I recently started a project to rebuild the screened porch on our house, replacing sections of rotted wood. Part of the preparation work involved removing all of the existing screens and the door from the frame.
One of our two dogs realized immediately that the door was no longer there and she could go in and out freely. This same dog also quickly realized that the screens were not there and she could go on or off the porch anywhere she wanted.
The other dog, the one shown in the photo above, was not so quick on the uptake. When he wanted to come in, he continued to stand at the now empty door frame and bark. For 3 full days, I had to go out to the porch and stand next to the empty frame before he would make the leap over the threshold. The first day, I had to mimic the motion of opening the non-existent door. He now goes through this empty doorway without further encouragement. But, he still uses the doorway, not any other open area of the porch.
Which dog are you?
We all have this tendency to varying degrees. We have done something in a certain way for so long, it never occurs to us to try it a different way. Or, we have hit the same resistance so many times that we believe we can’t do it.
What barriers are standing in your way? Are they still there? Are you sure?
Where do you push the limits? And where do you watch each step, being careful not to offend?
As a comedy ventriloquist, specializing in corporate events, I am constantly challenged to determine where the line is that I should not cross with any given audience. One of the greatest skills of a corporate entertainer is to discern where that line is, and push against it without going too far. Where that line is can vary significantly from one group to the next.
My clients appreciate that my material is clean. Being somewhat of a Boy Scout by nature, what I consider to be edgy is still pretty tame. After all, I’m the guy who once ordered milk to drink at the Playboy Club (a story for another time…) While they appreciate that people don’t get offended, there have been times when the only complaint was that it was maybe too clean. So, lately, I have been pushing that line harder.
Recently, I performed for a large group that I knew would have a much broader definition of “acceptable” than my usual highly sensitive corporate audience. The event included an open bar – always a clue to a group expecting material farther away from a purely G rating – and it was being well utilized.
I came prepared with my most edgy material, specifically from my Gus character. Gus’ material runs the gamut from workplace acceptable office curmudgeon humor to his roots as a rough around the edges country boy at heart. He loves his beer. He’s far from blue humor, but even in the most politically correct versions of his routine, he rarely comes out to play if there are kids in the audience. So, it was a bit disconcerting when I saw a number of families with kids arriving for this particular event.
As the group continued to gather, I decided I’d better check the sensitivity meter with the client. He gave me the green light, telling me my understanding of the group was spot on, and that included the kids.
The show was a great success – including Gus. I received comments and notes from people afterward telling me how much their whole family enjoyed the show.
We can’t always check ahead of time. Sometimes we just need to put it out there and go for it. As a friend of mine likes to say, “It’s better to ask for forgiveness than permission.” I also have friends in the comedy business who say, “If at least one person wasn’t offended, you’re not trying hard enough.”
How does this relate to your work? How hard are you trying to find the line? Are you always holding back out of fear of possibly offending someone? Or are you willing to push harder, to probe, to find the line?
What I am discovering in pushing harder on the line with my comedy material is that the 98% of people who laugh appreciate that someone finally had the nerve to cross the line set in place by the 2% of people who were offended, because those same 2% have been blocking their progress.
I am not suggesting dropping more F-bombs, literally or figuratively. But, there is a case to be made for pushing the self-imposed limits that are holding us back. Be willing to be the one who crosses the line. You might be surprised how many people will cheer you on and follow your lead.
Have you ever drawn a line in the sand that you refuse to cross? What are your self-imposed limits? Are you OK with the consequences?
Here’s an example:
I was working for a company with headquarters in Reston, VA, near Washington, DC. My office was in a satellite office in Columbus, OH. I had teams reporting to me in Columbus and Reston. My boss was in Reston.
My boss made numerous attempts to get me to relocate to Virginia. Each time, I refused. Finally, I think in a fit of frustration, he said, “You know, David, staying in Columbus is a career limiting move.”
I asked, “Is it career ending? Or just career limiting?” He said it was only career limiting. I responded, “I’m OK with that.”
