The Tale of the Peacock’s Tail

Have you ever wondered why peacocks developed such long, beautiful tails?  It’s simple evolutionary biology.  Peahens show a reference for large-tailed peacocks.  In the earliest days, this made a lot of sense.  A showy tail was a marker of a good, healthy male who knew how to feed himself — a good breeding partner, and thus a smart choice for a  peahen concerned about preserving her hereditary line.  Well-feathered males thus had more opportunities to breed and pass on the long-tailed trait. Successive generations of peacocks had longer and longer tails.

This turned out to be a good thing for a while, but after many generations the extremely long tails created problems for the strong peacocks.  The peacock’s long tails are physically “expensive.”  They require a large amount of nutrients to grow and maintain in good health.  But the bigger problem is the sheer weight of the peacock’s tail.  The heavy tail slows the peacock, making them highly susceptible to predators.  Over time, the tails got longer and longer, while the population of peacocks got smaller and smaller.  For peacocks, it was a form of biological suicide.  The only thing that has saved peacocks from extinction is human intervention — we protect them because we feel they are too beautiful to allow them to disappear from the face of the earth.

What does a peacock’s tail have to do with any of us?  Under pressure, we all revert to our strengths, whether or not the behavior pattern is appropriate. We come to believe that our perceived strengths are always going to be able to win the day for us.  As a result, we “do what comes naturally,” even if it wasn’t always “natural,” but is simply a habit that we have fallen into because it worked most of the time.  It’s easy enough to figure out why this is so.  We crave approval, so we overreact to praise for strengths.  We become a sort of one-trick pony, even when that trick is inappropriate.

Of course, sometimes we can fall into the same type of habit without being encouraged by praise.  Instead, we simply listen too well to conventional wisdom. We follow the rule that if taking a spoonful of medicine is a good thing, then drinking down the whole bottle should be a great thing.  It’s easy enough to pooh-pooh this idea as ridiculous, but consider how often it plays out in our own lives.  For example, many of us exercise to improve our strength and overall health, but there’s always a break-even point. When we over-exercise, we no longer become stronger.  Instead, we strain our muscles, hurting ourselves in the process, and actually decreasing our performance.

The same kind of thing can occur with over-exercising our strengths. Our overall performance could decline, because we continue to repeat behaviors that worked for us in the past, but no longer serve to get the job done.  Our former strengths, when overplayed, can actually become a weakness. When that that happens, the same strengths that supported our successes can turn into professional liabilities.  It’s important to make sure that doesn’t happen to you, or to the people that work for you.

Consider these examples:

  • Joan was considered one of the best people in her department at consensus building.  When she was placed in charge of a large, deadline-sensitive project, Joan spent so much time trying to make sure that everyone on the project team was in agreement on every aspect of the project, that the project fell hopelessly behind schedule and she had to be replaced.
  • Bill was able to inspire his team because he always spoke and acted with supreme confidence.  He ran into problems when his self-confidence led him to arrogantly dismiss anyone who disagreed with him.
  • Ricky’s persistence helped him push through to completion on projects that stymied others.  He finally lost his job when his persistence turned into blind obstinacy, and he kept pushing forward on a project in spite of compelling evidence that there was no chance for success.
  • Marie’s attention to detail saved the day on many projects.  But when that diligence started to border on perfectionism, her team rebelled.

Any of the individuals in these examples could be a valuable contributor to your team, but it’s easy to see how their strengths, overplayed or used at the wrong time or in the wrong place, could turn into a debilitating weakness and impair overall team performance.

If you are like me, you may see a little bit of yourself in Joan, Bill, Ricky or Marie.  So far, so good. Recognizing that you want to improve is a good first step. Figuring out what to do about it is the trickier part. On one hand, you need to be able to build, grow and flex your strengths to achieve personal satisfaction and professional success. On the other hand, you also need to be able to learn when over-exercising your strengths gets in the way of personal and professional growth.

How can you learn to change your approach while still maintaining confidence in your own strengths? These ideas might help you find the right balance:

Look first at how your strengths have contributed to your success.  Describe your strengths; take the time to write them down in your notebook.  Think about when you normally exert them? How have they contributed to your success? In which situations do the strengths have the most positive impact? How do others react to these strengths? What are the outcomes after flexing the strengths? The goal here is to determine when the strengths were demonstrated appropriately and effectively.  If you have a coach or a mentor, make sure to get their perspective on the situation.

Consider the flip side — when your strengths have detracted from your success. Describe a time when exerting one of your strengths did not produce the intended results. What was the circumstance? Who was involved? What was his or her response? What was the ultimate outcome?  Dialogue with your coach or mentor can play a particularly helpful role at this stage, since we are often completely unaware of how people react to our behaviors, especially when they are our “go-to-at-crunch-time” behaviors.

