Leadership & Coaching

  • Lead With Your Values

    Last month, I wrote a guest blog for video producer extraordinaire Amy DeLouise about leading with your values. The gist of the blog was to remind organizational leaders that consumers are looking for values-aligned companies. More and more, savvy marketers understand that consumers are choosing products and services that meet more than a functional need. Consumers are choosing companies whose values align with theirs. So, if you’re responsible for your organization’s messaging, you may want to ask yourself: what is your company willing to stand up for? What beliefs are you willing to shout from the rooftops for the whole world to hear? Who wouldn’t you accept a check from? (You can read the whole blog here.)

    In addition to publicizing your organizational values, it’s great to work with values-aligned partners. When my clients need add-on services, I seek partners like Amy DeLouise, DG Creative Branding, Fuller Digital Media, Generate Impact, and others who provide high-quality results while maintaining the utmost integrity. I know without a doubt that my vendors are honest, forthright, and fair, so I can recommend them without reservation. And as I demonstrated in that blog for Amy, doing the right thing not only feels good, it can lead to a very healthy bottom line.

  • Are We Examining Our Own Truths?

    The events of the past week have unsettled many Americans, including me. Never in my life did I expect to see people who consider themselves patriots storming the U.S. Capitol. It’s perhaps the starkest example of how very divided we’ve become.

    Truth, Justice, and the American Way

    The question is: how did we get here? When I grew up, most people I knew believed that Americans, flawed though we may be, stood up for truth, justice, and the American way. We thought the other political party was misguided but not evil. I’m white and middle-class, and I spent most of my time with others who were also white and middle-class, so growing up I was largely blind to the festering prejudices inherent in so many of our social and governmental systems.

    When President Obama was elected, I thought our nation was evolving beyond its bigotted past; I felt so proud. When President Trump was elected, I was stunned. I couldn’t understand how such a vile man and unqualified candidate could be chosen.

    Questioning “Facts”

    During the last four years, I’ve watched the chasm deepen between our two political parties to the point where Americans are no longer living in the same realities. I’ve also become even more aware of my own privilege, thanks in large part to the Black Lives Matter movement. As a result, I’ve begun digging into the sources of my beliefs and questioning many of the “facts” I took for granted.

    As it turns out, this is kind of an uncomfortable process. Like others, when I believe something is true, I unconsciously look for evidence to reinforce that belief and I discount information that doesn’t align with my preconceived notions. So, how have I started to change my beliefs? First, I had to decide to question their veracity. If you’re not interested in exploring your own truths, it’s way harder to overcome misconceptions.

    The next part of this process has involved trying to understand the motivations and mindsets of people who think very differently from me, rather than discounting them as wing-nuts when their ideas and behaviors don’t match my way of thinking. I’m working to ask open-ended questions like, “What would someone have to believe to do or say that?”

    What Causes the Shift

    The times I’ve had realizations that fundamentally changed my way of thinking have usually been tied to conversations with people I trust and admire, times when friends were brave enough to disagree with me and question my assumptions and assertions in a firm but loving way. The conversations haven’t been detached and logical, but rather emotional, even passionate.

    Many of us were taught to avoid uncomfortable conversations, admonished never to discuss religion and politics in polite company. I understand how leaving these subjects alone can keep the peace in families and among friends, but I worry that as a society we’ve lost the ability to respectfully challenge others’ assumptions or even our own. Our echo-chambers are ruining our ability to think critically as individuals, communities, and as a nation.

    Some Discomfort it Healthy

    Healthy debate is just that–healthy. It may not be comfortable, but if people can stay focused on the issues rather than attacking each other’s integrity, honesty, and intelligence, and if we can engage in conversations with the goal of learning rather than proving our point, we’ll all be a lot better off.

  • Use the Pandemic to Reset

    Even before the pandemic, life felt hectic for many of us, the unspoken rule being: the more we can do, the more we should do. Then the pandemic exploded into our daily lives, interrupting business as usual. For some, the pandemic has been personally and/or professionally devastating, and to them, I offer my deepest condolences. For the rest of us, it has been a disruption, and disruptions can help us recognize patterns and behaviors that aren’t serving us anymore.

    As I support leaders who manage large organizations, I’ve been asking them what they can let go of. And we’ve been talking a lot about how they want to feel in addition to what they want to do. It’s interesting how this shifts the conversation.

