Sunday, December 28, 2008

Psst. Goverance means responsibility.

As a career strategic planner, professional communicator, writer, reporter, policy analyst, and now enterprise risk manager, I have been able to work with some of the best boards and executive managers as they strive to see into the future, understand impacts and the highly improbable, and set a course for the future. I have worked with and been a part of management teams who summon their best and brightest minds, and set sail for the horizon. They mark their future with milestones: "By 2010, our profitability will be X. Our employee engagement will be Y. Our workforce will look like this. And our community will see us that way."

In the midst of all this chart setting, ship sailing and target marking, I fear we have lost sight of the reason that we actually do all this. We are too fixated on the targets, our actions are too tactical, and we are rewarded for taking small steps, instead of forging new paths and creating new futures to explore.

I question as to whether this is by choice, because of the consequences of forging into the new and unknown, or are we actually stunted by a fragmented view of the future. I wonder, if we gave all the leaders in the world a paint brush what kind of picture would we paint, and what would the canvas look like in the end?

Cutting to the chase, it does not matter whether the organization sells shoes, builds cars, or cures cancer, there are universal and common goals: to create value for people and society, to create a legacy for the future, and finally to demonstrate responsible governance. These goals speak to the greater reason that organizations exist, transcending market relevance, competition and political agendas. These goals should be on the mind of every leader, and they should be modeled as if they are part of the leader's DNA, keeping at bay wild cards like free will, and personal and political ideologies.

From my vantage point as a facilitator and an observer of leadership, as well as a practitioner in governance and accountability systems, I believe that instead of painting a canvas for good governance to occur, we are too focused on the colors and the style, not the substance.

The canvas to which I am referring is the one that paints the picture of what a well governed, responsible organization looks like, acts like, walks like and talks like. Governance is the full responsibility of the corporate stewards - those being the Board of Directors, CEO, the top executive managers and their direct reports, most commonly referred to as senior managers.

The roles and accountability's of each of these people must be clearly defined, as well as the standards to which they will be held. For without these clear standards, accountability weakens, and the governance house of cards falls down, bringing down the reputation of the entity, and in fact impacting the trust that we all place in our leaders.

According to the OECD, (Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development - the term “corporate responsibility” refers to the actions taken by businesses in response to such expectations in order to enhance the mutually dependent relationship between business and societies.

This is a a lofty ideal and a vision that should be shared by every organization in the world, large or small. So, what are we looking at this is so distracting?

According to Nassim Nicholas Taleb, author of "The Black Swan", we are seeing the details and not the picture that is before us. He says that as humans, we are hardwired to learn specifics when we should be focused on generalities. His view is that we restrict our thinking to the irrelevant and the inconsequential, while larger events continue to surprise us and shape our world: 9-11, the success of Google, and Enron to name only three.

According to the Conference Board of Canada, Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) is fast becoming an important factor in exercising good and responsible governance. CSR is essentally defined as the stakeholder's voices. It is the mechanism through which we balance the economic and social interests of the business and society. Stakeholder buy in is essential to the success and acceptance of business as it is the social conscience of our actions, and assures that we create value for society, leave a legacy for the future, and demonstrate effective and responsible governance.

CSR is a relative new comer to the governance and responsibility scenario, but it the proof of its importance is in the news papers and in our own experiences. We can all point to examples where organizations that were once giants have failed, or are now flailing, because they lost their ability to make good decisions, act responsibility, and create stakeholder / community engagement and buy in.

Great visions require action and supporting systems and frameworks to guide the process. In order for organizations and leaders to see the picture, assure responsiblity and good governance, it is imperative to integrate the core governance functions that are the within the purvue of the board's responsibilities: strategic planning and performance management, enterprise risk management, corporate and stakeholder communications and corporate social responsibilty.

By integrating these aspects, we give voice to the communities and various stakeholders, generate edge of the seat intelligence that will help boards to see past the haze of the tactics to find the picture that is emerging, and to set directions to meet the needs of both business and society.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

The Belly of the Great Whale

It was November 2006. I had just turned 45 a few days earlier. I was sitting at my computer, staring at a blank screen. I was at a point in my life when I realized that I needed to change something. Say something. Do something. But I had no voice. I was for the first time in my life speechless.

My life was changing dramatically and so was I. My children were now young women, growing up into young adults. My husband had come into his own in his career and was realizing is potential about 9 hours north of home every week. My job as a strategic planner had consumed my life for years.

It was that day in November that I realized that I had been many things to many people, becoming the person that I needed to be, but not who I am. I realized that somewhere on the other side of this reality was another person whose potential was unknown to me. So I decided to change on purpose, with purpose.

As a strategic planner, I naturally established my intention, a set of directions, and a deadline. I gave myself one year to change my mind, my body, and my job. I wanted to be in a different space in my career, as I was looking for advancement, challenge and a chance to make a dent in this world. I pledged that I would work responsibly and stop being a hero by working 18 hours a day to get some of my life back. And I said that I wanted to figure out what to fill my life with besides work.

Now in the corporate world where I spend the majority of my time, changing direction is no small feat because it must begin with changing minds. Every good and worthy planner knows that the way to change head space is to cause a disruption in the experience. Alter reality. To all novice change makers, this is no easy task. Invoking change can create a tidal wave of events that can challenge personal values, belief systems and create reactions that you never thought possible. Few corporate giants do this successfully. Change must be managed, monitored and adjusted according to the experience and the outcomes.

So I used the same principles of business to invoke a change in my life and head space. I devised a framework to focus on these key concepts.

