Last week I got to do something I haven’t done in over two years.  I finally made it back to the movie theater!  I’m an 80’s kid so getting to see Top Gun: Maverick was such a treat.  There was one scene that really touched me.  Val Kilmer’s character told Tom Cruises character “You need to let go.”  Now, I’m not giving any plot line away here, but the reason it had such an impact on me is that I feel like this has been the story of my life lately. Letting go of any fears I have about scaling the business. Letting go of a way of life with my youngest going off to college.  Letting go of being in the middle of every client engagement.  Letting go of well-ingrained habits that are negatively impacting my health. Letting go of relationships that don’t serve me. Letting go of long-held beliefs and assumptions.  Letting go of needing to make everyone happy.

But, I must admit this scenario isn’t always the case for me. I don’t always take the time to acknowledge what is going on inside of me or even in the world around me. Life gets in the way, and it is incredibly easy just to keep busy and stay content with the status quo. I chose to write this week on a subject that I struggle with because while we strive to help others grow, we aren’t without fault, of course.  . At Steople we believe that we should be walking the talk – that means everyone should constantly be stretching in their leadership abilities in order to become more effective. For me, the last few years have included always having “One Big Thing” that I was working on.  Some of these have included not being a bottleneck, slowing down while communicating more, implementing more automation to improve processes, and handing off work.  But, one of the biggest ones I have struggled with is acknowledgment.  I am a person who will always thank you, but not always remembers to acknowledge the good work.  I am a person that is fairly high on emotional intelligence, but not good at slowing down and acknowledging someone’s low performance.  See how one type of acknowledgment is positive and one is more negative?

Acknowledgment is defined both as displaying the appreciation for something good and as expressing the existence of something negative. Often, they go hand in hand.  Being an intentional leader who can acknowledge the good (for example, other’s achievements) will demonstrate that you are focused on results and able to share the credit. Being an intentional leader who can acknowledge the bad (for example, your own mistakes) will demonstrate that you are responsible, honest, and relatable.  If that is the case, why do many of us struggle with acknowledgment?

Underlying Reasons Why Leaders Don’t Acknowledge the Obvious

It is important to understand why people aren’t willing or able to acknowledge the good and the bad.  While understanding the “why” doesn’t solve the problem, it does shed light on others and/or our own behaviors.  Understanding what those underlying causes might be will allow us to have more grace with others and name what is really going on “under the hood” as we try to grow past our own old triggers. The following are some of the possibilities:

  1. If an individual is competitive—because they need constantly to prove themselves—then explicitly saying they are wrong or paying tribute to another’s achievements might make them feel as though they’re admitting inferiority, ineptitude, or defeat.
  2. If an individual was “recognition-deprived” when growing up, praising another might make them feel uneasy because they have been so accustomed to looking at things with a very critical eye.
  3. If a person thinks that another’s accomplishments and contributions are no more than what ought to be expected from them, they may not regard such acts as even worthy of acknowledgment.
  4. If a person believes that lauding another for their achievements might go to the recipient’s head—that is, lead them to become conceited or egotistical—then they may intentionally withhold recognition.
  5. If there is a culture of retribution where people have a need to “cut and cover” themselves to survive, they may be more likely to either throw someone else under the bus and/or not even acknowledge their own part in the problem.
  6. If an individual isn’t very motivated by acknowledgment themselves, it might not even occur to them that slowing down enough to recognize a person’s efforts and accomplishments might be in order.

The Importance of Acknowledging The Good

There is one simple action that can dramatically increase any leader’s success in gaining the support and engagement of his or her team members – acknowledge great work. That means calling out excellent accomplishments by your employees or peers right away, authentically, and in consistent increments.

Research by Harvard Business Review article involving 980 respondents from companies with more than 1,000 employees, suggests a special connection between acknowledgment and job satisfaction. Seven out of 10 employees who report they’ve received some form of appreciation from their team members say they’re happy with their jobs. Without that recognition, just 39% say they’re satisfied. And frequency plays a big role. Among employees who were called out for great work in the past month, 80% feel fulfilled at work. That number declines sharply with time: 75% satisfied (recognized in the past 1-2 months); 71% (past 3-5 months); 69% (past 6-12 months); 51% (past 1-2 years); 42% (more than 2 years ago).

We don’t think you have to worry about creating a specific “program” to acknowledge those good things you see happening in the workplace.  Simply remember 4 things: Don’t wait. Be specific. Be genuine. Treat employees like snowflakes…okay, I may need to explain that last one…the idea is that every employee responds differently to recognition. Many appreciate public praise. Others cringe if they’re made the center of attention. Know your team and tailor your acknowledgment so it produces the greatest impact for everyone.

The Importance of Acknowledging the Bad

Reasonable people realize when a mistake has been made and often, owning up to it solves the problem. Not owning up to it adds fuel and ignites a problem you may not be able to contain later. When a delivery is late, when your service was off the mark, when you completely forget an important deadline or phone call, don’t try to deny it. As soon as you realize it’s you, or your team, that’s dropped the ball, don’t make excuses.

Everyone makes mistakes. Literally everyone. Odds are good if mistakes are not typical for you, people will be appreciative and lenient when you come at them with honesty. You’ll also build up trust because everyone knows how hard it is to come forward and own your errors. Be courageously transparent and people will notice.

Believe it or not, some great companies celebrate mistakes internally with the intention of learning from them. Online giant Etsy gives out an annual award—a real three-armed sweater— to an employee who’s made an error. This demonstrates that accidents are acknowledged as a source of data, not something embarrassing to shy away from. The sweater goes to whoever made the most surprising error, not the worst one, as a reminder to examine the gap between how things are expected to happen and how they do.  And it absolutely improves innovation and decision-making in the process because people are not afraid to make mistakes!

What About the Ugly?

Now, as you know I am a big advocate of transparency as a leader, so I am going to say something here that might not be very popular.  What I’ve seen over the last several years in working with clients is that another responsibility of a leader is to go to bat for your team.  A leader in touch with their team’s capabilities, workload, intent, and environment can “protect” their team from the Ugly at times.  This might mean standing up to their board, it might mean not delivering bad news prematurely, or it might mean taking up for one of their team members over an established relationship with a client or vendor.  Now, that shouldn’t be the go-to or begin to become an unhealthy dynamic, but being courageously authentic and sometimes standing in the line of fire for your team can be key in certain situations.

As a leader, it is necessary for you to go above and beyond to acknowledge both the positives and the negatives…and being courageous in the meantime.  Being consistent in this will pay dividends in building your reputation as an effective leader.  Not to mention, being able to navigate the positive/negative ratio builds your credibility.

Have you ever had a month that was a blur?  I would say that May was definitely that month for me.  My son, Jake, graduated from High School, which for those of you with kids who are launching into the “real world” means senior pictures, iconic moments, parties, family gatherings, and a senior trip.  Before heading off to his freshman year at the University of Oklahoma this fall, the senior finale was his graduation trip to Mexico.  I went as a chaperone, along with several other parents, to ensure that all 25 seniors stayed alive and well and got back to the states safely.  Mission accomplished!

