About Conversation Kindling

The purpose of this blog is to share stories, metaphors, quotes, songs, humor, etc. in hopes they'll be used to spark authentic and rewarding conversations about working and living fruitfully. There are at least three things you can gain by getting involved in these conversations. First, you'll discover new and important things about yourself through the process of thinking out loud. Second, you'll deepen your relationships with others who participate by swapping thoughts, feelings, and stories with them. Finally, you'll learn that robust dialogue centered on stories and experiences is the best way to build new knowledge and generate innovative answers to the questions that both life and work ask.

I write another blog called My Spare Brain. This is where I am "storing" ideas for use in future books, articles, blog posts, speeches, and workshops. There is little rhyme or reason for what I post there. I do this to encourage visitors to come as treasure hunters looking for new ways of seeing and thinking vs. researchers looking for new or better answers to questions they already know how to ask.

29 July 2009

Who Doesn't Want to Be a Millionaire?

Joe Paterno has been head football coach at Penn State since 1966. His team has won 383 games - including 23 bowl wins - and two national championships. He is one of four active coaches who have been inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame. In addition to winning football games, Paterno is known for emphasizing academics along with athletics; his four-year Graduation Success Rate as reported by the NCAA is 78 percent. He is also a philanthropist. He and his wife Sue have contributed over $4 million to various colleges and departments at the University. He also helped raise $13.5 million to expand its Pattee Library.

JoePa - as he is often called - holds the record for most years as head coach at a single institution. He has had many chances to leave the Nittany Lions during his tenure there, as you might guess, but has been tempted on only one occasion. It was 1972 when that call came. He relates the story in Paterno: By the Book, which was published in 1989. His co-author was Bernard Asbell.
I remember the day I was forced to decide who I am. All night I lay awake wrestling with my past, trying to make sense of my future. It was December 1972. I had been head football coach at Penn State for almost seven years, and thought I was content.

Then that unexpected phone call had come – an offer to make me a rich man if I left the school I loved. The man on the phone was Bill Sullivan, former president and principal owner of the New England Patriots. "I want to meet with you to talk about coaching my team," he said. I told Sullivan I’d had other offers and wasn’t much interested in coaching in the pros. Then he hit me with his package - $1.3 million, plus part ownership of the franchise and a $100,000 bonus for signing.

At Penn State my pay was a grand total of $35,000. The money had always satisfied my family – but Sullivan’s offer made me dizzy. In the end, I told my wife I had to take the job. "Joe, whatever you want to do will be fine with me," Sue replied.

I called Sullivan and told him we had a deal. When Sue and I went to bed that evening, I said, "Okay, kid. Tonight you get to sleep with a millionaire."

At 2:00 a.m., Sue was sitting in her rocking chair nursing our baby. I’m sure she thought I was asleep. She had never said she didn’t want to go to Boston. But now tears were slipping down her face.

I lay there thinking about the life I was leaving. I saw the school where I had met my wife, the only home our five kids had ever known. I saw the students, the granite statue of our mascot, the Nittany Lion, and my thick-necked, fragile-hearted football players. What had made me tell Sullivan I’d come? Yes, Boston was a great city. It was a new challenge. But it was … the money.

Suddenly, I knew what I had to do, what it was I wanted to do. In the morning, I told Sue, "You went to bed with a millionaire, but you woke up with me." Her first thought she later told me was, "Oh, thank God."

From the moment of that nighttime revelation, I knew what college means to me - and what pro football could never mean. I love winning games as much as any coach does, but I know there’s something that counts more than victory or defeat. I get to watch my players grow - in their personal discipline, in their educational development, and as human beings. That is a deep lasting reward that I could never get in pro ball.
When author and philosopher Tom Morris appeared at the Masters Forum, one of them many things he shared with us was his view on setting goals.