1. Choose Defiance.

Reality is often defined by fears and insecurities that prevent us from doing things that we would like to do. We are afraid that if we take that step, we might fall into an abyss of nothingness and lose everything we have and know. We are afraid that we are not good enough. We are afraid of failure; we are hardwired to believe that failure is . . . well, bad.

In order to alter my reality I knew that I had to challenge my own assumptions about who I am, what I value, what I am about, and what I am capable of. So I made a commitment to defiance.

When I say that, eyebrows tend to rise. Defiance is natural. Birds defy gravity. Trees grow in rock. Babies are born, kicking and screaming. Defiance is a natural process of renewal and change. Without defiance, our earth would cease to revolve. The sun would cease to shine. And we would cease to exist. Yet as people, we have been raised and socialized to behave. We even medicate our children in school so they will behave. In the class room and in the corporate world we cast out the different and diverse. Then we add diversity programs so that we remember to treat each other the way we would like to be treated. Through our institutional behaviors, we have lost our ability to naturally change, grow, and resist status quo – or death, as I like to call it. Defiance is important to growth, because through defiance, we are forced to see another side. Explore a new possibility. Walk against the traffic.

So I set a goal to commit three defiant acts that would challenge my personal fears, assumptions and insecurities, find my voice and ultimately my direction. Defiance meant saying no, not working late, not trying to impress people by over achieving. It meant eating the foods I like and living the way I want to live. Testing new boundaries, and taking the risk of falling, and learning how to land. Defiance taught me to challenge my personal status quo, and all the conventions and limitations that have influenced me in the past – as far back as my childhood and as deep down as my inner most fears and insecurities.

While I did not know what I would actually do at the time, I likely committed more than three acts of defiance when I look back because it actually created a ripple effect. It began with saying no to overtime, and saying no to unfair treatment of people and taking a stand on those things worth fighting for, namely people and principles. In my quest for balance (something I don’t believe I have ever had before) I tattooed an image on my lower back that symbolizes my quest for balance. Every day, I look at it and I love it and I remember my promise to me. I pierced my nose, much to my mother’s dismay, and I stepped into uncharted territory when it came to business and my personal life. I learned along the way, and discovered that I have the power to choose my destiny as we all do. I found out what it feels like to take a step and land in another place where I had never allowed myself to go before. I took up smoking to stop by year end. And I fell in love . . . with the possibility that there is more to discover.

What I learned is defiance helped me to realize the courage that I had. It gave me the strength that I needed to grow, and it helped me to confirm my values and principles. At the end of the day, I learned the importance of values, and the need above all else to be respectful to oneself and others.

2. Listen and Seek to Understand.

It is my belief that we hold ourselves back with what we tell ourselves about ourselves. These thoughts betray our potential. In fact, we are only able to accomplish what we can ourselves imagine.

What we think about is who we are. What we imagine, is what we become. So in order to liberate my thinking, I committed to listening to my own self talk, so that I could hear what I think about - what rolls around in my mind, so that I would be able to understand better who I came to be, who I am, and who I have yet to be. Listening, I discovered, is an art from. And listening to oneself takes discipline as it requires the ability to block out the personal noise that we have going on in our heads all the time.

To develop listening skills, I learned to play the guitar, since I have always had a penchant for rock stars. Learning to play guitar, I discovered, is about listening. I also took up yoga to find ways to balance my energy, quiet my thinking and learn to listen to the sound my own breath. I also set a personal goal to “seek to understand” rather than jumping to conclusions and reacting to my environment. This too took some discipline, because we are naturally judgmental of ourselves and the people around us. I needed to learn to listen to what was being said rather than letting judgments fly, thereby limiting the potential of the moment.

What I was thinking about, observing, feeling, worrying about or wondering about became the subject of my writing. Every night, I would sit down at my computer, close my eyes, and look into the darkness with my fingers resting on my keyboard. I would reflect on the day and events, how I was feeling, and why. I committed to be positive in my reactions, but insightful in my quest to understand my thinking process, not judge. The writing process takes on a life of its own from there, since it’s really an art, not a science. It is existential, because it requires reaching those places that we rarely visit in our minds in our souls. But when I write, I focus on the sound of my own heart beating, and the cadence of my breath. The words and stories came forward, through my fingertips to reveal whatever it is that comes forth. The first poem in this collection, “Write me Away”, was not the first poem I had ever written, but it was the first poem that was written with the intention to be free and to explore, to give way to the flood of images that, when translated into words, would embody a poetic heartbeat and pulse.

3. Be Imperfect. But be Honest.

Perfectionism breeds fear and insecurity. So in the writing process, I made a commitment to let go of each poem without revising, editing and perfecting. After every poem, I saved it, named it and closed the file. Each poem took anywhere from 3 minutes to 30 minutes to write. They are what they were at that moment in time. And they remain, with minor editing for punctuation and capitalization (so as not to offend the English majors in the crowd.)

4. Reflect and Learn.

After some time, I went back to the file and discovered that there were over 30 poems that I had written over a period of approximately 5 months. I read them and realized that a change had occurred in three stages as revealed by the poems: Emerging, Defiant and Breaking Through. I was moving along my journey, but I knew that I had still had a distance to travel, and that I will never really get there. The interesting thing about being human is that our potential is far beyond that of our natural life / body form. Maybe that is the way it is intended to be, but that must mean that we need to draw the potential out of each moment, each person that we meet, each emotion, and each experience.