Just before the senior trip, I was asked to speak at a leadership conference by one of our global clients.  The topic was Psychological Safety on High-Performing Teams, with around 200 leaders, and the location was Waikiki Beach, Hawaii.  Not bad, right?  I flew directly from Mexico into Honolulu and dived right in with the leadership team.  The agenda was packed full of really great exercises and experiences.  This organization does amazing work saving cancer patients’ lives, so their Noble Purpose is, obviously, incredibly important.  But, as with any company that is publicly traded, has lived through a pandemic, continues to try to get good talent, and is plagued with supply chain issues, they have had their struggles over the last two years.  The great news is they have an incredibly competent leadership team and employee base and are working through those challenges with grit and grace.

As with any client work I am a part of, I did a quick “post-game review” as I flew home from the gorgeous Hawaiian islands.  I reflected on the high points of what really resonated with me from this gathering that other companies and leaders might be able to learn from.  I wanted to share with you today three of my observations:

Spend the money to get your people together.  Like many of you, this company had a “built-up” travel budget for the last couple of years which allowed them to pull out all the stops for this corporate event.  They were able to mix strategic meetings, tactical discussions, get-to-know-you sessions, and intact teamwork with fun events such as a beautiful sunset cruise, amazing food, and a lively luau.  Even with all of that, do you know what the #1 comments were from most people at the conference?  They went something like this…”We needed to get together.  Some of us hadn’t ever even met in person.  The efficiencies that come from 1:1 impromptu discussions will absolutely pay off.  I never understood how my job impacted these other areas of the company so much.  We missed one another. Can we do this every year?  It was fantastic!”
Keep core purpose and core values central in all you do.  Throughout the conference, the main tie back to everything they did was their Core Purpose.  It is a good one!  “We help people with cancer and rare diseases live longer, better quality lives.”  Everything they do drives towards this purpose which is extremely inspiring.  They consistently talked about and tied in their Core Values which essentially are the guardrails of their behavior.  They strive to be extraordinary, they pursue their goals with determination and integrity, and everyone counts.  They made it simple and relevant to the people that dedicate their lives to this company.  The teams had such a blast making a montage of videos representing each of these core values.  At the end of the last day, one of the comments from their board was “I’ve never seen a company as effective as you are in embedding their core ideology into the culture.”
Share the customer’s experiences with employees.  One of the most poignant moments of the conference came when the physicians that actually work with the patients and the patients themselves voiced how the work that these leaders do day in and day out has positively impacted their lives.  The patients did an amazing job painting the picture of what could have happened and what actually occurred thanks to employee efforts.  The team members had tears in their eyes as they listened to how their core purpose has come to life – saving people’s lives.  Some of the various employees (such as sales teams or patient-facing teams) hear these stories often, but they get so busy they neglect to pass on this incredibly inspiring information.  Slowing down to allow this storytelling to become a part of the folklore of the company can create a synergy that drives those going after the goal of healing cancer to go above and beyond.  It can be magical!
So is there anything that resonated for you in these three key lessons?  If so, what can you do to make magic happen for your team or company? I saw the benefits of the focus given to these three initiatives come to life right before my eyes – it was uplifting and I came away inspired.  Keep in mind for your team, it doesn’t have to be a huge initiative…it can be a small tweak here or there that makes a really big change for the better!

 

As Told by Sean Williams, Team Member of Flintco Construction
I opened my eyes slowly as the sun streamed through the cracks of the thin curtains that hung haphazardly over the small window across from my cot.  I moved slowly getting oriented to the new world of Rwanda I had become a part of only a short 18 hours ago.  I could hear the chickens clucking outside under the open window along with the tinkling of laughing children in the distance.  It had been a long 36 hours of travel when we finally arrived yesterday afternoon.

Our Journey In
As I lay there I reflected on how this amazing adventure had come to be.   After our leadership had been introduced to Bridges to Prosperity at a construction industry event, they realized the tie our core values had to their mission, so the decision was made to join in their efforts to build much-needed bridges. The call went out and we had responded, knowing that we could make a big difference in another part of the world. The last few months had been filled with planning meetings, getting various immunizations, gathering donations, and purchasing construction tools and safety gear.  We had just kissed our families goodbye and traveled halfway around the world.  Touching down yesterday in a land where none of us knew the language or how to navigate foreign kiosks and signs was definitely eye-opening!  But as we exited the airport with all of our luggage, tools, and safety gear we were warmly greeted by our driver, Bati, who was transporting our team to the hotel for the night.  With 10 of us and our staff, we somehow squeezed all of us and our gear into Bati’s for a midnight trip through Kigali.  The rest of the evening/night was a blur, as I don’t remember checking into our hotel.  I awoke still tired from the days of travel to find breakfast waiting for us and praying that there would be coffee.  The coffee did not disappoint nor did the breakfast of Shakshuka with freshly made bread.  As our team trickled in for breakfast;  our drivers, who would be helping get to a from the site every day, arrived in two old green Land Cruisers.  As we talked logistics with our drivers, the first priority would be getting to the local market to stock up on food before venturing out to the remote village.  Upon arrival at the local market, with our driver’s assistance, we divided and conquered our list to load up the 10 grocery carts…enough to last the entire two weeks we were here.

It had been a slow 4-hour trek out to the village. As we rolled along, the roads were in pretty good shape for the most part and we had very few cars that passed us.  As we bumped along the driver informed us that Rwanda is called “The land of 10,000 hills” for a reason.  There is not a flat piece of land anywhere in the country… there are hills, there are twists, and there are turns. The country was just gorgeous.  I leaned my forehead on the window just watching the countryside go by simply soaking up the sun.  At that exact moment, our Land Cruiser made a sharp left turn and dropped down into this dirt road.  That’s when things changed, and reality hit.  There had been recent rain and so the rivers were overflowing and a huge body of water was running wild right beside us.  I peered out seeing our tires were barely skimming the edge of the river.  We began the steep climb up on a very rutted dirt road. In the back, we could hear our groceries jostling around and we quickly grabbed onto the “sissy bars” to stay put.  After some time, we came to a clearing with the village spread before us.  We soon began to see what village life is really like…there were village people everywhere hard at work on their daily tasks. We saw women carrying water jugs, men tending to livestock, and children on what looked like recess playing an unfamiliar game.  I was entranced by this whole different way of living day by day with no electricity and being, for the most part, off the grid.

The village of 1,000 people was waiting for us as we squeezed the Land Cruisers through the 12 feet wide entrance into the village. We saw heads pop out from all the thatched roof home doors and windows. They were wide-eyed and looked to be asking what was going on.  Immediately what seemed like the whole village was surrounding us and we carefully stepped out of the vehicle realizing we couldn’t actually communicate due to the language barrier so busily tried to get our gear out as our driver translated what was going on.  The thing I’ll always remember about that moment is the curiosity and wonder each of these groups had about each other.  We knew we were embarking on something both strange and wonderful.  They bustled us through to the 400 square feet home with our gear, clothes, and food. It was tight accommodations. And so we were here!  Exhausted and excited at the same time.  Sleep came fast and this morning I woke to a feeling of wonder that we made it this far. Today we would make our way to the site where we would build a bridge that would so positively impact this village.

Teamwork Made the Dream Work
Everyone in the house is starting to stir and after a quick breakfast, we load up our gear.  None of us know what is ahead of us, but we all have that feeling of intense anticipation.  Although we all work for the same company, before this trip we didn’t know each other at all.  But, we understand (and this falls back on our ethos) why we were here and why we were chosen.  That is our motivation. And the one thing we also know as a Flintco team is that we’re not going to fail.  We are outside our comfort zones, but we are going to make this happen.