First, he said we need to be very clear about what we want:
"Aristotle said 'Every human being needs a target to shoot at.' Without that a person’s life is literally aimless. Aristotle understood that the first condition for success is a clear conception of what we want; in any endeavor, in any enterprise, in any relationship we need a vivid vision, a goal clearly imagined. Aristotle didn’t think that in every situation we need to be thinking about what we want to receive – what we want to get out of it – but what we want to make happen; what result we want to achieve as a consequence of our actions."
It took a night of tossing and turning, but by the break of dawn Joe Paterno had reclaimed his compass.

Second, he said we need to articulate our goals:
"Much is written today about the importance of setting goals. And, at the top of the list of suggestions provided by most experts in the field is to write your goals out. They say you are much more apt to achieve them if you do. Is there any magic in writing your goals down? No. But, do you know what’s almost magical? The power of articulation; using the discipline of language to articulate where you want to go - whether spoken or written."
In the last paragraph of the story related above, Paterno did a wonderful job of articulating his goals for the future: he wanted to work with college kids and help them grow as athletes, students, and human beings.

Third, he said our goals must be personal:
"The most important advice on goal setting was given to us by Socrates. It is, simply, 'Know thyself.' Every exercise is goal setting should be an exercise in self-knowledge. So many people fail in life because they set goals that are right for somebody else, but not for them. Find the goals that are right for you."
In the final analysis, Paterno knew himself well enough to second-guess his initial decision and then make the right one ... for him. I would also be willing to bet that he hasn't looked back since. And that is the way of the warrior. To quote Carlos Castaneda:
"The most effective way to live is as a warrior. A warrior may worry and think before making any decision, but once he makes it, he goes his way, free from worries or thoughts; there will be a million other decisions still awaiting him. That’s the warrior’s way."

Answer the following questions to set clear, articulated, and personal goals.
  • What result do you want to create?
  • Why is this important to you? Describe the benefits you and others will receive if you succeed. Describe the impact on your job, your career, and your life.
  • How will you do it? Describe the specific steps you will take. Include dates, people, events, evaluation (how will you know when you are succeeding) and resources (materials and people.)
"There are two sentences inscribed upon the Delphic oracle, hugely accommodated to the usage of man's life: Know Thyself and Nothing Too Much; and upon these all other precepts depend." - Plutarch
"In this country we used to have a culture of conversation. People talked to each other; families over the dinner table; neighbors over the fence or on the front porch. We don’t talk to each other anymore about our hopes and dreams and aspirations the way we used to, and as a result we are not clarifying for ourselves what we really want." - Tom Morris
"Every universe, our own included, begins in conversation. Every golem in the history of the world, from Rabbi Hanina's delectable goat to the river-clay Frankenstein of Rabbi Judah Loew ben Bezalel, was summoned into existence through language, through murmuring, recital, and kabbalistic chitchat - was, literally, talked into life." - Michael Chabon, The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay
"In our playpens and high chairs, we are rarely far from displaying either hysterical happiness or savage disappointment, love or rage, mania or exhaustion - and, despite the growth of a more temperate exterior in adulthood, we seldom succeed in laying claim to lasting equilibrium. Our innate imbalances are further aggravated by practical demands. Our jobs make relentless calls on a narrow band of our faculties, reducing our chances of achieving rounded personalities and leaving us to suspect (often in the gathering darkness of a Sunday evening) that much of who we are, or could be, has gone unexplored." - Alain de Botton, The Architecture of Happiness
"Your time is limited, so don’t waste it living someone else’s life. Don’t be trapped by dogma - which is living with the results of other people’s thinking. Don’t let the noise of other’s opinions drown out your own inner voice. And most important, have the courage to follow your heart and intuition. They somehow already know what you truly want. Everything else is secondary. - Steve Jobs - commencement address, Stanford University, 2005

25 July 2009

Does Your Dog Bite?

