The discipline of evaluation, the decisiveness of planning, the divergent dreaming all merge with a cloud of Nicaraguan tobacco smoke to drive me to success.

As I’ve shared the details of my ritual with friends, team members, and other leaders, rather than inquiring about the impact of this discipline, they invariably ask one question: What Scotch do you like?

So, here they are: my current five favorite sips paired with just the right cigar. In my humble opinion, these pairings are sublime.

Ardbeg 21 with a Florez Y Rodriquez Tamboril
Macallen 15 (Fine Oak) with a Partigas Black Label Piramide (6 x60)
Bruichladdich Octamore (any of them) with a Liga Privada from Drew Estates
Lagavulin 16 with an Obsidian Robusto
Balvenie 12 Double Oak with Drew Estates’ Kuba Kuba

Enjoy!