    As we approach 2021, this is a great time to think about what you want to leave behind. Break free from conventions that don’t serve you. Reevaluate how you spend your time and don’t be afraid to make some changes. Here are a couple of ideas.

    Company Culture

    Nothing affects your work life as much as company culture. Have you ever heard the old adage about boiling a frog? It goes like this: if you put a frog in boiling water, it jumps out immediately. But, if you put a frog in tepid water and slowly bring the water to a boil, the frog won’t jump out.

    An organization’s culture can change over time and bad habits can become entrenched. Building a positive culture requires conscientious leadership. If you’re in a position to lead, consider using a short article, blog, or quarterly internal white paper as a basis for discussion. This has the two-fold benefit of culture-building and knowledge-building, thereby reinforcing cultural norms for existing employees and informing new employees of company values.

    Other practices that reinforce culture include aligning job descriptions with company values and strategic goals and having multiple team members participate in employee onboarding. Transparency about what each role is expected to accomplish helps everyone get clarity, and involving line staff in the on-boarding process is a great way to reinforce the mission, vision, and value of the organization for new and old employees alike.


    Another way to improve work life is to spend time in a way that feels productive and meaningful. Many of us spend an inordinate amount of time in meetings. If we this must continue, let’s make them worthwhile. Here are some best practices.

    • Determine goals/outcomes for the meeting, which can include building culture and community. Just be sure everyone knows why you’re meeting. Determining outcomes lets you know whether you even need to hold a meeting. If you can communicate the information and get feedback via email and still reach your objectives, don’t waste people’s time with a meeting
    • Publish and distribute an agenda (with short updates from the last meeting, if appropriate) at least 24 hours before the meeting so people can come prepared. Do NOT include verbal reports on this same material during the meeting. To be sure all actions tie back to the organization’s ultimate goal, include a vision/goal statement at the top of the agenda.
    • Make the meeting norms explicit (e.g., the meeting will start and end on time, topics that aren’t on the agenda don’t get airtime, etc.)
    • Start with three deep breaths to get present, then a one-minute check-in. Allow each individual to share personal/professional information–how they’re doing, whether they need support, etc. 
    • Assign every actionable item to an individual responsible for moving it forward
    • Evaluate standing reports at least annually. Do they include the most relevant data for their stated purpose? Are they in the most accessible format for the audience they’re trying to serve? If you don’t need them, ditch them. If you need the information but it’s not coming across well, change the format.

    If you hold regular time on next year’s calendar to address the leadership issues that can transform your business, 2021 will likely be a much better year.

  • Crisis Communication for Schools

    COVID-19 has not only been a public health crisis. For many, it has been a public relations crisis. The pandemic has highlighted just how difficult it is to communicate effectively when we are thrust into unfamiliar roles and forced to use unfamiliar tools.

    When schools had to pivot on a dime in the spring of 2020, most parents and community members recognized and appreciated teachers’ heroic efforts to educate via an online platform. However, in the fall when schools struggled to provide seamless distance learning, people were a lot less forgiving. Also, as economic concerns began to overtake health concerns in some regions and among certain demographics, relationships soured.

    Yet, if you look around, some school districts fared better than others. Even in communities where tensions were high, the schools were not the ones getting lambasted. Why? Generally speaking, it’s because these districts were following the basic tenants of good crisis communication—including having laid the groundwork before this crisis hit.

    Almost every organization must deal with a public relations crisis at some point, so it makes sense to plan for it. As many of you have no doubt discovered, preparing for a crisis in the middle of said crisis is no fun.

    Crises typically affect the safety, reputation, and financial position of people and organizations. You can minimize these negative effects not only on your district or agency, but on the students, staff, and communities you serve by planning for the crises you’re most likely to face. In education, those include natural disasters, societal disasters, tragedies involving staff or students, and inappropriate behavior involving staff or students.

    Types of Disasters

    In broad terms, disasters fall into two categories: those centered outside of your school or agency (like natural disasters and community/social disasters) and those centered within your school or agency (such as threats or tragedies that involve students or staff and inappropriate behavior by students or staff).

    For natural disasters, your region will influence the types of crises you’ll face. Those in the West must contend with wildfires and earthquakes. In the Rocky Mountains, it’s wildfires and severe storms. In the Midwest, we add tornadoes to the mix. In the South, you’ve got hurricanes, flooding, and heat waves, and in the East, it’s freezing nor’easters.