Early on in my stint with the Wilson Learning Corporation, I heard founder Larry Wilson tell the following story:
It seems a dog food company introduced a new product only to see it fall flat. After a short time, the company got the sales force together to ask them what the problem was. The meeting opened. A very senior executive spoke.

He challenged the group: "Who uses the best ingredients?"
They shouted: "We do!"
Louder: "Who has the best advertising?"
The retort: "We do!"
Louder, still: "Who has the best sales force?"
Shouting now: "We do!"
The big question: "Why the hell aren't we selling more dog food?"


Then, from the back of the room:
"Because the damn dogs don't like it!"
I've not forgotten that story and it's message: a product is doomed to failure if the end users don't like it.

It's simple stories like this that can help you remember important principles and recall them when necessary. You are also likely to have a much more interesting and creative conversation with your product development folks, if you are talking about whether or not the dogs will like it versus whether or not the new product or service in question will meet or exceed customer expectations.

Here's another dog story with a lasting lesson.

The late Susan Butcher was a four-time winner of Alaska's Iditerod Trail Sled Dog Race. In an article published in the January, 2003 edition of the Harvard Business Review, she said:
"The dogs finally lost confidence in me. They’ll forgive a few mistakes, but if you send them in the wrong direction too many times, they’ll just stop."
  • Have you ever lost confidence in a leader for the same reason the dogs lost confidence in Susan Butcher? How quickly did it happen?
  • In Susan's case, the dogs simply stopped. Assuming you were not in a position to stop working, what did you do instead? Slow down? Passively resist? Resort to sabotage? Lead a counter-revolution? Other?
  • In your case, what could the leader have done to regain your confidence? How long do you think it would've taken - if ever - for trust to be completely restored?
  • Have you ever had a group of people you were leading lose confidence in you? How did it happen? How did you find out? What did you do to correct the situation? Did it work? Are you sure?
"All perception of truth is the detection of an analogy." - Henry David Thoreau
"I've seen a look in dogs' eyes, a quickly vanishing look of amazed contempt, and I am convinced that basically dogs think humans are nuts." - John Steinbeck

There’s a scene in the 1976 movie, The Pink Panther Strikes Again, in which Peter Sellers’ bumbling Inspector Clouseau eyes a dog sitting near a hotel clerk. This exchange follows:
Clouseau: "Does your dog bite?"
Hotel Clerk: "No."
Clouseau: [bows to pet dog] "Nice doggie." [dog barks and bites Clouseau]
Clouseau: "I thought you said your dog did not bite!"
Hotel Clerk: "That is not my dog."
Here's the video of the scene from YouTube:

21 July 2009

After Action Reviews

Some 25 years ago, the U.S. Army began to develop a learning methodology to help leaders at all levels bring their teams to high levels of operational readiness in the face of rapidly changing, complex, and unpredictable situations. The process is called AAR - After Action Review - and was born at the U.S. Army's National Training Center at Fort Irwin, California. The main idea is simple: after a training exercise - or a real combat situation - everyone who takes part sits down to actively discover what happened and why. This differs from a critique, which typically gives only one viewpoint, focuses on what went wrong, and prevents a candid discussion of events by participants. AARs can be formal - planned in advance, long, complex, professionally facilitated, aimed at large units, etc. - or informal - on-the-spot, down and dirty, leader facilitated, aimed at small units or individual soldiers, etc.

Does it work? The answer is an unqualified, "Yes." According to organizational learning expert, Peter Senge:
"The Army's After Action Review is arguably one of the most successful organizational learning methods yet devised."
Thank you, Peter. How is it being used by businesses?
" ...it's startling how little of the Army's integrated approach to learning has carried over to the business world."
Anything else, Peter?
"Most every corporate effort to graft this truly innovative practice into their culture has failed because, again and again, people reduce the living practice of AARs to a sterile technique."
Even though AAR's have not gained traction at the organizational level, they can be used to great benefit in one-on-one coaching situations.

