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Haiti Trip with First Presbyterian Church for CODEP project assessment

Haiti Trip with First Presbyterian Church for CODEP project assessment

11/4/2014 12:00:00 AM EST

Institute for Nonprofit Management and Leadership at Boston University workshop on resilience

Institute for Nonprofit Management and Leadership at Boston University workshop on resilience

12/2/2014 12:00:00 AM EST

BLOG: What's On Martha's Mind?

BLOG: What's On Martha's Mind?

Here is a list of recent blog articles.

Earworms for Leaders

Earworms for Leaders

10/14/2014 12:00:00 AM EDT
a week ago

I suffer from earworms. I get a phrase of music in my head and it keeps repeating itself for days and even weeks. One year I had a line from The Producers that twanged for me from Christmas until mid February. Show tunes will do that to you. So will the odd line from choir on Sunday. A Brazilian "alleluia" has been rattling around for me since World Communion Sunday.

It's really crazy-making. I wake up at night and, sure enough, there it is:  "Alleluia."

In one of my mental attempts to change channels, I was thinking about when an earworm could be useful. What if leaders had earworms -- repeated reminders of something valuable that simply stayed in their brains?

So, that's the question. What earworm phrase would you wish a leader to hear all through the day and night?

Here's some initial ideas. Let me know yours.

  1. Trust the organization so it can trust you.
  2. Leaders go first; can't wait around to be led.
  3. Listen, listen, listen, listen, listen.
  4. Screw your courage to the sticking place. (I know -- that's a little bizarre but it is Lady Macbeth herself coaching The Man.)
  5. ...?

 

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Thank You! Thanks! We're Grateful! Thanks!

Thank You! Thanks! We're Grateful! Thanks!

9/24/2014 12:00:00 AM EDT
3 weeks ago

It happened again. One of my coaching clients was searching to explain what she really was after at work. "All I want is for someone to say, 'Thank you.'"

How many times have I heard this? People need money, resources, skills, and clear roles. But, deep down, what they want is appreciation.

Recently, I attended the Sammies, otherwise known as the Service to America Medals (the Oscars of federal service). I was lucky to be seated next to Ann Spungen and her husband. Ann is part of a team of people at the Department of Veterans Affairs who are advancing care for paralyzed veterans. It is remarkable work. Ann was clearly thrilled to be honored at the Sammies. It was wonderful to be in the crowd applauding her and others. I also appreciated that her family -- the people who are often unsung and behind the scenes -- were there and clearly tickled by the whole event.  

As the evening unfolded, we reveled in our chance to say thank you to many like Ann. The stories of people's work were terrific and extraordinarily diverse: saving money, finding fraud, tracking disaster relief, vaccinating children, mapping broadband availability, and much more.

Government workers take it on the chin way too often these days. We all benefit from their endeavors. Hats off to those who organize the celebrations for them. However simple or elaborate, we must each say "thank you" at every opportunity.

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Drama in the Workplace - What a Headache

Drama in the Workplace - What a Headache

9/19/2014 12:00:00 AM EDT
a month ago

Drama in the workplace is something of the malevolent cousin to smiling. When we smile we want others to smile with us. When we are into drama, we also want others to join us.

"I can't believe..."

"Give me a serious break..."

"This is f-g crazy..."

"He's really overstepped this time..."

Anger, whining, fussing, gossiping, magnifying, accusing, dismissing, and much more get laced into the conversation. The implicit requests that accompany such behavior are for a sympathetic ear and a comrade in dismay. I always had a rule in my head that when more time was spent on the drama than on the work, it was time to get out.

So, how can we settle things down? Is it possible to change the tide or at least lower the din?

First, of course, is the old phrase "Busy hands make light work." If people are truly engaged in their work, there is less need or opportunity to darken the mood and the mode of the place. There is no substitute for valued work. The efficacy of work is a core value of our nation and we resonate with it in a way that keeps us true. Exaggerated drama is less important if a person is truly contributing and valued for it.

Second, the leader's calm can make a big difference. I know an executive who stands out in my experience as an utterly unflappable person. It's pretty stunning to watch that in action. If you can't rile up the leader, there is the effect of oil on water. Leaders are in a position to amplify the tone of an organization. If they aren't using the megaphone, things can only get so loud.

Third, drama can emerge from injustice, unfairness, and other bumps in the workday. Good management is the answer. Another way to say this is that the drama meter is one way of assessing if things are being managed smoothly.

All that is pretty sanctimonious stuff and sort of "Managing Drama for Dummies." What else could help turn the tables a bit?

