Connect Consulting Group

How to toast my late mother, mentor, and dog

by Liz Guthridge on August 29, 2016 · 0 comments

Vineyard 29 Please join me in toasting the memories of my late mother, a mentor, and Gustav who’s featured in an important new book on animal transitions. All three taught me valuable lessons that you may benefit from as well.

As background, over a seven-day stretch in August, I lost my 85-year-old mother, Ruth Lieberman Guthridge, and my 88-year-old mentor, Thomas H. Paine. They never met each other, yet they both played significant roles in shaping who I am as a human being.

Considering that all three of us are/were dog people, it seems fitting that between their two deaths a copy of the just-published book, Peace in Passing: Comfort for Loving Humans During Animal Transitions, thoughtfully inscribed by the author Maribeth Coye Decker, arrived in the mail for me.  Several of the author’s stories revolve around our dog Gustav, including his rich inner life and how we handled grieving his sudden death last October.

As for the two humans, while they inhabited different worlds, they both valued education and were both clever problem solvers.  (For example, my younger sister Rachel, younger brother David, and I will always be grateful to my mother for bringing a dog into the family before she became pregnant with me and naming him “Jake” — one of my father’s favorite names.)

My mother and Tom also stressed good manners. They believed and practiced in spending more time listening than talking, and taking the initiative to introduce yourself to strangers to make them feel welcome. (I think she would have been proud of my father and me for following her advice at her memorial service.)

As for Tom, he was one of the early partners of the pioneering benefits consulting firm, Hewitt Associates (now part of Aon),  which was my first employer after I graduated from Northwestern University.

Tom was known inside and outside Hewitt Associates for his technical prowess, conscientious client service, and strong support of new consultants.

(Tom also was a trail blazer in how the firm’s consultants dressed. As the legend went, Ted Hewitt believed his consultants looked more professional in hats so he outfitted his client-facing staff members with hats and leather briefcases. But Tom kept leaving his hats in trains, planes and client offices, so the firm gave up and dropped the hat requirement. The company-issued briefcase tradition continued.)

Here are my three favorite lessons from Tom:

  • To serve multiple clients well, you have to juggle. Occasionally, you’ll drop a ball. Just try to pick it up on the first bounce and go from there.
  • You can be influential wherever you are and regardless of your position. The Social Security Administration approached Tom to serve in a leadership role. He declined the offer because he believed he could make a greater impact on retirement policy on the outside than in the government. During his time at Hewitt Associates, the retirement field experienced many changes, including ERISA, 401(k) plans, ESOPs, etc.
  • Whether you have a calling or a career, you can and should have other interests outside of work to keep you healthy, well-rounded, and grounded. Tom was a master gardener, baker and mixologist. Plus, he and his wife Teresa Norton, also a Hewitt Associates partner and my awesome first boss out of college, started the highly-rated boutique winery Vineyard 29 after they retired. Tom and Teresa also actively supported several charities in Napa Valley and then in the San Diego area where they moved after selling the winery in 2000.

Over the years, I formed a strong friendship with Tom and Teresa outside of work, especially once they retired, and enjoyed their company immensely. I appreciated how they welcomed my husband into the mix, once I met him.

While on the plane to my mother’s memorial last week, I read Peace in Passing. While this ground-breaking book is definitely intended to comfort humans during animal transitions, which can be more challenging at times than human losses, many of the messages apply to all creatures and humans, great and small.

Namely, love never dies.

theatre marquisWhen leaders I’m coaching lament that they’re having trouble getting stuff done, I take them back to the basics.

We examine their will (motivation), their skill (ability) and their ability to get over the hill (overcome any real or perceived barriers in their organization or personal environment).

Generally, they’re trying to do something that want and can do – which means they’ve got the will and skill.

However, they feel like they’re facing either a hill or even a mountain that’s hard to scale – an uncooperative peer, limited resources, an overwhelming workload, etc. We then figure out how to traverse a path that can get them past the barrier.

During the examination though, we sometimes discover they’re climbing the wrong hill.

These leaders should be delegating their staff members to do certain tasks and supporting them, rather than taking the tasks on themselves. Or if the actions don’t match their priorities, they need to stop doing them.