    Next, we have societal or community disasters. These can include everything from civil unrest to terrorist threats, or they can include events that cause mass casualties like an industrial accident or collapse of infrastructure. So think about your community; what are the most likely scenarios there? Is there racial tension? Is there manufacturing plant with poor safety standards? An old bridge in need of repair?

    Then there are disasters that hit closer to home. The first of these is threats or tragedies involving staff or students, situations such as intentional violence (as in the case of a school shooter), transportation accidents, suicides, or potentially disastrous health diagnoses. The second involves inappropriate behavior involving a student or staff member, such as financial or operational mismanagement, sexual misconduct, and other legal or ethical violations.

    There is one more type of disaster—a public relations disaster born of misinformation. Although the disaster itself may never have occurred, people’s response to the misinformation can cause real and lasting damage.

    Before you dig into the details of specific disaster responses, you should first determine what your common responses would be no matter the crisis.

    Lead with your values.

    Regardless of the type of crisis you face, your organization must step out with a statement that frames the situation. Let people know what lens you’re looking through and help them see through that lens, too. If, for example, people are angry because of how a crisis is affecting them personally, you can shift the conversation by sharing your organization’s concern about a broader group. People may not agree with your position but understanding it may quiet some of their criticism.

    In my work with schools, districts, and county offices of education, we have framed every crisis with the primary goal of protecting the physical and emotional safety of students. Everything else takes a back seat. This has been the case in crises as diverse as a cockroach infestation, a potential school shooter, a teacher accused of sexually inappropriate relations with a student, and the coronavirus pandemic.

    Examples of additional values include safeguarding staff, making decisions based on a thorough examination of facts, collaborating with recognized experts in the field (the field varies depending on the crisis), and a commitment to reducing discrimination and its harmful impacts, often through identifying and removing systemic barriers to equity for underrepresented groups.

    Provide a Coherent Narrative

    Regardless of the type of crisis, people want to make sense of the situation. If you provide a coherent narrative, they will usually use that. In a void, they will fill in the details with whatever makes the most sense to them, even if their imagined truth has little connection to the facts. It is in your best interest to get information out as quickly as possible and to let all interested parties know when and where to find additional information as it becomes available. In short, follow these steps:

    • Name a single spokesperson
    • Determine the best pathways to engage all of your key audiences (with two-way communication)
    • Engage others in sharing accurate information

    Naming a single spokesperson helps ensure a consistent message, and consistency is key to building trust. During a crisis, if people believe you are telling the truth, even if they don’t like that truth, they are more likely to keep listening.

    Use a Variety of Communication Pathways

    By establishing a variety of communication pathways, you can reach multiple audiences, including traditionally underrepresented and/or vulnerable populations. During a crisis, you’re often in a race against misinformation and, to quote Mark Twain (or whoever said this), “A lie can travel halfway around the world while the truth is still pulling its boots on.”

    For truth to win, you’ve got to think carefully about your audiences and to reach out where they are most likely to pay attention. Who uses social media? Who uses traditional media—broadcast, print? What languages do people speak? Who checks their computer regularly for emails? Who doesn’t have a computer but will read texts on their cell phone? Regardless of official titles, who are the trusted opinion leaders in each community because they tend to share a lot of information very quickly?

    Consider non-traditional means of spreading information if it means safeguarding or helping people. For example, when I was working with an organization that wanted to distribute Covid-19 Relief Funds to those struggling to afford rent and food, including people who are undocumented, we posted flyers in English and Spanish in local Laundromats and called local property management companies so they could let people who paid late know assistance was available. Do not let traditional pathways inhibit creative pathways. Each crisis is unique, and your communication pathways should reflect that.

    Another creative pathway includes amplifying your message by reaching out to your allies. Identify the people and organizations who serve the same causes you do, who care about the same populations. Who wins if you win? Empower those people and organizations with information. Start with internal audiences because members of the public and the media will go to them for the inside scoop. You don’t want employees, union representatives, or board members saying, “Gee, I don’t know what’s going on. I’m in the dark, too.” You want them sharing your talking points.