Interrupting the fuss is useful. One way, for example, is to fence off a project team, give them their independence and a clear goal. Choose a cool, collected leader with good process skills. Let that bit of sanity do its thing. Then do another. As pools of calmer heads are at work, the balance in the culture can tip.

Or, put it on the team, so to speak. In a team meeting, talk about the hyped culture. Are the fireworks and negativity something others would like to change? If so, sign 'em up to a small commitment of what they will stop doing. Small. This needn't be a tidal wave change. Try "no swearing" or "have the meeting in the meeting rather than in subgroups later in the cafeteria" or "chalk marks for each time you whisper" etc. Write down the commitments, put them in a paper bag and bury or burn it. GONE. (I love silly symbolic ritual.)

What else? There are lots of ways of shifting, changing, interrupting this norm and the steadiness of making little changes can, in itself, displace the drama.

"CAN YOU BELIEVE that CRAZY woman is trying to TONE THINGS DOWN?!!!!!!!!!"

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The Wedding Pusher -- It's All About Roles

The Wedding Pusher -- It's All About Roles

9/18/2014 12:00:00 AM EDT
a month ago

Recently we attended a wedding of the daughter of good friends. It was a grand affair. The bride and groom are established professionals and it was a first marriage for each. They were both sophisticated and giggly, managing their families with grace and relishing their moment with glee.

I was the wedding pusher. I was asked to stand with the attendants and the couple as they were to walk down the aisle and be sure they were lined up properly and paced. Too many people in the excitement of the moment charge down the aisle as if they can't get to the altar fast enough. "Let everyone see you!  Smile. Take your time and enjoy the moment."

Being the pusher led to lots of teasing. What, exactly, was I pushing?  Cosmetics? Aspirin? A flask of something helpful?

As I stood in the back keeping track of things, I was struck by how valuable it is to give people explicit parts to play. Name those roles. Yes, I had tasks that were expected of me but it wasn't about the tasks alone. By giving me a role I could be more helpful.

The difference is that tasks need to be imagined, described, assigned, coordinated. A role gives discretion and freedom to the person to interpret and respond to whatever comes up in the moment. Tasks come with a role but the work doesn't necessarily stop there.

Too often at work we simply assign tasks rather than explain and assign roles. Employees become reliant on the manager who assigns the tasks and are not quite in a position to respond to the situation at hand. They don't learn to look farther than their specific list.

Roles are about equipping people to be thoughtful and helpful in the moment and do the work. Tasks are about specific chunks of work.

So, there it is. As it turns out, I didn't just push the folks down the aisle. I also explained things to the minister. I helped figure out when the service actually started -- coordinating with musicians and getting everyone in their seats. I conveyed messages. I watched the clock. The ushers were teenagers and happy to have some additional guidance. Call me nosy or call me a pusher. No bride and groom could have known and nailed all the details that needed attention.

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Go Straight Ahead in a Bendy Sort of Way

Go Straight Ahead in a Bendy Sort of Way

9/15/2014 12:00:00 AM EDT
a month ago

We have a good laugh around our family when we think of my mother giving directions. Across her life, she was a perfectionist and spent a lot of time in the details. Telling people how to get places got bogged down as she mentioned every fireplug and sign along the route.

The street into her neighborhood curled around so as to be a very large loop. It also had some extra hitches as it accommodated old trees and a pond. Mom could have simply said, "We're five houses down on the right." But, no. She had to add the bit about the street not being exactly a straight line and try to describe that. In the end, the description was a contradiction and a chuckle for us.

Nevertheless, Mom was always on the big picture, even as she slogged around in the details. The point was the driver should go forward and that is the metaphor we still repeat about her view on life. Go forward, stay on the trajectory, keep to the path you've chosen, even as it bends, weaves, curls, twists along the way.

It's good advice for those of us tired of vision sessions and annual plans. Mom simply wanted us to keep going, focus on the next step, do what needs to be done because you are faced in a good and honorable direction. Head to the future. I have always appreciated her persistence about that. She knew life was full of turns and twists but only by going forward - straight ahead - do you get there.

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Dig Into  "SENSIBLE LEADERSHIP" - More blogs by Martha (Writing Page), podcasts and video of Martha (Speaking Page), the blogsphere about Martha (What Others Say Page). 

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Are My Goals Too Big?

Are My Goals Too Big?

