Tuesday, June 30, 2009

When equality is no longer a word . . .

There are very few people in the lifetime, and in fact, in the history of our world, who make a difference long after they are gone. You know who these people are. Great names like Mother Theresa, Nelson Mandela, and Martin Luther King come to mind because these people made a difference to people. They were selfless. They lead with vision, not of themselves, but with a vision of the world. A place where we would have compassion for the poor, the hungry and destitute. A place where people make sacrifices for what is important. A place where equality is not just a word, but no longer a word.

Recently my daughter was studying stories of generations past who marched in the streets for peace, who fought in wars, and fought against wars, who cried when Martin Luther King died. Those people who fought those fights and thought those thoughts are likely no longer with us.

During those marches, people would cry out for equality, and it meant something tangible. The right to work. The right to eat in restaurants. The right to go to whatever schools one wanted. The right for personal freedom. The right to be treated . . . like an human being. The right not to be judged, marginalized, minimized or dehumanized by another. These are things worth fighting for still today.

Yet, at least in our part of the world, we no longer shout out words like equality and freedom in the streets. We have institutionalized the battle. Made it part of the corporate fabric of our making. And that's a step in the right direction, as long as it's not the last step. Corporations have the means and ability to provide training and opportunities that give people the means to enjoy freedom as we know it. Corporations create employment so people can have a better life.

We have achieved some enlightenment in the world. Corporations are expected to be "Good corporate citizens" who give money and time to the those who help the less fortunate. They make people development a priority. They teach, coach and mentor people to grow. They create an environment where people can grow and flourish. Good corporate citizens give of their time, money and resources to make the world around them a better place.

All the corporate capital and good will, however, can't change the world unless the individual engages in the change. That's you and me. People caring about others. People getting to know each other. People seeing past our visual or cultural differences and seeing each other as fellow human beings, sharing this life experience.

When you think about it, the word equality is only necessary in a state where it does not exist. And therein lies the question. Will we ever find a time in the world where equality is an ancient term?

And where are we in this continuum, almost 50 years after the riots and the cries for equality?

I asked my daughter what I often ask corporate types - what do you value? What do you care about enough that you would stand up for and stand up against others for? What matters to you that is beyond your own vision, but a vision for the world.

Equality was her answer. Where people are not judged for their gender, or lifestyle. Where people are free to discover the best they can be.

What a great and worthy quest. Imagine a place where equality is no longer quantified by targets on corporate scorecards. Where we no longer count the colors of skin around a table, as if tallying our level of tolerance, or intolerance. Where we can come face to face with a person and not see the difference first.

That she would say equality matters most to her does not surprise me. My daughters have been raised in a house of diversity and adversity. In my house, we have seen and suffered the effects of being turned down for a job because of another person's fear. We have lived with unemployment as a result of small minds. We all, as a result, have learned to keep the secret of our "diversity" to lessen the impact.

The funny thing is, we are not identifiable by race or by ethnicity. But we still experienced this, and continue to from time to time. I understand the quest for equality, but in the continuum, I would hope the ultimate goal is to achieve humanity where people are worth the effort regardless of who they are or where they come from. And I would say everyone deserves a chance to be bright, and to be brilliant. I would say that everyone is good and deserves a chance to prove it.

Listening to my daughters, and watching them, I hope that their generation does take our world to a more humane place than we have been. I hope that they care enough to do more than talk, but to lead, and demonstrate through their actions. I hope that they will take one step closer to that grand vision of a better place that our earthly leaders have shown us.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Walk a while in my shoes.

Anyone who knows me knows that shoes are a big part of my life. I have an abundance of shoes. I love them. They are jewelry for the feet. The perfect conclusion to a great outfit. Or just the thing needed to jazz up something boring. Sometimes they are sensible, and sometimes they are outlandish. Sometimes shoes seem impossible to walk in, and sometimes they seem impossible to fill.

In my work, I find that the most important thing to do every day is to walk awhile in someone's shoes. Understand their perspective. This means asking how this piece of writing will be received? Who is the audience? What will they think? Who is the audience that should receive this? What if they don't? What are the ramifications if the audience is misinformed? What are the ramifications if the audience is informed, but not impressed?

These questions are never easy, and what's more, the art of communication is just that, an art. The problem is that because most people are capable of creating audible sounds that resemble our language, it doesn't mean they can communicate, or understand the art of communicating. Afterall, I can count, but that doesn't make me an accountant. And therein lies the problem. As a communicator with a journalistic soul (or is that sole), and a penchant for poetry and prose, we have a quest for truthfulness, honesty and respectfulness in the written and spoken word. These are worthy attributes, and they require one to be brave, creative and concise.

