The up side of a down economy

So here we are again – only a couple of weeks before Christmas. The scurrying around started weeks ago but now it’s really heating up. And there are lots of seasonal events competing for all of our very-limited time. There are luncheons, office parties, open houses, children’s plays and recitals, awards banquets, house parties, cocktail parties, trim-the-tree parties, cookie swaps, dessert parties….whew!  Not to mention that we all still have work, kids activities, volunteer activities and family activities that are a part of our normal, non-holiday lives. And we have to decorate, trim our own tree and shop for holiday gifts.

This year the economy is still casting its dark shadow over all of us in some form or another. People are out of work, underemployed, holding on by a thread or giving up on being able to find work altogether. The news can be pretty depressing. In the midst of all of this, we’re all trying to do what we’ve always done (or close to it) with less – in some cases, a lot less. And now Christmas is right around the corner.

I for one, think that the Christmas holidays during an economic slump is a really good thing. It forces us (since we clearly need reminding from time to time) that Christmas is not about more stuff. In fact it’s not about stuff at all. It’s not about new toys or new clothes, or who has the biggest anything. It’s not about overextending our bank accounts so we’ll need until next Christmas to pay off the bills. Nor is it about buying things we don’t need so we can impress someone at some event. Or buying your kids more and more toys when they don’t use or appreciate  half of what they have now. It’s about the only really precious commodity that there is – TIME. Time spent with your family and friends. Time spent with an aging relative who may not be here for the next holiday. Time spent helping others who are less fortunate than you are. Time to show your thanks for what you have no matter how little or great that is. Time to spend remembering what the real message of Christmas is – whether you’re  religious or not.

I know it’s become a cliché, but the holidays have become way too commercial. Holiday decorating and advertising starts while you haven’t even gotten through the holiday before. Advertisers are relentless in fighting to get you to spend your hard-earned dollars on their merchandise. Black Friday and Cyber Monday have marketing strategies dedicated to making you leave you families at ungodly hours just so you can stand in line in the cold and compete to score a half-priced something or other.

I really do long for a simpler time when as kids we received one special gift for Christmas – one that you really wanted and you waited all year to hope to find under the Christmas tree. When gifts were often handmade… Like your neighbor’s special homemade jam or holiday cookies. Or that cool sweater that your aunt knitted just for you – that you have kept all these years later because it reminds you of her. Or the sled that your dad made that was better and stronger than all of the store-bought ones your friends had.  When your stocking was filled with little things that you needed, like a new toothbrush, or socks or your favorite candy, and new barrettes for your hair and maybe a couple of oranges.  Yes, clearly you can tell what generation I am from. But I make no apologies. I had a great childhood. We were not well off growing up. My parents worked hard for everything we had and my sister and I knew it and appreciated everything. And one of the best things about the holidays was (and still is) the time we spent together – no matter what we were doing. Some of my best holiday memories happened while we were making and  decorating cookies with my mom and my aunt. Or when my dad would gather my sister and I into bed on a Saturday morning and make up stories to tell us while my mom got breakfast ready for us all to enjoy together. I miss those days.

So this year, my wish for you at this special time of year,  is that you take a moment and think about how you’re spending your precious commodity – your time.  When you look at your Christmas list, think about how you can buy less and do and make things that will give you more time with your loved ones. How can I make real memories with and for my family? Because the real memories of the holidays are made together. And no one ever really remembers what you gave them…they only remember how you made them feel.  

I wish you all a warm and merry Christmas and very happy, healthy and successful new year.

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Culture Love…you might just need to break-up with your culture!

Time and time again I have clients who want to talk to me about helping them become a different organization.  They want to become something they currently are not… They want to be the “employer of choice”, “the high quality provider” of whatever goods or services they offer, they want to become “the market innovator”. Whatever the goal or the end game, they have ambitions to become a different version of themselves.  In a time when standing still is the developmental equivalent of moving backwards, it’s understandable that envisioning a different future is on the radar of most organizations today. So the concept of “change or die” could not be more true than it is today.