What we weren’t aware of was how much we would bond over this experience.  We had little contact with the outside world.  We all worked seamlessly together over the coming two weeks, living our core values, and gaining confidence in our roles and abilities.  Every day we would debrief what went well or didn’t go well.  We laughed and cried together.  We would stay ahead of schedule and begin to integrate into the community.  As the day progressed, the village people would come to rely on us and us on them.

The Village Culture
I will never forget the people of the village. The atrocities that happened in this beautiful country in the 90s hung like a cloud over all of us throughout the trip.  Initially, I noticed they were nervous and a little bit hesitant with us – they honestly didn’t think we were real at first.  But, that first day, as we were all standing on the edge of the hillside talking about the day’s logistics and doing our safety kickoff… we consciously integrated ourselves within the community. We just went and just spread out. There were some strange stares… like what are you guys doing? Why are you standing beside me?  And the crazy thing is, it wasn’t anything we had talked about doing before it happened it was totally intuitive!

Our first day on the ground was awkward. Initially, we used a lot of nodding and very little speaking. As an entire group, we immediately got into a great rhythm.  I noticed early on that the villagers would look over and see that we were working hard and doing good kinds of things.  This definitely helped with the trust!  By the second day, they knew we were in it until the end…we were all in to help them.  We got to know them and what their names were, who their family was, were able to say simple words like hello, and started to learn more of the language. They learned a little English and we learned a little Rwanda!  We were part of beautiful ceremonies, played their sports, and ate the meals they offered. By the end we had friends.

The Bridge is Built!
As for the noble purpose of why we were here – it was all about saving lives by building the Bridge. We listened to story after story about the loss of about 10 people a year trying to cross this bridge. They basically had only a log to cross this river. The new bridge ended up being 90 meters…It’s basically the length of a football field.  Imagine walking down an incredibly steep hill for half a mile to get down to the log and shimmying across to see family members, getting medical care, fetching food and water…all that is solved now with a beautiful bridge!

Upon completion of the bridge, there was an amazing celebration.  There was singing to bless this monumental accomplishment. It was incredibly powerful.  They had the tribal members, leaders in the community, and everyone that helped speak about the bridge.  They spoke of the importance to the community and everyone who was there took an initial walk over the bridge to christen it. What those 100+ people walking across the bridge meant was that it was safe to use, and everyone was meant to celebrate.  The singing, the dancing, and the gratitude expressed by this beautiful group of people… were inspiring.

Cristina’s Take
What an incredible story of a newly established team (Flintco, Bridges to Prosperity, and the Rwandan people) working so well together!  Can you think of a time when you worked on a team that seemed to flow effortlessly?  Reflecting on it, humanity’s greatest accomplishments have resulted from team efforts. No one is an island; people everywhere survive and thrive by pulling together. Ironically, however, organizations are finding it harder, not easier, to build successful teams. Numerous studies show that only 20% of teams are considered high performing.  This is especially true in fast-paced 24/7 global teams that are constantly switching across functions.

What we see so much of the time in our work with teams is that there is a “Professional Culture Clash”.  Different areas in an enterprise tend to approach a common project or initiative very differently as it relates to jargon, timelines, and approach to the work.  Sometimes this might be due to different skill sets and personalities that, if channeled effectively, might result in diversity in thinking…which is positive! However, so much of the time there is actually a “Scarcity Mindset” which is where people on the team feel as though they are competitors on the same team…which is not a positive! So, what made this Flintco team so successful?  I believe so much of it had to do with two things:  Alignment around core values and evidence of psychological safety.

  1. Alignment on Core Values. Values are powerful business imperatives that provide insight into a company’s impact and direction. Values need to resonate on a deep level with employees and leadership to be effective components of day-to-day decision-making — not being stagnant and only displayed on office walls or coffee mugs. They are the filters that help guide all our actions and behaviors.  Flintco’s core values are firmly embedded in its Ethos and in its culture.  They are committed to the success of the overall team, they believe mediocrity is not acceptable, and they stand by the fact that they will positively impact other communities with their knowledge and skills.  This absolutely shined through when you think about how core values drive behavior on a team – they came in clutch for this team!  Question:  Does your organization live and breathe your core values?
  1. Evidence of Psychological Safety.  Psychological safety is the climate of the team in which one believes that you can speak up…essentially it is permission for candor.  It is foundational to have psych safety on a team to ensure the best decisions are made, mistakes are noticed and corrected, and innovation flourishes.  Typically, people don’t speak up if they feel what they have to say won’t be received well.  It is something called “Discounting the Future” where the potential humiliation of the here and now is more significant than the potential for harm in the future for not speaking up.  What was remarkable about this trip was that psychological safety was almost immediately established based on the trust established by actions taken across all three groups.  The reason it happened quickly was after a couple of days of working together it was apparent that people were competent, they would follow through on what they said they would do, they had each other’s back, and they authentically cared.  The four key components of trust.  Question:  Can you say that there is trust and psychological safety established on your team?

If the answer to both of those final questions above was “Not Sure” or “No,” then I encourage you, dear readers, to immerse yourself in the literature of Simon Sinek or Amy Edmondson’s work.  These two gifted researchers and authors will take you a long way on the journey of embedding these two important realities in your team culture.  As always, at Steople. we are here as well to talk through any questions you have in building the type of team Flintco lead in Rwanda. Have a great rest of your week!

As I sat across from the company president in a beautiful conference room the light reflected off of the marble boardroom table. I was there to tell him that things were not well in his company. I had been hired to “take the pulse” of the employees by conducting focus groups. It turns out the fissures in the employee base were deeper than any of us had guessed. He peered at me as he sipped a cup of coffee and picked apart a blueberry muffin. “I’m hoping it’s not all bad,” he stated. I could see the worry etched on his face, after all, this company was his pride and joy – something he had created and nurtured from the ground up. People in the company knew the stories well of how he went without, fighting to make payroll and keep the lights on, sacrificing his personal life, and fending off competitors along the way. He was now the leader of a multi-million-dollar business that somehow seemed to keep stumbling over its own success.

Over the next two hours, we went over all of the feedback – both positives and negatives. Themes that seemed consistent and not just “one-off” accounts. Eventually, we got to some hot button issues. I say hot button because when I relayed some of the feedback, I became angry at his reaction. As many of you know, if you have some righteous anger or indignation about an issue, it is probably because whatever is happening in the room is stepping on your own value system. Initially, I assumed he would be mortified by what he heard from his employees. “There isn’t air conditioning in some of the warehouses.” Silence. “The workers actually have to step outside to get some air so they don’t pass out and then go back into work.” Silence. “It is limiting productivity, not to mention the morale of the staff.” A cold stare. “Did you know about this?” I asked. He replied, “When I was coming up through the ranks in this industry, I endured those same conditions, why should they be any different?”  Wow.  The I-walked-five-miles-through-the-snow argument.

Power is a fundamental force in life, something infants can recognize as early as 10-months old.  For as long as people have formed groups, human relationships have been structured by hierarchy, dominance, status, and control.  Power permeates all aspects of our social interactions with friends, loved ones, family members, and co-workers.  Indeed many of the problems we struggle with within the workplace – the issues that make work-life arduous and painful, whether you are a CEO or an entry-level employee – are problems related to power.  Honestly, in my humble opinion, the success of every endeavor depends on how leaders use their power, and whether they can effectively utilize the authority of their roles.

