Category : Musings


The world is fast: an ode to daring work

The world is fast.

Viral diseases.
Natural disasters.
Pop-up stores.
Food trucks.
Trending tweets.
Viral videos.
Bull markets.
Bear markets.
Sudden death.
Market crashes
Medical miracles.
Random collisions.
Unexpected introductions.
The three a.m. eureka.

We are slow.

Looking for proof.
Seeking certainty.
Denying our yearnings.
Discrediting our hunches.
Waiting for someone else.
Hoping for a hero.
Worrying about mistakes.
Seeing things through a warped lens.
Remembering before.
Longing for the predictable.

Take one step.

Then another.
Let go.
Dive in.

Feel the energy.

The wind helping you go faster.
The unusual friendships.
The laughter from the unexpected.

The surprise that you are safe.
The surprise that work is different.
The relief that you are relevant. Running rather than being dragged.

The world is fast and furiously asking us to take our feet off the brakes.

We are all skidding. Take your foot off the brake.

Steer into your work.

Into your life.
Into the world.




Myths and privileges


I hear a lot of stories talking with people about being a Rebel at Work.

Many people are angry at not being heard. Some are sad that their organizations are on a bad downward spiral, with management rallying around what no longer works. Others have checked out of work and checked into being complacent and “just getting the paycheck.”

For a while the complacent ones got to me the most. To go to work every day and not give a rat’s ass just seems like giving up on life itself.

And the cynicism? Scorching. It would be tough to work with someone with that kind of negative mindset.

But the stories that get to me the most are the people who don’t try to change anything because of the CHANGE MYTH. These people have come to believe — or been led to believe — that if you’re going to try to fix problems you need to be some sort of crusading take-no-prisoners, storm the ramparts hero.

You might imagine the type. A confident Steve Jobs wannabe talking about disruption, not backing down, pushing for “go big or go home.” The kind of person who doesn’t worry about failing, whether that means getting fired or quitting to find the next gig.

How did this change maker myth become so ingrained in our culture?

Has the Silicon Valley “failure is good” entrepreneurial spirit been taken as the way things work at work? Are people with good ideas becoming intimidated about stepping up because they are not Steve Jobs wannabes and they are afraid to fail and lose their jobs?

Last week Jen Meyers sent these two tweets that acknowledged the myth and, more importantly, acknowledged the fact that most people making change are doing so thoughtfully within the rules and corporate culture.

Jen Meyers Privilege jpeg

Because that’s how so much change happens. Bit by bit. Working with our co-workers vs. leaping from tall buildings in superhero change-maker capes.

If you’re a disruptor and get fired, your big idea dies. So much for heroism.

Whereas if you get smarter about working within the existing organizational culture, your idea actually has a better chance of happening. And you have a better chance of keeping your job.

(Because if we’re honest like Jen, we know that most of us can’t afford to walk away from our jobs. It’s not that simple.)

So maybe it’s useful to remember that having a good idea is easy. Being able to work with people willing to do the hard work to shepherd that idea through corporate politics, budget conflicts, and the often-messy roll out is a privilege.


PS — note Jen’s apt Twitter handle: @anitheroine. Nice

In a world without rebels

Our systems — be they companies, government agencies, schools, churches or healthcare organizations — become brittle, rigid, bureaucratic, and sometimes even dangerous when there are no rebels or change makers who have the courage to say, “This isn’t the right way.” Look no further than General Motors’ recent debacle. This inspirational post reflects on what might happen in a world without rebels.

SXSW 2014

Joining the SXSW Cult: Takeaways

I’ve heard people rave about the SXSW Interactive, Film and Music conference for years, and never understood why it’s such a cult-like experience. Though I hate huge crowds, long lines, and managed chaos, I found the people and ideas absolutely fascinating in their diversity, honesty and generosity. While I bumped into a couple of people who missed the point and were shilling their companies, most people were there to learn, share, question, and play. No doubt, the playfulness created the conditions for learning much.

Oh brother, after five days I became sucked into the cult. I may never be able to go to a typical business conference again.

Here’s a summary of my SXSW highlights:


Working without an agenda

A danger for everyone at work — particularly us change makers — is becoming obsessed with our own agenda.

When we’re focused on pushing our agenda forward come hell or high water, we get blinded from taking in potentially valuable new information and from enjoying and learning from  our colleagues.

When our agenda has us, we are handicapped from being effective change makers. Or effective period.

12 things I learned during BIF9


There is one week every September where I fully immerse myself  in ideas, possibilities and new people. Last week I attended the Business Innovation Factory’s annual innovation conference. Here’s what I learned and was reminded of:

1. Show up more.  (Or better, always.)

When we lay bare our vulnerabilities and dreams, we connect with people in rich ways. As author and venture capitalist Whitney Johnson said, “There are no regrets when you show up, and when you show up your dreams can find you.  Dreaming is at the heart of disruptive innovation.”


2. Good questions start good ideas. 

I’ve attended every BIF conference and have noticed that innovators ask good questions, and those questions get people thinking in new ways. One of my favorites this year were what educator  Angela Maiers uses to challenge high school students as part of the Choose2Matter movement: What breaks your heart about the world?  What can you do about that? What do you need?