Before the conversation with my client or potential client gets too far, I have asked them to describe their new envisioned future and to tell me a little about why they would like to become what they desire.  Then we start to talk about who they are now and what they think is good about their current state and what they think needs to change. It takes almost no time at all before we are engaged in a discussion about their current culture. Now culture can be defined in many different ways, but for the purposes of this post I’ll refer to culture as having two parts; the “formal culture” – those rules, policies,  procedures, and structures, that govern how we work within an organiztion; and the “informal culture”, how work really gets done in the organization, what the unwritten rules are and to quote another author – “the smell of the place”.  It’s the composite of the organization’s norms, expected behaviors, real values (as opposed to what’s espoused by senior management), tacit (undocumented) knowledge and informal people networks. 

Most clients are quick to point out their formal culture and they tell me all about their policies and procedures, their hiring policies, their training programs, their organizational structures and reporting relationships. And after I have been there for a little while, and talked to people in the organization and asked some questions based on my experience, I start to get a sense of the informal culture too. Because I am not part of any of my clients’ organizations, it’s pretty easy for me to figure out the informal culture-because I don’t live there. I am not as influenced by the corporate speak of an organization, I let my senses inform me about what the organization is really like. What do I see? What do I hear about how people work together or about how work gets done? What is the leadership of the organization like in terms of skills? What actually happens in the organization when they think no one is watching? 

Albert Einstein said that the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results. Well if that is true, and an organization wants to be something it currently is not, then it has to do things differently. Pretty straightforward. Yet one of the most frequent things I observe is that the measuring stick organizations use to evaluate implementing anything new that will help them BE different and get to that envisioned future – is their current culture!  All that gets accomplished in that process is that they waste precious time and hold themselves back and reinforce who the organization is today and it doesn’t get them one single step closer to who they want to be.

It has been my experience that organizations literally fall in love with their cultures…and as everyone knows, when you’re in love you really don’t see the object of your love clearly. It’s hard to see the flaws or to see exactly what isn’t working – especially if leaders don’t have the skills that would allow them to have a greater level of objectivity. They see only what they want to see…because they’re in love. But it’s the others around them who often have the most clarity…the objective outsider who is not in love – who can see what’s really happening. This is one of the reasons that I do what I do and also why organizations that want to change who they are,  really need an objective outside perspective – preferably with science-based tools that can help them really move from where they are  – to where they want to go, as opposed to just moving the furniture around… which certainly IS activity, but it’s not forward movement. Yes, breaking-up is hard to do – but it is a necessary step to get to that new future.

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When Funny – Isn’t !

We all know people who are funny. We might even be quite skilled at humor ourselves. But we all have probably also experienced situations when someone attempted to use their humor and it fell flat – it was not funny at all and in fact may have even been embarrassing or hurtful. There is a reason for that. It’s called “overuse”.

For every competency in your “leadership toolbox” you can be skilled, unskilled or you can be overusing it. Overuse is much more common than you might think. We frequently overuse the things we are good at when we don’t have the right “tool” or skill to use for the situation. 

So let’s look at humor.  Almost everyone has some level of skill at humor, but when it’s overdone is has the opposite effect than was intended. It can be hurtful, embarrassing, and totally inappropriate for the situation. It can cause people to get fired, chastised by their boss or co-workers, cause personal embarrassment, undermine trust, and ruin both personal and professional relationships. We do it because we are lacking the right skill for the situation so we use what we know we’re good at and hope for the best.

Today in a world where less and less communication is done face-to-face or even voice-to-voice, we must rely on only our words in emails or texts to convey our meaning and they are often at best – misunderstood, or at worst – insulting and hurtful. 

Some of the telltale signs of overusing humor are when you find yourself explaining what you meant by your remarks, or saying “I was only kidding” or “I didn’t mean it like that” or feeling the need to write “lol”  or “jk” at the end of a message. You need only to glance at a Facebook page to see more than ample evidence of this.

