Groundhogs Make Lousy Meteorologists

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Wiarton Willie predicts an early spring. Ha, ha, ha, ha…

The problem is that I don’t think the average groundhog really cares about whether or not we’re going to have an early spring. And judging by the fact that Wiarton Willie averages about 37% accuracy, I don’t think he particularly cares about being accurate either. We would be better off flipping a coin.

Yet every year, we trot out the TV cameras and newspaper reporters. There are street festivals, and even the mayor puts in an appearance to see if the local groundhog sees his shadow or not. It verges on the ridiculous. Yet, we keep doing it, over and over again.

That tells me that we value people who give us hope over people who are competent. Even if our current situation is good, we like to believe that the future will be even better. In that regard, the groundhog is right. Spring will come, eventually.

The groundhog is lucky though. He inspires hope without having to do anything other than wake up early on a cold February morning and wander out of his bed. But what about a boss that may be perfectly competent, smart, fair and efficient, yet doesn’t give you the sense that tomorrow you will be any further ahead than you were today?

I don’t think we would like working for them for very long. The hardest thing about working at the last start-up I was with was when my direct boss no longer thought the company would be successful. It was crushing.

So sure, relying on a groundhog to predict the weather is a bit like asking my three year-old to do my taxes. It’s entertaining to watch for a few minutes but doesn’t actually accomplish anything. Unless it makes me think that he has a natural talent for numbers, or organization or artistry. And then maybe it gets me to thinking about how else I can encourage his undiscovered talents. I don’t need much to stay happy. Just a hope and a possibility. That’s what I need the leaders in my life to provide, and that’s what I need to provide to the people looking up to me.

Hope and possibility. The chance to grow. The opportunity to make a difference.

And if we get an early spring, well that’s just gravy on top. 🙂

~Veronica

Every System Is Perfectly Designed

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At least, every system is perfectly designed to get the results that it gets.

Yes, we are all individuals, mostly capable of influencing our own performance. But any organization, whether it’s a for-profit company, a non-profit group, a family unit, a small team…it doesn’t matter. We can’t help but be influenced by the systems that surround us; the norms, the priorities, the culture, the symbols, the values, the goals, the standard operating procedures–they set the boundaries of default behavior.

So what do we do if the feedback on our customer service isn’t great? Do we target the under-performers and demand that they work harder/be nicer/smile brighter? Or do we look at the training they receive, the incentives we offer and how we treat them when they do great work and when they make a mistake?

There is a wise adage in the field of computer science. GIGO. Garbage In – Garbage Out. It usually refers to the fact that computers will process whatever nonsensical data you put in to them–spitting out equally nonsensical data in return. I think it can also apply to the nonsense we as leaders put into a system–the unfair demands, unequal treatment, not treating people as actual humans, not giving people a voice….etc. It seems perfectly logical to me if we put that stuff in, then we will receive output we don’t want.

But people aren’t computers, right? Shouldn’t they should be able to act appropriately, regardless of the situation? Yes, they should. And I’m not abdicating them of responsibility. We need people to be the shock absorbers for when the system hits a bump or a snag. But if the system is toxic enough or requires too much energy from your people to keep absorbing the garbage you put in, then they will quit or worse, turn into people who don’t care anymore.

So if employees are not performing up to the desired standard, or — scary stuff — you want to engage more people (different people), it’s time to shake up the system.

Easier said than done, of course. Some people will resist change because there is still a two year-old in all of us. We like things they way they are because we understand them, we can predict what’s coming, its safe, its easy. But changes don’t have to be big to be meaningful.

And the good thing? The changes just have to start with us.

~Veronica Ciolfi

Eye of the Beholder

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Son #3 wants to be a cat. Not the strangest part of my morning.

Son #2 wants to be an astronomer when he grows up. Not an astronaut. That’s not exciting enough.

Son #1 wants to be a bike rider.

Besides weeping for my future retirement, I want to focus on Son #2’s definition of excitement. Because I don’t know about you, but travelling 28,000 km/hr and floating around space seems pretty darn exciting to me. But maybe he thinks excitement is driving your own research forward as opposed to just running someone else’s experiments. Maybe excitement is the slow, methodical build of discovering something great. I’m not sure. All I know is that his definition of excitement isn’t quite the same as mine. That doesn’t make it wrong.

Our language has evolved into a rich pallet we can use to create our landscape, but what happens when our intended message isn’t received that way? How many times do we get frustrated with the lowly employee who needs to be told, again and again, how to do something?