A Word of Caution
If power were being marketed by a pharmaceutical company it would have some serious side effects listed. It can intoxicate. It can corrupt. It can make you forget where you came from. Many of you may have known people afflicted with power like this over the course of your career.  People that worked their way up through the ranks, only to end up seemingly cold and out of touch with the realities of the real challenges frontline employees experience.  But can power alter the brain’s neural pathways over time and, if so, is there anything that we can do about it? The historian Henry Adams metaphorically described power as “a sort of tumor that ends by killing the victim’s sympathies”. Recent research may actually back up that quote.

In a study conducted by UC Berkeley, it was found that individuals in positions of power (participants in studies spanning two decades) acted as if they had suffered a traumatic brain injury – becoming more impulsive, less risk-aware, and, crucially, less adept at seeing things from other people’s point of view. The research also found that powerful people performed worse when trying to identify what someone was feeling or guessing how a colleague might interpret a remark.

One of the most troubling parts of the study found that leaders in power, over time, had stopped mimicking others. In the world of psychology, we call that “mirroring”. Keep in mind that mirroring happens in our brain and, for the most part, without our awareness.  For the non-powerful participants, mirroring worked fine. The neural pathways they would use fired strongly. What about the more powerful groups? Less so. Was the mirroring response broken? More like anesthetized. Power, the research shows, primes our brain to screen out peripheral information. As far as work goes, this might help with efficiency, but it has a detrimental effect on being able to pick up social cues.  Laughing when others laugh or grimacing when others grimace helps trigger the same feelings those others are experiencing and provides a window into what they are feeling.  When leaders lose the ability to mirror, they lose important data that allows them to connect with others.  This is the “power paradox”.   It seems that once some of us have power, we lose much of the emotional intelligence we utilized to be in that leadership position in the first place.

Staying Humble
The thing is, there is a certain amount of hubris (lack of humility) that typically comes with power.  “Hubris syndrome,” as defined in a recently published article, “is a disorder of the possession of power, particularly power which has been associated with overwhelming success, held for a period of years and with minimal constraint on the leader.”  Many are guilty of this…even the great leaders.  Winston Churchill’s wife, Clementine, held him accountable for his hubris and had the courage to write, “My Darling Winston, I must confess that I have noticed deterioration in your manner.  You are not as kind as you used to be.” Written on the day Hitler entered Paris, torn up, then sent anyway, the letter was not a complaint but an alert: Someone had confided to her, she wrote, that Churchill had been acting “so contemptuous” toward subordinates in meetings that “no ideas will be forthcoming.” So it really does afflict the best of us and is definitely a cautionary tale.

Now, I have told you one of the big potential pitfalls that come with leadership. So how do we avoid the possibility of these changes that come with power?  The answer is simple.  Stay grounded.  Have people who tether you to reality and challenge your thinking.  Monitor your mood. Stay connected to the real work your people do day in and day out.  Stay out of the ivory tower.  Surround yourself with “no” people.  Constantly get feedback on how you are showing up.  Take failures personally. And, most importantly, don’t lose touch with the WHY of what you do every day.  As one of my favorite coaching clients once asked, “Don’t our people deserve great leaders?”

This last week I attended the annual professional association conference that I’ve been a part of since 2008.  I look forward to it every year seeing the smiling faces of so many colleagues. One of the keynotes we were lucky enough to hear from this year was award-winning reporter, editor, and producer Dwayne Bray of ESPN.  Over the past 20 years, he has written and produced some of the most important sports stories.  As we listened to stories about Bryant Gumbel and Michael Jordan and Tom Brady, among others…then he began to take questions.

One of the questions asked was about the lack of diversity at the top of the NFL coaching ranks.  Just to be clear, 70% of the players are black, there is one black coach and no black team owners. Just today I caught the story of the football commissioner talking about this exact subject. As I listened, I became curious about the NFL as a business.  As many of you know, I am a huge football fan…enough that my “girl’s” trip this January was going to see the LA Rams play the San Francisco 49ers at SoFi Stadium in LA. It was a blast and, of course, this weekend we will all be watching the Superbowl! But as I paused and put on my consultant hat…I asked myself “Within this organization called the National Football League, what do they get right or wrong?” and “How did the two high-performing teams within this organization playing in the Superbowl rise to the top?”

NFL STRENGTHS AND WEAKNESSES
When you begin to really analyze an organization’s goals and strategy, one of the first things you want to look at it is Core Values.  What you want to see are values that really resonate, aren’t stale, and that live in the language of the leaders of the organization.  This is what was posted on the National Football League’s website:

1.    Respect – Everyone matters.  Everyone contributes. We celebrate diverse opinions and perspectives.
2.    Integrity – We do the right thing when no one is looking, and even if it’s unpopular when they are looking.
3.    Responsibility to Team – As a team, we support one another.  We depend on one another. Everything we do has a consequence for someone else.
4.    Resiliency – Everyone matters. Everyone contributes.  We turn losses into lessons.

Overall, if this was an organization that I was consulting with, I would say these seem consistent with what you hear NFL leaders aspire to.  But I would want to understand how they “live” in the organization by looking at policies, talent management practices, community outreach, and their strategy.

Now, just like any organization…sometimes the NFL gets it right and sometimes they get it wrong.  Over time, some of the charges that people have leveled at the NFL is that it favors the owners over the players and fans (ticket prices), that they play favorites with some player and team infractions, they lack making player’s safety a priority, and their stand on player protests, drugs, and domestic violence is not where it should be.  It didn’t feel right to talk about the Superbowl hype without mentioning these issues as well.  These problems are something that many organizations struggle with and try to find a way to overcome.

HIGH PERFORMING TEAMS AND LEADERS
The most important part of any organization are the teams that operate within it.  This Sunday we will see the top two teams in the NFL organization battle it out on the field.  Those two teams have a couple of great quarterbacks in Joe Burrows for the Bengals and Matthew Stafford for the Rams. As you have probably heard from me before, leaders are about 70% of the impact on the culture of a team.  So, what are some of the traits that got these two leaders to the highest stage?

As I researched these two quarterbacks there were three traits that really set each of them apart.  When we work within companies, we are constantly looking for those people either already in the organization or those looking to be hired that are high potential, high performing individuals.  The three traits I chose to highlight here are more hard-wired in nature vs. those developed over time.  As you read through this, be thinking about what traits you bring to the table in your own roles.

SUPERBOWL LEADERS
Matthew Stafford is the quarterback for the Los Angeles Rams. He played college football at Georgia, where he was a first-team All-American, and was selected first overall by the Detroit Lions in the 2009 NFL Draft.  These are the top three strengths he is bringing into the Superbowl:

1.    Focused 
As the Rams begins preparation for this weekend’s game with walk-through practices, Stafford is shutting out the Super Bowl hype, leaving ticket requests to his wife Kelly and the team, and keeping his mind focused solely on the game. “Dive into the football as much as you possibly can,” he said of his approach. “My biggest thing is, don’t look at the calendar. Whatever the day is, go out there and execute as best you can.” This is nothing new for Stafford.  Over the years, he has always stated that his only focus is his family and football.
2.    Humble 
Those who are closest to leaders know what their strengths are.  The Ram’s head coach, Sean McVay recently reflected on Stafford.  “I think one of the unique things about Matthew as you get to know him is, he’s just always being himself.  I heard Dan Orlovsky, ESPN analyst, speak about Matthew. He said he has got a great way about him when he walks into a room.  You know he is THE man, but he can also be one of the guys.  He’s got great confidence, but also a sense of humility that comes with that. He just has a great feel for people and that’s just who he is.” On top of that he and his wife, Kelly, have quietly given away millions of dollars to education, food banks, and social justice causes.
3.    Courageous 
Throughout Stafford’s entire career, he has exhibited courage and competitive spirit through his play on the field while enduring numerous injuries. A Lion’s former trainer to Stafford said “Over the course of my time in sports medicine, he stands out for always maintaining selflessness and a professional approach to game preparation and play on game day.” He isn’t afraid to put himself on the line for the team. He also isn’t afraid to speak up. Running back Cam Akers said Stafford is a great communicator and leader, and it’s not difficult to understand what he’s trying to say or what he’s trying to accomplish as a result. “He’s very clear-cut,” Akers said. “He’ll let you know what he wants you to do, or what you’re doing wrong or what you’re doing right.”  Not to mention the fact that he and his wife, Kelly, mother to his four children, courageously battled her brain tumor diagnosis several years ago.

