Saturday, April 17, 2010

Some crazy thoughts on visions and values

Picture a triangle. At the top of the triangle is the vision. The peak of the represents the pinnacle. The place to be the ultimate goal. A corporate vision is intended to inspire that sense of desire to belong. Having developed many "visions" for organizations, I can tell you that there is a flaw in the making. 

A corporate vision is seen as a necessary part of the model. The Board of Directors is usually charged with the vision. However, many people actually dislike this process. They see it as wordsmithing. Time wasting. When are we going to get to the real stuff is what they want to know.

But the vision is actually the most important conversation to be had, and it should be created with heart and soul. A vision should have a pulse and embody a desire that is bigger than you and me. It spur us on regardless of the barriers. It should be important enough that people will want to be a part of it.

We create visions in companies to unite the masses under a common quest. That's true. But people have this little thing called "free will." They can chose to believe and act on whatever they chose. So, for the highly engaged, it may be a vision that drives their ambition, but is it the vision of the company. Doubtful.

That's where the values come in, which is how we live the vision.  Values are the test of how we treat each other, especially in difficult times.  I like to think of values as a moving train.  When it is derailed, people notice.  In fact, people will hold their leaders to living the values before they will hold them to a plan.  Values represent the human side of the business equation.  Without values, the vision is empty.  

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

When words fail you.

Years ago,  I was rushed to the hospital with severe abdominal pain. My children were 3 and 5 years old.  I was not able to communicate with the Ambulance drivers, so they had only visual cues and whatever my husband could tell them to work from.  

When I arrived at the hospital, I remember a haze of questions and people yelling - "Who hit you?! Were you punched in the stomach? Who kicked you?"

Were it not for my friends and family, and a good doctor, I likely would not have survived.  I was suffering with pancreatitis - brought about by a gallstone attack.  That day changed my life.  I spent over 4 weeks in the hospital.  Lost over 35 pounds. It took me more than a year to heal, and to this day, I have not had a Big Mac or a piece of cheesecake. 

Here 's why this matters.  This happens to people every day.  The need to communicate succintly, correctly and without delay can be a life and death situation.  Recently I learned of a communication system called "pictograms" that make this possible. 

Pictograms are all around us.  The most familar would be wheelchair accessibility, handicapped parking, stop, go, yield, information and of course, the ever so important restroom signs.  In a health emergency, pictograms can help the patient communicate by picture. There are pictures that denote the part of the body that is hurt or whether it was an assault or an accident. 

Besides life and death, being able to communicate is about human dignity.  As human beings, we are equipped to think, and communicate concepts.  We want to be heard. We want to tell our story. We depend so much on  communication.  But what happens when you can't? Imagine yourself speechless, but not without thought.

If you have ever travelled to another country, and are alone in your own language, you know that feeling. Pictures can help you get what you need.  In fact pictures are the method by which we learn to communciate as children before we learn words and sentences. 

A pictogram is a symbol that communicates information in a milisecond.  Imagine yourself in a hospital setting, or someone you care for. If you haven't been here, you likely will be someday. 

Today I had the opportunity to visit a booth at the SAHO conference that is launching new system using pictograms in health care facilities.  The system is homegrown in Yorkton, Saskatchewan.  The creators have a passion for helping the healthcare system help their patients - otherwise known as you and me.

Friday, April 9, 2010

Couldn't find a smile if it was nailed to his face

I would love to be a song writer, and a singer, and I wish I had musical talent.  I love that lyrics and music can be so profoundly honest, and yet safe.  Here's one of my favorites by Spirit of the West, from the song, "Venice is sinking": "couldn't find the smile, if it was nailed to his face. I know people who fit this phrase, as I am sure you do too.

No truer words were sung.  I have an interest in communciation. I love words.  I love writing them. I love finding ways to express ideas. I love all kinds of writing and communication - from annual reports and business plans to 5 word tag lines that are succinct and powerful.  There is power in words. Just think about Nike's slogan, "Just do it."  Or even brands that stand the test of time - like Kleenex.  Words are powerful.  They can be healing and consoling - think Hallmark. They have the market on feel good sentiments.