My family was well established within our community, the schools, and our friends. Columbus was our home. Uprooting my family and starting over in a new community was a line I refused to cross. The possibility of career advancement beyond the level I had already achieved was not worth it to me.
I have never regretted that decision.
When we come upon lines that we refuse to cross, we must consider the consequence and ask ourselves, “Am I OK with that?” If we are, then fine. But, if we really want what awaits us on the other side, we must pluck up our courage and take the steps necessary to step over that line.
In my scenario above, I was fortunate that it was a career limiting choice, not career ending. Had the consequences been different, I would have been forced to make a different choice – either to relocate or seek other employment.
Where’s your line? What are the consequences of not crossing it? Are you OK with that?
I’m sure you’ve heard this before, “Drop by any time. I have an open door policy.” I’ve even seen an executive suite designed with no doors on the offices to enforce the concept.
This is all well and good. But, I disagree. Strongly.
I believe in having a closed door policy.
Don’t get me wrong. I encourage people to drop by and talk about anything that might be on their mind. I welcome the conversation. Even if all you want to do is complain. Even if the person you need to complain about is me. Even if what you need to complain about is the person whose cubicle is right outside my office.
You see where this is going? Seems obvious, doesn’t it?
How can someone feel comfortable sharing with you their deepest issues and concerns if they are concerned others can overhear the conversation? Especially if the issue at hand is sitting right outside the office; or is best friends with the person sitting there. You get the picture.
It’s not always an issue of complaining. Sometimes the conversation is extremely private in nature. They might be having a crisis in their personal life. Some conversations are difficult to start in the best of circumstances, and nearly impossible to begin without a sense of privacy.
So, the first step is to create an environment of privacy. Close the door.
Here’s something I learned from raising kids. Let them vent. Let them scream. Let them express their frustrations. Then pause. … Wait a beat. … Breathe. … And then … Ask them, “What would you like me to do about that?”
Not in a sarcastic voice. An honest, caring, empathetic way.
It is amazing how many times an employee, a staff member, a coworker has come into my office and simply needed to vent. No action was necessary on my part – other than to hear them. Allowing them to vent, to blow off the steam that had built up to the point where they came marching (sometimes storming) into my office was all they needed. It totally defused the situation. They were then able to go about their day. Other times, there were things they would ask of me. But, they could only ask in confidence.
To facilitate that level of open conversation we must make it safe to say whatever needs to be said. And a simple way to do that is by closing the door.
My policy is simple. Come in. Close the door. Say anything you need to say. What is said there stays there. The only thing that leaves is the action (if any) that is needed to address the issue.
Give it a shot. Create your own closed door policy. Encourage people to come in, close the door, say what they need to say. Then, when the door opens, walk out with a fresh perspective.
Have you ever had someone say, “I remember when you said…” and you think, “Did I say that?” Obviously, it’s a lot more fun when the next thought is, “Hey, that was pretty good,” rather than, “Gee, that was dumb.” I’ve certainly had my fair share of the latter. Fortunately, I’ve also had a fair share of the former.
One of those happened recently after being interviewed for a Podcast. It was several months between the interview and when the Podcast was released. As I read the preview text describing the conversation, I was struck with, “I said that? Wow. That’s good.”
It would be nice to think that we are full of wisdom and that this wisdom would flow freely. The reality is that each of us have bits of wisdom, based on our personal experiences, locked away in our brains. For most of us, it just sits there, untapped, until something triggers the lock.
How do you trigger the lock? What techniques do you employ to unlock the nuggets of wisdom in your own mind? And what techniques do you employ to unlock the secrets of others?
For me, the most consistent method is conversation. Real conversation. Not surface level. Courageous, probing conversation. The more probing the conversation, the deeper we go in the search for hidden nuggets. I need someone to ask questions, start down a path, see where it leads, take turns along the way, pull me back to the topic at hand from time to time, and push for deeper thoughts. It is also important that the person doing the probing maintain a positive, encouraging tone.