Joe Burrow is the quarterback for the Cincinnati Bengals of the NFL and was the first player to win the Heisman Trophy, win the National Championship, and go 1st overall. He was chosen by the Bengals as first overall in the 2020 NFL Draft.  Here are his top three strengths:

1.    Calm
There is a certain image that Burrow portrays. He’s inherently cool. And by cool, not trendy or aloof. According to everything I read,  he presents as entirely unselfconscious while remaining self-aware. Burrow moves through the world without fear — the Bengals made it this far even though their quarterback was sacked more than any other QB this season. He takes it upon himself to scramble and extend plays. “We never take him for granted,” his coach Zac Taylor said. “But there’s a lot of impressive things he does that maybe aren’t as impressive to us anymore because we’re just used to it, and it’s kind of his standard, his greatness. But again, we need to step back and always take a moment to appreciate what we’ve got there at that quarterback position.

2.    Tough
Toughness is one of Burrow’s best leadership qualities. “I think Joe thinks deep down he’s a linebacker,” said the Bengal’s head coach Zac Taylor. “That’s what he thinks. And that’s kinda how he plays sometimes, and I gotta hold my breath when he plays that way. But that’s just the mentality he has. And he’s the son of a coach. He’s grown up around football, he’s grown up around being tough and then understanding what toughness is, how that can help you as a leader. “You don’t always have to just be the most vocal guy yelling and screaming at everybody. You lead through toughness; you lead through knowing what you’re going to do and accomplishing the task that you’re supposed to accomplish. And Joe does that. He’s our linebacker playing quarterback right now, and the team really responds and feeds off of that.”

3.    Confident 
It’s not uncommon for a quarterback to be confident on the field.  But, Burrow is also confident and strong off the field.  Burrow consistently speaks out against social and racial injustice in America. “How can you hear the pain Black people are going through and dismiss it as nothing,” he tweeted. “How can you hear the pain and respond with anything other than ‘I stand with you.’” He really does have that attitude of feeling confident in himself , taking a stand, and not really caring what others think.  “It never seems like it is forced,” Sam Hubbard, defensive end, said of Burrow’s confidence. “It was always natural, just his leadership and the way he carries himself. So I think from day one, when he walked into the building, people could tell that this was our franchise quarterback.”

In the end, whether you watch the Superbowl this weekend for the football, the commercials, or the half-time show, I ask you to reframe the NFL as a business.  What do you see them doing well or not so well?  How do you stack up in leadership skills (not football skills!) with those high performers on the field?  Is there something you need to tweak or change within your organization or team to be more effective? Someone once said, “In life, as in football, you won’t go far unless you know where the goalposts are”.  Hope you have a wonderful weekend and let’s go Rams!

As many of you know, I am a student of Dr. King’s writings.  This quote has been on my desk since high school and never gets old to me.  It speaks to my value of growth and excellence…it fuels me to make a positive impact on the world. There are days I live up to it and days I do not, but the important thing is that it inspires me towards a vision and goal.

By now, you have settled back in after the holidays and dug into the work at hand for 2022.  My question to you, based on my favorite quote, is were you the best “street sweeper” you could be in 2021?  It was a challenging year for most of us!  In fact, I just read that in one survey most participants reported that it was the worst year of their life!  Know what I think?  I’m convinced this next year will be better!   Part of the joy of kicking off a new year is that it is a chance to start fresh.  All of us can look back and ascertain whether there were areas that we might need to improve on.   I’m going to let you in on a process you can do to focus on those “upgrades” for you as a leader AND a way that you can facilitate a discussion for intentional improvement with your team.

My Own Stop, Start, Keeps

Typically, each year I create a vision board to lay out all of those things I want to accomplish in the New Year.  However, this year I found myself stuck.  When I feel resistance about a process I have put in place it tells me I need to stir things up and change what I am doing because it has become stagnant and uninspiring.  As I sat and reflected on how I wanted to document my intentions for the new year I realized that there were certain things I had been doing over the Christmas break that were healthy behaviors that I wanted to keep doing.  Listening to music more, organizing to make my life easier, and connecting 1:1 with family are all things I had noticed that were working. So, after some time, I decided that this year I was going to do a Stop, Start, Keep the list to get more clarity on my vision board.  It is a great exercise we do with individual clients and teams…so why not?  Here is the process for self-reflection that I encourage you to try for yourself:

WHAT DO YOU NEED TO STOP DOING?
Great leaders are effective and quick when it comes to recognizing negative patterns and things that are getting in the way. Ask yourself if there are any thorns in your side — any frustrations you keep having to deal with?  What do you need to stop doing right now in order to move towards your goals? How are you getting in your own way?  What is not serving your interests?  What negative things have you been tolerating (other people’s behaviors, your own behaviors, low standards)?

Examples of Stops could include eliminating not taking responsibility for mistakes, poor systems, pushing to control pet projects, undisciplined spending, and wastes of your time such as death scrolling through Instagram.

WHAT DO YOU NEED TO START DOING?
These are things you want to put into place in order to improve the situation and achieve your goals.  What new activities, attitudes, or behaviors can you initiate to move in the right direction? What do you want to bring forth in yourself in this New Year? What can you start doing right now that will make a difference?  What does your peer, team, or family need you to step up and start doing?  Whatever you can dream of you can achieve here.

Examples of Starts could be to create more “white space” on your calendar, to be fully prepared for meetings, to tend more to corporate culture, enhance your communication, and solidify your vendor relationships.

WHAT DO YOU NEED TO KEEP DOING?  
It is also very important to identify and continue to do those things that strengthen your company and/or yourself. This is in essence positive pattern recognition. What are you doing that is having a powerful impact on your business?  What do you want to continue that will help you to achieve your goals? What has been working well up until now, and how can you continue doing that? What are you currently doing that is consistent and aligned with your values?

Examples of Keeps might be weekly progress meetings with your team, reading on a daily basis, keeping a good exercise routine, writing thank you notes or following up with your past clients/customers on a regular basis.

The process I am explaining here does not take long and needs to be limited to about 3 or 4 under each category.  For those you chose to focus on just make sure that they will make a really big difference in your life and the lives around you.  Also, make sure they are very actionable and measurable. By the way, some of the examples above are mine…can you guess which ones?