The last poem, “Message in a Bottle” took one and a half years to write, as it is a metaphor for a crucial step in the change process – saying good bye to all that contains us, all our dependencies and fears – and celebrating life and its gifts for what they are. Accepting that what it is, is. Celebrating the moments of life, good and bad. Learning from the teachers that come and go through life and learning when it’s time to walk away. From reflection and learning comes acceptance, and ultimately peace.

5. Avoid rooms with no doors.

Because everyone has something to gain
By my staying the same.
Everyone has a stake
In me never changing.- 45

While in the midst of this self induced change, the company that I was working for was also going through significant change. The merger that we had all given many days and nights to was suffering under the weight of forces beyond our control. I had begun to increase overtime again and I was pushing back and speaking up about what was happening.

I found myself alone and exhausted, with no one to talk to. One day stands out in my mind. I was driving home, and I was feeling like I was in a room with no doors. I felt trapped and frustrated. I tried calling friends but no one was available. That night, I picked up the phone to contact my former boss to congratulate her on a recent award. Somehow the conversation struck a chord with me. This was a person for whom I have the most respect for - not just her accomplishments, but also who she is.

The way she approaches things is what I admire most about her. She is “human” – and that is a rare quality in my mind. Somehow through the course of talking with my friend and mentor, I came to the realization that I could not undergo this change alone. I needed help. And more importantly, I needed someone to be honest with me. I needed someone who did not have a stake in my changing. So I asked if she knew of anyone who could coach me, and she said that she was available. The door opened up at that moment.

As my coach and mentor, she held a mirror up to me, so that I could see myself honestly and confront those things that hold me back- fear of failure, judgment of self and others, reacting to a damaged ego and possibly with malice. I took the steps to consider my next growth path, looking out longer term to realize long term goals. She helped me with tools, giving me a door to walk through when I needed it.

Turns out the door is wherever we want it to be. Like Gulliver, who was held down by the Lilliputians, we are held down by the little things by own accord. We can and do open our own doors. That sounds cliche, but it is not as easy as it sounds. The door for me, I discovered, is to open my mind to the experience of others, rather than reacting with fear and judgment.

Now two years later, I continue to pursue my intention to realize my potential, and to continue stretching and growing, challenging my thinking and my fears, and allowing myself to be imperfect. I have learned that wherever one goes, one must always hold values near and dear.

I remember my mission to “seek to understand”, especially when I would rather take the easy way out and react with judgment. It’s not easy, but I like to believe that by seeking to understand, I am becoming a better person. I have found, through the advice of my coach, that by committing to learning from each conversation and experience, I am able to learn from the various teachers that life has brought me.

Looking back now on this journey and how and where it began, I realized that I had been swallowed whole by a whale and did not realize it until the oxygen dissipated and I needed to escape. The whale was my work and the way that I allowed it to becomer personal and all defining. As a result, I was consumed, unknowingly and gradually. I realized that I could have stayed too long, and possibly suffocated in that whale's belly had I not felt that inexplicable claustrophobia. Today, some my best friends I fear are feeling that shortening of breath, the feeling of being entombed. And while they may not see it yet, I know where they are. They are in the belly of the giant whale.

Sunday, August 31, 2008

The Smile Factor

I live by an adage that was passed on to my by my dad - you can say anything to anybody as long as you are smiling. Think about it - a smile says a lot. If it's a difficult message, a smile says, this might be uncomfortable for you to hear, but you need to know this. If it's a good message, then the smile says - congratulations. Either way, a smile helps the medicine go down, and it will create a lasting impression. My dad is my role model in what I call the smile factor. He is a caring person and that comes across in his eyes, his voice, and his smile. When he has something to say that is important, the way that he delivers the message always comes across with the best intention.

So, what's the return on a smile you ask? There are a couple ways to measure "ROS" -Return on Smile.

Number one, the smile factor can be related to success in business. My dad is the original salesman of all time, spanning 50 years. I always say he can sell anything to anybody and he has. Since the beginning of memory, he has sold everything from milk to life insurance, to photocopiers and real estate. But he's not just any salesman. He is a person who understands and in fact enjoys the human experience and he knows what motivates and moves people to action. But the success is not in the product that he sells. In fact, the experience in working with him is the product. The success is in his own delivery. He uses eye contact. He listens. And he acts with the best intention. He walks away when he should, and he advises his clients when a bad idea is just a bad idea. People trust that every time, and they trust him.

The smile factor has also translates to good health and well being, because it promotes positivity. And positivity is a major factor in fighting the effects of stress and illness.

I would also measure ROS by how well one influences others to take action. Everyday we make decisions and invest time and money into things that help us to achieve a goal or a fulfil a dream. So, it's important to know the difference between caring about people and caring about personal gain. In the course of my sales career in my 20s, I listened to my clients about their hopes, dreams an aspirations for their sleeping infant. I made it a point to know who they were as people, and the names and birthdays of their children so that if I saw them on the street, I could say hello and greet them by name. Then the day came when I stopped thinking about the people and started thinking about commissions. That was the day I ended my scholarship sales career because when that day came, I know that people would know that my best interests were ahead of theirs. So I walked away.

Smiling also builds trust. Throughout my personal and professional life, I have always believed that people are the most important consideration. People deserve to feel appreciated, valued, to be heard, and they need to have a say in their life. Smiling and being pleasant and genuinely interested in people is the best way to create this kind of impression. And it's so simple.