What's more, we have been taught to "be nice" through nursery rhyme and folklore.  Think Bambi - "If you can't say something nice, don't say anything at all." Or the golden rule - "Treat others as you would be treated."

That is why I am shocked by those who use words carelessly, abusively, hurtfully or with anger. In a personal setting, this is more likely to happen because when we feel safe, we sometimes use words to express frustration or anger.  But then we apologize, because we want to keep our relationships.

But what about in the workplace. What happens when the language of work is not nice.  When people are rude, inappropriate, or berating.  Most workplaces have respectful workplace, harrassment and bullying policies to protect against this kind of culture. What do we do with these people who are just plain mean?  Do we report them? Do we correct them? Do we ignore them?

Common human resource policies indicate that the person being attacked should confront the inappropriate communicator and give them a chance to change.  Practice also suggests that documentation is required.  Finally you need to contact your Human Resources department.

Over the years, I have never seen this work effectively. First of all, the victim is further victimized. If the person with inappropriate behavior didn't see it before, he or she will never see it, especially when it is brought to their attention by their victim.  More anger tends to follow.  We also tend to avoid the situation in the corporate world.  We don't like to admit that there are people among us who should never talk to anyone at the very least.  Most of the time, we walk around these people and give them what ever they want so they don't talk to us.

That works in the short term, but not the long term.  I think the best way to deal with this kind of behavior is using a business approach.  Modify the business practice to exclude the possiblity of commucation or participation where it is not wanted.  Decison making models are also useful tools to block personalities and leave them outside. Project management methodology does this.  There are rules of engagement that participants must follow.  This allows the process to be managed smoothly without interference of bad behavior.  Finally, laying out the ground rules for communciation helps by limiting what can be said and what can't.

At the heart of good communication is leadership and culture.  A positive working environment that does not tolerate inappropriate behavior does now allow bad behavior to persist.  And that's really the bottom line. If the description "Couldn't find a smile if it was nailed to his face" fits the leadership, then everything else is downhill from there.

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Look me in the eye when you say that.

We are all faced with moments when we coulda, woulda, shoulda.  These are learning moments. The kind that make you hit your forehead and go "doohhhh". Everytime I have one of these moments, I try to take stalk of what I can learn from the situation. It's part of my self-forgiveness process.

When this happens to me, I try to think about how I want to be seen, perceived, and most importantly remembered. Do I want to be remembered as someone who could snap the head off of a person in a moment's notice with a well chosen verbal attack? Or do I want to be remembered as a person who took the time to listen? Do I want to be the kind of person who reacts and lashes out, or do I want to be the kind of person who doesn't.

I choose to be the rational type, even though, I, like most people am capable of losing my temper.  In fact, I work very hard at not being harsh in my language and tone. And when I have something to say to someone that could be uncomfortable, I sit down face to face, and more importantly eye to eye, and we talk.  I listen.  I ask for their perspective.  I try to understand, and I try to help them understand what is happening.

When I say "eye to eye" I mean that.  When you talk to a person's eyes, you can't help but have an honest conversation.  In fact, the old saying, the eyes are the gateway to the soul, rings true.  I have found that even the most confrontational person will calm down if you communciate with your eyes.

There is wisdom in not reacting harshly and letting anger take over.  Many relationships are lost  when a person snaps in a fit of temper. It's hard to heal, and not possible if there is no apology.  The thing is no matter what mistake the person made, the person who loses his or her temper is the one who is wrong.

Finally, forgiveness is essential.  Forgiveness of self and others.  A good friend and mentor once told me that if I couldn't forgive myself, then how could I forgive others?

I know, I sound very enlightened. Kinda makes you want to break out into a yoga chant.  At least I try to be the person that I aspire to be.  I try to remember how I would rather be treated.  And do me a favor, if you have something to say to me, look me in the eye when you say that.