Identify the cues that can help you see when a strength becomes a liability or when the break-even point is reached.  Compare the successful and unsuccessful scenarios. How did the circumstances or environments differ? How did the individuals involved in each circumstance respond differently? What other cues were present to reflect whether the strength was exercised effectively or not?

Create a plan to make yourself more aware of the break-even point in future situations. How will you modify your approach when cues arise indicating that a strength is becoming a liability? What feedback or other information will you need to ensure you are flexing strengths to support successful outcomes? Who will provide this feedback and when?

Because you have used your strengths and subsequently reaped rewards in the past, you might be reluctant to examine the possibility that your strengths have the potential to become problems.  It’s easier to simply defend your current approach, blame others for being jealous of or threatened by your demonstrated strengths, or excuse your behavior by telling yourself that others are misinterpreting your intentions.

Don’t let it happen to you.  Pay attention to how you use your strengths.  Remember the peacock’s tail.


Consequences and Accountability

One of my clients likes to talk about the importance of accountability. He believes that it is critical that the people who work for him feel a sense of accountability for the results of their efforts.  I think he may be a bit confused when he talks this way about accountability, as if it arises naturally or intrinsically within people.  Maybe he is confusing a sense of responsibility for results with a willingness to be held accountable.  [I have to admit that it is easy to get confused when talking about responsibility and accountability.  According to, the synonym for the word responsible is “accountable,” while the synonym for the word accountable is “responsible.”]  Let’s take a closer look at the two ideas to see if we can find what I believe is a critical distinction between the two.

The Latin root word for responsible is responsus, which originally conveyed a sense of moral obligation.  The more common definitions of “responsible” include this idea of being responsible for something. That’s the sense that most of us take when we use the word. It connotes an internalization of obligation; a personal ownership of the duty.  Failure to deliver when you are responsible for something can be the root of feelings of guilt and shame.

The origin of the word accountable in the English language occurs sometime between the early part of the 14th century and the late 16th century, from the combination of the words “account” and “able,” meanst “liable to be called to account.” [Of course, the concept of account-giving has ancient roots in record keeping activities related to governance and money-lending systems that first developed in Ancient Israel, Babylon, Egypt, Greece and Rome.  One of my personal favorites in this vein is Parable of the Talents, Matthew 25:14-30.]  In any event, that early English usage is not far from a current dictionary definition of accountable, an adjective meaning:

“subject to the obligation to report, explain or justify something; answerable.”

The noun accountability, first appearing in the late 18th century, is defined by the Merriam Webster Dictionary as follows:

“the quality or state of being accountable; especially : an obligation or willingness to accept responsibility or to account for one’s actions.”

Andreas Schedler in his 1999 essay,  “Conceptualizing Accountability,” offers this conceptual definition of accountability:

 “A is accountable to B when A is obliged to inform B about A’s (past or future) actions and decisions, to justify them, and to suffer punishment in the case of eventual misconduct”

I like this definition a lot, as it makes perfect sense to me.  The critical element of the definition is that you have to be accountable to someone.  In turn, someone has to hold you accountable.  Accountability is something that is demanded, and, if it is to be more than simply the idle use of a word, consequences must accompany the accountable actions. There is very clear “Do-X-or-Else-Y-Will-Be-Done-to-You” element involved.

This is where many organizations let things slip.  They sing the praises  of accountability.  They acknowledge accountability as a core value. But when push comes to shove, they threaten negative consequences but don’t follow through. They fail to uphold the Three Commandments of Consequences:

  1. Make consequences Personal
  2. Make consequences Immediate
  3. Make consequences Certain

Personal:  Consequences should be as personal as you can make them.  It does not matter if consequences are real or imagined. Perceived consequences are real for that person.

Immediate:  When someone you are holding accountable for a result fails to deliver as agreed, you don’t want to wait to deliver consequences.  You want the consequences to be felt as immediately as possible.  The impact of short-term consequences is far more powerful than long-term consequences.

Certain: Always deliver the promised consequences.  The real tragedy is that by failing to hold people accountable for the little things, by delivering a small dose of negative consequence in a timely fashion, you make it so much harder to deliver consequences when someone fails you in a big way.  Realize that if you pull the trigger on little things, you never even have to get the gun out on big things.  In this regard, I will always remember a quote from coach and trainer, Tom  Conellan:

“A well aimed, well-timed BB is more significant as a deterrent than a poorly timed, poorly aimed howitzer.”