Think about it. Imagine the grumpiest curmudgeon that you can and think about how people react to that person. They tend to walk around these people, giving them a wide birth so as not to disrupt their seemingly grumpy disposition. When encountering a curmudgeon, we tend to keep our eyes down, or we try to politely acknowledge the individual with a quick glance and a corner of the mouth smile. Curmudgeons tend to scare and intimidate people.

Curmudgeonry is not the way to win friends and influence people, my dad would say. No, he would say that everything we do is about creating a lasting impression. So make it a good one. That doesn't mean that one should be a pushover. It means that one should treat others with kindness and respect at all times. No matter what we do in life, we are always selling something to someone. Every step we take, every smile, every action, every reaction creates an impressions and perceptions. Perceptions become reality.

The other thing about smiling and not being a curmudgeon (I love that word), is that people do look you in the eye instead of avoiding eye contact. And eye contact is one of the best ways to read people. Our eyes are the mirror to our thoughts and they seldom lie. I trust someone who looks me in the eye.

So everyday day, I smile. Especially when I don't want to. And when, from time to time that becomes difficult, I try not to inflict my "curmudgeonly" attitude on others. Those are the days that tend to lock myself away from the world to regain perspective. And if I am not smiling, I think about what is dragging me down, and what I need to do to change that so that negativity does not become me.

I try to remember that a smile is the best gift one person can give to another. It is the best way to deliver good news, or something that is going to be more difficult to hear. A smile comes from the heart. It translates a positive message and a lasting impression. It allows for honesty with good intention, and it builds relationships and friendships. So smile, and others will smile back at you.

Monday, August 25, 2008

I heard the news today

In this lifetime, there are people that we meet and then there are the people who not only create a lasting impression, but who become the model of what a great and worthy person is. Today I learned that such a person passed away. My friend died after a long battle with cancer which she fought courageously and with dignity. But that is not how she will be remembered. My friend will be remembered for the way she lived - who she was every day with each and every person who was fortunate enough to know her.

I knew Sandra as a professional and she always amazed me with what she could accomplish because she was inspirational and she cared for others. Sandra had a vision and a belief that passion in what we do every day is essential. She lived that vision each day helping people to live their passion. I share Sandra's vision, and I can only hope that at the end of my life, whenever that may be, I will have made a difference to others the way Sandra did for me and so many others.

Even though I did not know Sandra as well personally, I know that she was an authentic person. I know that by the way she smiled with her eyes, by the way she held my hand every time we met, as if passing her love of life and passion onto me and everyone else. Her smile, her touch and the sparkle in her eyes are most memorable to me, because in all the years that I knew her, these things never changed, no matter what was happening in her life. She believed in the potential of each person in each moment. And she made others believe. She made me believe.

I will remember Sandra as my friend and my teacher. Her light will shine on, for a light as bright as hers can only grow brighter each day.

Wednesday, July 9, 2008

The 7 rules of misstoffellees the adventure cat

We have a cat and she has taught many things about how to be a good cat host by carefully outlining for us the 7 rules that we need to know as her hosts and her servants.

First, When petting Misstoffellees, start at then tip of the nose and follow through to the tip of her tail in one single motion, apply the appropriate amount of pressure so as to provide a gentle massage at the sime time. Repeat until she bites. Then, stop.

Second,when she wants to go outdoors, one must open the door and walk away. That way, she can approach the door as she so desires, without any pressure or time expectations. Only after she has cleared the door way and front porch should the door be closed behind her.

Thrice, when she wants to come indoors, conversely, the door must be opened and left so until she decides to grace us with her presence. She should never be left to sitting outside a closed door wating to come in as that would be dog-like as seen as begging. This is simply not acceptable.

Fourth, when feeding Misstoffellees, one must place a handful of food in the bowl before she arrives, just as she is ready to approach the bowl. Once again, she does not wait or ask to be fed, as that would be seen as a canine level treatment.

Fifth, Misstoffellees requires that she be allowed to sleep wherever she chooses, and does not share with person nor beast.

Sixth, when one leaves one's chair returning to find her royal catness on the warm cushion, one must not disturb her from her resting place.

Seventh, when referring to her in public, one must use her full cat name - Misstoffellees the adventure cat - as this is a show of respect. All other "pet" names must be used judicously and privately so as not to embarrass or show inappropriate levels of conduct unbefitting a cat.

Thursday, June 12, 2008

Wanted: Leaders who lead.

Everyone wants to be a leader these days. And why not. Leaders have the power to make things happen - to change people's lives, and possibly the world. Real leaders make a difference to others, not themselves. And yes, "leaders" usually make more money.

So when it comes to measuring leadership acumen, how do you know you are being a good leader? Well, let's paraphrase what the good leadership books say.

You are the kind of person who needs to understand where you are going, where you have been, and how you are going to get there. You can see the big picture and 5 feet in front of you at all times. You find yourself talking about the future, and what you are planning to do next. You get excited about making things happen. Wandering is not your style; you work with purpose, and do things on purpose. You like the sound of success and better yet, you know it when you see it and feel it. You are proud of your accomplishments, and even prouder of your team’s accomplishments.

Yep, that's what all the leadership books say about successful leadership. Who can argue with selfless visionary determination, spiked with inspiration and passion? However, none of the above is measurable. It is all subjective.

I measure a good leader in more tangible ways. Do I want to work for that person? Does my leader make me want to be better and do better? Is he silent about his own success, but celebrates mine and others' successes? When he fails, does he shout it from the rooftop and asks for forgiveness, letting me know that being human is OK? When I fail, does he support me and help me to recover? Does she see my strengths before I do? Does he bring out the best in me? Do I ask myself, what would he or she do in this situation? Have I grown as a result of this person's encouragement and teaching?