The challenge is they often still enjoy using skills that they’ve outgrown.  They’ve not yet come to grips that they need to apply different skills to fit their advancing role in the organization. Or, they’ve not yet fully embraced the changes of our VUCA (volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous) world and the new skills they need to deploy.

To reach their goals, they need to stretch and use different skills, some new, and conquer new hills. This often means giving up control and the safety of what’s worked for them in the past. Now they need to be more present and adaptable in how they lead and act.

In other words, they’ve got to stop following scripts, which can become outdated before they even use them. Instead, leaders need to improvise more.  

Improvising is not just the purview of improvisational theater actors; improv is the way leaders must perform in our connection economy in this cognitive age.

Unlike other actors, improv performers prepare for their work in a very different manner, which organizational leaders also can adopt. Rather than memorize scripts, improv performers exercise their body and mind. As they practice, they train themselves to be more attentive to their surroundings.

David Alger, who’s taught, performed and directed improv over the years around the United States and in Japan recently wrote an email message about the top things good improvisers do.

Here’s a list of the seven things that are most applicable to organizational leaders too. His comments are in bold. My observations are in italic.

Good improvisers on the stage and in organizations do the following:

1. They listen deeply. They listen to the words and the silence. Especially to actions. They ask questions as well as listen and observe. They reflect on what they hear and see and then they act.

2. They learn to identify and let go of negative stuff. They don’t give up after an off show or practice. They know what their limiting beliefs are and they know how to avoid letting those beliefs get in their way. They set a positive tone and example for others.

3. They respond with energy and make offers that require a response. This means acknowledging others and answering with “yes, and….” in order not to shut individuals down.

4. They show their emotions and feelings onstage. They learn to tap into their passion. They recognize that they need to connect with others on an emotional level. It’s not enough to share facts and other data. Leaders need to tell stories that capture people’s attention and get them to think differently.

5. They focus on the team and the other players. They are team players. They realize they don’t have all the answers. However, by asking good questions, involving others and helping create a compelling experience, they encourage others to help them develop a good solution.  And when they leverage others and get better results, they channel Tom Sawyer. (See Channel Tom for change.)

6. They focus on playing in the present. They play and stay mindful and leave analyzing for after the show. They challenge their assumptions and encourage others to do so too. And when others are involved, the leaders don’t second guess them. They respect and trust them to help.

7. They make mistakes. Lots of mistakes and then they learn. They iterate, analyze the outcomes, look at data, revise, and continue the process.

Good improvisers don’t expect instructions. Instead, they take the initiative, showing good judgment and agility as they respond to the latest situation.

By staying open to new ideas, new relationships and new ways of working, improvisational leaders do more than manage or lead change. Leaders  make positive change.

Are you ready to dump your scripts in favor of improv to improve your leadership skills?

3 ways to be empathetic ─ and powerful

by Liz Guthridge on August 16, 2016 · 0 comments

mirrorsDon’t blame it on the youth.

We adults – especially those in powerful positions ─ are guilty too.

Even though we’re born with the ability to understand and share others’ emotions, we don’t always practice empathy. 

Worse, some of us point fingers at others, especially the young, complaining about their self-centeredness. Research from the University of Michigan backs this up. College students studied in 2000 were about 40 percent less empathetic than they were 10 years earlier.

Other studies document different empathy deficits.

For example, when you feel powerful or believe you have higher status than others, the empathy network in your brain can become disengaged when you interact with others. (Check out the research study Social status modulates neural activity in the mentalizing network.)

You also may not feel the pain of others if they’re not part of your in-group or of a different race. For example, watching individuals have needles penetrate their cheeks hurts more when the persons share your racial group. (See the research study Do you feel my pain? Racial group membership modulated empathic neural responses.)

Why should you care?

Being empathetic is a valuable skill for individuals at all levels in an organization, especially leaders.

Empathetic people are more easily able to earn the respect of others, which makes them more influential and powerful.

If you’re empathetic, you’re sensitive to others and their needs. You take the time to observe and listen. You start to understand others’ points of view and their states of mind.

This “perspective taking” gives you valuable insights of what others are feeling, thinking and wanting. You’re more considerate in how you work with others. For example, you tend to involve others in developing solutions that work for the better good, rather than just yourself.