So why do we do it?? Well, that answer can be complicated depending on what the rest of your skills and weaknesses look like, but the simplest explanation is likely that you have a lack of self-knowledge or self-awareness; the inability to be aware of how what we do affects other people, to seek out feedback and then to learn from that feedback and to adjust our own behavior accordingly for the future. Need evidence?? So let’s say you are communicating with someone who has just attempted to use humor in a situation and it has backfired. Your feelings are hurt and you say something to that effect. Most people who are self-aware would be horrified that they had hurt your feelings and offer you an instant and sincere apology and they would adjust their behavior going forward. But the person who is not self-aware would likely get defensive and may in fact even turn it around on you and blame it all on you by saying something like “ you’re just too sensitive” or “you’re such a baby”, or “you just don’t appreciate my sense of humor”.  They would refuse to own their own behavior as inappropriate, hurtful or insulting. And the message that you receive is that the other person cares more about being “right” or not having to apologize, than they care about your feelings.  And if it persists, the effect can be very damaging. And just in case you don’t recognize this behavior for what it is – this is a form of bullying. Yes, I said bullying. And if you have been on the receiving end of this behavior, you know exactly what I mean.

So, the next time you’re going to say or write something laced with your own personal brand of humor, wait before you hit the send button and ask yourself if this could possibly be misunderstood or hurtful – and if the answer is yes, change it or don’t send it at all. Good relationships are hard to find or build but they can be destroyed in an instant by careless remarks.

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Can you teach a bad dog new tricks?

Well, I am now another year older and – I hope – wiser. But no matter how old I get, I’m constantly amazed by the resilience of both people and animals. In this touching article, which springs from a heart-wrenching and horrific situation, Jim Gorant provides us with another happy ending.

“Generalizations and preconceptions are as unhelpful and counterproductive for pit bulls as they are for people.” Jim Gorant, August 15, 2010

http://www.parade.com/news/2010/08/15-can-you-teach-a-bad-dog-new-tricks.html

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A new way to think about motivation

In this fascinating video, author and speaker Daniel Pink talks about motivation in a new way.

http://www.ted.com/talks/dan_pink_on_motivation.html

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Christmas in July…

Well, here I am staring at a blank blog page and wondering what today’s post will be about…my brain is teeming with all sorts of things…personal and professional….there’s  so much on my mind that trying to decide which pressing thing will get my attention today is challenging – at best. It’s nearly August, and even though you might be thinking that summer is in full swing, I’m actually thinking that it’s close to winding down. Like any other consultant/writer and business owner, we are always ahead of ourselves…thinking about the next phase, so that by the time it comes – we’re prepared.

When you’re self employed that preparation is magnified…so much so that in order to make sure that the important things in my personal life don’t fall by the wayside as I get caught up in the business, I am insanely (well, not insane as far as I’m concerned!) planning oriented. And to prove this to you, I have already thought about Christmas – in detail. Yes, you heard me correctly. I know, I know you probably think I’m crazy or just beyond obsessive, but the truth is that Christmas actually comes at the same time every year…it’s not a surprise. Summer is the time of year when client work is a little slower and I have the time to prepare. And in order to be sure that I have the time to enjoy the holidays when they get here, I actually take the time in the summer to do whatever advance work and planning that I can.

So for those of you who have not fallen off your chair with shock and laughter yet…here’s what that actually means. My holiday gift list is complete. The shopping I need to do against that list is done. One of the joys of the holiday for me is to hand make many of my gifts, so that also means that whatever I need to have on hand to make those gifts, I have already purchased. In the next week or two I will start to make the non-perishable gifts on my list. Ask any crafty person and they will tell you that it is as much – if not more – about the process as it is about the finished product. We love the process of creating something ourselves. The perishable items, I will leave to the holiday timeframe since that is part of what gets me in the holiday mood. I also leave the home decorating and gift wrapping to the end too. That usually takes place in one long weekend in early December when I pop Holiday Inn and White Christmas in the DVD player and decorate and cook and wrap everything happily filled with holiday spirit. But also happily NOT fighting the crowds in the shopping malls!

So how did I get to this place of pre-planning you might ask?  Earlier in my self employment career I discovered that the fall was a pretty busy time for me with clients. One year, I got so caught up in traveling and client work that Christmas snuck up on me and I was totally unprepared…no holiday cards went out and gifts were hastily purchased just to have something to give.  Everything was rushed and last minute. I hated the feeling of being so far behind and under pressure and not enjoying what is supposed to be a very happy time of year with family and friends. After that holiday season was over, I promised myself that it would never happen again.  So here we are. I realized that it didn’t have to be that way and set about changing my holiday habits.