For the accomplished writer, this is easy. After all, a good writer can make Kraft dinner sound interesting. But the writer does not own the message. The message really belongs to the communicator. That could be a CEO, a board member or a community spokes person. And despite our brilliance, sometimes, however, the writer's best and well intended works, no matter how artfully krafted, are rejected and left on the cutting room floor.

When we prepare to communicate, we often think of the external or internal audience -the media, the shareholder, the staff, suppliers, partners . . . but do we think of our boss? The one who ultimately is the gate keeper of the message. To avoid the cutting room floor, one needs to consider the decision maker as part of the audience.

That takes time. It takes understanding. It means making mistakes and writing, and rewriting, and rewriting. It means being objective, and listening to what it is that the gate keeper is looking for? What are his or her concerns? What is his or her communication style? What can we do to get the message across and still satisfy even the most skid dish of all gate keepers.

To be a great and worthy writer and communicator, the concept of voice must be mastered. Voice is the identity of a piece. And the writer is never the voice. The writer is merely the conduit through which the message must flow to its audience. A temporary vessel of ideas and thoughts, that once released, take on the voice of the intended persona.

So, it all comes back to shoes. Who's shoes are we trying to fill? If the message where to come from a person(a), who is the person. What is his or her position on the matter. Who is he or she talking to? What is the style of the speaker? How can this message be best communicated by this persona.

When it's all said and done, writing is a both a passion and a thankless profession for those of us to choose to do this. It requires commitment on the part of the writer and the ability to let go of the creation so that others can learn from it, enjoy it, and hang it on the refrigerator. It must stand alone, if only for a fleeting moment or a life time.

Friday, June 12, 2009

Potential on the Table

A few years ago, I met a great speaker / strategist at a conference. We talked for a while, and he said, your employer must love you. I replied, "my employer does not even know what I think about."

In the workforce, I wonder how many times we see the potential of others and whether we even look for it? If we did, what would we see? I am sure that in any given group of people there are people who would love to delve into something great and significant, but are restricted by their job description.

That is such a shame, because people who have a desire to do something generally do, and if they cannot do it where they are, they will go find another place to share their talent, ideas and energy.

You've heard of the lateral promotion. There's also lateral movement from organization to organization. And then there's promotion by leaving. Often times people leave an organization for more of something. More money. More opportunity. More leadership opportunities. More what ever it is they need.

In the book "First Break all the Rules", the writer busts open common held management myths. He says investing in employees is a myth, because we only have to invest in those who can help the organization move forward.

It's a good point. Invest time and energy into the people who can be part of the future. But this brings me back to my first question: do we ask our employees to put their potential on the table? Would we know who they are?

Monday, June 1, 2009

A case for peace

How many times are we guided by other forces - pushed into decisions that we may make if we had all the information. Have you ever noticed how many times you are given a choice or a task, and you realize you don't have enough information to make a decision, but yet you make it any way. These are never good decisions. In fact, anything that is produced under this circumstance just can not be good. Rushing to the finish line is really just a lesson in triage. And inevitably, the aftermath follows. Mistakes happen. Small things. Big things. It doesn't matter. Mistakes are mistakes. And they require explanation and recovery.

So I wonder if we know this, why do we allow ourselves to be disadvantaged this way? Why do we give up our best effort under duress?

The answer, I think, is to prepare for the inevitable. The disaster. The thing that you hate to imagine, or say out loud, but does inevitably happen. In business, we call this risk management. It requires time and forethought. Preplanning, and contingency planning for the what ifs.

Often times when we do plan for risks, we are avoiding the real risks because these are the ones that we don't want to imagine. These are the types of risks that may be highly improbable, but if they happened, the impact would be huge. These kinds of risks are called "perfect risks", or black swans. These kinds of risks are those that are game changing. They alter our lives immediately and ever after. We spend lots of time trying to understand what happened, why, and what to do about it. How to prevent it from ever happening again. 911 is a good example of a perfect risk. The imaginable happened. And it does inevitably. And I believe in the inevitable.

It is important however not to be afraid of the inevitable. It is better to face it head on. Go face to face with it, and you will find that it is not the giant that it could be.

The good thing about a disaster, however, is that it gives us time to reflect. To consider what we would do different. And that's good. As long as we remember to do that.

As humans, however, we tend to forget. We are optimists. We like to do things, and we don't like to plan (at least most of us don't). We like to execute something (or someone when things go wrong), but we don't like to imagine possibilities. And finally, we don't like to work together.

So what's the big barrier? Honesty, I think. What if we said out loud what could happen? What we are afraid of. What would be game changing and life altering. What if we confronted unrealistic demands with a reasonable solution that meets every one's needs. What if we sat down and talked, honestly, about why we can't talk or work together.

This can't be that difficult. It's not like we are talking about world peace.