3. Do the work, the path will appear.

Food geek Scott Heimendinger kept his day job in technology and on weekends and nights wrote a food blog and started experimenting with sous vide cooking.  Acknowledging that it’s OK to be risk averse, which he is, Scott just kept working away on his love for molecular gastronomy as a side project.  Eventually, he found his new path as director of applied research at The Cooking Lab.  Innovators just start without knowing what the outcomes should or will be.


4. Nothing is too big to change.

Paul LeBlanc, president of Southern New Hampshire University, has created a new higher ed approach, aimed particularly for disadvantaged, often marginalized adults who want to get ahead at work. For just $1,250 people can earn an associate’s degree and learn the competencies they need to get a promotion and access the social mobility needed to have a better life.   Rather than tweaking the traditional higher ed model or continuing to engage in side issues  like student loan rates, SNHU created a new model that goes to the root issues: people want to learn competencies in new, affordable ways so that they can get better jobs  FYI: Fast Company has named SNHU one of the worlds’ 50 most innovative companies.


5. Oh, God.

Speaking of not being too big to change. Just as Pope Francis’ stunning interview urging The Catholic Cburch  to preach more about mercy and less about dogma was published  last week (Hallelujah!), Rabbi Irwin Kula was speaking on stage about the urgent need to un-bundle wisdom and practices from the people who own them, and to make sure that our moral enhancements keep pace with technological enhancements. “Religion is just a tool box,” he said. “It’s time to consider blending practices from all religions and make love and empathy the source of what we are designing for the world.”  Amen.


6. “A network is worthless if you do not give it away.” 

The wise and generous innovation adviser Deb Mills-Scofield reminded people that it matters not how large or extensive your network is if you do not use it for good, sharing it with others to open up possibilities for them.


7. The fastest way to change is…

The easiest and fastest way to create more innovation in an organization is to accelerate generation change, said Bruce Nussbaum, former Business Week editor and now professor of Innovation and Design at Parsons The New School of Design.  My thought: how do we help Baby Boomers share their wisdom and transition to new roles so that younger people can step in and create more of the change that is so needed?


8. Sleep is not over-rated.

Towards the end of the week after many consecutive 16-hour days of intense listening and provocative conversations, I was reminded of how much I value sleep and quiet think time.


9. Optimism is the greatest form of rebellion.

The huge value of empowering the rebels inside organizations seemed to resonate with many, as did Carmen Medina‘s belief that optimism is the greatest form of rebellion and positive change. Rebels at Work see possibilities, not insolvable problems.


10.  Oh joy...

Playfulness, joy and unexpected silliness are essential to our humanity. Erminio Pinque, founder Big Nazo Lab, creates big, funky, life-sized foam creatures for parades and for their own special Big Nazo Shows. Erminio told me that the surprise of the creatures and costumes opens people up to being people. While going through airport security recently, the  TSA screeners pulled the foam creature masks out of the suitcase and yelled across to  their colleagues, “Hey Joe. Check this out.”  Everyone in line forgot their frustrations and frantic schedules and laughed together. Like children in awe of the world’s wondrous surprises.


11. Digital handshake, in-person hug

Tim McDonald, director of communities for the HuffingtonPost, and I sat together during the conference. As we said our goodbyes he gave me a big bear hug and explained that he sees meeting people via social media as “the real world,” and when he gets to meet them physically he likes to give big hugs.  I love his approach to digital handshake, in-person hug. Talk about connecting.


12. Control is for beginners.


The life of  Carl Stormer‘s wife was upended when she had a massive stroke at age 43, and they learned to keep going and find meaning in a life that is not what one would choose.  Carl’s wife believes that control is for beginners.  And that, dear friends, was my greatest takeaway of an intense week of learning.



Slow trends, emerging opportunities


When life slows down during the summer I notice more, read more, and reflect on changing trends and emerging opportunities. Here are some of my random observations.

Chief Communications Officers/Chief Marketing Officers:

There are a lot of C-level titles in companies and one that is slowly fading away is the Chief Communications Officer. The duties of that position are increasingly being folded in under the Chief Marketing Officer. SAP, FedEx, IBM and other companies have all recently made this change.  Much of marketing and communications is similar, particularly the shared goal of building the company’s reputation.  But reputations need to be earned, not just communicated, and therein lies customer experience, product and service, front line employee engagement, customer service and a host of other factors that fall largely into the marketing bucket.  There are still some special communications skills distinct and separate from marketing but do they warrant a C-level executive and another organizational silo?


Press releases/one or two sentence explanation:

Not to pick on the PR profession here, but I am on a distribution list where I get  press releases and pitch emails, most of which seem kind of  dumb. Most are irrelevant to me and written in such gobbledygook corporate-speak that I don’t know what the point is. Please tell me in a straightforward sentence or two why your idea or news is relevant and worth me taking a closer look at.  You can also skip writing those phony press release quotes that no one publishes and probably lengthen the review process inside the company . If you use a formulaic press release style I just hit “delete.”