Here’s the bottom line:  Consequences are where the rubber meets the road for accountability.  Without consequences, there is no accountability.  If you are not getting the results you expect, don’t complain that your people don’t behave as if they feel accountable for results. Ask yourself, “How well d0 I hold people accountable?”

Strategic Business Analysis is Messy Business

A while back I asked my son-in-law, who works for Cisco in San Jose, what kind of job he would pick if he were able to choose from anything available at his company.  He told me that he’d really like to work on business strategy, maybe performing strategic business analysis.

Everyone who has been subjected to a traditional business education in North America or Europe, in particular anyone who has completed an MBA program, is –  or at least thinks they are — familiar with the concept of Strategic Business Analysis. I, for one, thought I knew what the term  meant: a rigorous examination of a firm’s strengths and weaknesses in its current competitive environment, coupled with an assessment of what its capabilities might allow it to achieve within some reasonable future time frame.

I got curious and decided to google the phrase and see what kind of results would appear on my computer screen. Try it for yourself and you’ll find over 19 million items showing up in the specific search result for “strategic+business+analysis.” [If you just type the words “strategic business analysis” in the search bar you’ll get over 95 million results.] Unfortunately, you won’t find out exactly what it is.  What you will find out is that most schools with a business curriculum teach it, many consulting firms say that they do it, lots of companies are looking for people to fill jobs where they will do it, and hundreds of thousands of people want to land jobs as strategic business analysts.

I wasn’t happy with that result, so I checked in with Wikipedia, one of my favorite reference resources.  While Wikipedia has no entry for strategic business analysis, it does provide a lengthy article on business analysis. The closest I could get to something that looked like what I would recognize as strategic business analysis was detailed in the Wikipedia article under “Enterprise analysis or company analysis” and included the following description:

Focuses on understanding the needs of the business as a whole, its strategic direction, and identifying initiatives that will allow a business to meet those strategic goals.

That seemed to fit closely enough to my originally offered definition that I was willing to work with it.  Looking deeper, though, I got mired in what I feel is the fundamental problem with most approaches to strategic business analysis.  Just about everyone doing strategic business analysis relies on one or more analytic techniques, all of which are designed to get those performing the analysis to look broadly and deeply at the firm’s competitive situation in order to select strategic options most likely to lead to success for the organization. The Wikipedia article lists eight widely used techniques, some of which I am familiar with and a few I’ve never heard of:

There are enough acronyms on this list to keep you busy for a week, trying to figure out what they mean.  Each approach suggests that if you diligently follow the step-by-step process outlined, you’ll get a great result. But these and other techniques overlook a simple truth.  People do strategic business analysis, not robots.  People get distracted. People work under deadline pressure and hurry to complete tasks.  People tend to rely on only parts of an analysis model, and ignore others.

Most importantly, just like with crossword puzzles, we often get disconfirming information about previous assumptions we have made. When that happens while working a crossword puzzle, we erase and try again. In business, when we get disconfirming information, we tend to ignore it or deny it. We look even harder to find something, anything, that seems to confirm our earlier assumptions. Maybe that’s because there is no answer key in business.  Nobody created the puzzle, so there is no single solution.

The world is a messy place.  It is unpredictable.  As a result, strategic business analysis will always be messy, iterative and nonlinear.  We should get used to the idea.

Sometimes BS Isn’t All Bad, Especially When Dealing with SMAPs

No, I’m not writing about bulls**t.  I’m writing about an approach to problem solving that my friend and colleague, Alan Engelstad, has dubbed “Benevolent Skepticism.” [Hence the somewhat misleading “BS” tag in the title of this post.  I hope it worked to get your attention.]  SMAPs are Solutions-Masquerading-as-Problems, but more on that later.

Benevolent skepticism is not really a technique; it’s more of an attitude or a philosophical approach to be taken when someone comes to you and says, “I have a problem.”  Rather than simply accepting that statement as a fact, a benevolent skeptic would get very curious about what is really going on.  She would ask questions.  “Why is that a problem for you?”  “What would things be like if the problem were to disappear?” “In situations like this one, why does X always happen, and not Y or Z?”  In essence, the benevolent skeptic is deeply curious about what is really going on, and is always non-judgemental.

My goal here isn’t to tell you how to become a benevolent skeptic.  I’m really more interested in pointing you toward a blog post that Alan [that’s him in the picture on the left] authored with a colleague, Karl Moore, and published at this past week. In the article, titled “SMAP Solutions Masquerading as Problems,” Alan gets to the essence of both SMAPs and benevolent skepticism so elegantly that I won’t even atttempt to paraphrase him.  I’ll just quote him:

When you’ve been SMAPed, you’ve been given the wrong problem.  You’re so busy trying to make your solution work you’ve obscured what it is all in aid of.  Give up. Acknowledge that the problem-as-defined is proven intractable.  Move on.