I’ve had the pleasure of being interviewed for a number of podcasts. Each time, the interviewer managed to extract nuggets that I had never put into words before. These thoughts, being core to my belief system, seemed obvious to me. The interviewer, though, made it clear that this was a new insight, at least to them.
Each of us builds up our core beliefs over time. Because they form so slowly, we take them for granted. Rarely do we have the opportunity to put these core beliefs into words. When we do, the results are enlightening, for ourselves as well as those to whom we are speaking.
When is the last time you had an in-depth, probing conversation with your boss (or their boss)? What nuggets of wisdom are lying there, dormant, waiting to be extracted by means of asking the right questions? What about your staff? How often to do you assist your best people to express the fundamental beliefs that make them the strong players that they are? And, finally, what nuggets of wisdom are there in your own brain, hiding, waiting to be shared with others?
Probe. Dig deeper. Find the nuggets. Share them with others.
Let’s assume this was a person you thoroughly enjoyed having on your team. You’re going to miss them.
Do you wish them well and celebrate your time together? Do you try anything and everything to get them to stay? Is your response different based on whether they are moving to another area within your company, or leaving the company altogether?
In the iconic TV show, “The Carol Burnett Show”, every episode ended with Carol singing, “I’m so glad we had this time together…”
To me, that is the best possible response.
I’ve done my fair share of moving on, and experienced a wide variety of responses when having that initial conversation with my boss. Some of these responses include:
“Two weeks? I’m disappointed. I would have expected at least 6 months notice from you.”
“Congratulations. Let me know how I can help you in your new role.”
“If I can get you a raise, would you stay?”
“I’ll only let you leave if you let us take you out for dinner and celebrate the time you’ve been here.”
It’s so easy to take it personally when someone leaves our team. Sometimes this is built into the company culture. Retaining employees is often used as a measure of a manager’s success. I’ve never subscribed to this philosophy.
Sure, if you are experiencing mass exodus of your star players, you should be doing some introspection. That’s not what I am talking about here. I am referring to those people who are leaving for new opportunities, new challenges, or new geographic locations that address their individual needs and career path.
My goal as a manager has always been to provide as many opportunities for growth as possible, with the full realization that someday the individual may outgrow the opportunities available on that team. To me, there is nothing as satisfying as watching those I’ve mentored outgrow the place where we started. I love following the careers of people on LinkedIn as they continue in their journey.
Next time someone turns in their notice, throw a party. Celebrate. Be thankful for the time you had together. Then get to work helping someone new step up to the challenge of filling the vacancy. Everybody wins.
I’ve had lots of dreams over the years. Great ideas that I never took action to bring to life. Or, didn’t act fast enough and saw others put them into practice before me.
Here are a few of the ideas I’ve had, all of which now exist:
Color score board for baseball and football stadiums. Now they’re even in HD!
Automatic equalizer for professional sound systems.
Automatic feedback suppressor – an extension of the automatic equalizer.
Solar-powered roof exhaust fan.
Some days I pine away for these dreams, wishing I had done something to bring them to life. “If only …”
Other days, I look back at these dreams, see the way others have implemented them and feel good that my dreams have been validated. Seeing that these devices exist gives me a sense of satisfaction, even if I was not the one who made the dreams come true.
As my career moved from software engineer to manager to director, more and more of my job became that of enabling others to bring dreams to life. Over time, I came to enjoy the role of enabler at least as much as I enjoyed that of doer.
Many times, sharing my dreams, my vision, with my staff was the spark they needed to take a project in a totally new direction, adding their ideas as well, and the project was better because of it.
Yes, we need goals. Yes, we need action plans. But, we also need dreams – those images of a better world that seem so far out there that we can’t yet fathom the path to get there.
Share your dreams. Celebrate when they come to life, regardless of who makes it happen.