Less reading/ more tweeting:

As people spend more of their discretionary time on social networks they seem to be reading fewer books. I’ve talked with people of all ages this summer who told me they “just don’t have time to sit down and read a book” and yet their Tweets and Facebook posts are voluminous. While I find great value and enjoyment from social media, what I learn from reading a book is of much greater value, from learning and spiritual perspectives. Is there a future for both?


Newspapers at the end of the driveway/tablets:

When I walk down to the end of the driveway at 5:45 a.m. to pick up my New York Times in its blue plastic bag and The Providence Journal in its clear bag I look around at my neighbors’ driveways and realize we’re one of the few houses that still subscribe to the paper editions.  My ritual of reading the papers and drinking one good cup of strong coffee before the house wakes up may be ending. The online iPad editions of newspapers are becoming  good reading experiences, perhaps even better than the paper versions.  (And I do know that trudging through the snow and ice in the winter to get the paper is  miserable.)


Focus groups/unstructured data + communities:

A client recently asked for a focus group to better understand a situation. I was kind of shocked that he thought getting 10 people around a table  for a couple of hours would be worth the time or money. There are so many  easier and less expensive ways to quickly tap into the wisdom of the crowds and get a read on an issue or an idea. And the insights are likely to be better than the old facilitated focus group format.  By polling people in one of the company’s communities we had 140 thoughtful considered responses within 24 hours. Cost?  A few hours to design the questions and analyze the results.  For meatier issues where it does make sense to get people together to think more deeply about a topic I see the opportunity in the Art of Hosting type approaches.


Suburban McMansions/neighborhoods, co-housing:

With the middle class being squeezed financially and the Baby Boomers aging, the appeal and maintenance cost of big houses is diminishing. People are beginning to choose new options — smaller homes in neighborly neighborhoods and co-housing communities, like this one in Vermont that I recently toured, and this one in Rhode Island, focused on the arts and agriculture.  Or moving into cities and embracing the no-car life, like in new city centers like Brickell in Miami.  The real trend, however,  may be that people want to be part of communities with people, not just living next to people.


Large scale shopping malls/e-commerce, neighborhoods, Makers:

Those big sprawling shopping malls are starting to sag as people look to shop in areas with smaller stores and more of a neighborhood feel. The headline in Neilsen’s recent “Brick by Brick: The State of the Shopping Center” report — Go Big or Go Small — captures the trend.  The WalMart and Target super-centers are thriving, but the days of the shopping mall are waning. E-commerce continues to grow, as do smaller, more neighborhood-like lifestyle centers where you shop, eat, go to a movie, and take a walk. The big trend to watch, however, are inidivdual DIYers and craftspeople creating products and new markets for selling them, like  the Maker Movement and its Maker Faires and marketplaces like Etsy, a personal favorite.


Less consulting/more job seekers:

The hardest work of a consultant is developing business opportunities, and many marketing consultants I know are looking for positions with agencies or inside companies for this reason. I have a hunch too that it’s just much more rewarding to work with a team than work solo.  It’s similar to the desire to live in a neighborhood with people vs. living on a three-acre lot in a big house where you never see people.  People are longing for people. Many employers don’t look favorably on resumes where people have been self-employed for a while; they haven’t been on a neat track.  Keep an open mind, there’s some tremendous talent available if you change your lens (and don’t rely on those resume keyword scanners.)


Tans/diet & exercise:

Seeing people coming out of the tanning salon next to my dry cleaners with the goggle marks still around their eyes, makes me go, “Hunh?” People with those deep, dark Coppertone tans seem as trendy as people who smoke.  Fortunately, tans are fading. (excuse the pun). The opportunity: people who eat healthy food and exercise seem to have a healthy glow, much more attractive than tans.  While at a recent yoga retreat I couldn’t help but notice how beautiful women at all ages, up through the 70s, looked sans makeup. And tans. (Or maybe I’m just envious that I haven’t been able to get to the beach this summer and am justifying my longing for a wee bit of a tan from swimming and body surfing.)


Enjoy the rest of your summer, and keep on noticing the slow shifts that are opening up new opportunities in every field, as well as signaling what to let go of.



Don’t Do It Alone

We can’t do it alone,

whether it’s changing things at work

or living through personal challenges.  

I have  often written about the need to find allies at work to  accomplish change and stay positive.

While I know this to be true, I have been guilty in trying to go it alone.  I am the fire-starter, the organizer, the person who gets things done.  My  husband has a similar mindset. So when he was diagnosed with Parkinson’s Disease two years ago, we found one of the most renown Parkinson’s neurologists, got the medication,  read the books, and decided that we wouldn’t let Parkinson’s define our lives.

It was with great apprehension that we went to a  five-day a “wellness retreat” with 57 other people with Parkinson’s and their care partners last week at Kripalu, the yoga and spiritual center in the hills of Western Massachusetts.  Since the program was sponsored by the National Parkinson’s Foundation, we thought that we would learn a great deal  from medical experts about research, symptoms, medications, resources, and what to be aware of as the condition progresses. And we did.