Are we like a painter, where the meaning lies in the eye of the beholder? That would be chaos! Is the recipient responsible for trying to understand what we meant? Partially. Unfortunately, not all of us are Picasso and people are unlikely to spend hours contemplating the true meaning of our message. That means the rest lies with us.

Not everyone likes abstract paintings. Some prefer photography. Repeating the same message, “As I told you before…” is just hammering the same bent nail, only a little harder. We need to try different words, different media, and different approaches. We have to assume the fault lies with us which is awesome, because that means there is something we can do about it.

The meaning is in the eye of the beholder, after all. Good thing we aren’t tied to a single canvas.

As a side note, I spent ten minutes meowing like a cat with son #3. Not sure what I was communicating, but he seemed happy. It really is all about them. 🙂

I just hope I didn’t agree to by him a car.

~Veronica

5 Leadership Practices To Try Today

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Congratulations to Ewa who won the draw for last week’s survey. The book is on its way! I’m still crunching numbers and trying to figure out what all the data means, so stay tuned for those results. In the mean time, here are 5 easy things to do today to flex your leadership muscles.

1. Give Praise. Yes, of course giving critique is part of a leader’s job, but so is giving praise. The problem is that it’s harder to give praise than people think. “Good job” just doesn’t cut it. Praise, like good critique, has to be specific and tied to a person’s actions. Whether you chose to give your praise publicly or privately will depend on the situation, but it should always be given honestly.

2. Empower. It’s easy just to answer the question you’re asked, but instead, think if it’s appropriate to show them how to find the answer for themselves. Can you teach them how to print the report or run the query? Good leadership isn’t about keeping these tasks to yourself so you can be powerful, it’s about giving away as many as you can, so you actually have time to lead your team.

3. Learn Something New. There’s lots of research out there that shows learning keeps your brain young. It also introduces you to new ideas and allows you to challenge your paradigms. I believe one of the fundamental jobs of a leader is to allow for (and encourage) innovation. To do that, a leader needs to be open and able to understand different ways things can be connected.

4. Forgive Yourself.  Growth and innovation doesn’t happen in spurts, it happens through tiny little experiments we try every day. Many of those experiments will fail. We have to be okay with that or we will never try anything new. So let go of whatever latest mistake you’re berating yourself for and go try something new. Again and again and again.

5. Reconnect. We cannot be the giving tree. Even leaders need support and encouragement. Reconnect with someone you’ve been thinking about. Go out for coffee. Give them a call. Let them know you’ve been thinking about them. Not only will it make you feel better, but it warms their day as well.

Culture is not an excuse to be a Herd Jerk

Today I present a guest post from Crazy Sister (who, incidentally, I asked what self-inflicted label she would prefer and she replied ‘Crazy Sister Who Actually Has A Really Good Job’. So in short, I will leave as Crazy Sister or CSWAHARGJ until she decides on something else. *sigh*)

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Culture is not an excuse to be a Herd Jerk

Staring any new job can be a stressful experience.  Learning new processes, meeting new people, probably learning new skills, and amidst all this new information, you still have to acclimate yourself to your new job’s “culture”.  This is basically every employer’s way of saying they have no intention of changing to accommodate how you work and they expect you to amalgamate into your new environment and join the herd.

There can be a lot of bumps on the road to joining a new herd.  You have to learn how the herd works, how the head speaks and how the herd reacts to change.  Every herd has some jerks.  Herd jerks use “culture” as a way to force compliance with their personally held beliefs about how things should work.  Just because that’s the way “IT” has always been done, does not in any way mean that it is the most efficient or effective way of getting “IT” done.  Herd jerks use culture as a way to resist change and enforce compliance.  Herd jerks limit evolution of ideas and progression of processes.  They also intimidate new workers who come with fresh ideas and new ways of looking at old problems.  Herd jerks are the High School “mean girls” of the corporate world and they often have many of the same characteristics; they’re petty, gossipy, and usually insecure about the little niche they have carved into the world.

Herd leaders need to be able to identify herd jerk and corral this type of “culture abuse”.  Herd leaders are the ones to set the tone of this culture, and it’s their job to ensure that the culture listens to these new and fresh ideas.  Bad herd leaders use herd jerks as enforcers to resist change.  No one like herd jerks… Don’t be one.

