TeamBuild September 2017: A mission to remember

I’ve been thinking about mission statements lately as I draft one with a board that I am on and remind myself to follow my own best advice.

I believe that a mission statement that is aspirational, short, and uses ordinary language is remembered and thus, used. It can serve as an elevator pitch when someone asks “What does your group do?”. It can be used as a touchstone internally, when making strategic decisions as to what to do and what not to do. A longer, complex, or more formal mission statement may look impressive on a plaque or website, but is difficult to keep in one’s mind and to quote.

I have three rules for writing a mission statement that is easy to remember.

1) Be aspirational.

A mission statement should be visionary, bold, and inspire. I know of a staff that didn’t want to include the words “and get a job” in their mission statement because they feared being measured by whether their students got jobs and worried they would fall short. In fact, a mission statement should set out an audacious goal — JDRF’s mission is to find a cure for diabetes; Oxfam is to create lasting solutions to poverty, hunger, and social injustice. It’s the striving, reaching aspect of such a statement that makes it exciting, and thus memorable.

2) Take the time to make it short.

It can take a long time to write a short mission statement. I spent hours with the leadership team of SSEF and used tens of sheets of flip chart paper to finally land on: We support the South Sudanese community of greater Boston to be self-sufficient and to embrace our diverse cultural heritage. Complex concepts were encapsulated in simple words. “Self-sufficient” stands for being educated, getting a job, having access to health care, and more. “Embrace our diverse cultural heritage” addresses the fact that the South Sudanese in greater Boston are from different tribes and speak different languages, but are all South Sudanese and American.

3) Use ordinary words.

Formal language can be difficult to remember. One of my favorite mission statements is one that a young farmer I know told his mom he uses for his goat/cheese farm: I think of stuff that you and Dad and your friends would buy and then I make it. Now it’s true that this may not be used on a website or brochure – but it is driving the farmer and his staff. They now produce goat milk cheese and soap, baseball caps, and a site to be rented out for weddings.

In sum, it is the short mission statement with a bold vision but ordinary words that will be used.

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TeamBuild July 2017: The value of values we recognize

One exercise I do with teams is to explore shared values about how they want to work. The challenge is to unearth values that are inherent in the culture and values that the team aspires to – but with language that they recognize, will remember, and use.

Tony Hsieh, the founder of Zappos, did just this. After six years of running the company, he took a year and emailed all the employees several times to ask what they thought their core values should be.

“The problem is that they’re usually very lofty sounding and they read like a press release that the marketing department puts out. …We wanted a list of committable core values that we were willing to hire and fire on.”                                           Tony Hsieh, HBR 5/24/10

They came up with ten Core Values, including “Deliver WOW through Service,” “Create Fun and a Little Weirdness,” and “Be Humble.”

A Congressional office I worked with recently talked about “radical hospitality”, a term they articulated as a core value at their first retreat five years ago. This year a new employee told a story that illustrated that value. He was in one of the local offices when a woman raced in, wild eyed, sweating, and her hair sticking up. She asked to use the bathroom. He hesitated as he saw his colleague reach for a button they have to alert help. But he said to her, yes, you may. When she emerged from the bathroom, she explained that her husband had abused her for a decade, today she had decided to leave, and that this was first place she came to. The tag line to radical hospitality then became, “Yes, you can use the bathroom.”

When I worked with a senior team from a regional environmental nonprofit, they discussed an argument online that had gotten ugly. Someone said that the disagreement should then have been handled right away and in person. “Just pick up the phone” became one of their operating principles.

Accessible and down-to-earth values language, emanating from the team itself, and told with humor and sometimes drama, are the kind of values are used, passed on, and hopefully inspire.

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TeamBuild June 2017: Bullies

When I started consulting, I didn’t believe there were adult bullies. I was wrong.

In my May blog, I talked about “radical empathy” for difficult or oppositional people. But some people are not just naysayers. Bullies can be covert and quiet or they can yell and throw chairs (I didn’t see the chair thrown but heard various accounts of it). The behavior of someone like this is corrosive in one-on-one relationships and can upend a group.

With bullies I’ve learned that some strong personalities are creative, brilliant, and useful to a team and that others cannot be tamed. In both cases, my approach is to hold steady and address these individuals head on.

In one team I worked with, there was a person with a reputation as a bully. I met with him before the first group meeting and viscerally felt his power. But I liked him. It was apparent that, if he would collaborate with the team, he was unusually creative, had a lot of energy, and was very persuasive.