But what I really came away with is less anxiety and more confidence that I can do this, no matter how wonky the disease may affect my husband.  The wisdom, practical know-how, and generosity of those 57 people in the retreat was a stark reminder that it’s better not to try to take on difficult situations alone.  There’s always much to learn from people  who know more and have experienced worse. One self-less act really brought home this message.

 The one self-less act. Yoga Dance

Selfishly I wanted my husband to participate in a noontime event called Yoga Dance, open to everyone at Kripalu not just the PD folks. It’s like a wild-ass dance party with great music and free form dancing. Makes me feel like 19 again. I asked each man in our PD wellness workshop if he would go to yoga dance, explaining that if a bunch of guys went my husband would too.  They all agreed, including Ray who was having a particularly tough day with his PD.

Ray and his partner Richard went into the big dance room, music blaring, lots of athletic yoga people dancing like joyful fools.  Feeling very uncomfortable Ray told Richard he needed to leave, his body just couldn’t move to the music.  They left the room for a few minutes and came back, where Ray tried again.  He and Richard soon left a second time, and then they came back in for a third try.

Ray was upset that he couldn’t move. Richard was upset that Ray was upset. It was a horrible, unsettling incident that reminded them both of the realities of Parkinson’s.

While they struggled my husband and I danced like young lovers. Ray and Richard didn’t know, but it was our 30th wedding anniversary.

Genuine collaboration is what Ray did coming to that lunchtime yoga dance.  He came  from a deep well of thoughtfulness and wanting to help me.  Even though it was so, so hard for him.

As I reenter the “real” world on Monday, I keep with me a new question:

What would Ray do?




When did women stop raising their hands?

An incident last week jolted me awake about women in the workplace.

I participated in two days of new employee orientation for a financial services client.  About 70 percent of the 40 people in the class were women, the rest men. As part of a group exercise the instructor asked for a representative from each table to stand up and share the group’s work.  A man spoke for every group but one, that being my table where I stood up.

I was shocked and saddened. Why are women letting men dominate, even in non-threatening situations like work orientation games?

When I was in my 20s we women boldly stood up and spoke up, knowing that our views were as valuable as the guys, oftentimes even more so.  We weren’t very good at slinging the bull shit like some of our fearless men friends. So our responses were often more considered and thoughtful.

We knew we had to speak up.  Trailblazers like Gloria Steinem and Bella Abzeg had worked hard and sacrificed much to help us move into the corporate world. We wanted to pay it forward by succeeding and helping other women in their journeys.  Having a say and being heard was essential.

When I was working at AT&T early in my career I was promoted into a job where I made $22,000, taking over for a man who hadn’t been performing so well at the job but had been making $48,000.  More than double what I was paid for the same responsibilities. I raised this disparity with HR, which told me that the man had more experience, and, confidentially,  “if you keep speaking up like this you could hurt your career.”  I loved telling that story, and I more loved seeing the pay gap between women and men shrink.

We’ve made such gains over the 30 years, but apparently not enough.

Aside from my fear that women will continue to not get promoted as quickly or make as much as men if they do not speak up and believe in themselves, I worry about businesses being able to adapt and grow.  Research shows that the more diverse the thinking an in an organization, the faster and better it can solve problems.  If women are submissive, organizational performance will suffer.

I was recently planning a conference with a wonderful, enlightened European man.  He recruited the first 12 speakers.  Eleven of the 12 were men.  When I pointed out this imbalance, he was taken aback. He hadn’t even noticed that he had invited almost all men.  I am pleased to tell you that this conference is now equally represented.

Today the Fast Company blog  had a story that caught my eye, “Eight Successful Entrepreneurs Give Their Younger Selves Lessons They Wish They’d Known Then.”  When I clicked on the story all the entrepreneurs were men. Really? The writer couldn’t find one successful female entrepreneur?

Let’s call the media on this imbalanced view of business.

Let’s also get back to supporting and encouraging women in the workforce.

I don’t know about you, but I thought we had come farther.  I thought my  diligence in helping and promoting women had worked and now I could move on to new issues.

Not so.

Just as Sheryl Sandberg is doing with her,  we need to help women stand up and be heard for their considerable talents and perspectives.   If they don’t speak up confidently they will be overlooked  for promotions and for increased compensation.

Worse, we wont be able to solve the complexity of today’s issues without the equal voices of both women and men, and not just women and men.  But people who think differently from one another.  Believe me, no one has the answers figured out in any industry.


PS — this Hay Group study just came out yesterday.


Get things under control

“The Cardinals are tired of reading about financial corruption, sexual improprieties and infighting at the Vatican. They want a Pope who can get things under control,” explained Father Thomas Reese to Tom Ashbrook on his NPR “On Point” radio show today.

When there are calls to “get things under control”  there is no hope for control.

Whether it’s trying to control clergy in the Catholic Church, parents angry over school policies, or customers  tweeting unfavorable product reviews, there is no control. 

When I hear “get things under control” I know it’s a situation that can only be addressed by getting at root cause issues.  It’s not a “handling” or crisis communications issue, it’s a systemic issue requiring that the real problems be addressed.

No new Pope can get the Catholic Church “under control” without addressing some deep seated issues.

No business leader can get customers under control if customers  hate the products or customer service.

