Groundhogs Make Lousy Meteorologists


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. 🙂


Every System Is Perfectly Designed


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


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.


5 Leadership Practices To Try Today


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*)


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.


Hey Jimmy Kimmel – I Told My Kids I Threw Away Their Honour Roll


There are a few things that get my blood boiling. This is one of them:

Calgary School Ends Honour Roll Program Because of Hurt Feelings

Let me take a deep breath and try to regain my composure.

It’s possible that the school had the best interests of the kids at heart. Maybe. The principal expects students to learn for learning’s sake. Maybe he should have done the same. The principal based his decision on the work of the “educational guru” Alphie Kohn’s ideas that rewards and punishments are both methods of controlling behaviour and if we really care about the children, we need to work with them, not manipulate them. Kohn’s works include:

“70 studies showing that extrinsic motivators—including A‘s, sometimes praise, and other rewards—are not merely ineffective over the long haul but counterproductive”.

The problem is that academics have been duking this out in academic journals for the last 20 years! The research is not cut and dry and there are plenty of people who argue that it is easy to overcome any problems of demotivation. (It usually involves making sure that real effort is required to achieve the award.)

The problem with listening to these gurus, is that people take their word as gospel and fail to look at the actual research themselves. If you’re going to turn your school into a social experiment, I think you have an obligation to truly understand what you are basing your experiment on. Are you a visionary, blindly following someone who may be wrong, or are you just bitter because maybe you didn’t get on the honour roll when you were a kid?

If Kohn is wrong, then this principal is taking away recognition that means something to some students for nothing. And I’ll tell you something that is 100% demotivating, no reference required: asking someone to work hard, and then when they’ve achieved their goal, taking away what they’ve earned.

Ouch! Don’t believe me?

Just ask the kids whose parents told them they ate all their Halloween candy.

By Veronica Ciolfi

Your Values or Mine?


Yesterday, my friend asked me a question: Can you lead someone with very different values than you? After all, personal values help define who we are and are at the core of what motivates us. How do we reconcile working with someone who wants different things than we do?

First I would argue that mutual respect is a must.  If there isn’t, if one person believes that the other’s person values don’t matter, you can’t have a mutually beneficial relationship. If there’s no mutual respect, then you have to decide who’s values take priority and how do you do that? No one person is fundamentally better than another. At some point there has to be an agreement to disagree or the person who drew the line in the sand ends up walking away.

Secondly, though your values drive your actions, as a leader, you are more interested in what drives your subordinates actions. All values are great, they just mean that people have different priorities than you do. From my perspective, a leader needs to know what motivates their followers and do their best to give them what they need in order to be successful, thus driving the mission forward. If family is the number one priority of one of your workers, then if you want that worker to provide their best to the company, you have to do what you can to help them meet their needs. Working from home, or flexible hours during difficult family times. At the same time, if you know that family is important, you can try to provide that kind of atmosphere at work to motivate them.

If you value independence and your co-worker values teamwork, I can see how there would be friction, but as a leader, you need to still be able to give your follower what they need, if you want them to be successful. To force them to prioritize your values isn’t going to work.

But what happens when people in your team have different and possibly conflicting values? That’s where it gets difficult. In all cases, the cost of being together as a partnership, a team, or a firm has to be lower than the cost of working separately. If it is too difficult to make someone productive, if it harms the team and lowers their productivity, then the firm would be foolish not to get rid of this person or move them elsewhere, which has its own costs. This explains why recruiters place a lot of emphasis on cultural fit when hiring. It’s easier to work as team when you’re all stuck in the same mud together.

So what can you do when you see conflict in your team arising from conflicting values? There are no magic answers here in this small blog, but I think one of the most important things that can be done is to acknowledge the differences openly. Rather than hokey “team building” activities that involve making a bridge out of Popsicle sticks, individual and  group discovery sessions that identify individual and shared values can be a great way of identifying areas of compatibility as well as  potential minefields. From there, you can decide how to mitigate potential problems (if possible or necessary) or whether you can just focus on the strengths of the group to crowd them out.

by Veronica Ciolfi

Follow the Leader


So last week, I was in the car, heading to my parents’ house to drop off the baby. Another car cut me off and I may have sworn a tiny bit. I forgot I had an audience in the back seat.