If I could ask all the aspiring leaders in the world one question, it would be this: What do you do when you fail? This is a critical question because failure is eminent and it's what you do when you fail that shows the character of the person. As human beings, we all fail eventually at something, yet we are not socialized or taught to accept and celebrate failure. For example, in sports, everyone cheers when the team scores. And why not? It is a victorious moment and it allows us to celebrate the skill, stealth and athletic prowess of the player to scores the goal. We try and placate the losers by recognizing that they tried hard and it was just an off night. We celebrate wins and make excuses for losses. We are doomed to be unsuccessful perfectionists by the way we have been raised, praised and promoted. Going from the school play ground to the corporate play ground, we promote people based on technical skill and prowess, using their own scorecard to quantify and celebrate their achievements. Truthfully, I never want to work for one of these "manufactured leaders".

The reality is we are all human, and none of us are super human stars to never fail or miss? We all screw up from time to time, and that's the way it is. It's just a matter of time. So why do we persecute the ones who screw up from time to time, now that we are adults and have supposedly grown past the adolescent game playing? Don't we realize that the way we treat others is how we in the end are treated?

I admire people who try to do good things, regardless of whether they make mistakes along the way or not. Sometimes when you take risks, or go out on the limb for something important, mistakes can happen. Even more, I admire the person can make mistakes and admit them to others. Loudly. These are the people that I know I can trust. And I would happily call them my leaders.

Sunday, April 27, 2008

Tone deaf and too tired to care.

When I was working as a journalist, I met a street musician who called himself, "Tone Deaf and Too Tired to Care." It turns out he was a systems analyst, and playing music in street fairs was just something he did. Maybe it was his passion? I don't know. Asking seemed to be intruding. I just enjoyed listening to him and his awesome rendition of "Heart of Gold." My friend "Tone Deaf" was obviously living out his passion.

My passion is writing and redecorating my house on a weekly basis (not kidding). I love to create something from just an idea, or an inspiration, or a desire to be inspired. In fact, when I walk into my house, I am inspired by color, texture, pattern. I love my home, because it immediately pulls you in - it is engaging. You want to explore and touch things. Or sit down somewhere and read a book, or sit on the back deck in the sun.

I carry this same passion to create an inspiring and engaging environment into my work as well. I am a corporate strategic planner. My end goal is to have each person understand his or her unique contribution. To make this happen, I design and create opportunities for people to come together to talk about the future, and figure what to begin to do first. The trick is to bring the right people together at the right time to have the right conversation with the right information - on purpose and with purpose.

I am passionate about this because it speaks to a core value that I hold near and dear to my heart: Work should have purpose and meaning. It should be exciting, and if not exciting, rewarding and important in some way to some one. It should be something that allows each person to bring their strengths and magnificent personality to work and to each of our lives every day.

I am not talking about work - life balance. I am talking about love life balance. Love all the parts of your life. And live life on purpose. I love to work because I have always demanded a great deal of satisfaction from my work - and from my employers. What we do every day - how we contribute to the world in which we live - is a big part of who we are, so it better fit and it better be worthwhile.

I also believe that most people would rather be either inspired, or inspiring every day, rather than dull and bored. So if that's the case, then what's all this talk about engagement? What percentage of people bring what percentage of themselves to their work every day? My guess, and experience is that people will bring less and less of themselves to work if they are not inspired, challenged, or to have leaders who are inspiring and challenging. I would also suggest that people who accept an uninspiring leader or lack luster workplace are short changing themselves and their lives.

In this job market, if your boss or his or her boss does not know who you are, or what you think about, then you are being under valued. Every person can contribute in what ever large or small way. If you find yourself felling unhappy or work, undervalued, disappointed or mistreated, then you really have only one option.

Get happy. Either stay and find a way to engage and be passionate, or take your talent to another organization. Either way, you owe it to yourself and everyone around you. Your life will thank you.

Sunday, March 23, 2008

That was easy

I have a red "easy" button on my desk. It was a gift from a coworker and a friend. Every time I would walk out of my office, or hang up from a difficult phone call - or was about to face my destiny in some scary meeting, I take a deep breath and slam the easy button. And then I would feel better, because it reminded that nothing is that serious. No babies were being born as a result of what I do, and no lives would be lost today on my watch. No kittens to save and no burning buildings.

So what's the big deal? Why all the drama? Why does what happens in the corporate world tend to translate to something bigger than it really is?

One answer might be that we are believe what we do is important and deserves care and attention. Fair enough, but why all the drama, I ask? I would suggest that the source of this drama is possibly ego and fear. Often times, we are afraid of people with power because it can affect the quality of our lives beyond work - and our ego. Losing one's job, for example, is likely the most life - defining and devastating moment in the work place because it calls into question everything that we hold near and dear. Our job is one of the labels that we hold near and dear. "I am a .... fill in the blank. This translates to "I am important, I have these accomplishments and I make this much money." How many times have you heard someone say, I am a wife, mother, husband, brother, mother of another . . . I am a practicing whatever, and my zodiac sign is . . . .

Not too often. That is why the easy button is my best friend at work. When I raise my hand up, I inhale at the same time, and exhale on the way down. When I slam the button, all the stress is gone. And the voice reaffirms my feeling - That was easy.

Thursday, March 20, 2008

Rethinking work and living

When was the last time you had to answer the question - what are your successes, and what are your failures? Today was my lucky day.