Then get curious.  How can the problem be recast into a more solvable form, without losing anything important in the process?  Get someone to help you describe the end game assuming your “solution” was successful, and drill down: If homeless people were no longer lazy, etc, then what?

When you are handed your next problem, stop, think, and be curious. Force yourself to delve beyond your immediate and instinctual understanding of what the problem (and its solution) entails. Taking these actions are likely to illuminate the redundancies in the “obvious” solution, and produce more creative and fruitful results. Perhaps some of the more intractable problems we face are not as bad as we think, we just need to not jump so quickly to the ready made solutions.

I have to acknowledge that I am shamelessly promoting an article that gives me a nice plug at the end.  Overlook that and read the article [click here to read the SMAP article].  It may help you resolve, or even dissolve some of your biggest “problems.”


Salmon Fishing in the Yemen

Earlier this week at the Palm Springs International Film Festival we watched a new film, “Salmon Fishing in the Yemen.”  The film, adapted from the 2007 novel of the same name by Paul Torday, tells the story of  feckless British fisheries expert  Dr. Andrew Jones [played by Ewan McGregor], who is approached by consultant Harriet Chetwode-Talbot [played by Emily Blunt] to help realize Yemeni Sheik Muhammed’s audacious but seemingly impossible vision of bringing the sport of fly-fishing to the desert highlands of his home country.

I really liked the movie, and highly recommend that you see it when it is released to the theaters in early March of this year.  It’s a feel good movie with  nice mix of comedy, drama, and romance, along with just the right dose of political manipulation and intrigue, helped along by strong performances by an attractive and accomplished cast of actors and another fine directorial job by Lasse Hallstrom.  But this isn’t intended to be a movie review.  It’s more of a sermon, albeit a very short one,  about swimming upstream, audacity, impossible dreams, and the importance of faith in making dreams become reality.

If you are at all familiar with salmon, you know that salmon typically are born upstream in fresh water rivers or streams, then migrate downstream to the ocean, where they live and grow for a few years, returning as adult fish the exact spot where they were born to spawn and re-start the cycle for succeeding generations of fish. Studies have shown that the fish rely on olfactory memory to guide them to their hereditary spawning grounds.  They literally follow their noses. Their return journey from the ocean to their spawning grounds is accomplished against seemingly impossible odds, swimming many miles against the flow of the river’s current, and often faced with the challenge of literally leaping out of the water to climb not just upstream, but uphill, to reach their goal.

Sheikh Muhammed’s vision to bring salmon fishing to the Yemen seems at first to be so far-fetched that it is laughable.  When you conjure images of Yemeni landscapes, green hillsides and flowing streams are nowhere to be seen.  But, below the surface lie aquifers which, if supported by proper hydrological controls [dams, sluices, etc.] are capable of supplying sufficient water to fill the usually dry wadis, and, theoretically at least, provide an acceptable habitat for salmon.

But the Sheik’s bold vision, even when shown to be theoretically possible , was not sufficient to propel the project forward.  The project was never going to be easy, despite being backed by the Sheik’s huge financial commitment;  a lot of hard work would be needed.  I’m reminded of a wonderful line from the 1992 movie, “A League of Their Own,” when Dottie Hinson [played by Geena Davis] tells Jimmy Duggan [played by Tom Hanks], “It just got too hard,” and Jimmy replies

“It’s supposed to be hard. If it wasn’t hard, everyone would do it. The hard… is what makes it great. “

Somehow, though, audacious vision and hard work don’t always deliver the goods. In many cases, as in “Salmon Fishing in the Yemen”, the necessary additional ingredient is faith. The Sheikh believed it was possible, and he insisted that all of the key players on the project were not simply going along with the idea because he supported it with lots of money; they had to believe they could make it happen, and be committed to making it a success.  Their faith opened their eyes to possibilities that would have been invisible had they worn the blinders of skepticism and had their perspectives been limited by the boundaries of conventional wisdom.

Seemingly impossible dreams become possible when a bold vision and hard work are combined with faith and commitment.  Examples are everywhere.  We closed the hole in the ozone layer.  We eradicated smallpox from the planet. We sent men to the moon and returned them safely to earth.  But, like the salmon, we have to swim upstream, going against the flow to make it happen.

So dream big, work hard, and have faith.