No school official can get parents under control if they feel their children are not being served.

No politician can get voters under control if they believe the politician is more interested in getting elected than representing their views.

No good can come from trying to control.


A ridiculous 2013 strategy

“Mum, if you’re so interested in this folk metal band, why don’t you come to the concert with me on Friday night,” my 17-year-old son asked as we watched the band’s YouTube videos.

“Don’t be ridiculous,” I said. “All that screaming and headbanging and moshing. Do you know how old I am?”

Later that night I thought, why not? What might I learn if I went? Who might I meet and what kind of story might emerge?

The next morning I read a post by Seth Godin, “Ridiculous is the New Remarkable,” in which he wrote:

We can view the term ridiculous as an insult from the keeper of normal, a put-down from the person who seeks to maintain the status quo and avoid even the contemplation of failure.

Or we embrace ridiculous as the sign that maybe, just maybe, we’re being generous, daring, creative and silly. You know, remarkable.

Generous, daring, creative and silly?  Mmmmm.

Then yesterday a big city mayor’s chief of staff called and asked if I could lead a retreat the Saturday after Christmas for front-line city managers who are burned out and frustrated.  “Their jobs are never going to get easier, but maybe you could help them get re-energized and see that they’re part of something bigger.”

Again, my first thought was, “That’s ridiculous.  I planned on taking a week off. I have no time to get my head around this. I don’t know any of these people, and I’d be giving my time away.”

So I agreed to do it.

This afternoon I have a call with a former editor at Random House about editing a book that I’ve been too afraid to push out into the world, and yet feel needs to get into the world.  I’ve decided to self-publish the book, which seems ridiculous. Will anyone take it seriously if I self-publish?   With Guy Kawasaki’s new book  as my guide, I’m going to do it.  (The books is APE: Author, Publisher, Entrepreneur: How To Publish Your Book.)

You see, I’ve decided to make “ridiculous” a strategy for 2013.

When presented with situations that my gut screams “RIDICULOUS!” I am going to say yes. Ridiculous will be a filter for  making decisions on how I spend my time, how I learn, and how I challenge my own assumptions.

Since I made this strategic decision yesterday, the year ahead feels quite exciting.  Perhaps even liberating.

People often ask me how I make decisions about my business and my own professional development.  In fact, last week someone asked about how I make decisions to support my “personal brand.”  I hope I didn’t offend the woman when I burst out laughing and then told her why I think obsessions around personal branding are self-limiting.  Perhaps I should write to her with a more considered response,  “My strategic filter for my career development in 2013 is ridiculousness.”

I don’t know where this adventure will take me, but I am confident I will learn much, laugh much, and become a more creative and empathetic person.

Warmest wishes for a holiday season that’s ridiculously happy and rich in  possibilities.










Has marketing become the screw aisle?

Lisa was cutting my hair and talking about how she fixed her own toilet.

“The worst thing about hiring guys is that they talk so much about the job,” she said. “They get to your house and start talking about all the things they need to check, all the things that could go wrong, and how the project is probably doing to stretch out over a few weeks  because the distributor might not have the right parts in stock.

“In the time it takes a guy to tell me all this I was able to go Home Depot, buy the toilet kit and finish the job.”

Empowered by her success with the toilet Lisa was now building a deck in her backyard.

“The standard sized boards made the project straightforward,” she said, “but the challenge was the screws. Have you ever walked down the screw aisle? There are hundreds, maybe thousands of different sized screws. To make matters worse you need different kinds of tools for different screws. I mean, c’mon, how many different kinds of screws do we need? Why can’t I build my deck with one or two types of screws? I really resent the screw aisle. Why do people make things so complicated?”

I closed my eyes as she started cutting again.

Screws. Financial investments. Health care plans. Government legislation. Business strategies. “Expert” advice. Diet plans.   15-step proven methodologies on everything from marketing to living a better life.

Over-complicated, over-thought and so overwhelming that most of us just freeze. The paralysis numbs us and dumbs us. Making us reliant on experts, products and services that we may or may not really need. Or, like Lisa, just making us resentful, angry and suspect.

Has marketing become the screw aisle?

I fear that it has.

While choice is a wonderful thing, have we gone too far in product extensions?

Have  ‘content marketing’ emails started to sound like the guys who drive us crazy yakking about how complicated the job will be, how tough it might be to find the right parts, how they’ll have to come back again to measure and that’s going to be tough because….”

Are too many preying on people’s fear, uncertainty and doubt? Exacerbating anxiety to sell more than a person really needs?

Is our marketing building a screw aisle or making it easy — and maybe even enjoyable — for Lisa to build a beautiful deck?


Find the engine for change

Wonderful insight on change, creativity and collaboration from composer Philip Glass from last Sunday’s New York Times Magazine:

When I talk to young composers, I tell them, I know that you’re all worried about finding your voice. Actually you’re going to find your voice. By the time you’re 30, you’ll find it.

But that’s not the problem. The problem is getting rid of it. You have to find an engine for change.

And that’s what collaborative work does. Whatever we do together will make us different.

When experiments go splat

This morning I experimented with a speech I give as part of my pro bono work with hospices.  It was a bomb.