Son#3: Shit!
Me: Oh no!
Son#3: Oh no! Shit! Shit! Shit! Shit!
Me: *moment of panic* Sweetie…that’s not a nice word. You shouldn’t say it.
Son#3: Shit! Shit! Shit! Shit!
Me:  Wait! Nose! Where’s your nose?
Son#3: Nose, nose, nose, nose….
Me: *whew*

The joys of toddlerhood. Turns out they’re actually paying attention. Sadly, I didn’t learn my lesson. A few days later, I was trying to get out of a parking lot but because of construction and a poorly parked truck, I was blocked in. I may have cursed just a tiny bit more.

Son #3: Uck!
Me: Nooooo!
Son #3: Uck! Uck! Uck! Uck! Uck!
Me: I don’t suppose you’re saying truck?
Son #3: Uck! Uck! Uck!
Me: *banging head on steering wheel*
Son #3: Uck! Uck! Uck!
Me: What about duck?
Son #3: Uck! Uck! Uck!
Me: Where’s your nose?
Son #3: Uck! Uck! Uck!
Me: I think Mommy has to go sit in time-out.

This story illustrates how critical it is to lead by example. Whether you have a toddler or adults that look up to you, one of the quickest and easiest ways I’ve seen to lose all credibility as a leader (and parent) is to spout the nonsense, “Do as I say, not as I do”.

A remember a few years ago, when Son #1 was in grade one, he asked for a list of bad words he wasn’t allowed to say because he didn’t want to say one by accident and get in trouble for it. So that got us talking because, as seen above,  the occasional bad word has slipped past my filters and Son #1 wanted to know why he couldn’t swear. I tried the honest approach and told him it would make me look like a bad parent.

He laughed.

Then we came to a compromise. He can’t use a bad word unless he can tell me exactly what it means, why it’s inappropriate to use the word and what effect he’s trying to create by using it in that context. I will happily do the same, if he’s interested. It turns out that he’s not that interested and would rather play video games.

I have a hunch that the same approach isn’t going to work with Son #3.  I wonder if he’ll appreciate a discourse on the finer points of microeconomics while I drive, instead?

Where’s the Damn List



I’m busy. You’re busy. Everyone’s busy these days.  And maybe some of you are hoping that I’ll just get on with things and get to the list already. I mean, there has to be a list of what a leader needs to do, right? Bullet points are fine, but numbered lists are better. Well, the good news is there are lots of lists out there.

Forbes has their Leader’s Checklist , the Canadian Forces had their simple list before they updated their manuals and Howard Behar has his list from working at Starbucks.

The problem is not that there aren’t lists, the problem is that there isn’t just one. And it’s not a matter of taking all the lists out there and squishing them together, either. The problem is what works one time might not work the next and what works for one person, might not work for another.

A few weeks ago, I brought up the possibility of using non-linear science as a metaphor for leadership.  This idea made so much sense when I heard Brenda Zimmerman talking about complexity theory in our Leadership class. She said there are three types of problems:

1. Simple problems. These can be solved using a set of instructions like using a recipe to make a cake. If you follow the recipe, you should get a pretty good cake every time. The outcome is known.

2. Complicated problems. These are difficult problems like sending a rocket to the moon. Here, you need protocols, formulas and expertise. If you are successful, it increases the chances of doing it again. The outcome is knowable.

3. Complex problems. These are like raising a child. As any parent knows, having a set of protocols that are strictly adhered is almost impossible (if not laughable), and just because a certain technique worked on one child doesn’t mean it will work on the next. These types of problems are relationship-based and the outcome is unknowable.

When we think of science, we usually think of simple or complicated problems. However, leadership problems are complex. The starting conditions cannot be used to predict the final outcome. Think of gathering your team together for their first meeting. You can run the exact same meeting for every team you work with but the end results will be different every time.

Complexity has its origins in chaos theory which is not about randomness but rather patterns that develop. It’s non-linear, which means that small changes to the system can produce unpredictable results (think the Butterfly Effect) and it has emergent properties that come from the interactions between the people. Let’s go back to the example of the first team meeting. As a leader, you can give the exact same opening speech, assign the same tasks and the pattern of behaviour for each team will be different. This seems logical because each person has their own unique personality, but we can also say that each team is a Complex Adaptive System (CAS). Complex Adaptive Systems  are made up of independent agents (people) that interact because of common goals, outlooks or other needs. They are also adaptive—new relationships form, old ones may dissolve—and that is what makes them so challenging.

