Monday, July 19, 2010

Go On Vacation

I’m getting ready to head out on vacation Friday. Since we’ll be in Canada, I’m looking forward to being unplugged for a week. While I’ll probably fire up an internet connection in our condo, I won’t pay for data roaming, so I won’t be checking my email and such several times an hour throughout the day like usual.

I love my iPhone. I’ve been a smartphone user from their inception; Palms and Blackberries were great, but the iPhone is the best. There is certainly a bit of a tethering that comes with these great tools… but I think it is more than mere rationalization when I say that I can make the most of my evenings and weekends by knowing what is going on through my iPhone and knowing that I can be reached if someone needs me. But I also know that I’ll get the most out of this week of vacation by being unplugged. I get about the business of truly relaxing, faster and better, when I am untethered from my email.

Since I know that I’ll be mostly unplugged next week, I’m working harder than usual to tie up loose ends and letting folk know that I really do not want to be bothered unless there is truly an emergency. I probably ought to always work this hard to prepare for vacation. It could be that I’ve just gotten a little lazy due to the convenience of tools like the iPhone… but it could be something deeper, including:

Inflated Self Importance – Sometimes I get the feeling that folk purposefully allow emergencies to pop up that they are uniquely suited to fix. They remind themselves, and all those around them, that they really are important because only they can solve these kinds of emergencies. I’ve occasionally allowed vacations to be interrupted by emergencies; in every case, when I’ve looked back, I’ve realized that it really didn’t qualify as an emergency. While I may have had a tiny rush knowing that I was just that important to have to take that call, write that email, or pick up that FedEx… it has never really been worth it. I suppose that the President of the United States really must be on call with all the trappings (staff, Air Force One, and all), but seriously… I’m just not that big of a deal… not even close.

Personal Insecurity – What if one were to be really gone and nobody noticed? Sometimes I wonder if I keep myself in the middle of things when I should be on vacation just to be sure that I really am in the middle of things.

Insecurity of Staff – It seems that some folk can’t go on vacation because their coworkers, colleagues, and staff are paralyzed without them. Sometimes folk can’t function (not enough perspective, authority, knowledge, etc.) and other times they won’t function because they won’t risk making a mistake, fearing that the vacationing one will come back and blow a gasket.

Disorganization – Finally, sometimes it is just plain old lack of organization. We can’t really go on vacation because we never sufficiently button things up. The "emergencies" that we allow to crowd in our vacation could simply be result of our own lack of work and organization.

We have vacation policies in place, not just because we must, but because it is good for business. People need to take a break, a sabbath to wind down and be rejuvenated. As CFO, I see that vacation liability as an actual expense on our budgets, a pretty big expense, and I think it is worth every penny. When I don’t really go on vacation, in a very real way I’m ripping off the company; since they are really paying for vacation, I owe it to them to give them the best vacation I can for their money.

Friday, July 09, 2010

Choose and Act

Would I rather have Sarah Palin?

I listen to Denis Miller’s radio show; he occasionally says something like, “Well, I know that Sarah Palin couldn’t be a Jeopardy champ, but I’d rather have her in the Oval Office than our current president.” He usually goes on to explain that while Palin likely has a lower IQ than Obama, Miller would rather have her at the helm… that she is smart enough. I agree.

I agree because I know that high IQ doesn’t necessarily translate into the ability to lead. Leadership doesn’t necessarily require the ability to generate the most brilliant answer; leadership has much more to do with selecting a brilliant answer and acting on it. That usually has more to do with issues of character and perspective than mere intelligence. You don’t have to always generate the smartest answer (if you’re responsible for a lot, you’ll likely rarely have the expertise anyway)… you just have to be able to choose a smart answer and then act on it.

Saturday, May 22, 2010


It seems like when I look back on some of my mistakes, I see that the mistake was at least partially due to me wrongly identifying an emergency. I’m generally pretty good at handling emergencies. I can usually size up a situation pretty well, determine a solution, order a response within our means, and do it all without getting carried away with emotion. Colleagues have told me that they appreciate my ability to lead in crisis situations.

When I error, it isn’t usually because I don’t identify a true emergency as an emergency; the error in this regard usually comes when I treat a non-emergency like an emergency. When I look back on times like these, it is clear that I would have likely handled things better if I hadn’t escalated things to emergency status.

I watched one of these unfold several weeks ago. Somebody did something that they probably shouldn’t have, and the authority went into full emergency mode. While there may certainly be emergency situations that result from bad behavior, ordering the punishment or disciplinary procedure is rarely an emergency. In this case, the authority made a non-emergency an emergency and insisted on dealing with the issue and the punishment under emergency conditions. It resulted in an overreaction and bruising some important relationships. Had the authority realized that this wasn’t even close to an emergency situation, I’m confident there would have been a better outcome for everyone involved. Don’t make a non-emergency an emergency.