Real Leaders

During the 2000 presidential campaign, David Foster Wallace, the novelist, essayist and humorist best known for his 1996 novel “Infinite Jest,” covered John McCain‘s unsuccessful bid to become the Republican Party’s nominee for President for Rolling Stone Magazine.  He rode with McCain’s Straight Talk Express for a week in February of that year and wrote a 15,000 + word essay titled “The Weasel, Twelve Monkeys and The Shrub” that took a look at everything from the campaign’s political strategy to the food it catered for the staff. [To read the edited version published in the magazine, you have to subscribe to the Rolling Stone On-line edition. Or you can buy a copy of  the book titled McCain’s Promise: Aboard the Straight Talk Express with John McCain and a Whole Bunch of Actual Reporters, Thinking About Hope, which includes the entire essay.]

In one section of the essay, Wallace writes that younger voters can’t identify with political leaders because they instinctively sense “bullshit.”  He feels  that the entire generation born post-1970 [Generation X]  was raised with commercials and can’t help but look at the political process as one big commercial. Wallace goes on to argue that voters “below the age of 35″ [make that voters under the age of 45 today, considering that the essay was penned over ten years ago]  can “smell” the self serving interests a political candidate has when they ask for votes. No matter what they promise.  Wallace says, “We  may vote for them the same way we may go buy toothpaste. But we’re not inspired. They’re not the real thing.”

Wallace then goes on to describe what he means by a real leader.

“A real leader can somehow get us to do certain things that deep down we think are good and want to be able to do but usually can’t get ourselves to do on our own. It’s a mysterious quality, hard to define, but we always know it when we see it, even as kids.  [Real leaders] help us overcome the limitations of our own individual laziness and selfishness and weakness and fear and get us to do better, harder things than we can get ourselves to do on our own.”

In my leadership programs over the past few years, I’ve asked each group of participants to create their own definition of leadership. Every group seems to start out with Wallace’s thought that it is hard-to-define-but-we-know-it-when-we-see-it.  Then they start stringing together lists of traits and behaviors that are characteristic of people that they recognize as leaders.  Finally, they boil down the lists and arrange the terms and phrases into pictograms that display their definition of leadership.  Here are a few of them:

The elements they have in common are pretty obvious.  Leaders want to influence other people; to get them to buy-in to some shared vision, to something that is important and gives meaning to their lives.  Real leaders know that the foundation of the relationship with those who follow them is acting with integrity and being worthy of trust. We won’t follow someone if we think that they are acting solely out of self-interest.  We won’t follow someone we can’t trust.  Even kids know that. Why is it so hard for our political leaders to figure it out?

Have You Stereotyped Yourself?

I had been planning to write an article about stereotypes, and recently started wondering about the word “stereotype.”  I had this idea in mind that the concept was somehow warped, since when I think of stereo-anything, [e.g. stereophonic speakers, stereoscopic viewing] it implies to me that there is a duality or multiplicity of perspectives being brought into play.  That certainly is not the case with the common usage of the term today, where we use it to mean a popular belief about specific types of individuals.

So, before I dove into the concept of stereotypes, I took a detour into the etymology of the word?  I was fascinated to learn that the term — derived from the Greek “stereos” [meaning firm or solid] and “typos” [meaning impression] thus solid impression —  was invented around the end of the 18th century by Firmin Didot, a noted French printer and engraver.

In the printing world, stereotypes  are metal printing plates, made by locking the type columns of a complete  page in a form and molding a matrix, or mat, of papier-mache or similar material to it; the dried mat is used as a mold to cast the stereotype from hot metal. A stereotype plate is much stronger and more durable under a press run than would be a composed page of movable type. Didot’s invention revolutionized the book trade with its ability to produce cheap editions of books.  In a fascinating coincidence [maybe not so much of a coincidence?], “cliche” is the French word for the actual printing surface of the stereotype plate. Of course, it,too, has a much different meaning in modern English.

The first usage of the word “stereotype” in the English language appears around 1850, with the meaning, according to the Online Etymology Dictionary,  “image perpetuated without change.”  But the more common modern meaning of the word — the metaphor of “pictures in our heads” — was coined in the 1922 book, Public Opinion,  by American journalist, media critic and philosopher Walter Lippmann.

Explaining the inevitability, due to cognitive limitations,  of the application of an evolving catalog of general stereotypes to a complex reality, Lippman wrote:

“For the real environment is altogether too big, too complex, and too fleeting for direct acquaintance. We are not equipped to deal with so much subtlety, so much variety, so many permutations and combinations. And although we have to act in that environment, we have to reconstruct it on a simpler model before we can manage with it.”

Of course, stereotyping is not limited to cultures or environments, but is also applied to people. In his book, Social Inequality: Forms, Causes and Consequences, sociologist Charles E. Hurst has offered, further, that:

“One reason for stereotypes is the lack of personal, concrete familiarity that individuals have with persons in other racial or ethnic groups. Lack of familiarity encourages the lumping together of unknown individuals.”