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Learning to land

Recently I experienced what you might call a collision with circumstance.  Two unrelated events coincided, and it got ugly for a short time.  It was not disasterous by any stretch of the imagination, but it was one of those life events where I was devastated for a short time. In the scheme of things, this is not a big deal. Nobody was hurt, and nobody was embarrassed except for me. No risks were taken.  Nobody's reputation was destroyed, and no animals were harmed in the making of the mistake.  Nevertheless it haunted me for 5 solid days and was "news worthy" in my life, at least.

When I was in journalism school, I remember having a discussion about what constitutes news.  We said that news is the exception to the rule. It's the good and the bad and it's things that at the very minimum make you say, "hmmmmm".  In journalism school integrity, honesty and respect were drummed into our heads.

We knew that we would be beaten within an inch of our professional credentials if we were to "recreate" a story, or misrespresent the facts in some way.  If you have ever been subjected to Jim McKenzie's scrutiny, you will understand what I mean.  Palms moisten. Sweat begins to form on the brow.  It didn't take much.  We learned to do our homework to pass the Jim test.

So in my professional life, I do not cross the boundaries that were set for me way back then. I dot my I's and cross my T's.  I stick to what is true and accurate, and I do my best to uphold this standard for my department. But I am human, nonetheless, and I do err.

J-school taught me to have a high bounce factor. I pride myself on being resilient which helps me to survive the times that I do occasionally disappoint myself or others.  When I fall, it hurts. But usually I spend very little time on the fact that I fell, and more on the "how I am going to pick myself up and keep going" question.

There is only way that I know how to do that.  I make a plan - a path if you will - of how I am going to get up and keep going. The plan helps me to know what's ahead, before it comes, and in the process of developing the plan, I am already off the ground and walking toward my goal again.

A plan is a safety net, especially in an unstable environment. Think about it - you are walking through the forest in the night - the only thing that keeps you from being lost is the fact that you know where you are and where you are going. That's what a plan does. It is the voice of reason in your head, when your heart is pounding and your palms are sweating.

The other thing that gets me off the floor is remembering that people do count on me. That this is not about me. It's about them.  Every day, I pick myself up, no matter how I feel about the world, I smile, and I go to work. Why? Because that's my job. I exist for others. And others exist to help me. That's the way it is. We are all connected and part of something else.

Monday, April 5, 2010

Go ask Alice, when she's 10 feet tall.

One day, my daughter came home crying because someone made an "ugly" face at her. I said, "Maybe she's just can't help it. Maybe that's the way she looks. "Oh," my daughter said, "I never thought of that." She went off to school happily realizing that sometimes people can't help being who they are.

My other daughter came home complaining that the boys were pulling her hair. I suggested that she pull his hair back. She kicked him instead, but then I got a phone call. My response to the teacher was, when you tell the boys to stop pulling her hair, I will ask her to stop kicking them. Good logic I thought. A girl has to stand up for herself.

I often think back to this when I am faced with situations where people are not pleasant to each other. Fear seems to be the underlying factor. Fear of . . . not being accepted, of being rejected, of not being good enough, of being lost, alone. Fear of the dark. Fear of crowds. Fear of grasshoppers. Fear of spiders. Fear of a meteor landing on your house.

I went to see Alice in Wonderland last night (yes, I am a Johnny Depp fan) which is all about fear. Fear of falling into dark holes. Fear of talking rabbits. Fear of being captured by a deck of cards and being enslaved by the Queen of Hearts. Fear of big fire breathing dragons. Fear of not fitting in.

The blue caterpillar, who was generally surrounded in a blue haze of smoke, was not afraid. Nor was Alice, who believed it was her dream and therefore could not be harmed.

And that's the whole key to overcoming fear. Taking charge of the dream and making it happen the way we want it to.

Sometimes I think, is this all there is? I hope not. I am mid dream in my life. There is lots to do yet. Places to go. People to see. There are greater things that can be accomplished, I just have to remember to keep looking for them, and not accept what others would have me do.

They say a picture is worth a thousand words. I say a picture is worth a lifetime, expecially when a person spends a lifetime picturing themselves badly. And words create the picture. Take charge of the words.

Negative words evoke negative images.I am overweight. I am unsuccessful. People don't like me. All of this adds up to one phrase: I am not worthy.

