Wednesday, June 22, 2011

No horns needed

I exited the Lakeshore Drive off-ramp at Navy Pier, yesterday, to come head-to-head with a blue police barricade. Something was amiss with police cars zooming the wrong way on a one-way street. No lanes of traffic could proceed. It turns out that the Vice President was making me late.

As we watched the traffic light turn from green to red to green again, some cars behind me began to howl. I could hear the exasperation behind the blaring horns: “The light is green, you idiots! Why aren’t you moving?” It was clear to the rest of us that we were going nowhere and that patience was needed. (I put the car in park, rolled down the windows and seat-danced to the radio.) I watched around me as other drivers just shook their head in response to the blaring horns. The signs were everywhere – from the police barricade and cops on every street corner to the speeding police cars passing in front of us – there was a legitimate reason we were not budging an inch. Impatience and aggression was futile.

But I wonder… how many times does this happen in our organizations? When we, as leaders, don’t have clear visibility to the front lines, do we get fed up with inaction and overtly make it known? Are we oblivious to the barricades ahead that are inhibiting our people from moving forward? Do we simply use the “horn tactic” – get louder and more demanding – as the front-line employees stare helplessly at the blockade before them?

As I seat-danced to my radio, I reflected on the scenario around me and identified three horn-less lessons for dealing with a standstill:

  1. Don’t jump to conclusions - Especially when the conclusion is, “Everybody but me is an idiot.” 
  2. Remember that patience truly is warranted - Things may not be moving as quickly as you need them to, but losing your cool won’t help.
  3. Focus your efforts on unearthing the root cause - Examine the surrounding systems. Look for clues. Identify the source of the problem. If you have the power to move the barricade, then by all means, do. 

Just like that, Vice President Biden sped by amid yet more police cars. Someone up top gave the orders for the police to remove the barricades, and we were set free. And what do you know? When the obstacle was removed from our path, we moved forward on our own accord. No horns needed.

Friday, June 3, 2011

Find your sunshine

Sun. Warmth. Joy. The storms that drenched Chicago and wreaked havoc across the US seem to have passed – for the moment. Many of the storms of life, however, still remain.

I happened to be flying on one recent dreary day. On the ground, it was gloomy. The fog obstructed my view. The cold penetrated my spirit. The rain showered down on my mood. Where was the sun? Where was the warmth? Where was the joy? Did it even exist? The storm was all I could see.

Then lift-off. The plane ascended, through the rain and through the clouds. Suddenly, we broke free from the edge of the storm. ahhhh. Sun. Warmth. Joy.

I can hear the conventional wisdom inspired by this metaphor for life. Remember the bigger picture, it says. Look beyond your present storm. Stand strong; it will pass. The key to victory is perseverance.

But this is not the point I want to make. What struck me as we experienced freedom from the storm?


Sometimes the storms in our lives or our business have little to do with us. We’re trapped by happenstance. Wrong place at the wrong time. Other times, they arise because we’re operating in a role, a place or an environment that is simply wrong for us at the core. Everywhere we tread, a storm begins to brew, as if our warm spirit in a cold environment is triggering constant turmoil.

Flee. Find the edge of the storm and go beyond it. Escape the downpour. Find your sunshine.

This thought brings me back to 2002. I spent a miserable year in Houston in a job that drained me and a city that never felt like home. The storm engulfed me for nearly a year while memories of experiencing joy in China the year prior lingered fresh in my mind.

I wanted that happiness again. So I fled.

I fled. I fled toward opportunity. I fled toward passion. I fled toward adventure. I hopped on a plane just two weeks after receiving a job offer, and I landed in Microsoft Shanghai in January of 2003. There, I fell in love with my job. I experienced a career transformation. I met my present husband of five years. There, I found sun. I found warmth. I found joy.

If you are stuck in a storm, look for the escape route. Sure, there are times when you need to stand strong. To weather the storm. To persevere.

But sometimes, it’s simply time to evacuate.

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Video: More Fun with Edgar Schein

This short video of an interview with Edgar Schein captures the essence of the points in my last post. You've heard me rave about him. Now listen for yourself!

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Avoiding Subculture Collisions on the Organization Superhighway

A key theme from my evening with Edgar Schein has continued to provoke my pondering: managing the interactions of subcultures across organizations.

Beyond the overarching culture of an organization, groups of individuals are further influenced by the presence of subcultures. These might be ethnic cultures in a global organization or perhaps cultures of differing business units, e.g. sales and engineering. The main challenge for organizations today is not merely designing and sustaining a company-wide culture but effectively managing the interaction of disparate subcultures.  When cultures collide, cohesion, performance and strategy execution are at risk.

I believe that the same principles for fostering effective communication across ethnic cultures can help us mitigate the consequences of subculture collisions. Reflecting on Schein’s insights, I’m offering five steps toward effectively working across subcultures in your organization.

1. Initiate Inquiry
In Schein’s terms, take an approach of “humble inquiry”. Embody a curious spirit – ask questions while refraining from judgment. Questions like “Why?”, “When you say ___, what exactly do you mean?” or “What are you trying to achieve?” can illuminate the intention behind your counterpart’s actions.

2. Uncover Assumptions
As insight on the motivations and assumptions of others grows, turn the questions back on yourself. Identify and examine the assumptions you are bringing to the conversation.  What goals, factors, values and objectives are you taking for granted? How do you see the world differently than those in other sub-cultures?