    Then think about external allies. Make politicians look good; let them be the heroes with accurate information. Reach out to the gossipy parents and share the details with them so they can share accurate information with their personal networks. Consider who people turn to and will trust to have good information, and provide those people with talking points: leaders in the faith community, the medical community, elected leadership positions, and so on.

    Crisis Communication Checklist

    In a nutshell, to weather a crisis, you’ll need to do the following:

    1. Gather your team and name your spokesperson.
    2. Verify the facts of the crisis using reliable sources.
    3. Identify your stakeholders.
    4. Identify potential partners.
    5. Release holding statements while developing key message points.
    6. Use key message points and to create content for all stakeholders (e.g., press release, social media posts, employee scripts, website FAQs). Lead with your values and remember, not everyone speaks English or uses a computer to get their news.
    7. Create a timeline to publish information so internal audiences can help spread accurate information.
    8. Respond to inquiries quickly and accurately.
    9. Keep communicating until the crisis is over.
    10. Review your performance.

    One last word of advice: work with your legal team and your communications team to find a balance. Your legal team’s job is to help you adhere to the law and to limit your liability. The legal piece is often fairly straightforward, but the best way to limit liability can be harder to discern. Admitting culpability can be a dicey strategy, but a heartfelt apology can be a powerful statement that brings closure to a difficult situation.

  • Being Heard Amid the Covid-19 Noise

    Since the Covid-19 shelter-in-place orders went into effect, organizations have been forced to respond quickly to stress-inducing and constantly changing information. Some are succeeding brilliantly; others are failing miserably. Here are some tips to keep your audiences engaged and informed during this unusual time.

    Meet People Where They Are

    During a pandemic, people are emotionally exhausted and overwhelmed. If your messages ignore this and you proceed with business as usual, you will miss an opportunity to build connection—and you’ll likely fail in getting your message across.

    Keep Messages Short and On Point

    When people are stressed, scared, or distracted, it is essential to communicate clearly and concisely. In written communication, this means crafting messages that resonate and then breaking them into bite-sized chunks so people can absorb them. As you sit down to write, do your best to read the room, as they say. Imagine you are trying to grab and keep the attention of an employee who has a toddler in need of a diaper change. Start your message with a recognition of their challenges, a note of appreciation, and then expectations.

    Also, keep things brief. It’s best to simplify complex information so people are compelled to comply with instructions or recommendations but not overwhelmed by all the details.

    Communicate Proactively

    Even when there’s nothing new to say, keep updates coming. Their frequency depends on your audience, of course, but ideally, you want to communicate often enough that people don’t start speculating on their own. Consider sending brief messages every few days or once a week to employees, and maybe every couple of weeks to other stakeholders.

    Consider sending brief messages every few days or once a week to employees, and maybe every couple of weeks to other stakeholders.

    Reinforce talking points (e.g., we’re complying with government orders to remain shuttered, but here’s how we’re supporting our employees/clients/community, or here’s what we expect for the weeks and months ahead.). You don’t have to have all the answers, but you do need to address people’s most urgent questions–even if that simply means saying something like, “We don’t know when we’ll reopen, but we have applied for the Payroll Protection Program to secure funding for those who are working from home.”

    Because people are distracted and sometimes disorganized, it’s important to create a central location where people can find your most recent updates–a webpage, Facebook page, or emails with a consistent subject line such as “Covid-19 Update.” Make it easy to stay informed.

    Remain Positive, Yet Honest

    Possibly the most important role of communication during a crisis like this is to build trust. No one knows exactly how the Covid-19 pandemic will affect our world going forward. All we can do is to plan for the most likely scenarios with the best information we have at any given time.

    And it is best to share updates with your key audiences along the way. Although it would be ill-advised to share details about every decision, it is wise to bring people along so they do not get a nasty surprise at the end. Clearly, this requires a nuanced approach, but keep in mind that the idea of protecting people by withholding information often backfires.

    If you need help communicating with your key audiences right now, let us know!

  • Overcoming Our Negativity Bias

    The reason negativity exists in the workplace is because humans work there. Tens of thousands of years of evolution haven’t caught up with the comparatively short time we’ve been dealing with annoyances in the workplace as opposed to threats that could kill us. Luckily, our brains are malleable. We can create new neural pathways so our default responses don’t ruin potentially important relationships.