9/11/2014 12:00:00 AM EDT
a month ago

I do it all the time. I choose a project or decide I want something to happen and it always gets really big. Take a simple example. I decided to return to quilting, which my grandmother taught me 50 years ago, and now I'm working on FOUR wedding quilts. Or, take this example. My career changed a couple years ago and I decided to write a book... every year. (Two years in a row, working on the third.) Earlier this week, I was on a conference panel and the moderator asked what my goals had been when I was in the Obama Administration and I said, "Change the world."

It's the way I do things -- bite off much more than I can chew.

I've known for years about BHAG's (Big Hairy Audacious Goals as explained by James Collins and Jerry Porras at Stanford University). I used them across my career. When I was a corporate recruiter at Cummins, I fielded three times the usual number of people to interview across a huge list of schools. When I was at the US General Services Administration I set out "Zero Environmental Footprint" as the BHAG.

But, climbing Mt. Everest all the time is a bit exhausting. It's also a great garden for growing weeds. It gives me chronic reason to tend those feeling of being feel inadequate, under-performing, short of the mark. I beat myself up. Strive high and dive down low.

Years ago I lived in Taiwan where I was teaching English to Chinese college students. One day I was up at dawn studying myself. I staggered from my apartment over to the office and started gulping coffee in the teacher's lounge. One of my colleagues eyed me questioningly. I explained that my tutor was giving me a test today in some Chinese vocabulary. "Martha, that's just like you. Kill yourself over a test that you told her to give to you."

Why do I do it? It's probably some malicious combo of being a hard worker and having a lot of energy. One friend told me I was someone who had to be in motion. And, I get a lot done. I wonder, however, if my approach is the best advice -- set big goals, have big hopes, entertain big vision. It's probably better to talk about more than the goal by including some from-the-heart ideas about the journey of getting there.

Setting goals plays tricks on you. I want people to find a way to work hard, get things done, follow their passion, and still feel really good about themselves -- not because they fall short but because they are trying.

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The Scurvy Test for Problems

The Scurvy Test for Problems

9/10/2014 12:00:00 AM EDT
a month ago

Leaders are on the hook to get problems solved. There are messes everywhere that need cleaning up and straightening out.

Too often problems are characterized in that way -- as yucky, broken, smashed up situations. The problem solvers wade into the muck and do their best. If they sort it out, they become heroes. It's not a bad gig.

However, not all problems are like that. Another category of problems is when something is missing. Not broken but missing. Perhaps a strategy is missing. Perhaps information is missing. How about when skills are missing?

My husband, Steve, calls this the scurvy test. It's like the British Navy's problem of sailors dying from scurvy. They weren't suffering because something was shattered or broken. They were missing ascorbic acid in their diet. When lemon or lime juice was added, the problem went away. (That's of course, why British sailors came to be called "limeys" and were among the healthiest in the world in the 1700's.)

Leaders should take care to remember to ask the question:  Is this about something broken or something missing? The latter allows for recasting some problems from a psychology that is negative and downcast to one that asks for ideas and possibilities. What else is needed?

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Leaders: Fit the Oxygen Mask Over Your Face First

Leaders: Fit the Oxygen Mask Over Your Face First

9/9/2014 12:00:00 AM EDT
a month ago

Pull down the oxygen mask, place over your mouth and nose, breathe normally, tie securely. THEN, take care of any children in your care.

Anyone who has been on an airplane knows that the rule is, in the event of a crisis, adults who are caring for children must take care of their oxygen and breathing needs first. This is essential SO THAT they can then truly take care of the children. For any parent, it feels a little counter-intuitive. The child goes first. However, the adults are no good as caretakers and protectors if they pass out from lack of oxygen.

This is also a truism for leaders, and it can seem counter-intuitive as well. The rush of the day, the serious problems, and the swamp of requests are demanding. They spill over into the off-hours, begging for 24X7 vigilence and attention. How many of us have fallen asleep while reading briefings and reports in bed? How many of us get up too early so as to get ahead of the day? How many of us neglect basic exercise and nutrition in the crush of the job?

I did. For years, I worked long days and had a long commute. It tried to eat right at home -- but I wasn't always home. I kept up my huge garden -- but that was on weekends. Routine exercise and nutrition were always falling to the bottom of the agenda. Sitting was the norm.

I suspect my work suffered. Backaches kept me grumpy. Eating junk in a rush made me hyper and then sleepy. I powered on, adding a lot of stressed out language to my vocabulary and mood swings for my family. People around me took the brunt of my overstrung personality. Not good. And not good for a leader.

Plus, when I suddenly stepped out of that sort of cycle of work -- after three decades -- I had a lot of adjusting to do. I had to learn to sleep better, eat better. I learned to swim and I finally took walks around the neighborhood and noticed the new houses I had never seen.