Due to their compassion and selflessness, empathetic people actually earn power from others who voluntary give it to them, according to Dacher Keltner, professor of psychology at the University of California, Berkeley and the faculty director of the UC Berkeley Greater Good Science Center.

In his newest book, The Power Paradox: How We Gain and Lose Influence, Dr. Keltner reviews the science of empathy, and presents his power principles.

He explains that individuals gain and maintain power by focusing on others. As long as they practice actions that “dignify and delight” others they are able to keep their power.

According to Dr. Keltner, these four social practices are empathizing, giving, expressing gratitude, and telling stories.

However, when you feel powerful, you (and your brain) can be seduced and you can start to lose your orientation toward others and your skills that allowed you to gain power. This is the power paradox.

How do you avoid becoming prey to this paradox?

To maintain a strong perspective-taking, you can regularly take these three steps. They can boost your empathy and your power: 

  • Spend time with a variety of people in different situations. In other words, don’t let yourself get into a bubble, an echo chamber or anything else that shields you from others. Isolation and insulation may help you use your time wisely, but they give you a false sense of security. If you separate yourself from diverse individuals, especially those less powerful from you, you’ll make it more difficult to understand them, much less walk in their shoes.
  • Ask questions. When you ask thoughtful questions in a curious, caring manner (not like you’re cross-examining anyone), you show interest and respect. To help you get in the mindset of asking questions that make it a valuable experience for you and others, before you meet with someone ask yourself: What can I learn from them? And what can I learn about them?  
  • Listen and observe carefully. Listening goes hand-in-hand with asking questions. Just make sure you listen carefully to how others answer your questions rather than paying attention to the voices in your head. To avoid being distracted, put away your devices during conversations. Also, take the effort to look around the environment to pick up cues that may give you insights into the world of others. For more tips, check out this helpful Harvard Business Review blog Listening is an overlooked leadership tool.

By practicing these three steps, you can be an empathetic, well-rounded individual.

And last but not least, how often are you looking in the mirror to make sure you’re committed to seeing not just yourself, but others and their points of view too?

golden threadTrying to tighten the linkage between business strategy and operations on either the organizational or individual leadership level?

If so, don’t just talk “alignment.”

Instead, emphasize the importance of knitting a “golden thread” throughout everything you do. The thread connects all of the operational elements to the strategy and provides you with a clearer line of sight to what you’re trying to achieve.

This figurative expression was a favorite of the late David Nadler, the founder of Delta Consulting Group.

Over the years, golden thread has fallen out of favor, which is a shame. It’s a descriptive, brain-friendly term that’s easy to grasp and recall.

What makes “golden thread” so brain-friendly? It’s visual, figurative and pithy ─ all things that grab our attention and help us remember.  Also, the term has Biblical roots, which gives it an extra stickiness for some.

At the macro level for organizations, under David’s tutelage, we’d work with leaders and their employees to weave a golden thread throughout the tasks, structure, and culture so employees would have and then understand the strong, valuable ties that bound them and their work together, always with the goal of improving performance and fulfilling the organization’s strategy.

Over the years, I’ve also used the golden thread with coaching clients to link their thinking, conversations and actions to help them achieve their goals faster. This also encompasses improving their team’s performance.

At the micro level, the golden thread works well on two levels.

First, it gives you directional focus to design what you need to do to support your organization’s strategy and achieve your strategic initiatives. From there, you can better plan how you want to work.

Second, the golden thread serves as a guiding force to keep focusing and fulfilling your plans without veering off into other areas. These things may be interesting but not as relevant to your goals and the organization’s strategy.

By having a golden thread you are better equipped to figure out:

  1. What you need to achieve.
  2. What your priorities should be.
  3. How you should spend your time and other resources to meet these priorities and your goals.
  4. What you either stop doing or cut back on ─ at least for the short term.
  5. Who and what you need to acknowledge yourself for and recognize in others to keep the momentum going.

When you have a strong golden thread, it also takes less effort to set and keep boundaries.

Meetings are also easier because you have a clearer idea of what needs to be on the agenda. This applies to meetings you conduct, as well as meetings you participate in. You may even decide to decline or skip meetings that lack ties to your golden thread.