    Our Caveman Genetics

    Think back, if you will, to the Neanderthal days. Imagine you and your tribe are hanging out by the campfire when a member of a neighboring tribe comes over and starts nosing around. Those with a negativity bias quietly reach for their clubs while a welcoming young tribal member invites the stranger to join in. When the stranger bonks the welcomer on the head and runs off with his mate, the welcomer’s genes do not make it into future generations.

    We are the descendants of the people who reached for their clubs.

    Yay for Neuroplasticity

    We are programmed to handle threats via our fight-or-flight response, whether those threats come from a club-wielding competitor or an out-of-line employee. The good news is that we can shift our negativity bias so it doesn’t get in our way, allowing us to move to the trust-but-verify crowd or even the assume-good-intentions crowd. We can reroute neural pathways in our brains by intentionally responding in a calmer, more controlled manner.

    But first, we have to recognize we’re getting triggered and wrench control away from the amygdala (also known as the lizard brain).

    Recognizing the Fight-or-Flight Response

    Here are some sure-fire ways to know you’re in the middle of a fight-or-flight response.

    1. Your heart is beating like a trip hammer.
    2. You feel like you could lift a small car.

    What’s actually happening is that your brain is flooded with the stress hormones adrenalin and cortisol. Your heart rate increases and your breathing becomes fast and shallow. Your muscles tense, your pupils dilate, and you get tunnel vision. Your digestive tract shuts down as blood rushes to your extremities, and access to the logical part of your brain practically disappears. This is great if you need to fight or flee, not so great if you need to manage a delicate negotiation with someone who is driving you crazy.

    Grounding to Regain Control

    How do you calm down? You begin grounding. Take slow deep breaths. I recommend “square breathing,” also called tactical breathing. Imagine yourself breathing into the corners of a box. First, take a deep breath and imagine all the air going into the upper left corner of a box. Hold your breath for four seconds. Then exhale slowly for four seconds as you imagine moving to the upper-right corner. Hold for four seconds. Then use another four-second inhale to move to the lower-right corner. Hold for four seconds, and exhale slowly to get to the lower-left corner. By the time you make it around the box, your heart will start to slow down.

    Next, feel your feet on the ground–all ten toes–and go through an inventory of each major muscle group, tensing and relaxing each one as you go. Finally, focus on the information you can gather through your senses: what do you smell, taste, feel, and see? By the time you’ve done this, your prefrontal cortex (the thinking part of your brain) has begun to win the wrestling match with the amygdala

    Getting Curious

    Once your prefrontal cortex is calling the shots again, you can start asking questions to address the annoying behavior of a colleague or client. Ask yourself, “Does this really have anything to do with me or is this a symptom of a deeper issue—personal or professional? Is this person trying to be helpful, albeit ineffectively, or is this a ploy for attention? Where is the common ground here?”

    Once you refocus on helpful questions, it’s amazing how the annoying behavior can change, at least your perception of it. If you realize a person is acting out of fear or insecurity, for example, you can put them at ease to help them communicate more effectively. If you remember that this person is dealing with a personal issue, you may give them a little grace, understanding they are not behaving as they normally would.

    It’s also important to remember that people’s irritating behaviors can sometimes be a double-edged sword. We have to take the good with the bad. Here is a great video to illustrate the point.

    Pro Tip: Start Meetings with a Check-in

    If you are in a leadership position and regularly hold meetings, you may want to consider starting every meeting with a two-minute check-in using the following prompt: Is there anything you’d like to share about what’s going on for you this week, personally or professionally? It is amazing what people will share and how valuable this information can be to team dynamics.

    If you think your staff could benefit from a little professional development in this area, get in touch. I’m happy to present a short, entertaining talk on the subject.

  • Knowing Your Audience

    This is an excerpt from a guest lecture I gave to budding filmmakers and storytellers in Kirk Fuller’s Introduction to Video Production class at Mendocino College on September 21, 2019.

    When we are born, we are all fitted with an invisible pair of glasses. As babies, there is no glass in the frames, but almost immediately, life starts putting in different lenses. We get the lenses of our family’s values, the lenses of the various experiences of our upbringing, the lenses of social norms, the lenses of pivotal moments in our lives, personal and those shared by our whole generation. By the time we reach adolescence, we are all walking around with Coke-bottle lenses that distort the world in a very particular way.

    So it’s no wonder that we sometimes have trouble communicating with one another. While we try to describe the world right in front of us—the same world in front of our audience—we see it very differently.