In other words, this blog is another finger wag about taking care of yourself. I kept up a mythology about how the organization needed me more than I needed to spend time on myself. I hope others can do it differently, relax into their work better, pull down that oxygen mask and breathe. Deeply.

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Death -- Not the Usual Organizational Conversation

Death -- Not the Usual Organizational Conversation

9/8/2014 12:00:00 AM EDT
a month ago

We drove up to Hanover, Pennsylvania, last week to the church and cemetery where my family has ties back into the 1800's. We visited my mom's grave and then were squired around by an elderly member of the Cemetery Association who showed us the available plots. He was pretty hilarious -- full of stories about the old days when they used dynamite to loosen the soil for digging a new grave, or about the casket that was left overnight in the church before the funeral, much to the undertaker's nervousness.

We decided to purchase a plot. It took about two minutes to make the decision. The setting is gorgeous and family bones are close by. When we exchanged information and paperwork, our guide gave us a brochure that was written in 1983. The Association bought the adjacent cornfield a couple million years ago so there's plenty of room to expand. Our great-great-great-grand grand kids can squeeze in.

Spending a morning in lush countryside thinking and talking about death was actually quite satisfying. I felt responsible, connected, and relaxed. The stories were good; the tasks were accomplished.

In organizations, however, we don't think and talk constructively about death. I am talking about organizational death as in the shutting down of a factory, the firing or loss of employees, or the closing of a division. The conversation is usually all about go-go-go and the normal culling of any human institution is a taboo subject. At best, it is collateral damage in the competitive wars and not something to dwell on.

Perhaps we are hesitant for other reasons as well. We aren't good at it, shying away from even mentioning the oblivion of loss and endings. We think we might jinx things. Or, we awkwardly think that we don't want to hurt people and simply avoid delivering bad news. Death talk -- how depressing.

Except that we should not wince and avoid such subjects. We should pay more attention to the notion of death in organizations. Take it in smaller bites: the end of the product life cycle, the sacred cows that do need to be slaughtered, the files that should be dumped, the losses that need to be written off, and so forth. If we could build some more common awareness and acceptance of normal sloughing-off, we could become more honest and able to recognize, face, and even anticipate the significant endings, losses, and organizational deaths that will be coming our way.

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Writing -- A Core Leadership Skill

Writing -- A Core Leadership Skill

9/5/2014 12:00:00 AM EDT
a month ago

Woodrow Wilson, we are told, crafted and wrote his own speeches - the last president to have made that commitment.  President H.W. Bush was famous for writing hundreds of notes to people -- thank you messages, good wishes, and condolences. President Obama wrote two books that helped introduce him as a relatively young politician to the nation. Presidents are often writers.

Social media could lead us to think that many leaders are actively putting their thoughts down on the new version of paper -- Twitter, Facebook and so forth. That is a bit of a distortion. It seems as if leaders are writing and posting updates and blogs. If you think you are getting the lines directly from the CEO's, Executive Directors, and Senators... get real. There's plenty of staff involved.

That said, leaders who know how to write know how to clarify their thoughts. The discipline of writing is to frame ideas and lay them out in a cascade of arguments that works. Sloppy thinking, mixed messages, and inconsistencies are quickly revealed as the paragraphs unfold. It's hard work. It also pays off in big ways. A clear writer is a clear thinker and is, therefore, better at setting strategy, detecting nonsense, sorting out the story in the briefing, and explaining expectations. Knowing how to write is a foundational part of being a great communicator.

There are other ways to get your thoughts in order but I'm not sure I know a better one. Some people sit in a room with people and invite the arguments to unfold. They can hear all sides and all styles this way. Others ponder, walking the beach or on the treadmill, tracing through their thoughts for the right and clarifying one. They must have prodigious memories to track those twists and turns of thoughts. Maybe they make notes on cards or in tickler files. I, for one, have never found that to work well.

I often hear people say that they weren't taught to write well. I take the point. The best way to learn to write is to edit other people's writing. That's how I did it. I taught English as a foreign language and trying to explain the do's and don't's of writing in simple ways perked my skills up considerably. Find a  way to edit other's writing and you'll catch on quickly.

The other best way to learn to write is to WRITE. If there is anything that requires practice, it is writing. Get with it.

The point in all this is to say the obvious. Leaders who write well have a real advantage. My first and best advice for leader-wannabes is to sharpen your thinking and the best method I know is to write, edit, rewrite, and polish. Sit down and starting scribbling.

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