Team Application

At Steople we have utilized the Start, Stop, Keep approach with teams for years.  It is a great way to take a retrospective look and see what is working or not working as a group.  One team I worked with even utilized it as a springboard to choosing some of their strategic initiatives for the year.  It takes approximately 90-minutes and is best facilitated by someone external to the working team so that all members of the team can fully participate.  However, if you want to try it for yourself, here are the detailed steps for the facilitated discussion:

Step One:  Reflection  The facilitator should hand out sticky notes to the participants and tell them the timing for this phase is 15-minutes. The participants are to document what Start, Stop, Keeps they feel apply to the team as a whole.  Participants should keep their sticky notes private so that participants aren’t biased by each other’s ideas. When the time expires, the participants should place their sticky notes on the appropriate easel sheet columns (3 of them) on the wall.

Step Two:  Grouping
  Since many sticky notes will likely contain related, or even identical, ideas, participants should group sticky notes into logical themes. Participants can collaborate and use markers to draw circles around related sticky notes. The facilitator should announce the time frame of 15-minutes and encourage the participants to stand up and move from column to column to make sure the exercise is interactive and fun.

Step Three:  Dot Voting  If there are a lot of sticky notes and/or groups to discuss, it can be challenging to structure the discussion in a meaningful way. If this is the case, the facilitator can opt to use dot voting to prioritize the discussion based on the collective desires of the group. The facilitator should announce the timing of 15-minutes and, if the team has never used dot voting before, explain how it works:

1.    Tell each participant that they have a certain number of votes that they can use to indicate their preference for a sticky note or group. Make sure participants understand that they can distribute their votes as they wish.
2.    Have the participants walk up to the poster sheets and vote on sticky notes or groups (they can use pre-packaged sticky dots or a marker to indicate what they want to vote for).
3.    After voting is complete, the facilitator should sort the sticky notes based on the number of votes each received. This sorted list represents the collective prioritization of the sticky notes.

Step Four: Discussion  The team should discuss the sticky notes in prioritized order. The facilitator should announce the time for this phase is approximately 30-minutes.  In order to ensure complete buy-in, everyone on the team should participate in this robust conversation around what the team needs to stop, start and keep doing to be a high-performing team.

Step Five:  Agree, Commit, and Follow-Up  After discussion subsides, the team should, in order of energy created by discussion, choose approximately 3-5 behaviors per column (Stop, Start, Keep) to document and commit to working on. Throughout the year, the team should check in periodically to see if they are continuing to improve in these areas.

It is two weeks into the New Year…you have barely scratched the surface of the first quarter – have you intentionally set yourself and your team up for success?  Have you been intentional in setting those goals or creating that vision board as a guidepost to your actions and behaviors?  If not, it is not too late to build back better in 2022!

Recently, I have been reading about how important rituals are in our lives.  It’s easy to think of rituals as something nice to have, something simply pleasant or decorative, but in fact, rituals honor our values, establish a firm foundation, and help us become the kind of person we want to be. If we’re not intentional about choosing what rituals we want, it’s easy for us to be shaped by the rituals the world gives us: for example, the endless ritual of completing an Inbox Zero or the ritual of grabbing a pricey cup of coffee on the way to work.  Being intentional in our rituals is incredibly important to our well-being!

Everyday life is stressful and full of uncertainty. Having a special time of the year when we know exactly what to do, the way we’ve always done it provides a comfortable sense of structure, control, and stability.  Rituals can help us enter into a new frame of mind; each ritual can be like a little bridge that we cross into a different way of thinking. From reciting blessings to raising a glass to make a toast, to ordering in Thai food on Christmas eve, holiday traditions are replete with rituals.  Many of those rituals may of course also be performed at other times throughout the year. But during the holiday season, they become more meaningful. They’re held in a special place (the home or church or office) and with a special group of people (our closest relatives, colleagues, and friends). For this reason, more people travel during the year-end holidays than at any other time of the year. Gathering together from far-flung locations helps people leave their worries behind, and at the same time lets them reconnect with time-honored family/friend traditions.

Laboratory experiments and field studies show that the structured and repetitive actions involved in such rituals can act as a buffer against anxiety by making our world a more predictable place.  Rituals can strengthen and spotlight the values, intentions, and experiences you have chosen to live by; they and can be useful when we are trying to figure out what is important…those that still serve us well need to be carved out and protected.  We have been robbed of this connection in the past two years.  I truly believe that now, even more so than in years past, we crave our traditions and miss being able to participate in so many of our time-honored rituals.  During this holiday season,  I want you to take note of your family rituals and understand that, if they anchor you, align with your values, and bring you joy,  these rituals will help bolster you in 2022.

As each of you celebrates the holidays in your own special way, we wanted to let you in on some of our Steople staff’s early memories and rituals.  We hope you know how much we appreciate each and every one of you.  We wish you and your family a holiday season full of peace, rest, and meaningful rituals!

 

‘ATTA GIRL!’ WAS ALL I NEEDED
By Cristina L. Filippo, Ph.D. – Founder | CEO

Wow!  What a powerful memory this picture brings back!  Being in a large family (I was the oldest of 6 kids) growing up, the holidays were always eventful!  I remember the silver tinsel on the Christmas tree, the nativity scene that each of us would play with (and sometimes fight over), and the race down the stairs to see what Santa would have brought us.  Growing up in the ’70s and ’80’s meant long road trips in our woody station wagon,  with no seat belts, through the cold winter weather to travel to see my grandparents during the holidays.

In the year 1975, my Grandparents had moved from where my dad grew up in Van Wert Ohio, to settle in El Paso, Texas.  I remember driving up and my grandparents coming out to greet us.  My dad always had his big camera in tow and immediately took this picture in the street where we parked.  Of course, back then you couldn’t “see how you like the picture” before you moved on…you saw the picture when they were developed weeks later.  It’s part of the charm of the picture – seeing the looks of happiness and travel stress at the same time.

Of course, I loved both my grandparents, but my grandpa has always held a special place in my heart.  He was a child of the depression, had a 6th grade education, was a boxer in the Navy, always drove a Buick, loved to read the paper every morning, and heavily invested in commercial property…as a result, he did very well for himself.  He knew everyone and was incredibly busy but spent as much time with me just hanging out and doing nothing in particular. Now my grandpa could come across as a little grumpy to most, but to me, he was my buddy.  During my visits, we would go on walks, climb trees, balance on cement block walls, jump rope, and play jacks.  During our adventures, my grandpa would introduce me to his friends, talk about the weather, and encourage me to be the best I could be.  He loved seeing me active and happy and, most importantly for that time in history, he treated me the same as my younger brother.

To this day, I can still hear him saying  “Atta Girl!” essentially always encouraging me to be as big and strong as possible even though I was just a little 7-year old girl with huge dreams.  In fact, I would venture to say that he was one of my biggest fans!  Having my grandpa believe that I could do anything, encouraging all of my crazy adventures, and looking at me with such pride was instrumental in making me who I am today.  How I miss those long walks and talks during the holidays!

 

 

A RELUCTANT SANTA CLAUS 
By Isaias Centeno. – Chief Strategy Officer

Years ago when I was in college and in need of a temporary job between semesters. I happened upon an ad in the paper looking for Santas and stopped to consider it.  I wish I could say that I was interested because of the joy I might bring to the tiny tots that would tell me their secret Christmas list.  But, when I saw the ad I was definitely in it for the cash!  I decided to fight the LA traffic and head to the local mall to put in an application.  When I arrived, I definitely knew I was out of my element…Santas everywhere, kids going crazy, parents were frazzled.  Definitely not my scene and way out of my comfort zone.  What was I thinking?