    Walking Next to Someone Isn’t the Same as Walking in Their Shoes

    I was recently listening to City Arts and Lectures story on National Public Radio featuring James Forman, Jr., who worked as a public defender with many clients from terribly traumatic backgrounds full of violence and poverty, often young men raised by parents who were abusive, addicted to drugs, and intermittently incarcerated. Forman told a story of how he came up with ideas while walking to work and recommended the same practice to a client. The client responded, in essence, “When I’m walking along in my neighborhood, I’m just trying not to get jumped.” These men could have been walking down the very same street. Forman made the point that while he was walking alongside his clients, he was not in their world. He wasn’t looking through their lenses.

    The Lens We Use to See the World is Skewed by Our Generation

    While an innumerable number of variables makes up each person’s lens, there are commonalities by generation and by circumstance that bring us together. Generational lenses are powerful because people share both their current stage of life as well as common social influences, having grown up during the same era. Circumstantial lenses are powerful because, regardless of age and stage, people who are faced with a similar dilemma or opportunity can find common ground. For example, parents have a similar desire to do what’s best for their children, and cancer patients have a similar challenge in navigating a broken healthcare system.

    Probably one of the most important things to remember as we think about knowing our audience is that our audience is human, and humans make decisions based on emotion. It’s fine to provide facts, but recognize that we use those facts to fabricate the stories we tell ourselves, and it is our emotional investment in those stories that cause us to act (or not).

    Any time I begin working with a new client, I ask two questions: who do you want to reach and what do you want them to do as a result? These two questions inform every subsequent decision.

    We All Have Blinders On — the Trick is Learning to Get Past Them

    As we contemplate the who-do-you-want-to-reach question, it can be challenging to answer fully, because when we look through our own lenses, there are audiences we don’t see. It is incumbent upon us all to look for people at the edges of our lenses and then to enlist their help to reach people at the edges of their lenses, and so on until we’ve truly and fully defined whom we want to reach.

    During the U.S. Presidential campaign in 2012, Hillary Clinton supporters wore pink pussy hats to protest then-candidate Donald Trump’s treatment of women. Those who designed the hats left out large numbers of allies when then made the hats pink. Caucasian women have pink skin. People of color do not. That was a major missed opportunity. Instead of coming together as women, which would have been a larger and more powerful alliance, they came together as white women.

    Not only do we need to look at the edge of our lenses and seek out audiences who do not share our backgrounds, if we are to be effective storytellers, we must also understand the values of people at the edges of our familiar zone and beyond. This is definitely an area where generational differences are often in play.

    Baby Boomers

    The values of each generation are rarely mutually exclusive, but they are different. The Baby Boomers (born 1946-’64) generally believe the following: anything is possible; equal rights and equal opportunities matter; Boomers are extremely loyal to their children; they are optimistic and involved; they value personal gratification and personal growth; they question everything; and their financial motto is, “Spend now, worry later.”

    Gen X

    Generation X (born 1965-’80) sings a different tune. They believe in thinking globally and acting locally. They value diversity. They are self-reliant (having been latch-key kids), entrepreneurial, and pragmatic. They seek a work-life balance, and as a group, they are highly educated. They and the generations before them value duty, family, and integrity above social justice and authenticity.


    Millennials (born 1981-1995) are a huge generation–about 95 million strong–and the first to be technologically fluent, having grown up in the era of personal computing. They value authenticity, happiness, diversity, sharing, and discovery. They want corporations and other organizations to put their money where their mouth is and are loyal to brands that align with their values.

    Gen Z

    Generation Z (born 1996-2019) includes the up-and-comers. These folks are young and idealistic, but also put their ideals into action. One trend that differentiates Gen Zers from Millennials is how they define gender and beauty – both are more fluid. Gen Z is also more comfortable talking about mental health and they are all about instant gratification, which often comes in the form of convenience. Gen Z is values-based and action-oriented. Be aware that they have short attention spans, so if you want their attention, you have to make it worth their while quickly or they’ll move on.

    Emotional Connection

    So, as we try to answer the questions of who do you want to reach and what do you want them to do as a result, consider using a values-based approach. Tell a story that matters. If I am your audience, show me how you can help me align my actions with my values by joining with you and I will be yours forever. Regardless of who you’re talking to, remember we are all connected by universal human truths. We all want to belong, to be accepted, to feel safe and to feel an affinity for those aligned with our values.