Speaking to successes came quickly - awards that I had won in the past, seeing a great concept become real, helping people to succeed.

But failures - that's another matter. We often see failure as a sign of weakness. But I started to think about it in an objective sense. I asked myself, I could change something about my life, or the way I live it, what would it be?

The answer came to me a flood of memories of my children on their first day of school, their first dance recital, Halloween and Christmas, and dance lessons. I realized that those days are gone, as my girls are now young women. Now, I look forward to seeing them in between their jobs, school work and boyfriends.

I realized that if I could change something, I would take back the time that I spent working long hours in the office just to meet a deadline or impress my boss. I would spend more time listening, and teaching others to work with me more. I realized that I have spent too many hours at work, and too few hours living. And in the course of that, I have done some cool things at work, but there are other costs. The more I worked at night, the harder my team had to work to catch up. It became counter productive, and it would have burned them out. And then, where would I be, with only 6 more hours in a day.

So my answer to the question about (gulp) failures was this: "I don't really think in terms of failures, but more what I have learned - and I have learned not to work 18 hours a day. I have learned that I want more life, while still growing professionally.

This journey toward balance actually started a year ago when I did my own personal strategic planning. I made a commitment to learn to work less and live more. To breathe in and out, go home in the day light, read a book, pet my cats and dog, paint my house, and read a book (I currently have 3 on the go.) I set my commitment to my self in the most profound an permanent way possible - I got a tattoo that symbolizes balance. I started to exercise more, eat better and learn to play the guitar. I started to find myself being able in live in the moment, breathe more, and feel better. I started to appreciate my home and family more, and yep, even my job.

Don't get me wrong. I didn't leave my passion for my work behind. I love what I do, and more importantly, I am very committed to the people. A funny thing happened, though, on my own journey toward balance. I found myself becoming more aware of the way the people in my division were being treated, and how they felt. I became more acutely aware of how frustrated people became when they could not control what was happening to them. When things happened to them. So I developed and implemented a way to give the people back control of their day, or at least have a fighting chance. Of course, in doing so, I found myself clocking the hours again. But it was worth the effort. In fact, it was probably the most important thing I have done in the past 4 years because it was for the people who do the work.

I also scaled back the work in my department, eliminating all things that are not core. I realigned the roles of my team and increased productivity and employee satisfaction by increasing their responsibilities and matching their pay. And I did the organization a favor by reducing my department budget by 30% when a new opportunity arose in the company that was perfect for one of my team members, which he loves. So it was win - win for everyone.

I tracked my progress, by using the time tracker at work, and also asking my family if they were getting more quality time with me than they had in the past. On the time tracking front, I thought I was doing pretty good. In October and November, I clocked an extra 5 - 10 hours of overtime per month. That's not bad. Then in December, my overtime increased to 20 hours and in January it climbed again. I was heading back to where I was before.

So I stopped myself and said no to overtime in February and March. I took a holiday and even took 3 days off due to illness. My daughter tells me I am on the right track. And my team are just moving along as planned.

And it's good, because not only did I learn that there's a life after 5:00 P.M., I also learned that I can be even more creative than I was before. I have rediscovered my love of writing and have produced a book of poetry, which I am hoping to publish this year.

I have also had time to think about what it is I want to do from 8 to 5, and I realized that I need to do what I love to do - that is what I have been doing for the last 12 years. Strategic planning, leadership and communications. I am innately curious about why things are the way they are and what makes things work, and what something might look like if you looked at it another way. Strategy is great because it's all about unleashing the explorer in all of us. Looking to the future and then getting there, one step at a time. And of course, all good ideas need people, and that's where leadership comes in. So, I am back to where I began this journey. My career is on target, and I have a clear view of what's next. I am a little wiser in the way of work so that I spend more time at life.

Living has to be about being passionate about something and doing it. That means loving what I do from 8 to 5, as well as what I do from 5 to 12.

Stay tuned.

Saturday, March 8, 2008

Values: what would you stand in front of a moving train for?

I believe that once one decides to do something, it is inevitable that one will succeed. It is simply a matter of cause and effect. This is true in life and in business. The thing is, how often do we decide to do something on purpose - something great and grand that can change the every day of at least one person? How many times do we think about what we are giving, or contributing, to this life of ours?

My guess is not often enough. I like to look at the greatest people of our time, and I am sure they had a plan. More importantly they had a set of values that they would stand in front of a moving train for.

Nelson Mandela once said that the leadership is about having a value, and then taking every possible opportunity to make it known to other so they can act on it to. Another great leader recently said, if you look at a companies balance sheet, that will tell what the the leaders of that organization value.

I can see values in ones life being important, because they are intrinsic to who we are, and what we believe in and live. In fact, our laws (the balance sheet of our society) are laced with values such as freedom, responsibility for others, honesty and to safety.

In the corporate setting, values have a role to play there too. They are the parameters of the 9 to 5 society. They are like promises. Most corporations or large organizations have some kind of stated values. Things like commitment, honesty, integrity and respect. But the question is, in the work place, how do we know that we are living these values, and if we are not, what are the consequences?

The answer is that there are both short and long term ramifications to ignoring one's values, whether it is a person or an organization. In an organization, if the leadership ignores the stated values and breaks these promises, then you can expect to see the business suffer. People become disengaged when they see that leaders do not walk the talk. Turnover rates go up, and there goes the ROI for employee development dollars and time invested. Not to mention, productivity. It takes approximately one year to get the average employee up to speed in a new job, which includes learning the job, the tasks, the culture (how things get done) and then how to become part of the culture.