This increased clarity also can help you lighten the cognitive load you carry overall, as you can stop worrying about issues outside of your line of sight and control. That gives you greater mental space to devote to everything that connects to your golden thread.

Are you ready to identify your golden thread and start weaving it in your work?

hurricane aftermathStay quiet or speak out to your employees about the latest crisis?

Yes, this is another dilemma facing CEOs and other leaders in our VUCA (Volatile, Uncertain, Complex and Ambiguous) world. 

Some employees say they expect to hear from their leaders whenever something terrible happens inside or outside their organization’s walls.

Others are silent on the subject so it’s not clear whether they’re looking for leaders to act as Chief Consoling Officers or Business as Usual Executives.

“What to do? Can we have criteria about determining whether or not to comment?” queried one of the members of one of my professional associations.

As the co-author of the 2006 book Leading People Through Disasters, I feel the questioner’s pain.

Back then – at the dawn of social media – the criteria for formal communication were much clearer for several  reasons.

The number, frequency and type of disasters and tragedies were so much lower and narrower. We could go months, sometimes years, without natural disasters or manmade  events, rather than several in a week as we’ve experienced in 2016.

Also, many of us are working differently today. The pace is faster. We’re collaborating more as teams. When we’re apart, we could be working remotely at home, a coffee shop, the gym or another non-traditional space.

Regardless of where we are, thanks to our ever-present devices and social media, we have immediate access to hundreds or even thousands of friends, Facebook posts, Tweets, Instagrams, Snapchats, blogs, external news, etc. And because of these distractions, our work volume and other pressures, we’re often in an overload state-of-mind.

What do we and employees crave from our top leaders around breaking news today? Certainly not restating of the facts as the story develops.

But depending on the incident, we may want details that pertain to our job, custom analysis of the potential impact on us and our organization, and maybe reassurance that our organization’s leaders are monitoring the situation and preparing to take action if needed.

And more than communication from the top, most of us could benefit from some personal connections and informal communication from co-workers we know, like, and trust. That personal contact will demonstrate that kindness, empathy and hope still exist in our VUCA world.

As for the types of incidents merit formal communication, a la interruption, from the leaders?

The criteria my clients and I have been discussing include incidents that:  

  • Affect the safety of your employees or their family members, such as hurricanes, flooding and other natural disasters.
  • Happen in your headquarter city or in a location where you have a number of employees, such as the police shootings in Dallas last month.
  • Involve your employees or customers, such as a terrorist attack where employees are vacationing.
  • Could cause your business to face interruptions, either in office or plant closings or supply chain interruptions, which could be due to a natural disaster, crime, terrorist act or anything else.
  • Involve a cause that your organization supports or is closely associated with, such as a school shooting for education-related organizations (such as education re: school shootings).

In these situations, leaders want to get out in front of the story even before all the facts sort out.

However, even if these criteria are not met and the incident feels significant or unusual, as a leader, you should support managers and encourage them to reach out to their employees, especially those who may be especially concerned.

This reach out could include talking points about the incident from the organization’s point of view plus reminders of resources available to all employees, including managers. For instance, if you have an EAP (Employee Assistance Program), this is a great opportunity to explain how to use it.

Since words speak louder than actions, when the initial crisis abates, you also can explain what the organization is doing to counter the crisis, and how employees can help.

This can include donating money, products or staff resources, standing up to government officials, or other steps that may help avoid another crisis.

For example, let’s say you are committed to diversity and inclusion and have initiatives underway and another Orlando-type shooting, officer killing of an African-American man, or something else uncomfortable occurs. This gives you an opening to grab employees’ attention and describe the steps you’re taking to mitigate against bias. You also can explain what employees can do and encourage them to take action.

Regardless of what you decide, keep in mind that these crises take a toll on our psyche. And each of us reacts uniquely depending on our personal experiences. So it’s important to have compassion for yourself and your employees.

Since I co-authored this book, I’ve embarked on my applied neuroscience studies. Now I’m even more aware how the brain responds to danger, real or perceived. We knowledge workers have a difficult time operating at peak performance when we feel threatened, either by internal or external circumstances or both. 

Are you prepared to be compassionate whether you communicate formally or informally during the next crisis?