After taking a look at the ads one more time and realizing I had limited choices, I shook hands with the guy offering me the job and got suited up.  I had envisioned focusing on the scratchy beard or how hot the suit was or getting impatient with parents…but, unbelievably, none of this happened.  As I stuffed my red suit, cinched the belt, and put on my Santa hat, something magic happened!  Walking to the big Santa chair with elves in tow, I became a star in the eyes of these children.  I listened to children talk about the toys they wanted, saw them advocate for their siblings, heard stories of the tough year their parents had, and best of all…how much they loved and believed in Santa.  I totally enjoyed the next two weeks and it still is one of my favorite Christmas memories.  What did I learn from that?  Turns out, getting out of your comfort zone and throwing yourself into a new role can have a big payoff!

 

 

I’M SO GRATEFUL!
By Claudio Toyama – Principal Consultant

This picture was taken at Christmas the year I got divorced. I wasn’t feeling much like celebrating as the divorce was so recent but I focused my attention on my daughter and on her joy. As I focused on her happiness, I started feeling extremely grateful for having such a wonderful human being by my side.
This moment reminded me that we have the choice of what to focus on, even when we are feeling down or sad.

From that moment on, I have been counting all of the blessings that I have in my life and it’s funny how when you are grateful, life tends to send you more of what you are grateful for.  This little Christmas lesson continues to inspire me!

 

 

HOME IS WHERE THE HEART IS: TWO CULTURES…ONE HOME
By Layla Bokhari, Ph.D. – Senior Consultant

Growing up in two different cultures taught me to be agile and open-minded. As a kid, I grew up in Saudi Arabia before moving to the United States. We celebrated Christmas and Eid. The two events are significant celebrations in each culture. My mother introduced her American traditions with the family and meshed them with my father’s Saudi traditions. I was used to seeing my dad in the traditional Saudi wear and our home filled with friends and family during Christmas. We decorated the Christmas tree and celebrated the true meaning of the holiday. I also remember celebrating Eid with family and friends in our home with good food like the traditional Bukhari rice with lamb and delicious desserts like Kanafe and dates along with Arabic coffee.

My mother always said, “Home is where the heart is! As long as you have family, friends, and laughter, you can thrive in any country”. Even after moving back to the United States in my teens, my mother kept our traditions of making a great Christmas dinner for the family and cooking the traditional Bukhari rice stuffing for the turkey.  My brothers’ family, sisters’ family, and my kids and I still continue this tradition to this day. We top it off with family stories, Arabic deserts, sitting around the sparkling Christmas tree reminiscing about the past and dreaming of the future.  Moving back and forth from the Arab culture to the American culture throughout my life has taught me to be agile, open-minded, and flexible.

 

CHRISTMAS MAGIC FOR A SANTA
By Kristi Gifford  – Client Account Manager

What a surprise to have Santa come to your home for a special visit!  I was 4 years old and living in England when Santa first picked our home for a “drop in” visit.  You can imagine the excitement I felt by the size of the smile on my face.  The second time (yes, 2nd time!) that Santa made a surprise visit to our home was 12 years later in Oklahoma.  My family was sitting around the dinner table on Dec 24, 1984 having our special Christmas Eve dinner.  Our longtime family friends were joining us that year with their 4 year old twin girls.  In the middle of eating and sharing stories, our front door suddenly opened and in walked Santa… AGAIN!!  He walked right in with a hearty “HO HO HO.” He gave each one of us candy canes, wished us a Merry Christmas, and disappeared back out the front door.  There were smiles all around, and the twins were over the moon!

The adults looked at each other with a knowing, grateful smile for the person that made the effort to ensure we had Christmas magic happen again.  Quickly, it became apparent that none of us were going to claim it.  The truth was that nobody actually knew that Santa was going to pay us a visit.  How was that possible?!  It took a couple weeks before we discovered the truth behind the visit and the alternate identity of our mystery holiday guest.  The smile on my face, nearly 50 years later, looks close to the same as the one of 4 year old me.  Unfortunately, we didn’t capture the magic of Santa’s visit in 1984 on film as our phones were still attached to the wall rather than our hips back then. 😉

I always feel blessed by the small, thoughtful actions of others like my “drop in” Santas.  Kind words, small gestures, unexpected compliments, and special moments still mean more than anything to me.  As a leader, remember that giving your unscheduled full attention, asking a follow-up question about a loved one (showing you WERE actually listening to them), or showing genuine appreciation may be exactly the “Christmas magic” your team needs.  May the magic of the season find you this year!

 

 

EMBRACE THE IMPERFECT AND FIND THE FUN!
By Susan Kight – Executive Assistant

Every year since my children were infants, I have tried to create the “perfect” holiday photo of our “not-so-perfect” family.  I can remember feeling overwhelmed by the thought of getting all of us cleaned up and dressed up in coordinating outfits that were pressed and wrinkle free. I also remember the stress of trying to keep everyone in a good mood and happy to be there while saying “cheeeese” over and over again.  It was never a simple task!

In 2012 I decided I’d had enough. I was tired of directing (and re-directing) children, telling them to “smile” and “sit up straight,” and by the end, wondering if I even got a single quality shot. I finally told myself that I would no longer let perfectionism drain the joy and fun out of my holiday…especially when it came to holiday photos.  This was the year I would embrace good enough and accept my family just as it was….beautifully imperfect….AND it would be fun!

We would throw on some ugly Christmas sweaters and do whatever we wanted to do in front of the camera. It wasn’t easy at first because I knew I had to let go of the magazine quality, flawlessly staged family photo. I had to recognize that wasn’t how real life was then or even now.  Most of the time, my teen’s attention was on her phone, my seven-year-old was whining for a snack and my husband just wanted to take a nap. This was my family and seeing them all sitting up straight, smiling and looking natural in a perfect family photo, while impressive, just wasn’t a reality.

So, letting go in 2012 was taking a photo of us being us. Our photo shows my husband just sitting back and relaxing, my oldest looking annoyed with phone in hand, our middle daughter being her positive cheesy self, and our youngest embarrassingly picking her nose. I must say that it is a perfect snapshot of our family and what life was really like for us during that time. I have no regrets when it comes to that photo. I smile when I look at it and I am reminded to never again let perfectionism rob me of a joyful holiday experience.  So may I remind you to find the fun by embracing the imperfect and the ordinary. Enjoy your family this holiday season!

I will be honest with you; I have been practicing something new recently.  It has not been an easy thing to practice, in fact, it’s been a little bumpy.  The new behavior is definitely something I have known for a long time that I needed to work on, but I just hadn’t made the intentional effort to change.  The behavior I have been practicing is letting go and appreciating.  The funny thing is, that it started with this excerpt several months ago:

“The one thing that all humans have in common is that everyone believes there is a way things should be and there is a way thing shouldn’t be. When things are as we think they should be we’re happy, and when things are not as we believe they should be we’re upset.”

I saw then and see now, how true this statement is. It’s true about me and it’s true about almost everyone I know. It is all about the fact that we each have our preconceived notions about what is the right way to do something and what is the wrong way to do something.  Then we operate our life in a way that tries to control those variables that don’t fit into our tight little world.  It’s human psychology. It’s how our brains just naturally operate.  And if you notice there are a bunch of “shoulds” in these examples:

  • My staff should know what to do in that situation.
  • I should be thinner.
  • My colleague shouldn’t talk to me that way.
  • They should have known not to charge that to the corporate card.
  • We should have gotten that deal.
  • I should make the meeting more efficient.
  • My boss shouldn’t have brought everyone back in the office to work yet.
  • I shouldn’t have had so much to drink last night.
  • The software should work.
  • We should get the funding.