They say that if you want to get something done – ask a busy person. I see a lot of truth to that. Since some busy people have figured out a way to maximize their time more than others. And I guess that includes me. I have a pretty significant birthday coming up in the next few weeks, and for me all birthdays have provided a time for reflection and renewal and an opportunity to ask myself what will I do differently in the coming year. Well, this year I have a lot to think about, both about the past and the future and I’m sure there will be many things I want to change. But one thing I won’t be re-thinking anytime soon is my approach to Christmas in July. It works for me and I think my friends and family appreciate me being calm and unstressed during the holidays – so I can truly enjoy the time I spend with them at a joyful time of the year. Cheers!

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Thanks Daddy!

It sounds sort of ridiculous for a grown woman to be referring to her father as “Daddy” but that is how I remember him…after all, I was only sixteen when he died, so he is frozen in my mind the way a 16 year-old remembers things. But through the years, as I have gotten older and long since he has been gone, I have started to understand more about who he was…not just from a child’s perspective, but from the perspective of an adult and one who is a practitioner of human behavior.

James Ian Cameron Crawford was a big man…in stature as well as talents. From purely Scottish decent, he was the third oldest of 5 children – four boys and one girl. His parents both arrived in this country from Scotland through Ellis Island and made their home in the Boston suburbs. A late bloomer in some respects, he attended Tufts University as an engineering student – starting at the age of 24, and went on to become a mechanical engineer. He was a brilliant man with a quick wit and a quiet nature. He could do anything, and not just because he was and still is one of my biggest heroes, but because he actually could do just about anything.  He could fix or build anything – from the perfect dry flagstone walls he built to installing a bathroom in what once was a closet. He hybridized his own bearded iris, and assembled his own transistor radios from parts purchased in an electronics store. He wrote poetry and prose and played piano by ear since he had never learned to read music. He was a faithful and adoring husband and a strict but loving father who was reluctant to show his soft side, but definitely had one.

As a dog guy, who professed to not really like cats, I can remember discovering him secretly staying up all night with my cat after she had been spade; just to be sure she was ok during the night. He was the lead musician in our family band called the “Snellville Snobs”, playing piano, with my sister and me playing toy instruments and making a joyful noise that somehow actually sounded like songs. On Sunday mornings he would call my sister and me into his room, and while my mother made breakfast he would make up wonderful, detailed stories about two best friends “Mr. Gazitch and Mr Gazatch” as they went through their lives full of zany adventures. My sister and I would be rolling with laughter until breakfast was ready, always eager for the next weekly installment.

Ian (he never went by his legal first name) was a man who wanted a son – someone to work with him in his workshop – that he could teach how to use tools and make things – just like he did. So when I came along as the second of two daughters, he realized that there would be no son. But he also quickly realized that even though I was a little girl, I had the curiosity and interest to fill the void – and soon we were in his workshop together with him teaching me how to use all of the tools that he loved and used everyday. I learned how to hang sheet rock by the age of 8, I learned how to spot weld and to work a soldering iron. I learned how to use a miter box. It was pretty unusual for a girl back then to have the experience of building things and working with her dad in the workshop, but I loved every minute of it. But most important of all, I got to spend time with my daddy doing what he loved. It was time I will remember all my life and it was the best time I ever spent with him.

 The lessons I learned from my daddy teaching me about work and tools have stayed with me – not just when the pump in my outdoor fountain died or when I needed to repair a broken chair leg. But there is rarely a day that goes by that I am not using at least one of his lessons in my professional consulting and coaching work today; Measure twice – cut once. Always clean your tools before you put them away. There is a tool for every job. When there is a problem-always check the power source first. The details count – any job worth doing is worth doing well. It takes longer to fix something later that to do it right the first time. Work at something you love and you will never work a day in your life.

 So for all you fathers out there on this Father’s Day, please remember that it’s not the expensive gifts that you buy your children for which they will remember you  – not the latest electronic gadget or the coolest new bike. It’s the time you spend with your children, doing things together that you love that they will remember and cherish for the rest of their lives. And if they are half as lucky as I am, their daddy will also be with them forever in those priceless memories. Thanks daddy. I love you to the moon and back… Happy Father’s Day.

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