At first, he contributed appropriately. But in the third meeting, he got angry. Not surprisingly, he got angry at me. He stood up, walked towards me, and waved an email that he demanded I read to the group. Unprepared for this, I said no. I hadn’t read the email thoroughly. He raised his voice, “You said you read it before this meeting!” I countered that I had skimmed it and wasn’t going to read it out loud now.

After the meeting, I called him to explain why I hadn’t interrupted the meeting to read the email (it wasn’t on topic and reading a prepared statement was out of place with a dynamic conversation). His response? “Oh, okay,” he said.

In a different group, someone who had spoken twice, asked for the floor a third time. I told him that I was going to call first on people who hadn’t spoken yet. He stomped out of the room. (The CEO followed him.) I let him go. Later, he returned and waited his turn.

In cases like these, the group is waiting to see what norms will be enforced. Bullies push until stopped. Being firm, calm, and consistent can set the boundary the bully needs. I model how to stand up to a strong personality. The group appreciates that the bullying won’t continue.

That being said, I have also dealt with people who won’t stop bullying. I coached a senior VP for a half year to give her perspective that what she was facing was inappropriate and to give her tools to manage one individual. She held firm, and he was fired.

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TeamBuild May 2017: Radical empathy

Recently, when I was working with a distinguished senior team, there was one individual that I didn’t like or trust. I knew this was not a good thing and called one my favorite mentors to talk about it.

“I know this isn’t a helpful attitude, especially as the facilitator of this team. I just don’t like him. I don’t trust him. What should I do?” I asked.

“I think you should practice radical empathy,” he answered.

I couldn’t help but smile. Of course. In Leadership on the Line, Heifetz and Linsky say, “keep the opposition close.” And part of me knew that, with this difficult person, instead of moving away from him, I had to engage with him. And so I did.

I met with him individually and talked with him by phone. What I found reminded me of what I often find — someone insecure, wanting to contribute, and to be heard. Someone I liked more than I had thought. Not only did I build a bridge to a potential foe, I also learned something important. He had previously been the head of this team and ran a strategic planning process – it was vital that I build on that and not look foolish for re-creating the wheel.

I also try to practice radical empathy as I facilitate meetings. While my instinct may be to turn away from someone who is a naysayer or recalcitrant or difficult, I try to remember to make sure their concerns are heard, give them responsibility, and talk to them at the break. Acknowledging their view can soften their stance and open them up to listening to others. If I’m working with flip charts, I note their issue, underline or circle it, and return to acknowledge their point when appropriate. By welcoming their different or difficult point of view, I sometimes disarm them and most importantly, get useful data.

I admit, it’s hard to do. So lately I’ve been reminding myself of this phrase, “radical empathy.” It makes me smile.

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TeamBuild March 2017: The one-text approach

What do you do when you have a team that is complicated or stuck that needs to come to consensus? One of my favorite tools is a version of the one-text approach in Getting to Yes.[1]

Perhaps the most famous use of the one-text procedure was by the United States at Camp David in September 1978 when mediating between Egypt and Israel. The United States listened to both sides, prepared a draft to which no one was committed, asked for criticism, and improved the draft again and again. …After 13 days and some 23 drafts President Carter recommend(ed) it, (and) Israel and Egypt accepted.

When I worked with Bill Ury, the author of Getting to Yes, at the Program on Negotiation at Harvard, we used this concept with Soviets to set up a system to avoid accidental nuclear war. I use the one-text approach to bring teams to agreement on a strategic direction, a funding proposal, operating rules between business units, and more.

My version of the one-text approach has three steps that repeat:

  • Discuss the issue with the whole group.
  • Apart from the group meeting, create a draft.
  • Discuss a physical manifestation of the draft in the whole group.

In the initial group discussion, discuss the challenge and set up the structure of the final document or agreement. Note differences but, if they are difficult, leave them for the drafting team. Take public notes, such as on flip charts or projected on a screen.

Assign one person, a small team, or a multiple small teams to write the first draft, the “draft to which no one is committed to” mentioned above. Circulate the draft to the group.

Meet again as a group. Discuss the draft in a physical format, on a screen, on paper, or on a virtual shared document. In this way, the discussion – and the pointed fingers, raised voices, and dissension — are directed at the text rather than at an individual. Where it is possible to come to agreement, do so. But where there are sticky issues, leave them for the next drafting group. Assign new groups for each section. Repeat through multiple rounds of drafting.

It is fascinating how through this process, a general consensus will emerge. If there are still unresolved issues, park them by recommending further study or by noting in the text where agreement has not yet been reached. Invoke the Camp David Accords.