The Positive Coaching Alliance, which was founded by Jim Thompson, is a non-profit within the Stanford University Athletic Department. Its mission is Transforming Youth Sports So Sports Can Transform Youth. They carry out their mission by conducting live workshops for the leaders, coaches, parents, and athletes of youth sports organizations - from pre-school to high school.

In its workshop for parents, the PCA draws a map showing how they can frame and conduct learning conversations with their kids. Specifically, they list some questions parents can ask their kids to help them learn from a practice or game experience they just had. In other words, an AAR. In addition to letting kids think and decide things for themselves, this approach encourages parents to be servant leaders, or ones who see their role as bringing out the greatness that already resides within their kids, rather than trying to manufacture something that does not.

This is a great tool to add to your coaching tool box. It's simple and easy to remember and use. In the short term, it will serve as a catalyst for learning conversations. Over the long haul, it will bring out the very best the person you're coaching has to offer.

  • What was the most enjoyable part of today's practice/game?
  • What worked well?
  • What didn't turn out so well?
  • What did you learn that can help you in the future?
  • Any thoughts on what you'd like to work on before the next game?
  • Any thoughts on what you've learned that might help you in other parts of your life?
"The task of leadership is not to put greatness into humanity, but to elicit it, for the greatness is already there." - John Buchan
"Coaching is unlocking a person's potential to maximize their own performance. It is helping them to learn rather than teaching them." - Tim Gallwey
"I never cease to be amazed at the power of the coaching process to draw out the skills or talent that was previously hidden within an individual, and which invariably finds a way to solve a problem previously thought unsolvable." - John Russell, Harley-Davidson Europe
"It is one of the most beautiful compensations of life, that no man can sincerely try to help another without helping himself." - Ralph Waldo Emerson
"To encourage, to comfort, to awaken, and to stretch those who find themselves riding this big ball as it screams thru time in the silence of space. To be a bridge, not a barricade. To be a link, not a lapse. To be a beacon and a bolster; not a bragger or a bummer. To help bring the corners of life's lips to their summit. To be a friend to those who find their fit a little awkward in this chaos society calls living." - Vess Barnes III

05 July 2009

When the Time Comes for Dying ...

This story is told by David Kirk Hart, former professor at Brigham Young University's Marriott School of Management.
"During World War II, a British war correspondent had gone into Normandy. He was particularly disgusted by the fact that the generals were living in mansion and estates, in posh digs, while the grunts were on the line. The reporter was really upset one night when he heard that the Nazis had parked two Panzer divisions near Cannes, and a Scottish division was to face the worst of the Panzers the next morning; they were to attack right into the Panzers.

"The reporter went immediately into one battalion, and asked the Sergeant Major, 'Where's the Lieutenant Colonel?' only to be told that he was in the back of the lines with the General. The reporter just flipped out and said, 'Well doesn't it anger you to know that you attack in the morning and your Colonel is back there with the General?' At that point, the Sergeant Major drew himself up and said: 'Sir, when the time comes for dying, he will be with us.'"
  • What would you give if your people could say that about you?
  • What greater reward could you ask?
"If your boss demands loyalty, give him integrity. But if he demands integrity, give him loyalty." - John Boyd
"Your position never gives you the right to command. It only imposes on you the duty of so living your life that others can receive your orders without being humiliated."- Dag Hammarskjold, former Secretary General of the United Nations
"We must draw our standards from the natural world. We must honor with the humility of the wise the bounds of that natural world and the mystery which lies beyond them, admitting that there is something in the order of being which evidently exceeds all our competence." - Vaclav Havel

01 July 2009

Old Tricks for New Dogs

At his May 18th commencement address at the University of Pennsylvania, Google's CEO Eric Schmidt had some very interesting things to say to the nearly 6000 graduating seniors.

He began by lauding the school and the quality of its graduates. He moved on to compare his generation to theirs, noting - among other things - that members of his generation spent all their time trying to hide their most embarrassing moments, while today's generation records and posts all those moments on YouTube.