~Jenn

Another Problem With Labels

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Remember Son #3 – The Beheader of Marigolds and the Uninstaller of Shutters and Trampoline Safety Equipment? Yup. That’s him. Which brings me to another problem with labels that my sister pointed out to me.

They become self-fulfilling.

Which is great if you’ve been labeled a superstar, not so great if you’re called a troublemaker. Heartbreaking when others do it to us, but even more so when we do it to ourselves. For example:

I can’t start my own business, I’m a mother. I have three kids.

I can’t change things at my job, I’m just a worker.

I’m too old to learn this.

Let’s pick some new labels. In fact, let’s try on a new one each day. Today I’m going to be Graceful. (Don’t laugh). So, please share. What’s your self-inflicted label for today?

~Veronica

The Problem with Labels

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Meet son#3. He’s also known as:

The Uprooter of Tulips
The Beheader of Marigolds
The Hallway Graffiti Artist
The Stacker of Toothbrushes Down the Drain
The Uninstaller of Shutters and Trampoline Safety Equipment

The problem with labels like these is that they don’t capture the mischievous glint in his eye before he attacks a soap bubble or the sweet and innocent way he says sorry after he’s dumped half a liter of water on the floor in his quest to study fluid dynamics. They in no way capture all the sweet and funny things he does, which mostly make up for the renovations required to our home.

To a certain extent, we need to use labels to help us quickly understand complex situations by categorizing all the information we receive, which, I suppose, is why all the “job hunting” gurus and resume experts advise that we should brand ourselves. A simple, clear and easy to understand statement of who we are. But I’m not a box of cereal and neither are you.

So who really suffers when we stick to labels? The labelers, of course.  The moment we have categorized something or someone, it limits the number of interactions we can associate with them, in turn, limiting our creativity. If we think the spoon is an eating utensil, we will only use it for eating. It’s also apparently really useful for digging up bulbs in the garden, playing the stock pot and removing drywall.

If I think son #3 is a troublemaker, I will only look out for the trouble he creates. I need to take a step back and deconvolute the label.

Son #3 is a troublemaker because he doesn’t listen to me. Son #3 doesn’t listen to me because he really, really, really wants to do what just popped in his head because he’s:

a) So curious he’s going to explode if he doesn’t
b) Determined the rewards outweigh the risks
c) Testing me to see if he can overthrow the current regime in this family

Which actually makes me think he’ll be a great entrepreneur in a few years and his curiosity and questioning of authority should actually be encouraged. Just like that, he’s transformed from troublemaker to possible retirement solution because I am so moving in with him when I’m old and senile. Revenge, circle of life, and all that.

We need to look at all the people we’ve categorized and labeled. They could end up becoming friends, or at the very least surprise us. And seeking out surprises is a great way to change our way of thinking and learn new things.

Safe and stagnant is boring.

Maybe I should buy son #3 a chemistry kit. He’ll like that. The “not for children under 3” warning is probably just another example of labeling designed to simplify our lives and stifle our creativity. Maybe. What the heck, the spare room is already missing some drywall, anyway.

~Veronica

 

All Roads Lead to Innovation

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When I started this blog, the first thing I did was look at my definition of leadership: Leadership is the courage to bring people together and the art of engaging them so that they can accomplish great things.

But it didn’t dawn on my until now, how that connects with everything I’ve been pursuing in my life. My work with early-stage biotechs, my experiences in the cadet program, the choice of subjects I picked during my MBA…it all leads to a study of innovation–how to encourage it and how to develop its ideas and bring them to reality. The biotech angle and the school courses are obvious how they fit in, but it’s only now that I’ve been able to tie my feelings on leadership to innovation. I just realized how fundamentally they are linked.

The most vital job of a leader is to make sure there’s an environment where innovation can occur.

The funny thing is this clicked into place during the adult karate training camp I just attended, because even karate leads to innovation. We were watching the leadership video from Simon Sinek on why good leaders make you feel safe. He says that leaders are responsible for creating a circle of safety for the tribe, which is necessary for innovation to occur. Otherwise, we spend all of our energy protecting ourselves from each other.

However, safety is only half the equation. Most innovation results in failure and people have to feel safe failing, but the other problem stopping innovation is that some organizations are too safe and are swimming in a sea of complacency. A leader also has to help the tribe identify the danger they are fighting. And there’s always danger, regardless of the industry, regardless of where it is in its life cycle, regardless of what the competition is currently doing. Because things change all the time.