[1]  Getting to Yes, Roger Fisher and William Ury, 1981, Penguin Books.

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TeamBuild February 2017: Name the elephants in the room

I bring to my work an instinct to be forthright and name “the elephant in the room,” that problem or risk that no one wants to discuss. Even with multiple “elephants,” I’ve found that it is more beneficial to surface the issues than ignore them. If identified and put in context, contentious issues can propel a group forward.

“Naming the elephants” serves multiple purposes. One, it allows everyone to see the range of perspectives, not just their own. Two, acknowledging problems can release pressure and reduce tension. Last, when I name a contentious issue, I discuss why it is presenting itself now. A conflict in a college department may be one that is roiling across campus, or on campuses across the country. A team with offices in three locations has communication challenges — understandably. A sense of context can reduce the sense of blame or frustration with the fact that the team is struggling.

One way I surface issues is to interview everyone on the team individually. I take notes but promise confidentiality. When the group meets, I present an overview of what I have heard, with neutral language in a Powerpoint, verbally annotated with quotes from individuals. (I am careful to present only quotes in which the speaker cannot be identified.) Sometimes the language I quote is strong. This is shocking but not surprising; it is difficult to hear but many in the room know others feel and talk like this.

Once we identify the elephants, I come back to them, note when we are stuck because of them, and work to make them familiar, understandable, and manageable. In the second meeting I once had with a team, someone asked, “What were the elephants that we identified?” So I kept a running list on a flip chart through that meeting and referred to them at the end of the meeting and in subsequent meetings

Courageous individuals can identify issues that are bedeviling a team without conducting interviews ahead of time. I’ve seen someone initiate a difficult conversation with, “I think the elephant in the room is X, and I think the reason we’re confronting this now is Y.” After that, others referred to this intervention with, “Well, with the elephant in the room being X, I think we need to do Z.” When one person names the elephant, it becomes easier for others to talk about the issue and, as importantly, to raise issues in the future.

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TeamBuild January 2017: Go to the balcony

A decade ago, twenty-five leaders from Delaware assembled for a full day to work on a blueprint for education for the state. A renowned international consulting firm presented research on education around the world. As the consultants worked their way through 197 slides, our firm took a “pulse check” just after noon. To get a sense of the group, we asked each person to use one word to describe how they were feeling. What we heard surprised everyone — “bored, confused, irritated, disengaged”. To his credit, the senior partner of the large consulting company weighed in. “I guess we’ll have to recalibrate,” he said with chagrin.

That “pulse check” is an example of using the concept of how to “go to the balcony” with teams. In Leadership on the Line, Linsky and Heifetz (who I worked with at Cambridge Leadership Associates) talk about how to get perspective in the midst of action by stepping back – metaphorically – to get a sense of the whole.

The example they use is that you are at a dance but leave the dance floor to go to the balcony. From that vantage point you see that where you were dancing next to the band, there is a small, tightly packed, and energized crowd – but in the rest of the room there are groups of people quietly sipping their drinks and talking. There is a long line for the buffet. There are even more people on the lawn outside, drinking, talking, and walking. Your description of the dance might be different from the balcony than from the dance floor near the band.

I use this concept when I am a participant in a group – I try to understand what is happening in the room from the vantage point of the “balcony”.   Stepping away from the heat of a meeting or interaction often presents new data and shifts perceptions and sometimes the work that needs to be done. In addition, I have tools to help entire teams “go to the balcony”.

The tools I use range from the pulse check we took in Delaware that day to conducting a one-hour individual interview with each member of a team before an initial meeting and presenting a summary to the group when we meet. A simpler version of interviews can be accomplished with an online poll (Google poll, SurveyMonkey, etc.). I also use flip charts to take a team to the balcony. I have each person write their idea on a flip chart and we discuss in full view. Sometimes I use “visual voting” — everyone has three red dots and goes up to the flip charts and “votes” for their top three ideas.

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July 2016: Volunteerism

Voluntourism is a fraught concept. Are we helping or hurting when we build a house in New Orleans, hold babies in an orphanage in Kenya, or construct a fence for a clinic in Nicaragua? In 2013, the Hewitts went to live with their two little girls in the Mamelodi slums of South Africa, six miles away from their gated community, “to change ourselves.” In Brazil you can tour the favelas for a half day for $30. A 2008 study of 300 organizations that market to would-be voluntourists estimated that 1.6 million people volunteer on vacation, spending around $2 billion annually.