All this means the company not only loses money, but it can't turn on a dime, and therefore may not be able to respond to market place challenges and changes if the leaders are not able to lead.

Ignoring values are costly. There is always a price tag. They are not just words on a the back of the annual report, on posted on the wall, they are the true test of today's leaders.

Saturday, February 9, 2008

Structure Schmucture?

Every business needs to do four important things to manage effectively. They need to establish a plan and manage performance and progression, manage their people and culture, manage costs and productivity, and manage the infrastructure and systems that are required to run the business.

I used to think that structure was not important. You know what I mean by that - org charts and hierarchies and reporting relationships. I used to think that if you focused on the work - what needs to get done - and if people are allowed to work together for the time it takes to get the work done - then structure shouldn't be a huge factor in business. In fact, until recently, I used to think that structure was more of a hindrance than a help.

Wrong. Structure lays out who's who, and what they do, and who is leading them in their decision making. It tells us who's on point to lead, and who's on point to deliver. It is about accountability and results.

The problem with structure is that quite often, we use it as a strategy. And it's not. Strategy describes what we need to do, and structure is how we organize to do it.

OK, so what if the structure runs against the strategy. This is what I see happening a lot, and reason that I am sceptical about structure. Do you ever wonder why you can't seem to get something done? Why you can't seem to get the right people to work together? And why if you do manage to get the people in the same room, they often don't seem to get why they are there and what they are supposed to accomplish?

Strategies tend to change more frequently than before. So, by the time you reorganize your people, the strategy is already falling behind, and the people are frustrated because they can't seem to make a difference. Nothing gets done, or at least, to anyone's satisfaction.

One way to get around this is the develop teams that have specific and shared accountability. These teams are constructed to create a particular outcome that supports and organizational need or strategy.

For example, every organization needs to manage its performance, and this requires expertise from areas such as the strategic planning group, who is responsible for leading the process,
the accounting and reporting group who is responsible for the numbers, the research group who provides internal and external information, the project management group who tracks and reports on initiatives and HR group who leads the performance management process. The work of these 5 teams creates a single, measurable outcome.

So, why not set up an Enterprise Performance Management Team comprised of 5 cross functional teams who dedicate a percentage of their time and resources to Enterprise Performance Management? These teams can come together quite naturally to support the enterprise performance management program for the time that it takes to do so. The rest of the time, they can be focusing on other important work and be part of other teams.

So why is this a difficult concept? What stops people from being able to work together? I would suggest the answer is a 1959 static approach to performance management that assumes people work in silos of one and that the job and requirements don't change from year to year.

The truth is, silo thinking, acting and rewarding creates internal individualistic competition, which is counter to a the dynamic business environment. With the people and the business working against each other, no wonder businesses responding to opportunities or making change happen on time.

In a dynamic work environment, performance management must also be dynamic. It must reward and encourage cross team efforts as well as reward the excellence of the individual team. That way, everyone wins. The organization wins because resources are used more effectively and more efficiently; people are afforded more meaningful work experiences in their day to day work by being part of broader organizational efforts; the organization can plan for succession; and people may want to stay with the organization to grow their careers.

Somebody that I respect once said, "if you don't show people their future in the organization, they will leave." And the best people do leave in any job market, competitive or not, because good people are who everyone wants. Therefore, it makes sense to design the organization's working structure to accomplish the strategies and critical business functions while creating opportunities for growth, challenge and change for employees.

In my mind, defining the organization's structure along the lines of cross functional management functions, cross functional team structures and a dynamic performance management system is the way organizations might be able to ramp up their organizational competencies, and keep their people satisfied and engaged.

Tuesday, February 5, 2008

Process: A Comfortable Couch?

We are on the corporate couch, watching tv. We watch things happen. The news tells us that our customers are aging. Technology is literally redefining the very way we interact as human beings. Our politicians are acting out wars in countries somewhere else. Our children are angry. Our society is changing. Soundbites flash. War on Terror. 911. Iraq. Sale at Sears. We say we are informed. Yet how many of us do nothing? Choose not to engage? We take in an unprecedented amount of information. But we don't know what it means. Worse yet, we don't know what it means to us. We don't know what's important, and we can't see the forest for the trees. Consequently, there is no moment of insight, no point when we say, I can't take it any more, and we hit the off button.

The manager's job is to set direction, describe objectives / goals with tangible targets and establish priorities and action plans for implementation. Then we review our progress and make any course corrections. That's management 101.

But are managers slave to process so that they actually don't think? Is the process to easy? To much formula? How do managers challenge conventions, break down the walls so that new ones can be built.

Innovation is really what planning is about, unless of course you are planning to get out of business or stop producing something of value. It is the art of imagining something, and making it happen. It is profitable creativity. Something that changes the way we act, think, feel, perceive.

In my experience I have worked with many types of managers running many types of businesses - a retail focus - a product to sell - a technology focus - a solution to sell - a community focus - a dream to sell. I have worked with board members, ceos, executives, cfos, directors, managers and regular people who want to participate in the future. and there is a common theme that I have discovered.

We tend to imagine what could be based on our own experience or our ability to execute. Herein lies the opportunity. It takes two types of people to make things happen - visionaries and execution leaders.

Enter the restless visionaries. People who naturally look out and see possibility and get excited about making things happen. Visionaries are passionate about what could be and are irrepressible when they have a vision of what's ahead. Visionaries do not understand the word no. They understand when. They have a conceptual understanding of the how, but it is more like a blue print than a map. Visionaries are people who are comfortable with change, and in fact, they love change. Visionaries are all leaders, regardless of where they are in the org chart. These are the people whose optmism is infectious.