  • Letting Your Inner Control Freak Rest

    Many of us prefer to complete projects on our own rather than accepting help from others or delegating part of the work, even if it means sleepless nights or sacrificing personal time. We may be tired and sometimes resentful of the time it takes to get the job done right, but we are damn sure not going to let someone else screw it up. Allowing others to work on our projects can feel like allowing a crack in the dam, and we all know cracks can be a dam’s undoing.

    If you’re nodding your head in agreement, I sympathize. I have perfectionistic tendencies and while they can contribute to high-quality outcomes, sometimes the price is too high.

    I was recently talking to the leader of a successful company and he said, “Good leadership means explaining what you want, making sure the employee has the resources and training to get the job done, and then getting out of the way.”

    “Good leadership means explaining what you want, making sure the employee has the resources and training to get the job done, and then getting out of the way.”

    The last part is the hardest and the most important.

    If you want to build a team, you’re going to have to let go a little. There’s no getting around it. This doesn’t mean throwing out your high standards and putting your reputation on the chopping block. It does mean stepping back a little.

    People will make mistakes. It’s inevitable. But here are some steps to build strong teams and encourage them to do their best work.

    Hire the right people.

    Start with good people. A thorough vetting process is key. Hiring out of desperation rarely ends well. Better to have everyone be overworked for a short time than to rush into hiring a bad apple. In addition to job skills, check for alignment with values and work ethic. If your company culture has everyone arriving promptly at 8:00 am, let new hires know timeliness isn’t optional.

    Communicate expectations.

    Once you’ve got the right people on board, it’s all about clear expectations. If you have a high-functioning team, it’s worth sharing more than just budget constraints, deadlines, and work specifications. Explain the big picture. What problem are you solving? Is this the best way to do so? One of the benefits of having team members is the synergy of multiple points of view.

    One of the benefits of having team members is the synergy of multiple points of view.

    Check in but don’t hover.

    Once a project is in motion, make course corrections periodically and then back off again. Empower people to make their own decisions as much as possible. When giving feedback, look at the overall progress before diving into the details. And above all, resist the temptation to take back delegated work before it is finished if you find a small mistake.

    After it’s all done, review the results and the process.

    Start with the positive. Then ask open-ended questions like these:

    • Which decisions, if any, would you make differently next time?
    • Let’s review the original goals/specs. Did we meet them? Why/Why not?
    • Did we have the information we needed from the client? Is there anything more we should collect next time?

    Reviewing a project’s successes and failures in a collaborative atmosphere can help everyone improve. Just be sure to set the ground rules first so people understand the goal is to learn, not to blame others for any mistakes.

    If you naturally lean toward being a micromanager, just remember that believing in people helps them believe in themselves–and confidence helps people perform to their highest potential.

  • Why “Compromise” Isn’t a Dirty Word

    As politicians reach for the outer edges of their respective parties, the ones who compromise are being labeled as sell-outs rather than pragmatists, leaving those of us in the political center without much hope for reasonable leadership. And it isn’t just in politics, the art of compromise seems to be disappearing in boardrooms, town halls, and among everyday Americans. Not cool.

    We’ve always had leaders who hold firm to an ideal, and I recognize that those folks can serve an important purpose: setting a standard, providing a visionary goal. But when two opposing sides entrench, we go nowhere. It baffles me that so many people consider “uncompromising” a compliment when synonyms include words like rigid, obstinant, intransigent, stubborn, and pig-headed. Are these the traits we admire? I sure don’t.

    The intense political polarization in our country is tearing us apart, which is heartbreaking because I really believe so many more people are in the center than on the fringes. But when the political discourse is dominated by fringe elements, we all begin looking at our neighbors with a bit more suspicion. I guess by pandering to the people on the outermost edges of political ideas, politicians and others hope to engage those who are more passionate; that is, more apt to act (donate, volunteer, attend a rally) than those of us in the center.

    As Americans, we have so much more that unites us than divides us. I live in a small town where I have friends of all political stripes, from libertarians to liberals to conservatives. Mostly, we all want to provide for our families and to be allowed to live our lives according to our own values.

    As Americans, we have so much more that unites us than divides us.