Is this “poverty pornography”, an “experiment in radical empathy,” or harmful?

“(T)he mantra of good intentions becomes unworthy when it… can give a South African AIDS orphan an attachment disorder or put a Haitian mason out of work” for a week.                         Jacob Kushner, New York Times, 3-22-16

Leah, my daughter who is just finishing over two years teaching at Safe Passage in Guatemala, talks about the power of learning by doing, not necessarily changing or giving. She and I believe that the ripple effect of an experience in poverty – for the individual and for the people he or she interacts with for a lifetime – are powerful. Leah told me a heartwarming story the other day that gives me hope that we can construct positive voluntourism experiences.

Leah has decided that one place short term volunteers can be immediately helpful is as English tutors. But “Bob”, a middle aged volunteer, was concerned. He didn’t speak Spanish and wondered out loud multiple times, how this would work. Leah reassured him that only speaking English could be an asset and left on vacation.

When she returned, Luis, a star student who understood English very well – he could decipher rap songs – but never spoke, came up to Leah and asked her what her favorite food was, did she like to cook, and more.

“Luis,” Leah asked, “Your English is fabulous! I’ve tried to get you to speak for two years, what got you talking?”

“Oh,” he responded in perfect English, “I’ve had two tutoring sessions with Bob and he doesn’t speak Spanish so we speak English.”

Yes, it is difficult to construct meaningful, respectful, and positive short-term interventions. What matters, says Leah, is that we do so, conscientiously and thoughtfully.

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June 2016: How to spend 80,000 hours

A year ago I wrote about Effective Altruism, a movement that promotes using evidence-based data to not just do good, but to do the most good. Now I am running into college students and recent grads researching their careers by using the website 80,000 Hours (the number of hours in a career), which has an online career guide, coaching, and data to launch a high impact career.

I wrote about Jason Trigg, who works for a high-frequency trading firm. Trigg estimates that a $2,500 donation to the Against Malaria Foundation can save one life, so that by giving away half of his salary (well more than $100k), he can save many more lives than he could on an academic’s salary.

“A lot of people, they want to make a difference and end up in the Peace Corps and in the developing world without running water.” Trigg says, “I can donate some of my time in the office and make more of a difference.”                                        Washington Post, 5-31-13

Will MacAskill, co-founder and President of 80,000 Hours, doesn’t recommend working for a charity straight out of college. The reason: he says that most don’t have social impact and the first priority should be to build career capital and general-purpose skills.

“If you’re aiming to do good with your career, you should be thinking, “How can I do a lot of good in the long run? In particular, further on in my career, when I’m most influential?”                                                                          Will MacAskill, Vox Politics, 8-3-2015

Interesting. I’ve always recommended the opposite – live overseas now, work for a nonprofit while you can afford to. What matters most, is that the question is being called.June

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April 2016: Women on Waves

About two months ago, as our son Trevor was being evacuated from El Salvador (Peace Corps closed its program there due to violence) and our daughter Leah continued with her work in Guatemala, we watched as the Zika crisis heated up in the region. It was becoming clear that the virus transmitted by mosquitos is linked to microcephaly, a serious birth defect.

In response, El Salvador announced that women should not get pregnant in the next two years. This, in a country where abortion is illegal and contraception is against the mainstream Catholic church.

El Salvador’s advice to stop having children for two full years struck many experts as particularly sweeping, leaving them to wonder when else a nation has tried to halt its birthrate in the face of an epidemic. “I can tell you that I have never read, heard, or encountered a public request like that,” said David Bloom, a professor at Harvard’s School of Public Health.                                                                           New York Times, 1/25/16                                                                               

Fortunately, an organization called Women on Waves stepped up. Women on Waves is a Dutch pro-choice nonprofit created in 1999 by Dr. Rebecca Gomperts, who set sail on a ship to provide abortions in international waters, where a country’s bans do not apply. Gomperts later founded Women on Web, an online support service that helps women obtain and safely take medications to induce abortion. In February, Women on Waves announced they were sending a boat to El Salvador.

Someone said to me, why don’t women who can afford it just fly to the U.S.? The problem with this is that getting a visa to the U.S. is time-consuming and sometimes impossible; you have prove you have assets, money in the bank, and a compelling reason to return.

A doctor I know, who was involved in regulating RU 486 (one of the “morning-after” pills used for a medication-induced abortion), said that medication-induced abortions should be done only in the presence of medical personnel. This is not an option for women where abortion is illegal.

So what I wonder is, will Zika change the debate about women’s reproductive freedom?

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