We have witnessed this in politics for years.  What Democrats and Republicans have in common is that they both think there is a way the world should be and a way the world shouldn’t be.  On top of that, consider what’s become known as “confirmation bias,” the tendency people must embrace information that supports their beliefs and reject information that contradicts them.  When you’re going toe-to-toe with your peer, significant other, sibling, or adult child you both think there is a way the world should be and that is your way – the other person just has flawed thinking. You’re human. You’re also happy when the world cooperates and unhappy when it doesn’t.

This is the basis of entitlement. Entitlement is the opposite of appreciation.

For now, I’d like to make a distinction in how I experience thankfulness and appreciation. Thankfulness is what I feel when the world shows up the way I think the world should show up. But, Appreciation is what I create when I allow the world to show up just as the world shows up.  With appreciation, it is almost as if you are watching a train go by, you aren’t reacting to it or trying to control its direction.  You are simply aware of it and appreciative of it.

This week many of us will gather around a Thanksgiving table and we will give thanks. Listen carefully. Most of us will give thanks for the world being the way we think the world should be. That’s OK. It’s human. Be human.

Appreciation begins by letting go, little by little, of our egotistical attachment to believing we know the way the world should be and the way the world shouldn’t be. It’s letting the world show up just the way the world shows up. And then it’s choosing (yes, it’s a choice) to appreciate life being just as life is.

It is as Ted Lasso says “Be curious, not judgmental”.  Be open and curious.  Once we choose freely and experience openness and curiosity, we begin to live in appreciation.  Remember this during this holiday:

  • When you wake up on Thanksgiving morning and it is so cold you can see your breath…be in wonder of it.
  • When your sister, Elizabeth, brings up the fact that she lives in Napa Valley and has a membership to the best wine club on earth…be in awe of it.
  • When your Uncle Steve starts to tell you his bear hunting story for the 5th time over so many years,…just appreciate it.
  • When your pumpkin pie is a flop and no one eats it…accept it and move on.

Can you believe that wonder, awe, and appreciation are actually our natural states?

Appreciation is the choice to see life with fresh eyes, to be constantly surprised and delighted. It’s the choice to let life grow in value, to appreciate like a fine piece of art.

Try it once as an experiment and you’ll see that you can be open and curious and effortlessly filled with appreciation. This path helps you reduce the amount of energy you expend in being irritated or trying to control the world around you.  It can be a naturally self-reinforcing energizing way to live and lead…let me know how it turns out!

All of us have those people in our lives who inspire us with the stories of their tenacity and strength.  They seem to have navigated their way through life with more obstacles than many of us could comprehend.  One of those people in my life…a source of quiet strength…is my mom.  As many of you know, I have written quite a bit about my dad probably mostly due to the fact that he provided such rich work-life stories through the years to react to in my writing.  But, my mom has some significant stories on her own.  Mom emigrated from Switzerland in the ’60s after graduating with a business degree at the University.  Both of her parents had passed away separately in the two years prior.  My aunts and uncle were still there for her, but little else.  She had always wanted to come to the US and, at the age of 22, came over as a nanny to learn and become fluent in English.  She ended up in Dallas working in sub-optimal conditions, with very little in the way of worldly possessions, and having only one friend from her home country in the same situation.  She worked long hours and was determined to stay.  She soon married, had me, divorced, and became a single mother.  She wasn’t a citizen and had no safety net.

Mom eventually remarried, moved to the country, became a citizen, had six children, and was a rock for all of us growing up.  She dearly loved her home country and was often homesick, but she also loved and was grateful to her adopted country.  In a way, she was like a  square peg in a round hole because there was no one like her in our small farming community.  She looked, dressed, cooked, and spoke differently.  She worked harder than anyone I knew and never complained a bit.  She always pushed us to be our best, to be respectful, to work hard, and be independent.  To this day, you can find her out in her yard pulling weeds in the garden, painting the fence, walking her dog, mowing her yard, and redecorating her house.  She is a dynamo.  But she had a struggle through all of those years and much of it was silent.   I would say this was especially true in the last few years losing family and friends…but, especially my dad’s battle with Alzheimer’s disease. In the end, my mom had a goal that was selfless – raise 6 kids to be good, productive citizens.  She did that, but it was a long road and she had to have a lot of courage and be incredibly persistent.  If you stop for a moment and reflect you probably have many people in your life who maybe had a different trajectory, but a similar struggle.  Have you ever asked them how they persevered?  My mom would say, “What’s the alternative?”

A few years ago, I read a book entitled “The Secret Art of Not Giving a Flip (sic)…A Counter-intuitive Approach to Living the Good Life”.  In this book, there is an interesting concept that I find to be both inspirational and relevant to this discussion.  The premise is that, as leaders, we must be intentional about what we are willing to struggle for to reach our goals.  We all would like to believe that we can live an amazing, fulfilling life free of stress and struggle.  The truth is we cannot live a struggle-free life and the sooner we realize that the quicker we will be able to direct our energy in a conscious way to those endeavors we most want to accomplish in both our personal and professional lives.

And let’s not kid ourselves here…the last 18 months have been brutal on all of us.  We, essentially, have been in survival mode attempting to keep our family safe, working incredibly hard at our day jobs, trying to stay financially solvent, and hopefully finding a few moments of joy here and there.  Now is the time that we might falter and throw our hands up in the air and whisper to ourselves – I’m too exhausted and burned out to fight for more.  I would argue that now is the time to push through.  You have learned so much in the past several months and the growth that you might not even realize you have will help you break through to your goals.

I will bet you that if you ask the person next to you right now “What do you want out of life?” they will say something like “I want to be happy and have a great life.”  That is our automatic go-to answer.  However, it is also a very safe, lazy answer, way too easy and means absolutely nothing.  A much more interesting and reflective question is “What am I willing to struggle for?” “What pain am I willing to endure to get to my end goal?”

Here are some examples that illustrate this point:

1.  Most people want a great physique.  But you don’t end up with one unless you go to bed early, set your alarm every morning for 5:45 a.m., hit the gym by 6:15, and burn up 500 – 750 calories a day.

2.  Some of us dream of owning our own business, making a difference in the world, and make good money doing it.  But, not many people want to suffer through sixty-hour workweeks, have months stressing about making payroll, endure repeated failures and yet continue to appreciate the risk.

3.  All of us can say that we want meaningful relationships with our family members and friends.  But, to have those types of relationships you have to get through knowing what you want, investing in others, having those tough conversations, and ultimately gambling that it will be reciprocated.

Happiness requires struggle.  It grows out of the solving of problems.  Joy is not rainbows and unicorns it is earned through the intentional choosing and managing of our struggles.  If you want victory you must fight.  If you want results you must endure the process.  If you want the reward you must be resilient.

Who you are is defined by what you are willing to struggle for.  Get clarity on what pain you are willing to take on to get to that goal.  It will light a fire under you because what you are doing is with purpose. You will be focused, determined, and able to achieve your goals.  Remember, the struggle you’re in today is developing the grit you will need tomorrow.  Don’t give up!