Another theory as to why people stereotype is that it is too difficult to take in all of the complexities of other people as individuals. Even though stereotyping is inexact, it can be an efficient way to mentally organize large blocks of information. Our ability to detect patterns and categorize is an essential human capability that enables us to simplify, predict, and organize our world.  Assigning general group characteristics to members of that group saves time and satisfies the need to predict the social world in a general sense. Of course, once we have sorted and organized everyone into tidy categories, we have to deal with another of our human tendencies – avoiding processing new or unexpected information about each individual.

Not unexpectedly for generations like ours that have grown up during the eras of civil rights, women’s rights and, more recently, gay and lesbian rights, we have been taught to believe that stereotypes are largely negative and destructive. Yet, it is also a stereotype that stereotypes are inaccurate, resistant to change, overgeneralized, exaggerated, and destructive. Such a belief, however, is not founded on empirical social science research, which instead shows that stereotypes are often accurate and that people do not rely on stereotypes when relevant personal information is available.

What are we to make of all of this?  It seems that stereotypes can be helpful in some circumstances, but damaging and destructive in others.  Perhaps an important component of anyone’s developing wisdom is the ability to distinguish between useful stereotypes and harmful stereotypes.

Which brings us off of the detour and back on to the point of this article.  One type of stereotyping is, for me, particularly worrisome – stereotyping yourself.  The concept of self-stereotyping is a fairly new one in the social sciences, but in its simplest form it describes a process whereby a person comes to see herself in a way consistent with stereotypes about her in-group. For example, a person who works in sales may begin to identify with the stereotype of “sales people,” and adopt behaviors and beliefs that are commonly held to be stereotypical of people in sales [e.g., extroversion; focus on people or personalities, rather than data; preference for working with others versus working alone, etc.].  She becomes, almost unconsciously, a caricature of an saleswoman, rather than a fully self-actualized and emergent personality; a person who identifies herself as being an salesperson, rather than as a person who, for now, happens to work in sales.

One of my business partners, Dr. Moss A. Jackson, would describe self-stereotyping as  a limiting belief.  Limiting beliefs are always dangerous because they deter us from achieving our full potential.  I know that fell into this trap from time to time in my professional career in finance and accounting.  Because I have a gift for working with numbers, people came to see me as a “numbers guy,” and I fell into the habit of thinking of myself in the same terms, and acting more and more in the role of the stereotypical Numbers Guy.  As I withdrew into this belief-limited role, my ability to have a positive influence on the development of our business was diminished.  Luckily, I had a good coach and mentor who helped me realize that I wasn’t simply the Numbers Guy.  I had the potential to be a top-flight business person who happened to be blessed with a special affinity for working with numbers. Freed from my limiting belief, I was able to focus on what I needed to do to enhance my skills and improve my ability to contribute in many ways to the growth and development of our business.

Remember that you are always more than the the job you currently do or the position  you currently fill.  Life will present you with plenty of challenges on your journey to be the best that you can be. Don’t detour yourself with a useless self stereotype.


Growing Older or Getting Old?

Four months ago today we made the very difficult decision to euthanize King, our beloved canine companion for the past eight years.  It’s taken me this long to steel myself sufficiently to write about him.

The vet who examined King at the San Clemente Animal Shelter estimated that he was between five and seven years old when we “adopted” him.  He had been brought to the shelter along with two younger Rottweilers.  The woman who dropped the three dogs off at the shelter told the story that she had taken them from a homeless man she met at a gas station in San Clemente, the man claiming that he simply could no longer manage to feed both himself and the dogs.  The Rottweilers were quickly adopted; King, a Shepherd-type dog,  had a harder time finding a home.  He had a few broken teeth, he wasn’t immediately charming, and he looked a bit the worse for wear.

But King had striking blue eyes, making us think he had some strain of Australian Cattle Dog in his ancestry.  [The blue eyes might have been from a Husky, but at around 50 pounds, King’s size seemed to argue in favor of the Cattle Dog.]  It had been a few years since our last dog, Molly, had died of kidney failure at only three years of age, and we decided we were ready to have a dog in our house again.  Debbie saw something in King that drew her to him, so we brought him home to live with us in the Summer of 2003.

The first six months with King was a never ending series of trials and tribulations.  He was seemingly fine when we were all at home together, though he was not particularly relaxed or affectionate.  But King had immediately bonded strongly with my wife, Debbie, and suffered severe separation anxiety whenever we left him alone at home.  Upon our return we’d find the results of his efforts to get out of the house and find Debbie.  King scratched at and chewed the doors, door frames and door trim.  He ripped up carpets at the the doors.  Once he even tore out the weather stripping on a set of French doors. More than once I declared that we couldn’t afford to keep a dog that kept destroying our house every time we went out for dinner or a movie, and we should take him back to the shelter.  Debbie volunteered at the shelter, so she knew the shelter manager would let us take King back, but she was certain that if we didn’t keep him, he’d never find a home.

