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Potomac Forum Workshop, Washington, DC

Potomac Forum Workshop, Washington, DC

9/23/2014 12:00:00 AM EDT

Keynote, Project Management Symposium: Leadership: Risk and Resilience

Keynote, Project Management Symposium: Leadership: Risk and Resilience

9/26/2014 12:00:00 AM EDT

Private Book Club Speaker - Annapolis, MD

Private Book Club Speaker - Annapolis, MD

10/2/2014 6:00:00 PM EDT

Yale School of Management Alumni Reunion, New Haven, CT

Yale School of Management Alumni Reunion, New Haven, CT

10/17/2014 12:00:00 AM EDT

Speech with Harry Hutson at Hanson Wade, NYC

Speech with Harry Hutson at Hanson Wade, NYC

10/28/2014 12:00:00 AM EDT

BLOG: What's On Martha's Mind?

BLOG: What's On Martha's Mind?

Here is a list of recent blog articles.

Are My Goals Too Big?

Are My Goals Too Big?

9/11/2014 12:00:00 AM EDT
4 days 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
5 days 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
6 days 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 week 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 week 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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Inteview? Intra-view? Extra-view?

Inteview? Intra-view? Extra-view?

9/4/2014 12:00:00 AM EDT
a week ago

Next time you sit in an interview, take another look at it. Put yourself on different coordinates in your mind and look down, around, or up at it. Whether you are the applicant or the hiring manager, what's going on?

First, there is a power game of sorts that is playing out. The players are facing (down?) each other. One person has a job available; the other wants the job. This means the conversation is inevitably loaded for both people.

When I was a corporate recruiter, I wanted to find some smoother sailing where less was being held under the surface. I asked the team of recruiters that I was fielding to post their own resumes on the doors of the interview rooms (we were largely interviewing at schools). That meant the candidates could see the interviewer as more of a human being with a span of career, schooling, and hobbies. Besides, if one side gets to see a resume, why not invite the other to share as well?

Second, an interview is telescoped. It is a short 45 minutes into which too much is being stuffed: ritual small talk; questions to get your bearings; conversation to pierce the veil of practiced ideas; and so forth. If we could lay out the one or two things to explore, it might be a more successful experience. Give the interview a theme and a direction. For example:

  • Sort out the decision making at hand. How does the organization make decisions? How does the candidate?
  • Dig into the style/culture of the organization and the environment in which the candidate usually thrives the best. Are we talking about a cowboy culture? a Geek culture? a hero culture?

 

Third, map the interview. Who is surrounding the candidate in terms of his/her support system, mentors, teachers? Who is surrounding the interviewer and the new job? The hiring manager? HR? Customers? Other candidates? I suggest this mapping is useful because in every interview there are a bunch of other people effectively crowded in the room. It could be illuminating to name those folks and understand who else is running the conversation.

In other words, we beg too much of interviews and need to step back and make them work better for us. They are not tests, they are learning experiences. Everyone is learning important information so as to start the next leg of the journey well versed in the best direction to take. Using the time for a truly interesting exploration of what's what can be fruitful for all parties concerned.

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Post 9/11 - Some Leadership Lessons

Post 9/11 - Some Leadership Lessons

9/3/2014 12:00:00 AM EDT
a week ago

Two years ago, Kurt Eichenwald published 500 Days: Secrets and Lies in the Terror Wars. It's well reviewed and focuses on core issues such as presidential decision-making, the intersection of politics and ethics, and more in the immediate aftermath of 9/11.

I have finally read the book myself -- we love books on tape! And, in addition to the powerful and macro leadership lessons I learned, I took away two more simple ones that we should all remember, whether we are POTUS or a shop floor supervisor.

The first is about training. I found this lesson in the heart-breaking description of the interrogators at Gitmo. One cameo story is of a psychologist on staff who intervened in an interrogation that was loud, useless, humiliating to the prisoner, and very frustrating to the interrogator.

The psychologist made a simple suggestion, an interruption of sorts. He suggested that the interrogator go get a hamburger and a copy of Sports Illustrated, bring them back, sit, eat, and read. Nothing more. Do this for a couple days, and then bring back two hamburgers. One for the prisoner.

It worked. The intensity -- on both sides -- subsided.  A relationship started that allowed for some trust to be created and eventually some information to be shared.

The power of the story is that people are people. The young interrogators only knew they were supposed to lean hard into a problem. They needed other tools, skills. In stressful situations, people need to know what to do, but how are they supposed to know what that is? They need instructions, suggestions, mentoring, ideas, different approaches, and examples. They need simple training. It's a poignant story and reminds me that we can do much to halt true horrors and get the job done by being sure people are trained and educated.

The second is a larger story that is revealed in the title but it has value in the most granular situations and organizations. It only took 500 days for a huge culture shift to take place -- and it stuck. In a near New York minute, the government shifted from ethical norms and strong beliefs about rights, process, and dignity of people to a fear-based and suspicious approach. Laws changed, strategies shifted, and the new direction was baked in.

Many of us labor in the vineyard of culture change, experiencing the very slow work of interrupting habits, reframing values, and improving behavior. We believe healthy change is deliberate. "You can't sleep fast" and you can't change fast, we think. But, in fact, institutions can and do turn on a dime. Fear, disaster, or unsurfaced issues can assail a leader and an organizational culture, transforming everything. It is a sobering lesson and one that no one responsible for a team ... or a huge bureaucracy .. can ignore.

The importance of training and the need to understand the possibilities in culture change are two straightforward lessons. National crises can teach us a lot on many levels. 