But one can't celebrate the visionary without celebrating the people who painstakingly are able to execute. These are the people who, once they have a solid plan, they move ahead, methodically achieving one milestone at a time. These people are the execution experts, and they are as important as the visionary who brings the idea to the table and keeps it alive until it comes to fruition.

Change is natural, so it follows that innovation must be natural too. However, in the corporate context, sometimes we overprocess to point where we disengage due to complexity, or the fact that it takes too long to see results.

So here is the best way to approach this with as little process as possible.

Just start. Get a bead on the future, and what it will take to succeed. Figure out what the current state is and the gap, and then lay out the first steps. Move forward in increments, using timelines and milestones as a checkin point. Finally, assess progress, celebrate and decide on the next steps.

Beginning at the Beginning

Strategic planning is 90% communication and 10% process. When most people are asked to engage in the strategic or business planning process, they will tend to have 2 reactions; they either love it, or they would rather ignore it and just . . . well, execute something.

I find that those who love it, love the art of discovering new horizons, and then actually plotting out the actions to achieve the end goal. These are the people who love to engage in dicussions about what is going on in the environment for hours, pontificating about the possibilities and coming up with possible solutions. True strategic planning zeolots pull out all the tools, from SWOTS to strategy maps, to flip charts and smelly markers. Often times, however, these are the new comers to the management realm, and while their ideas are important and significant at an operational level, they may not have the strategic push to actually create a new future.

Then there are those who view strategic planning as work. Something you have to do. Something that you get measured on. If this is the only driver, then quite often, very few insights are generated, and very few ideas ever come to the light of day.

Sadly, though, some of the most insightful and greatest business minds fall into the second camp. They do not see the opportunity in engaging in the strategic planning process. So the question is why. Why is it that we have difficulty engaging people in this very important process. I often wonder, how may futures have we missed out on because we do not actively engage in making the possible happen?

I was recently asked by the CEO of a company to find a way to increase engagement of the management team. So I asked them - what is it that makes you feel disengaged? Is it the process, or is it the way we engage in the process. They said it was the latter. The feeling was that they wanted to be more activley engaged in understanding the context surrounding the eventual decisions that are made through strategic planning. This includes such things as long term targets and what it takes to achieve them at an enterprise and operational level.

I discovered through research that engagement is an industry unto itself. It would appear that people in general need mechanisms to communicate and share information. They need forums to share their ideas, and they need a mechanism to make the ideas happen. Once all that begins to happen, then they see the value in participating and seeing the results of their efforts.

Riding the Business Planning Cycle

Business Planning is a management process that is fundamental to the success of any organization. It is the means through which direction is set, strategies are formed, targets are established, and initiatives are activated to achieve the desired change. These are the typical stage gates of an enterprise planning process. There is another very important element to the business planning cycle and this is implementation and reporting.

The planning process of an organization of a significant size (400+ people) can take approximately 6 months.

This includes setting strategic direction, establishing and / or reviewing long term targets and priorities, and then setting out one year targets and action plans, complete with resource and financial requirements to execute. At the same time, operational managers are engaged in developing plans and budgets for their areas, that support the broader organizational plans. Since inevitably the cup runneth over on the ideas vs. the dollars, management is often required to further refine the priorities.

Once all this is said and done, the business plan is written and approved by the governing body of the organization.

But that is just the end of the planning stage, and the beginning of the implemenation phase.

The first stage of implementation is communication. By the time the business plan is approved, every manager has been knee-deep in operational planning and budgeting, and can more effectively recite the cost of a set of pens than they can explain a corporate level strategy. Therefore, it is essential for management to spend some time talking about what the organization is going to achieve by year end, and how.

This is important because most organizations are measured according to the results laid out in the business plan. And even though management may have had the discussion about targets and priorities in May, it's now December, the targets may need reexplaining. For example - ROE targets - what does it take to achieve the target? What may be changing in the business environment to affect our ability to achieve this target? What drivers do we need to continue to monitor?

The next stage of implementation is the rollout to all staff. This is when management meets with their respective departments to walk through the plan with them. To assist management in explaining the step, I find that providing a business plan summary is a handy communication tool. The business plan summary summarizes a 50 page business plan in 2 - 4 pages. Better yet, every single employee has their own copy to refer to.

Following the rollout of the business plan, performance plans for the coming year need to be drafted from the CEO to everyone in the organization. In my experience, this is where the results - driven approach to business planning starts to become real for people. The key measures become a part of every manager's performance plan with the appropriate target. So, for example, if the key measures are employee satisfaction, client satisfaction and budget then these become the performance plan for each manager. By taking this approach, each and every manager is now engaged. I call this having "skin in the game."

Quarterly reporting and strategy review meetings are the final component of the implementation cycle. Each quarter, the enterprise must report on its results to its governing body. Likewise, management must take the take to review progress on the business plan, including how the initiatives are progressing, and to review progress on key targets. Management must look at its current plan against the backdrop of the external and internal environment, and be prepared to make adjustments as needed. This is also an excellent opportunity for management to increase their understanding of the big picture.

At year end, the final report is developed an submitted to the board. The year end report is the final leg in the journey of the business plan, as it lays out how successful management was in implementing the business plan. Once again, this report is an excellent source of learning - it tells management what we did well, what we learned from, what we accomplished, and helps to chart the nexts steps.