3. Explicate Meaning
Statements such as “customer satisfaction is the top priority” can mean one thing to an engineer and something entirely different to someone in sales. This is often the source of much tension -- individuals mistakenly think they are in agreement when they're expressing two different ideas. Thus, get as granular and descriptive as possible in expressing your meaning and perspective to ensure shared understanding.

4. Exhibit Empathy
As assumptions surface, put yourself in your colleagues' shoes and strive to think from their perspectives. What are the forces at work in their subcultures? How might those forces influence behavior, motivation and goals? How might actions be interpreted differently through that cultural lens? Rather than jump to conclusions, examine the situation from other perspectives to foster effective communication.

5. Unify Visions
Once questions are asked, assumptions have surfaced, meanings have been confirmed and differing perspectives have been considered, it's time to aim for agreement. Articulate goals and values upon which you can agree -- and ensure the language used in your shared vision is descriptive and mutually understood.

Perhaps the best company-wide culture an organization can create is one that allows for those competencies to rise up. In cultures where inquiry and empathy are valued, the consequences of subculture collision can be minimized.

Saturday, May 7, 2011

An Evening with Edgar Schein

My evening with Edgar Schein left me in awe. I met the father of corporate culture. How surreal.

Where would we be as organizations without the powerful insights Schein has brought to the conversation over the years? Where would I be as an individual without the concept of company culture, the core area of my work? It’s simply an honor to have heard him speak at this week’s Organization Development Network Chicago meeting.

Schein is attributed with coining the term "corporate culture" and widely known in the field for his model denoting three levels of organizational culture.

The three layers -- artifacts, espoused values and underlying assumptions -- play critical roles in how leaders can manage and sustain cultures of high performance.

  • Artifacts essentially constitute the processes and systems in place, illustrating the need to consider desired workplace culture in the design of new initiatives, policies and procedures. Ultimately every new initiative or artifact will shape your culture -- so if they are not intentionally designed to support your desired culture, they quite possibly will undermine it.
  • Espoused values include the traits that typically come to mind when you think of culture -- for example values of honesty, innovation and integrity. Moreover, the strategies leadership communicates, and the goals and objectives it defines also feed into the values layer of culture. It is vital for leaders to strategically communicate goals and strategies in a manner that aligns with the desired values and culture of the company. Contradiction in these core messages can lead to a culture of confusion and dysfunction.  
  • Underlying assumptions is perhaps the most sneaky layer of the three. It can cause trouble in times of change if not given proper attention. Assumptions are our patterns of thought that give rise to behaviors and preferences. These are often unarticulated -- and since we don't realize we hold these assumptions, conflict can rise up when we encounter those who don't share these perspectives.

This model is multi-faceted and profound. I've shared only a few brief insights that stem from it, but there is so much more meaning to consider and explore. Thank you Dr. Schein for all the wisdom you've contributed to the field of organizational behavior and to my own learning and pursuits!

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Hot Off the Presses: DDI Guest Blog

I was invited to write a guest blog for DDI about insights my recent trip to Shanghai. I discuss the concept of leveraging and managing through company culture to motivate and engage a Chinese workforce. Read it here!

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Practiced Vulnerability: The sweet spot to work and life?

What would it take to make ourselves vulnerable? To be our true selves in our careers and our lives? And would the risk be worth it?

In a captivating TED talk, researcher Brene Brown explores vulnerability, calling it the gateway to life experience, connection and love. Her research findings reveal that a courage to be imperfect and an embrace of authenticity – giving up who you should be in exchange for who you are – are at the root of human connection. Those who embrace vulnerability believe that what makes them vulnerable also makes them beautiful.

This reminds me of the essence and magic of comedy improv – actors live out the concept of vulnerability. Every time actors speak out, they do so trusting that their fellow actors will adopt and build on their response. If they falter with a weak reply, they trust their team will save. It’s not about “was it good enough?” or “was it worthy of a comical response?” – it just is. Actors must believe they are worthy and support the worthiness of others, they must embrace vulnerability. This is what makes improv perfectly magical. And perhaps why my friends say that performing improv has saved their lives...

What would it mean to be this vulnerable with our own careers? What if we approached consulting engagements as actors approach improv? If vulnerability at an individual level is the gateway to positive life experience, connection, and love, then could vulnerability in the workplace be the gateway to creativity, innovation, freshness and client intimacy. Are “perfectly polished” consulting firm and corporate cultures inhibiting value creation? By their very definition of professionalism, are they limiting the insight and innovation they produce?

Perhaps what we need in the workplace is "practiced vulnerability".  Expertise is of the essence, and research reveals that practice and preparation enhance execution and outcomes. Thus, the flip side of “perfectly polished” is not “chaotic vulnerability”. In consulting, as with improv, there must be a method to the engagement approach and deep expertise individuals bring to the table. But a "perfectly polished" mindset assumes that consultants have all the answers. It assumes that revealing anything less would be unprofessional. I propose that by approaching engagements with “practiced vulnerability” - by bringing our whole selves to the engagement and not being afraid to not have all the answers – we, as consultants, can foster out-of-the-box idea generation, challenge assumptions, and drive client intimacy and value.  And perhaps, we will end up saving our own lives...

My Shelfari Bookshelf

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