    As a public relations professional, I help clients develop and share their messages with the goal of convincing others to join their cause, to align with their way of thinking enough to support whatever they’re promoting, whether it’s ideas, products or services. To develop effective messaging, I spend a fair amount of time trying to understand what motivates various audiences, and what I find is that there is a tremendous amount of common ground to play with.

    Unfortunately, just because I can find common ground doesn’t mean it’s easy to compromise. It’s often hard to know when to compromise, how much to compromise, and with whom to compromise. Giving away ground on a position requires trust, and that’s hard to come by in this polarized environment. I guess I would say this: if you’re in an argument where both sides stick to the issues rather than degrading into a mud-slinging contest, maybe someone could be brave enough to suggest a way forward that gives each side a little of what they want. And when we find ourselves being hijacked by emotion, we need to recognize it in ourselves.

    As the 2020 political campaigns ramp up, I hope those of us in the center will be willing to speak up to support a more pragmatic approach, one that includes a little compromise. I think we need to publicly applaud leaders who work with counterparts across the aisle to make America a prosperous nation where people of all descriptions can work hard to achieve success.

  • Try to Avoid Dumb “S.M.A.R.T.” Goals

    Without goals, you have no way to answer the all-important question, “Are we there yet?”

    Goals help employees coordinate their efforts, so everyone is rowing in the same direction. Goals help team members understand how they fit into an organization’s overall purpose, fostering a sense of belonging and meaning at work. Goals also provide a litmus test when opportunities arise. Instead of being distracted by each shiny, new idea, goals allow you to ask a simple question: will this opportunity help us achieve what we’re trying to achieve? If yes, pursue it. If no, don’t.

    Some goals are better than others, both on merit and by the way they’re crafted.

    An effective goal can galvanize a team, give them something to shoot for. An ill-considered goal can be demoralizing, either because it’s out of reach, because it’s based on a wrong-headed idea, or because it’s so poorly written that it’s hard to know how to proceed.

    The idea of SMART goals is credited to a water power company executive, George T. Doran, who in 1981 wrote, “There’s a S.M.A.R.T. Way to Write Management’s Goals and Objectives.” SMART is an acronym for specific, measurable, achievable (or assignable), realistic and time-bound. Not every goal must meet all five criteria, but often, the more the better.

    SMART is an acronym for specific, measurable, achievable (or assignable), realistic and time-bound.

    Unfortunately, I see people creating dumb goals just to meet the five criteria. When setting a goal, the most important consideration is this: will achieving the goal have a meaningful impact? If not, it doesn’t matter that it’s specific, measurable, achievable (or assignable), realistic and time-bound.

    Let’s say you want to reduce childhood obesity among socioeconomically disadvantaged schoolchildren in your area. A worthwhile SMART goal could be to aim for a three percent increase in the number of fifth-grade students who fall within the Presidential Youth Fitness Program Healthy Fitness Zone for body mass index by the year 2020. Once you have the big goal, you can create actions that support it.

    You might consider working with public schools that have a high percentage of students who meet the criteria for free and reduced lunches (to pinpoint the socioeconomically disadvantaged). A successful program could include age-appropriate education at every grade level about why maintaining a healthy weight is important and how to do so, and a rewards program for kids who participate in a school-sponsored walking and/or fitness program. The program may also include education for parents about the dangers of childhood obesity and practical ways to provide healthy, low-cost, nutritious meals, as well as opportunities for their children to be more physically active. By measuring the fifth-graders at the beginning of the goal period, and then periodically over time, you could tell if the actions were having the desired effect. If they were, keep going. If not, adjust accordingly. This is an example of a smart SMART goal.

    Sadly, I often see people basing a goal around what’s measurable rather than what’s important. For example, to secure grant funding, a group of people interested in reducing poverty promised to complete 125 household surveys and hold a summit to discuss poverty in the 12 months. The surveys and a summit should have been actions that supported a meaningful SMART goal like: reduce the number of homeless people in our region by five percent by the year 2020.

    It is better to have a meaningful goal than a SMART goal. Ideally, a goal can be both, but if you have to choose, go for the meaningful goal. SMART goals are an excellent way to craft goals, but if you only focus on the wrong quantitative measures or completely ignore qualitative measures, your goals won’t get you where you want to go.

    If you want help crafting goals that will galvanize your team and get everyone moving in the right direction, let us know.