Last weekend I spoke at the Ohio Linux Fest in Columbus, OH, giving a presentation called, “Situational Leadership – Leading when you are not the boss.” During the Q & A session, I was asked for a few ideas on how to take people on your team from Mediocre to Great. While I think my answer at the time was OK. In hindsight, I’d have to say it was mediocre.
Anyone who knows me well, knows my feelings about mediocrity. If you want a refresher, here is a previous post on the topic.
After a bit of thought, I think there’s a better answer I could have given. It starts with two questions:
Q: How many psychiatrists does it take to change a light bulb? [A: Only one, but the light bulb has to want to change.]
Q: Is the person capable of doing better? That is, are they currently coasting along doing just enough to get by, or are they already operating at the top of their game?
The first question, while stated in the form of an old classic joke, is critical. Does the person want to change? Do they have any interest at all in doing better, improving their skills, or their level of performance?
The second question is even more critical. It’s also not always an easy one to answer. You, as team leader / captain / manager, can’t necessarily answer it. You may have an opinion (He’s just lazy!), but you might be wrong. It is entirely possible that the person IS capable of doing more / better / faster, if only given the proper motivation and probably additional education. And it’s also possible that they simply don’t care.
But, here’s the deal. Sometimes you have someone on your team who is a rock solid mediocre performer. And guess what? Sometimes that’s just fine.
What? Did you just say it was OK to be mediocre? Yep. I did.
For some people, a job is just that – a job. It is something to which they show up, turn the crank, then leave. And they do it day after day after day.
It is that very rock solid level of dependability that makes them valuable members of the team, just as they are.
Now, personally, I have trouble relating to these people. Because I think work can be so much more. Thus, this blog. But, just because I can’t relate, doesn’t mean I can’t also honor and respect them. And make good use of them.
Not “take advantage” of them. Utilize them.
Many times, we need someone on the team who is willing to do the tedious, day after day, steady tasks. I find this kind of thing boring and can think of little I would want to do less. But, there are people who find great satisfaction in showing up, turning the crank, doing the same repetitive set of tasks day after day after day. It is this very repetitiveness (that I find boring) that brings them joy.
Sometimes that mediocre team member is the bedrock of a high-performing team.
So, if you have a mediocre performer on your team who is clearly capable of doing more AND they have an interest in becoming better, by all means support and encourage them. But, if that mediocre performer happens to be your rock solid, steady on, reliable, day to day task tackler, be grateful they’re on your team and move on.
It happens to all of us. OK, it happens to me often, so I have to assume it happens to all of us. Maybe you are unique and you don’t suffer from this problem. Or, maybe you’re just kidding yourself.
It’s there. Right in front of you. That one thing that needs to be done. It’s a simple thing, really. If you just stepped forward and did it, you’d feel better.
It could be anything. It could be picking up the phone to call that person you know you need to call. A simple phone call. How hard can that be? Wait. I need to get my coffee first. And a notebook. Where did I put that notebook? And my special pen. I can’t take notes without my special pen. Oh, this won’t do. The lighting isn’t quite right here. Let’s adjust that.
Next thing you know, it’s well past normal daytime working hours and you tell yourself the person you’re going to call is certainly gone for the day. I’ll call tomorrow.
Or exercise. Yeah. Exercise will make me feel great. First I have to change clothes. Where are my workout sneakers? And those yoga pants. OK, I’m dressed. Oh, I have to move all the stuff off the treadmill. Where am I going to put it all? Not yet. I forgot to get my water bottle. Hydration is important, you know. Where’s my iPod? Let’s download that new playlist. That’ll get me motivated.
See where this is going? Nowhere.
What are you resisting? How many roadblocks are you putting in your own way to make you feel better about not doing that one simple thing?
Be aware of those self-destructive procrastination habits. Do the one thing that needs to be done. And then the next. And the next. Keep it simple.
No special pen will make you feel as wonderful as crossing off that one item on your to-do list, even if you use an old crayon to do it.