Instead of using my usual presentation that people always LOVE, I decided to do something very different. No PowerPoint, no lessons and advice. Just sharing a personal story that I thought illustrates the value of choosing love over fear and worry.

Though people cried and smiled and seemed moved by the story, they were waiting for more. I thought a 20-minute story would be enough. Who wants to sit in a ballroom longer than that?  Well, these 200 caregivers and health care professionals certainly did.

Like all experiments we learn from them. But the smack of knowing you didn’t excel can really sting. It can make you want to stay on the safe path. Who wants something to splat when you can do what you know works?

I’m always urging friends and clients to experiment more. It’s the only way to learn, to grow, to innovate.

Yet today I’m reminded why people don’t experiment more.

I learned some helpful things, but I feel badly that I may have disappointed many people this morning who were waiting for an in-depth 45-minute “how to.”

Cue the Gloria Gaynor’s disco song, “I Will Survive.”  Turn it up loud.

Keep experimenting even when it hurts.

Rebel Lifeguard

Thomas Lopez was fired from his lifeguard job two weeks ago in Hallandale, Florida.  He saw someone struggling in the water, got someone to cover his beat, and ran to help the swimmer.

For this he was fired.

You see, Thomas didn’t follow corporate procedures, which require that he not leave his designated patrol area. Thomas wasn’t working for the town, but for Jeff Ellis Management Company, to whom the town outsources its lifeguard services.  By outsourcing the town has cut its lifeguard budget in half and there have been no drownings in the nine years that the management company has had the contract.

So let’s not blame Jeff Ellis Management.

The real issue to me is what happens to people who work for outsourcers.

Outsourcers hire low skill workers, pay them low skill wages, and require that they simply follow company procedures. No thinking, please.

The intelligence to do the job correctly is built into the procedures, whether it’s lifeguarding, call centers, making hamburgers, or manufacturing. Highly skilled, highly paid people design these predictable systems, so that low wage, low skill workers don’t need to think or be paid much.

That’s why outsourcers save companies and governments so much money.

The question I’ve been pondering is what happens when we make more and more people automatons, paying them NOT to think.  Punishing them when they do. Like what happened to lifeguard Thomas Lopez, who was making $8.25 an hour.

Do they become depressed, lose self-esteem, anesthetize themselves with food, video games or worse?

Or do they become really angry, rebelling in negative ways that help neither them nor their employer?

Or do they suck it up, figure a job’s a job, and find meaning from doing things in the hours they’re not working, like church or music or volunteer work?

What happens to us as a society by rewarding people to just follow the procedures? New ideas not wanted. Never leave your stand. Never have much of a career path, except one low paying automaton job after another.

Aside from the obvious widening wage gap, what happens to the soul of our society?

This is why I write

I’m in the process of writing a new business book and a book of creative short stories. I love to write, except on the days I hate to write. Those days when I’m stuck, doubting the work, and tired. Then a note like this arrives from people that my sister-in-law’s parents met on a cruise.  A husband and wife taking one last trip together; she had been diagnosed with Stage IV cancer and was intent on trying to have the best life possible during the end of life.

The book they mention is “Be the Noodle,” a book I wrote two years ago about helping my mother die. Many days while writing the book  I thought I was being self-indulgent, helping myself through writing. Other days I was convinced that people needed to know that they’re not alone as they help a loved one die.

My point is that if our intentions are good, we should put our work out into the world and stop self-judging.  Put it out there.  Even if you only lift the lives of a handful of people, you have done great work.

Golf carts and crime

Note: I’m on vacation this week at a beach community I started coming to as a child with my grandparents. This post isn’t about business, but is a reflection of what it takes to get things done in groups. Whether it’s business or beach communities, it takes patience and a sense of humor.

The Chief wanted to talk crime. The Security Committee wanted to talk flags. But for the beach association members the real issue was golf carts.

The annual Home Owner’s Spring Information meeting to kick off the summer starts at the reasonable hour of 10 a.m., allowing people time for morning runs, usually to Dunkin’ for the old timers, but the new people are more the Starbucks types. (And yes, it’s the spring meeting, held the first week in summer.)

The metal folding chairs are set up in 12 neat rows, with an aisle down the middle, long rectangular function tables in the front for the 12 or so association board members and in the back with a nice spread of Danish pastry, with the gooey raspberry filling melting fast in the already hot day. The coffee urns sit next to cartons of half-and-half.

Everyone in this Cape Cod beach community drinks coffee with extra cream, being mostly from the inner belt of Boston’s Route 128. Hardcore Bostonians at their beach cottages, most with one bathroom for as many people as you can squeeze into the house. (Providing that at least two wheels of each vehicle touch the property; otherwise you could get a parking citation. The two wheels on lawns rule takes an  especially creative twist on holiday weekends with the mini-vans.)

Lately folks have been tearing down the old places and building new, with two stories, big porches and two or three bathrooms. Summer living is going through big changes here at Popponesset Beach.

But back to the Community House for the Association meeting, where the petite chairwoman is calling to get started. “There are seats up front, everyone. Let’s get started, we have a lot to cover.”