We consulted an animal behavior specialist, and learned that we might be able to cure King of his separation anxiety by leaving him for short periods of time, gradually lengthening, then randomizing, the amount of time we left him alone.  After a few months of acclimatization to our departures and returns, King seemed to get the idea into his head that we were always coming back, so it was okay for him to relax when we left home.  Once that happened, King went through a transformation of sorts.  Debbie says that, once he figured things out, “the real King shined through.”

King became the perfect animal companion.  He was a sweet, gentle spirit who loved socializing with other dogs and children. Yet he was a working dog; he had a job — keep an eye on Deb, and warn her whenever anyone  came near the house — and he did it with relish.   He followed her wherever she went through the house, and barked vigorously when anyone came through the front gate, or even chanced to walk down the street past our house.

King loved to “swim” in our pool.  Even before we took him home from the animal shelter, he seemed to enjoy splashing around in the little kiddie pool at one end of the dog run.  The first time he went into our back yard, he saw the pool and immediately walked into the pool.  When he took his second step and found himself in deeper water, he appeared to panic, and instead of turning around, King headed for the deep end of the pool. I had to jump in fully clothed and lift him out of the pool.  After that he was a lot more cautious, though he still spent a lot of time in the pool.  King would step down to the first step at the shallow end of the pool, lower himself to wet his belly, then splash water with his front paws with a sort of abbreviated dog-paddle stroke. It’s hard to describe, but it was hilarious.

King hated the crows that inhabit our neighborhood.  Whenever he saw crows, he would charge toward them, barking until they flew off to parts unknown.  He enjoyed going on walks, but King suffered from hip dysplasia, a common ailment of Shepherds, so the vet advised that we limit the distance he walked to no more than a few blocks. King didn’t seem to mind; he’d walk the same small circuit every day, happily lifting his leg to leave his canine calling card at many spots along the way and socializing with his numerous neighborhood canine friends.

As the years went by, the bills for medications to keep King healthy kept growing, as the thyroid meds were supplemented by pills for arthritis, anti-inflammatory meds and immune system supplements.  Our little buddy never lost his spark, but it was obvious that his body was breaking down.  His hips started to fail, and he could no longer negotiate the steps to the bedroom on the second floor, so King “flew” up the steps in my arms so that he could sleep in our bedroom.

We could see King’s world shrinking with every passing week.  Finally, he lost control of the muscles in his back legs, and the final indignity — loss of sphincter control. In his final days his inability to walk more than a few steps without collapsing made our decision to allow him a dignified departure from this world a difficult, but charitable one.

King’s decline and passing taught me a powerful lesson.  If I want to feel really alive, I want to keep my world growing, not shrinking.  I want to learn new things, see new places, have new experiences and make new friends.  Some days, it doesn’t come easy; I feel like crawling into my little cocoon and hiding from the world.  But life is about engaging the world, not shying away from it.  So I hope I find ways to keep my world growing, even as my body ages and I find it more difficult to get around. As long as I keep up the struggle, and keep my world growing, I’m aging, but not getting old.  I’ll know I’m getting old when I can’t stop my world from shrinking.

So, ask yourself the question, “Am I growing older, or am I just getting old?”

Good Coach, Bad Coach

Except for those unfortunate few of us who, like moths attracted to a flame, find themselves drawn toward every new piece of reporting on the scandals at Penn State and Syracuse, most of us are sick and tired of hearing about so-called “coaches” who took advantage of their titles and positions to abuse young boys.  I have no intention of adding to that miasma.  I do, however, feel drawn to write about coaches, both good coaches and bad coaches.

I see the job of a coach as helping people develop the skills they need to be successful.  It doesn’t matter whether we are talking about coaching one person or coaching a team. Nor does it matter whether we are talking about coaches of sports teams or coaches in a business setting.  A coach is a coach is a coach.

What does a good coach do?  A good coach pumps you up.  A good coach tells you you are special. A good coach shares information, and a good coach accents positives.

Contrast that to a bad coach.  A bad coach brings you down.   A bad coach tells you you are a failure.  A bad coach withholds information, and a bad coach focuses on “wrongs.”

I have had some very good coaches and some very bad coaches.  I have been a good coach, and at times I have been a very bad coach.  My wife can attest that I am, for her at least, a horrible coach when it comes to her golf game – since I can’t seem to stop myself from pointing out all of the things that are wrong about the way she tries to play golf.