In his wrap-up, he listed some of the things he thinks they should do right now.
"Don't have a plan. Instead, let's have some luck. Success is about being ready for the good opportunities that come before you. You can't plan innovation or inspiration, but you can be ready for it."
"For the last four years, you've been penalized for making mistakes. From now on, rewards will gravitate to those who make mistakes and learn from them."
"Think of something completely new, and go work on that. Take that as your challenge. Take that as your opportunity."
"Work in a group. None of us is as smart as all of us."
"Trust matters. Trust is the most important currency in a networked world."
"In a world where everything is remembered ... and kept forever ... you need to live for the future and the things you really, really care about. In order to know what those things are, you're going to have to turn off your computer and discover all that is human around us."
Unplug. Go analog. Leave the virtual world and make human connections. If you were born before 1977, there's a half-way decent chance you not only see the utility of doing this, but there's also a pretty good chance you've actually done it. If you were born between 1977 and 1995, you belong to a group the demographers call Generation Y, and according to Nadira Hira, a Gen Yer who writes for Fortune magazine and authored its 2007 cover story on Gen Yers and their impact on corporate America:
"Technology has made it harder for this generation to relate on an interpersonal level. People don't know anymore how to talk to each other in person."
A chink in their armor? Yes. Trust, you see, is born and bred in face-to-face relationships. It is the result of two people showing each other their eyes, and having authentic conversations in which they share stories and get to know one another from many different angles. Gen Yers, and the Millennials who are following along behind them, really, really need to get this.

A novel way for them to think about it is to take a step back in time and examine the lifestyle the Amish who truly live in an analog world. For example, author Richard Exley says:
"As you probably know the Amish believe in living a simple life - no electricity, no telephones, no motorized vehicles. Yet in many of their communities there is a pay phone. When asked about this apparent discrepancy one elder explained. 'If the telephone were in our home it would control us. As long as it is out here we control it.' He went on to say, 'Most people drop everything they are doing the instant the telephone rings and run to answer it. In their lives the telephone takes precedent over everything. (Of course cell phones have only made this addiction far worse.) The pay telephone, on the other hand, is our servant. It is there if we need it but we do not allow it to intrude into our lives.'"
They'll never go there, of course, but even taking a couple of small steps in that direction could pay big dividends.

On the other hand, Hira said she suspects that Gen Yers really do want to unplug and get personally involved with others. Here's what she said about supervising and retaining them:
"Ultimately, success with Gen Yers comes back to feedback and dialogue. They want to be engaged. They don't just want to have an evaluation once a year; they want to be mentored. Mentoring should be both formal and informal. Supervisors should take a holistic approach. They should constantly ask, 'What kind of dialogue do we need to have and how can we do it in an authentic and meaningful way?'"
She also noted that Gen Yers often prefer to turn to older leaders (from the World War II generation) for face-to-face conversation because:
"... they're looking for the person from the company who's got the most to teach them, the person who can really show them the institutional memory of the company. In the past, we've basically put those people out to pasture, but right now we're finding that they can basically be your best asset at a company."
I like to call this the "Old Tricks for New Dogs" phenomenon.

Will this new generation of ours get to the point where they are comfortable - and even enjoy - talking face-to-face with others? I think some will, but most won't.

Those who do will be the ones who simply take the time to enter into conversation after conversation, and discover how fascinating and satisfying they can be. This is an organic process. You learn to converse by having conversations. Your heart is in the lead. You speak your truth and listen genuinely to theirs. The conversations you have lead to deeper relationships and higher levels of trust. You are compelled to do this more and more often because the experience is so rich and rewarding. Relating this way to others becomes part of your essence. Donald Babcock expressed this notion of simply being in his poem The Duck:
"Now we're ready to look at something pretty special. It's a duck, riding the ocean a hundred feet beyond the surf.