So maybe when we talk about a lack of innovation, what we’re really talking about is a leadership problem. And we’re talking about a lack of innovation all the time, only the solution hasn’t been to change the leadership, the solution has become to buy up innovative companies instead. (See tech giants, Valeant Pharmaceuticals.)

Instead of defining the danger, instead of providing an environment where the tribe can create new and wonderful things, the leaders just make the circle bigger, relying on the fact that someone else has already created it. The problem never really gets fixed, just postponed a little bit longer. But if we look smaller, not bigger, focusing on the smallest units within our organizations and empowering them and protecting them, allowing them to try and fail and try again, we can start to create (and destroy and create again) thousands of new, and wonderful things.

And sometimes at this lowest level, we’re just an accidental leader. We didn’t wake up this morning intent on world domination, we’re just supervisors, parents, teachers, team leads, neighbors, and office mates. But, I think that’s the most important position of all.

 

Veronica Ciolfi

Beauty

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There’s a certain beauty that can only be seen in times of stress or crisis. Perseverance, courage, ingenuity, dedication—most of these only become visible when called upon in difficult times.

I’ve always been rather fond of my hibiscus plant. Though each individual flower never lasts very long, each one is bright and beautiful when it blooms. During the recent ice storm, I saw a new side of my plant. I saw it hunched over, carrying the weight of almost two centimeters of ice on its thin branches so that the branches were scraping the ground instead of reaching for the sky. But, for all its perceived delicateness, the branches held the weight and they were all the more beautiful for it.

I think too often we try to just get through tough or stressful times. All we see is the end goal and plow on straight ahead, holding our breath until the end and then we collapse on the ground afterwards and celebrate that we made it.

Personally, I think we should do more celebrating mid-way through. When we are so stressed that we don’t think we can handle anything more, when we are exhausted and feeling brittle, we should take a moment to stand tall and say, “Hey, I can do this. I am doing this. And that’s pretty darn awesome.”

Failure is, of course, a possibility. But fear of that failure should not paralyze us so that we can’t enjoy the journey for what it is.

To all my friends, family, fellow MBA students, teammates, and fellow karate-ka—here’s to the next few months. They will be crazy and exhausting and difficult and I intend to love every minute of it. Thank you for allowing me to take this journey by your side.

~Veronica

The Care and Feeding of Gremlins

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We all have one.  For some it speaks louder than others. It’s that nattering voice in the back of your head  saying you can’t do that.

You shouldn’t do that.

If you do, you’ll just fail.

Might as well stick with what you’re doing.

Maybe you just have to work harder…

Some call it a Gremlin. Other people call it our inner critic or our elephant. Those of you less inclined to abuse metaphors might prefer to describe it as Negative Self-Talk.

My gremlin is a scary, ugly  thing that looks a lot like Venom (Spiderman comics) with his big, sharp teeth and long, snake-like tongue. He is loud, terrible—hysterical almost, when it comes to pointing out my shortcomings.

Well, he was. The best thing I ever did was learn to identify and hear him. Not listen—not ascribe value to what he was saying, just hear his ramblings and treat them as if they come from a half-senile old relative that nobody in the family really listens to because he smells bad, has personal space issues and is, well, mostly crazy.

Hear him, nod slowly while backing away in a non-threatening manner and say, “that’s interesting”.

It sound ridiculous to type it out now, but I could only realize the garbage of what he was saying when I removed my emotional reaction it. And like trying to pick out a conversation in a crowded room, it became easier when I identified him. I found my Debbie Downer.

After that, I started to have some fun with him. I took my kid’s Venom figurine and dressed him in some old Barbie clothes. Now, when he starts his rantings in my head, I  mentally dress him up in funny clothes and tell him to go play in heavy traffic. We have this back and forth that reminds me a lot of the Frog in the Blender.

It took a while, but he’s a lot less powerful now. He still occasionally reveals his scary head, but mostly he just sits in the corner knitting, no longer interfering with my inner Wonder Woman.

So today, look out for your inner Gremlin. Call them by name and introduce yourself. Just because they’re crashing your party doesn’t mean you should pretend they aren’t there. Take stock of what they look like and start to hear the words they say. Ask yourself if you would take them seriously if they were physically in front of you or if you would just roll your eyes (and/or throw your coffee in their face) and go on with your day.

It’s a gremlin. It doesn’t like sunlight, that will kill it. Same here. It’s time we put them in the spotlight and neutralized their power over us.

Gizmo: Bright light! Bright light!

By Veronica Ciolfi