This is why there are so many lists. Each list is successful sometimes. This also helps explain why some managers are successful even though they possess what you might consider to be terrible leadership skills. Like the micromanaging leader that controls every aspect of your work life and is driving you crazy. Their style of interacting with people is successful sometimes. Some people like the constant guidance. The same holds true for the boss that’s on Facebook all day. Some people like being left to their own devices. The problem is that these successes can reaffirm a particular leadership style if it never occurs to the leader that even a broken clock is right twice a day.

So how do we ensure that we’re more useful as leaders than just occasionally?

Just as your team is constantly adapting and evolving, you need to as well. As leaders, I think we also have to be willing to concede that we don’t have full control of the situation; that eventually, we have to let our kids get on the school bus by themselves and see what emerges. It doesn’t mean we aren’t involved. We still have to lead. But instead of looking at the little details, we have to look at the wider situation. The patterns and interactions usually tell a story much earlier than a failed project or missed deadline.

This means that leadership is messy and unpredictable. Sometimes we get it wrong. Sometimes we get it right. Which means that about the only thing I can think of to put on a Leadership To Do List is this:

1. You have to try.

I think that’s a great place to start.

I Human


Picture by David Howell

Many of you who know me, know my crazy sister. There are many reasons why I call her crazy, but  I’d like to share one in particular. A few weeks ago, she  called me, all nonchalantly. When I asked her what was up, she replied that she was lying on the ground, in a forest. This led me to asking why she was lying on the ground, in a forest, and she replied that she had been thrown from her motorcycle while riding a trail and it hurt too much to get up. After a deep breath on my part (because if she’d been in danger of dying there probably would have been more shrill crying or at the very least, sarcasm), I asked her if she needed me to call someone. She said no, her husband had driven to the entrance of the trails so he could direct the ambulance to her. She just  didn’t feel like lying there alone, so she called me.

You can watch the Youtube video here. The crash happens around 3:30. The person she’s talking on the phone at the 6 minute mark is me.

All this reminded  me of a story she told me while giving me a motorcycle tour of Vancouver. She said that there was a belief that the gear that some motorcyclist wore (dark visor, full helmet, dark body armour) might actually increase motorcycle accidents because the rider looked less human and more robotic while wearing all the gear. As a result, other drivers weren’t as careful around motorcyclists that didn’t look human.

There is some research to support this. Monsters in Metal Caccoons discusses that when we are in the interior of a car, we feel protected and isolated. We are also in control of the car and so we become “enhanced humans”. Cyborgs. In turn, drivers start to dehumanize other drivers, seeing them as just the car. This is why road rage becomes easier. We are more likely to swear at the car in front of us than if a fellow pedestrian cuts us off on the sidewalk.

What does this have to do with leadership? My sister’s story got me wondering, what are other ways that we disguise people’s humanness? We may not have the distance provided by a car or a motorcyclist’s body armor, but I think everyone can probably identify a time when we treated someone as a thing, instead of a person. When it was easier to dismiss someone’s concerns as trivial rather than trying to address the problem.

To borrow Jessica Hagy’s style of illustration:


For example, a problem employee offered up an idea and my first instinct was to shoot it down because I didn’t see any value to it. This employee consistently had trouble implementing useful solutions. I only realized my mistake when I looked him in the eyes. Looking at him forced me out of my head, out of the category I had shoved him in and forced me to consider the situation from his point of view.

The problem employee had been labelled as difficult and not having a clear understanding of the company’s mission. But really listening to his idea, understanding how he came to it, showed that he did understand what we were trying to accomplish, he was just going about it a different way. He needed guidance on how to evaluate his ideas, not someone to do the evaluation for him.

Some people might argue that if you spend all your time empathizing with your team members, then it becomes impossible to offer guidance or corrections because now you are their friend. The problem is that they see empathy and assertiveness like this:


when instead, they could be seen like this:

empathy-assertion graph

Empathy and assertiveness are not mutually exclusive. Empathy is about perspective-taking, and understanding the issues from someone else’s point of view. It shows that the other person’s point of view has value whether you agree with it or not. It’s about respect,  which is probably one of the most important things a leader can give to their followers.

So whether we are driving in a car, working the reception desk or leading a team through a project, it’s important to recognize everyone’s humanness, the things that make them worth more than a just a robot.

At the same time, it’s important to watch out for logs lying on the path.