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Fiction? Non-Fiction? Writing in the Median

Fiction? Non-Fiction? Writing in the Median

9/1/2014 12:00:00 AM EDT
2 weeks ago

 

When I open my laptop to write fiction, I have the odd sensation that the screen is something of a mirror -- a magical looking-glass through which I step into another world. First, I see a shadowy version of myself on the screen. A few seconds later, a stronger light begins to shine, my shadow disappears, and the majogic takes over.

My first novel is set in a small town in Indiana. It's a coming-of-age story and was magical from its inception. I could invent activities, rename characters, scramble information, and even remove people. Poof. I was engulfed by the story -- it could overpower me with feelings ranging from angst to joy. All of that came about as I stared at a screen.   

When I open my laptop to write non-fiction, however, nothing like that happens. Nada. The screen is flat and I am acutely aware of the horizontal march of lines and the surrounding frame of command icons. I never giggle or feel a rush of anxiety about the next page and what it will reveal. The anxiety I feel is about the critical eye measuring the exactness of my outline, logic, and accuracy.

Fiction writing makes me feel full, powerful, and gratified. Non-fiction writing makes me flat. It does not take me through an arc of experience. Instead, it forces me to sort through a maze only to end up at a concluding, summarizing sentence. Period.

What to do? My professional life is tied up in writing non-fiction. I write about concepts such as leadership and change management. They are valuable and they matter. But the process of writing about them does not give a spring to my step.

Over time I've come up with a couple counter-punches. First, when I write non-fiction, I am unapologetic in using metaphors and telling stories. I use them to open up a vein of argument or to reinforce a point. If I can't have a delicious and gripping plot and characters, I can at least have the occasional coffee break from cold logic.

Second, I try to move beyond the usual vocabulary that I find narrow and stifling. Jargon, acronyms, four-syllable words for processes (transformation, collaboration, innovation, investigation...), and the chronic use of the verb "to be" are some of the enemies. I spend a lot of time on Google looking for good synonyms.

Third, I write first drafts for myself. In them I include overstatement, emotional words, and poetry. Sometimes I add commentary as if an elf is also at the keyboard noting the overtones -- such as irony or sarcasm. Ultimately, I edit (scrub) to find more "appropriate and acceptable" language. I believe traces of the zest remain, however, and I often find my arguments are sharper and more explicit as a result of the drafting and rewriting.

Fourth, I use interviews. As I listen and record people's responses to questions, I am startled by their richness and humanity. Even if boxed in the margins, interview quotes add a vivid reality to an argument.

I am one person, with one laptop and one screen, who produces both fiction and non-fiction. For me, writing fiction fosters sensibilities that I want to reflect as I write non-fiction. I am sure that for other writers, the relationship is different and our writing styles reflect that. Whatever our process for writing and our unique human disciplines and character, the ultimate referee of the joust is the reader.

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Labor, Laboring, Labored

Labor, Laboring, Labored

8/29/2014 12:00:00 AM EDT
2 weeks ago

Labor Day marks the end of the lolling about that summer is for. I can't say I actually did much lolling, however. I worked a lot -- wrote, spoke, consulted. My vacations were long hard car trips during which I listened to books on tape about such lightweight matters as the Middle East, 9/11, the Vietnam War, and the Great Migration. And the usual outdoor fun of gardening was weighed down by the murder I have been trying to commit of a crepe myrtle tree. No matter how I dig, saw, poison, and smother, the thing won't die.

Nope, for all the pretense of summer relaxation, I have been laboring away.  In many ways this is burden of the self-employed, especially the self-employed writer, thinker, speaker. When do you stop? How do you get your mind clock on and out? I take walks -- and think. I watch comedy political shows and find fresh phrases. We entertain and the conversation turns to the news. Yikes.

But, this is really nothing new. It's just new arrangements. I've always found work invading everything else. I think it's in my constitution. On my recent trip to the Midwest, I was reminded that I come by this honestly. My friends there don't know how NOT to work. I even attended a quilting club and every month they expect each other to present their projects and talk about the progress. Yikes again.

I like to work. It gives my days structure and my life a sense of purpose. I also like having a long vacation weekend about labor. There is something poetic about that and I could sure use the couple of days to scrub the kitchen, get ahead on blogging, pull out more sub-roots of that damn tree, write to the city about the decaying sidewalk, clean out the basement, do my finances ... 

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Writer's Block? It's More About Writer's Clutter.

Writer's Block? It's More About Writer's Clutter.

8/28/2014 12:00:00 AM EDT
2 weeks ago

I can't say I suffer from writer's block. I understand that is when a person sits and stares at the screen (or paper) and can't think of a thing to write. Not a problem for me! I can always come up with something to say. I once fell asleep talking ... and continued to talk, apparently.

The hard part of writing for me is integrity. Am I babbling or saying something real, genuine, and authentic? Have I peeled it back to the core or am I wandering around in the orchard?

This happens all the time, the struggle to get to the point. When I write fiction I am constantly reminding myself, "Tell the damn story." Too often, I am caressing a curlicue of description or dialogue. I have to pull myself back to the story, again and again and again and again.

Writing non-fiction is even harder. It is unbearably difficult for me to write something that is sharp and focused. I have to ward off nuances, shoo away interesting side points, and trash great alliterative phrases that seem to spring up to entertain and distract me. It's grueling work to me and it takes a lot of minute-by-minute discipline.  

However, when I do plow through the overgrowth and get the story told or the point made, it is heaven. I take great pride in creating a small bit of clarity. It gives me the energy to go at it again, clear out more clutter, and see if I can find another nugget.

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