“We’ve rearranged the agenda this morning because The Chief is here and has some important information about security. So without further ado, Chief…”

“I won’t take up too much of your time this morning, but want to call your attention to something that happened up the road last week. Not in your area, but not too far away.”

With that the local police chief told a story about a couple of bungling burglars, casing houses and making off with televisions and other household electronics in broad daylight.  People listened politely, nodding their heads when the Chief said, “If you see something suspicious, call us. We are here 24/7 for you. That is our job. A suspicious person may be nothing. But you never know.

“Here in your neighborhood we got a call last Friday night about a disturbance.”

Now people were riveted. Burglars might be moving around New Seabury, but we are vigilant. What could have happened?

“A fellow was trying to get into a house in the wee hours, about three a.m. to be exact. Pounding on the door, creating a disturbance. The homeowner called us and we dispatched our officer to the home. We found that the fellow had had a few too many and was trying to get in the wrong house.”

Everyone laughs. This is our Cape Cod.

“We detained the gentleman while we helped him find his house.  But the moral of the story,” warns the Chief has he puts his stern face back on, “is that you just never know.”

Three hands go up around the room.  Hands like second graders who want to be called on by the teacher because they know the answer.

The Chief points to a hand in the back of the room.

“Chief, what about the golf carts?”

A millisecond hush falls among the 60 people packed into the community house, with its beige, yellow and orange linoleum floor. People swivel in their metal chairs to see who asked that question.  Before the Chief responds, chatter erupts. Like opening a door to a school gymnasium. Hushed quiet in the hall, and then the energy and sound explodes.

“Is it legal to drive golf carts on our streets?” the person asks more loudly.

Heads turn to the Chief. The room gets quiet.

“If you have a title, insurance and a valid driver’s license, you can drive a golf cart on the streets,” explains the Chief matter of factly. His shoulders relax, like he was expecting a tough question and got this softball underhanded toss about golf carts.

“What about kids driving these carts, Chief,” asks another. “I saw a golf cart with kids hanging off the back and they almost hit an elderly person walking across the street.”

“Yeah, and a golf cart crashed into my neighbor’s yard one night around 2 a.m. and damaged some property,” someone else yells out.

“Okay, now,” says the Chief. “According to the Massachusetts Department of Motor Vehicles, you must be a licensed driver to operate a golf cart. This means underage kids should not be driving golf carts.”

“But Chief, how about kids with a learner’s permit?”

“Chief, what about a golf cart that goes under 20 miles per hour? I believe that’s exempt from the rules for golf carts, which go faster than 20 miles per hour.”

“Please, everyone,” says the Chief. “The rule is you have to have a title, insurance and license to operate a golf cart. I believe Chapter 90, Section 18 spells this out, but I don’t have the exact information here.”

“Chief, how many people can be in a golf cart?”

A helpful community member and golf cart owner answers, “As many people as there are seat belts can ride in the golf cart.”

Now that people other than the Chief are offering advice, more people speak up.

“Everyone might be interested to know that there’s a universal key for golf carts,” says a stocky guy in his Korean Veterans baseball cap.  “You can go to the hardware store and have a key made and it will fit any cart.”

People nod in an appreciative way. We really know useful stuff.

“Chief, what if we’re driving the carts at the country club and don’t have our licenses?”

“No worries, we’re not going to give you a citation crossing the road over to the club.  This is about common sense, everyone. We don’t need to get into a lot of legal mumbo jumbo. Ah, excuse me on that. I see that there are some lawyers on the committee.

“Remember, title, insurance and license,” he says, with the three words becoming like a mantra. “If you stick to those three things there should be no problems.”

It’s now 10:50. The sun is blasting through the window shades, reminding us that it’s a really good beach day.

A woman waves her hand and interrupts from the back of the room.

“Excuse me, please. I live across the street and people have parked in front of my driveway so I can’t get out.  Every time there are official meetings in the Community House, people park illegally, blocking our driveways.”

People squirm. The chairwoman thanks the neighbor, who obviously doesn’t have a golf cart, but does have a car. Which she can’t use.

Humbled by the obvious disregard for other rules, the meeting moves off the carts and on to the beach flags, the second most important beach community issue.

I sit on the beach later in the day with my flag safety-pinned to my beach bag and wonder about the seaweed.  There’s a lot of it. Should I bring it up at the next meeting?



Pretend you’re someone who can

There was much to love in writer Neil Gaiman’s recent “Make Good Art” commencement address to the University of the Arts.  His advice about pretending to be someone else has been swirling in my mind for days.  Not to be someone else or copy someone else, but to behave like another person to do the thing that you think you cannot.

“Someone asked me recently how to do something she thought was going to be difficult, in this case recording an audio book, and I suggested she pretend that she was someone who could do it. Not pretend to do it, but pretend she was someone who could. She put up a notice to this effect on the studio wall, and she said it helped.”

To find more courage to do the work you really want to do, who might you pretend to be?

As you pretend to be that person, how might your work change?