I’ve also noticed that we tend to like to escalate situations to emergency status when we are confident that we have the solution. It is fun to solve problems… to ride in on the white horse and save the day. When folk fan the spark of a little issue into a flame of something like an emergency, just so they can be the hero by alleviating the problem, it is really weak leadership. Don’t allow things to become and emergency just so you can have the thrill of saving the day, and certainly don't trump up an emergency for your own satisfaction.

Sunday, January 24, 2010

Stock Pot of Water

I’ve been thinking of a leadership metaphor; it involves a stock pot and a wooden spoon. The steel pot is filled with water. It needs to be emptied. And the only tool we have is the wooden spoon.

I’m a simple guy with a bias toward action, so my inclination is to grab the spoon and get to work, one spoonful at a time, scooping the water out of the pot. It will take some effort, won’t be particularly spectacular, but the job seems clear, the resources limited, and we’re wasting time as long as we aren’t draining the pot. As long as we stick with it, the job will be completed.

While this all seems so very simple, there are alternative leadership approaches.

Study It
There are those that would want to do some figurin’ before getting underway. Even though the work seems simple, they want to know more before getting underway. Determine that each spoonful, adjusting for spillage, averages to be about 94% of a tablespoon… determine that there is 2.7 liters of water in the stock pot… do the math… adjust for evaporation… factor in breaks… you get the picture.

Document It
A slight twist on the “study it” approach is the “document it” approach by which you simply write up the findings of the “study it” approach and put it on your shelf, bound nicely in a three-ring binder. The satisfaction of filing the report replaces the satisfaction of finishing the job.

Rationalize It
If this really needs to be done then there ought to be a better way. Don’t they know that we need more resources than this wooden spoon? If they were serious about getting this work done, they would have given me better tools and more staff. I’m not doing anything until they make this easier.

Boil It
I have a better idea… a more spectacular idea… an idea that will be far less work and will be seen by all as brilliant. All I need to do is light the wooden spoon on fire, set up the stock pot over the fire, and the water will boil, turn to steam, and “presto.” Of course the fire from the spoon barely warmed the water, let alone brought it to a boil. The fire was spectacular, and it was an amusing idea, but we still have a pot full of water and now we don’t even have the spoon.

Can you think of others?

Tuesday, January 05, 2010


A couple of recent conversations clarified a vital question: what does it really mean to be a member of a team? A defining characteristic that has emerged and been helpful in our conversations is agreement.

It might be helpful to first be a bit more specific about what we mean when we say team, since team is one of those words we throw around with few boundaries. For the purposes of this discussion, I am meaning a work team that:

  • Operates with a specific charter and agenda,

  • Is comprised of members who have specific roles and the ability to contribute as a team member, and

  • Has the authority and resources to meet the demands of the agenda.

In work teams like these, the rule should be agreement.

Mere democracy is not agreement. If a group operates according to “majority rule,” whether it is a small committee or a large country, it is not a team. That isn’t a bad thing at all, just a different “thing” than a team. There are all sorts of circumstances where “majority rule” is the best solution, it simply isn’t a team.

The rule of agreement takes into account that team members posses varying perspectives as well as differing amounts of influence. This is an important distinction from a democratic process in which every vote has the same value in every decision. Members of a team should acknowledge that each team member brings different things to the table. Each has a unique perspective, and some perspectives are better suited for various tasks and decisions than others. Some may have various levels of authority and responsibility that impact how agreement may be reached. While it may seem that more influential/powerful members of the team are less agreeable, it could be that their responsibilities require them to be more deliberate in a process toward agreement.

Blind obedience or unswerving allegiance is not agreement. A productive team should not allow for members who are simply “yes men.” It is often the most loyal thing one can do to help members of a team avoid a mistake, or insist on making a good idea a great success. On the other hand, those who only think of their role in terms of being a contrarian or antagonist are not productive members of a team.

Agreement should be neither political or protectionist. Reaching agreement should not be a matter of trading votes (“I’ll support you this time if you support me next time”). It should also not be a matter of giving in to simply protect a position, role, or job. The best team members often approach their work as being “self employed,” not so desperate to protect their job that they give in to anything that might threaten their position.

When agreement is not possible there are at least a couple of potential conclusions. It could be that the work at hand is not suitable for the team, or any team. Or it could be that there needs to be a change in the membership of the team. If a team is intent on operating with agreement, then there may be times that call for difficult decisions.

One of the markers that indicates that a work group has become a real team is when the members consider each other trusted colleagues that “have your back.”

These are just some ramblings of things I’m thinking about in this regard. I expect to do some more reading, thinking, and writing along these lines in the coming weeks. In addition to unpacking some of what I’ve written above, other aspects that I hope to give some attention include:

  • Leading a team

  • Team work under time constraints or emergency conditions

  • Dealing with members who are not meeting the demands of the team

  • Moving forward as a team after a difficult process of coming to agreement

  • Taking things off the teams agenda when the task or decision calls for another approach

  • Joining a team… breaking in when you’re new

I'm happy to have your feedback!