What I remember about my best coaches was that, while they were always pushing me to be “better” [and this is very important – we worked on getting better, not becoming perfect], they always helped me feel good about what I was doing, what I was learning, and how I was making progress.  I felt that they truly cared about me as a person, and about helping me achieve what I was capable of achieving if I made a commitment and put in the effort to live up to that commitment.

The essence of good coaching seems to be the ability to surrender something of your sense of self, at least temporarily, and focus entirely on the needs of the person being coached, rather than on what you are trying to get for yourself out of the experience of coaching.

I often think about how Ronnie, my very best golf coach, used to work with me to improve my game.  Ronnie never simply modeled a good golf swing and said, “Do it like that.” He worked hard to understand what kind of learner I was.  It turns out I was a combination of a third-party visual and a kinesthetic learner.  I had to be able to picture myself performing the physical action as if through a movie camera – rather than through my own eyes [third-party visual]; but I also had to have a strong sense of what things were supposed to feel like in a good golf swing [kinesthetic].

Analytic descriptions didn’t help me at all.   But visual imagery and ideas about “feels” were powerful aids to helping me learn what a good golf swing would feel like to me. What seemed to help the most was that when Ronnie saw something he didn’t like in my swing, he didn’t try to “correct” me, he asked me what that swing felt like.  Ronnie helped me internalize the learning and make it personal and meaningful to me.  Swinging with “spaghetti arms” and “aiming my thumbs at my ears” were ideas that, under Ronnie’s watchful eye, helped me lower my handicap from 17 to 9 in under two years.

All of us have good coach and bad coach stories.  I’d like to hear some of yours.




In God We Trust?

As the American populace waits to see whether the Congress’s supercommittee can agree on some kind of plan to avoid across the board cuts to all government programs — including the liberals’ “untouchables” [Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid] along with the conservatives’ sacred cow [Defense] — it looks as if our government of elected representatives has truly broken down, and no longer has the ability to “govern” anything, least of all itself.

The facts seem to argue that to develop a sensible federal budget, costs of government programs have to be reduced, while at the same time government revenues are raised through increases in taxes.  Otherwise, the gap between spending and revenue is simply too large to cover.  The shorthand in Washington calls such a solution — one that entails tax increases along with spending cuts — a “Grand Bargain.”  Polls have shown that most Americans are in favor of such a solution, at least in theory — as long as the programs that get cut are not programs that deliver benefits that they personally cherish, and the burden of tax increases is borne by someone other than themselves.

It’s a standoff — Republicans pledge to defeat any plan that raises taxes.  Democrats insist that welfare programs can’t be reduced.  Every proposal made by either party is rejected out-of-hand as not even worthy of discussion.  No one will give an inch, and they make no progress, so we have a total breakdown of a legislative process that depends on well-considered negotiation and compromise.

To me, things inside the Beltway have broken down because the major parties and their members no longer trust anyone, least of all members of the opposing party.  It’s not surprising.  In a political system where, once elected, the Senators and Representatives primary goal becomes getting re-elected, what else would you expect?  Election campaigns focus less on issues than on personalities.  Rather than explain what they stand for, candidates have found that it is far easier to bad-mouth their opposition, and the opposition candidate’s political party.  After so much vilification and demonization, how is it possible to trust those who sit across the aisle in Congress?

To a large degree, trust relies on good will.  Whatever “will” Congress has right now, it is clearly something other than “good.”  Neither party believes the other party has the good of the country at heart; worse, neither party seems willing to take the first step toward building the kind of trusting relationship necessary for them to work together in the best interests of the entire country, not just the special interests of their vocal supporters.

The most important lesson about trust that I’ve learned is that if trust is the foundation of a relationship, then start out by building, never by tearing down. You can’t wait for someone else to “prove” that they are trustworthy. You give them the benefit of the doubt.  You prove that you are worthy of trust by trusting others without demanding that they prove themselves worthy of your trust.  You take the risk because the reward can be great.

But there’s more to it than simply taking the first step.  A critical element in a trusting relationship is flexibility.  Of course, every person starts out thinking she is flexible, so how is it that you can feel that you are flexible, yet not be perceived as being flexible?  Either not trying hard, or trying the wrong things can lead to that unfortunate, unintended result.  Moreover, if you don’t really listen to people, then no matter what you do, people won’t believe you are flexible.  And when it is most important,  being flexible is often the most difficult.

Our coins are stamped “In God We Trust,” but that’s simply not enough.  Our elected representatives have to find a way to trust each other.  We all have to find a way to trust each other.