When I was  in high school I sometimes pretended to be the late actress and writer Ruth Gordon.  At 15  I felt like an outsider and misfit in my huge, urban high school. Yet I had drive, confidence and a hope that things would be different once I got out of that adolescent jail.  After performing the role of the prostitute Kitty Duval in William Saroyan’s “The Time of Our Life” my sophomore English teacher Mr. Roberts suggested I read Ruth Gordon’s rambling autobiography “Myself Among Others.”

Gordon, also a five-foot average looking girl from Boston, wrote of her determination, her perseverance and her “screw them” kind of attitude.  The Ruth Gordon line that sang to my young self was,  “A Star is Born was the movie, but that’s fiction. A star is not born, a star makes himself or herself a star.” I loved that book. I loved the Ruth Gordon that I had conjured up in my mind. She was a young rebel heroine.

In my freshman year of college I entered a talent contest. Panicking that I had none, I channeled Ruth Gordon and did my Kitty Duval monologue. I won.

Years later I bought Gordon’s autobiographies at a used book store.  Re-reading them I was disappointed.  Her advice and writing seemed so flippant and superficial.

But I’m going to start pretending to be Ruth Gordon again.  In my mid-50’s with so many ideas and exciting projects yet to be done I sometimes sabotage myself by playing a “you’re too old to do that now” narrative. What’s with that?  Using ageism against myself?

Ruth Gordon worked steadily on Broadway  and in movies, and then her career took off when she was 70, becoming a star in movies like “Rosemary’s Baby” and “Harold and Maude,” and winning an Emmy for her guest appearance on the television show “Taxi.”

Her grit, her vanity, her love of her work (and herself) kept her relevant and thriving.

When she died at 88 —  still working — The Los Angeles Times wrote:

Gordon was unique among actresses, not only because she defied the passing of time but because she used it like a bonus, a spiritual annuity paying off…Gordon’s salty, uninhibited, sexy, sharp-witted, energetic, convention-snubbing, life-celebrating and joyous assertiveness on the screen obviously reflected what we might call her own soul-set…But she was above all a woman whose whole life, the bruises and the triumphs alike, informed and enriched her performances. She was a life force who became a symbol of the vigorous and even riotous possibilities of the upper years.

So on the days that I need a little push to take on all that I dream of doing, I will be pretending to be Ruth Gordon exhibiting all of her joyous assertiveness, and trying to dress as well, too.

And you? Who will you pretend to be so that you can stretch and do the work that only you can do?

That’s it? Creating clarity

I do remember.

Cleaning my office today (okay, moving piles) I found this question card (see photo) from the “12 Key Principles for Creating Healthy Community Change” cards by Margaret Wheatley and Nancy Margulies. (It accompanies principle #10: “Meaningful work is a powerful human motivator.”)

I don’t know about you but I rarely remember and talk about the deeper purpose that called me to my work.

So it was interesting while driving to reflect on that question. I didn’t like the answer that kept coming up. It seemed too simple. But maybe it’s a guidepost I should pay more attention to.

In high school I knew I wanted to be a writer.  But it wasn’t because I liked writing. What I liked was helping people  understand an issue, a trend, a person, a political free-for-all.

Clarity empowers people to make better decisions. To think for themselves. To say no and to say yes. To see when they are being used or spun by people who don’t have their best intentions at heart. To see the differences between a fad and a trend likely to stick for a while. To be able to discern between brave hearted leaders and the self-centered manipulators.

Whenever clients have had complex, confusing, messy situations I’ve gotten excited at the prospect of sorting through it all, asking unusual questions, seeing patterns, and then helping them communicate it in a way that creates clarity. You know that excited feeling where you can’t sleep because your brain goes into overdrive — in a good way? That’s how I feel when there’s a really complicated situation — and  simple communications approaches have failed to help people understand what’s what.

Bring it on! My whole being goes into what Mihaly Cikszentmihalyi called The Flow. That “psychology of optimal experience” where the circuits are fully lit and performing beyond expectations.

I started blogging what seems eons ago because this writing helped me work my intellectual chops at making sense of shifting trends by writing about them. I could never not write. If I had to bucket my work into “Hell, Yes!” and “Hell, No!” buckets, writing would top the “Hell Yes!” list.

My ego tells me that I’m a leadership activist. An organizational change consultant. A Fortune 100 marketing strategist.

But really my purpose is simple, and deeply ingrained.

I like to create clarity so that people can see new ways forward.


Keep this channel open

Agnes DeMille was talking to fellow dancer and choreographer Martha Graham in 1943, worrying that her recent success with Oklahoma! was unwarranted. DeMille wanted her work to be great, but questioned whether she could live up to her hopes.

The story goes that the generous and genius Martha Graham turned quietly to DeMille gave her this advice.  Advice that perhaps all we innovators, rebels and passionate professionals should take to heart.

There is a vitality, a life force, an energy, a quickening that is translated through you into action, and because there is only one of you in all of time, this expression is unique.

And if you block it, it will never exist through any other medium and it will be lost. The world will not have it.

It is not your business to determine how good it is nor how valuable nor how it compares with other expressions.

It is your business to keep it yours clearly and directly, to keep the channel open. You do not even have to believe in yourself or your work.

You have to keep yourself open and aware to the urges that motivate you.

Keep the channel open.