And I wonder, in this age of self-help books, Dr. Phil, Oprah, and the Dalai Lama, why are we still beating ourselves up? Maybe the message is not sinking in because we are ultimately 5 years old, afraid of the kid who made an ugly face. We need to remember that maybe that kid just can't help being that way.

Saturday, April 3, 2010

Oh, to be a cat.

Oh to be a cat. To wake up each day, beautifully and perfectly striped. Hair perfectly in place. It is a painless existence to be a cat. Especially a cat in my house.

Alas, such is not the plight of this reporter. I am among the ranks of the majority. I do not wake up beautifully striped, hair perfectly in place. Those of us among the majority do not enjoy the painless existence of a cat.

But what is it to be "painless" anyway. Is life really that "painful?" Do we really think we should merely exist? Is that what has built the world in which we live? I don't think so.

Yet, we want painless you-name-it. Painless weight loss. Painless beauty. Painless whatever. We wish our work worlds could be painless, because that is where we spend so much of our time. I wish for that too.

In my world, I often hear people say "I want painless planning." Don't we all. I have been thinking. There has to be a business idea in this.

Maybe I will start a fast food planning drive through. I will call it McPlannalds.

Ahem. I would like a strategic plan that will allow me to outshine my competitors, have an inspired and engaged workforce, a culture that is envied by all, and I want ecstatic shareholders. Oh, can I have a side of efficiency with that?

Or here's another idea: A Planning Game Show called "Get Lucky."

Guests would roll the dice, and move their men around the track, and try to send the others back. That's popomatic trouble. (Oops, it's been done.)

OK, as entertaining as this might be, it's actually very serious. I have heard these words uttered over the years many times. I want painless planning. I am sure HR types hear the same thing, and so do accountants. I am not alone in this, since we all want work to be . . . easier.

When I think back to when planning is painful, it is when there are 3 problems afoot:

1. There is a misalignment of roles responsibilities around the table. That's corporate talk for people are not clear about what they are supposed to be delivering, so avoidance becomes the strategy.

2. There is a disagreement among leadership about the direction, or the outcomes. Again, avoidance is the strategy of choice. I have seen people leave the room, and book meetings during planning sessions.

3. There is a lack of strategic foresight. In other words, the players around the table either don't see the future, or don't think they need to. This is often a sign of organizations that have experienced what I like to call "easy affluence" - or easy street, in layman terms.

Either way, who wouldn't choose painless anything if it was worth having? I would love to wake up perfect every day and simply exist to be adored (like my cat does).

I would love to not have "teacher arms" without the 25 hours a week I spend at the gym.

I would love to have a nice life for my family without working for it. (They call that the lottery).

But such is not the plight of the majority. We have to work for what we have.

Organizational success is no different. And planning is big part of that. It is a mental workout that requires courage, foresight, thinking, commitment and actually being engaged in the company's success.

Like beauty, planning quality is in the eye of the beholder - or should I say the one holding the mirror. The planning experience is the mirror image of the company's leadership, attitudes and intent to . . . well, get somewhere.

It can be healthy, productive, challenging and inspiring, or it can be painful if participants are disengaged, disinterested, or discombobulated.

The trick is to have good leadership and good information at the table. The best CEO that I know supported the process, held the executives to it, and when necessary stepped in (respectfully) and said what needed to be said. As a planner and middle manager, I could see the company was in good hands, and it was.

Good leaders give direction. They don't allow side stepping, or other evasive actions. Good leaders support their planners (who are just trying to do their job) by ensuring their employees are engaged, active and accountable.

I guess we are all cats to some degree. We tend to be independent in our beliefs, and we tend to like things our way. We are who we are and we come in all colors. In fact, in the corporate world, we go to great efforts to understand the cat across the table. Depending on the color coding tool, some of us are red (just do it), others are yellow (creative, intuitive, non linear), others are blue (methodical and process oriented) and others are green (logical and linear).

Good leaders keep the "cats" moving forward together. And good leaders don't ask for "painless planning"; they ask for their leaders to be good leaders.