No it isn't a gull. A gull always has a raucous touch about him. This is some sort of duck, and he cuddles in the swells.

"He isn't cold, and he is thinking things over. There is a big heaving in the Atlantic, and he is a part of it.

"He looks a bit like a mandarin, or the Lord Buddha meditating under the Bo tree.

"But he has hardly enough above the eyes to be a philosopher. He has poise, however, which is what philosophers must have.

"He can rest while the Atlantic heaves, because he rests in the Atlantic.

"Probably he doesn't know how large the ocean is. And neither do you. But he realizes it.

"And what does he do, I ask you? He sits down in it! He reposes in the immediate as if it were infinity - which it is. He has made himself a part of the boundless by easing himself into just where it touches him.

"I like the little duck. He doesn't know much, but he's got religion."
Those who don't will be the ones who decide that being a good conversationalist is a matter of developing the right skill set. This is a mechanical process. You learn to converse by honing your skills. Your head is in charge. You speak correctly and listen skillfully. The conversations you have are hollow and fail to enhance your relationships or build trust. You retreat from them more and more because they serve no purpose as far as you can see. Relating with others becomes a function of doing and not being. Henry David Thoreau described relationships based on doing better than anyone before or since:
"What men call good fellowship is commonly but the virtue of pigs in a litter which lie close together to keep each other warm."
Google takes trust building seriously. According to Larry Brilliant, head of the Google Foundation:
"Google’s a strange place. When I met Eric Schmidt, he said, 'If you are kind to everybody, then you will make good decisions because people will give you good information, and if you are truthful to everybody, they will be truthful to you.' That’s what’s different about Google. They screw up and make mistakes, but they genuinely mean the good stuff about 'don’t be evil.'"
This is an interesting combination, don't you think? A high-tech company with a high-touch culture is quite rare today, although it will be the norm in the very near future. Get yours today! They're going fast!

  • To what extent are you addicted to living in the digital world? What has accrued to your benefit as a result? What has been lost? How are you sure of your answers?
  • If you were forced to unplug from the digital world for a month, and if your work life and personal life went on as usual in all other ways, how would you compensate? What valuable lessons can you imagine learning?
  • How do you rate both your willingness and ability to engage authentic and meaningful conversations with others at work? At home? In your social circles? With strangers? How are you troubled - or not troubled - by your answers?
  • Is your life blessed by the presence of true friends? How are you sure? How would you describe any pattern you can see in the way your real friendships develop? Is there a story you can tell to illustrate?
"The future masters of technology will have to be light-hearted and intelligent. The machine easily masters the grim and the dumb." - Marshall McLuhan
"The goal of life is to take everything that made you weird as a kid and get people to pay you money for it when you're older." - David Freeman, screenwriter
"The price of self-destiny is never cheap, and in certain situations it is unthinkable. But to achieve the marvelous, it is precisely the unthinkable that must be thought." - Tom Robbins, Jitterbug Perfume
"All men dream: but not equally. Those who dream by night in the dusty recesses of their minds wake in the day to find that it was vanity: but the dreamers of the day are dangerous men, for they may act their dream with open eyes, to make it possible." - Lawrence of Arabia
"No one person can answer the question of meaning in this world today. It is in thinking together, under strong conditions of serious search, that a new understanding can be approached. Group communication, group pondering, is the real art form of our time." - Jacob Needleman
"From moment to moment, from day to day, we search the eyes of others for that certain yes." - Martin Buber
"Real friendship or love is not manufactured or achieved by an act of will or intention. Friendship is always an act of recognition ... in the moment of friendship, two souls suddenly recognize each other. It could be a meeting on the street, or at a party or a lecture, or just a simple, banal introduction, then suddenly there is the flash of recognition and the embers of kinship grow. There is an awakening between you, a sense of ancient knowing." - John O'Donohue

Eric Schmidt commencement address at the University of Pennsylvania.