Everything I needed to know about Change Management, I learned in rehab.

For 12 years, from my teens through late 20’s, I was a drug addict. Not the “keeping up appearances but I have a terrible secret” kind, but a full-blown, walking trainwreck.

In time, I traversed the entire spectrum of that world – from expensive hotels and briefcases full of cash to sleeping behind dumpsters in the streets of Las Vegas. I bounced in and out of treatment centers, 12 step meetings, jails and all sorts of attempts to “pull myself together.” Nothing worked, no matter how grim my circumstances or how strong my desire to escape the confines of my addiction.

Eventually though, I came to a bleak point of no return. I was 29. I had stabilized for just long enough to get married and make a decent little start at a “normal” life, and then after a short time found myself plunging back into the abyss. Now everything I had built up was crumbling around me yet again in what seemed like just another example of the hopelessness of my condition, which I assumed came down to a lack moral fortitude and will power.

But somehow, despite having faced more severe circumstances in the past, something turned out to be different this time. This was more than another set of external complications that I had to navigate and surpass – this was an internal collapse. Something in me shifted in such a way that I had no choice but to pay attention, and nothing has been the same since.

I’ve had many years to reflect on this shift, what led up to it, and why it stuck when all previous efforts had failed. While I’m not a particularly superstitious person, there’s a certain amount of intangible grace to it all. It’s difficult to explain the cosmic lottery that presented a moment of clarity to allow me to move out from under a shadow that many others couldn’t. But while I can’t truly account for that first moment of intervention, I can clearly see the path and structure that unfolded afterward and led to a durable transformation that brought me to where I now stand.

That’s the part that I want to talk about today. Not the drama of my personal journey, but the nature of awakening, strategy, and consistent effort in facilitating change in the individual, which is mirrored in social, organizational and cultural change throughout the human experience.

Types of Change

Circumstances aside, there are different kinds of change and different approaches to each. The school of thought I’ve been trained in identifies change as being of three primary types:

  • Developmental – building on the current state to increase capability or capacity
  • Transitional – moving from the current state to a new, clearly defined destination
  • Transformational – moving from current state to a new reality that is not yet entirely clear, and that will evolve during the course of the change.

As you can likely tell from even these basic descriptions, the challenges, stakes and level of complexity get significantly greater as you encounter each respective type of change. Transformational change is particularly intricate as it often requires degrees of developmental and transitional change to support it.

Looking at the types of change as they relate to my personal journey as well as the parallels I have seen in my work with organizations, there are clear distinctions as well as significant commonalities in approaching their respective solutions.

The Wake-Up Call

All change requires some kind of wake-up call – if there’s no catalyst, why would you invest the time and effort to change? The nature of the awakening generally relates pretty directly to the kind of change.

A developmental need could show up as, “our game is good, but we need to improve in a certain area.” You’re not necessarily trying to redefine yourself, but you need to gain some skills; maybe it’s conducting conflict management workshops for your management teams or creating efficiencies in operations. It’s about getting better at what you already do.

Transitional change is slightly more complicated, but again your core identity stays intact. “We’re going to continue doing what we do, but we need to change a process/tool/strategy from this to that in order to fix a problem and remain effective.”

The wake-up call for transformational change is where things start to get interesting. The very nature of transformation is in many ways about survival. The call to transform is usually either a “change or die” scenario, or a challenge that requires a new way of being in order to pursue future opportunities. Simply getting better at what you already know isn’t enough, nor is a moderate modification of systems and process.

My awakening was about survival in a very real way. To continue down the path I was on could only end in disaster. To change trajectory required more than skills and information – I could get a degree in addiction and recovery and still not find my way out of the trap. I needed a fundamental redesign of the mindset, behaviors, culture and systems by which I had been living. It wouldn’t be enough to think differently but leave my actions unchanged. Nor could I take new actions without a clear and compelling new vision and expect any degree of success.

The same is true of your organizational transformation. If you are facing a change that reaches down into the very core of your business, that requires more than a surface-level tune-up to get you to the new state, then you’ll need to address each of these areas in your change effort. Transformation requires new vision, new capacities, new strategies and new culture. Trying to address any one component in isolation only leads back to square one after a lot of frustration and wasted effort.

The Case For Change

Once the wake-up call has occurred, the first requirement for transformation is that the full depth of that awakening be made clear and undeniable. Whether the need is identified by an executive team, a committee, or an isolated group within the company, it must be defined, refined, and communicated in the most powerful way possible in order to prove the overall case for change. This is often a critical stumbling block of major change initiatives – if the case for change is only truly strong for a select group, it becomes difficult if not impossible to recruit the level of effort required of the rest of the organization to tackle the full scope of a transformation.

On my journey, the case for change was agonizingly clear but the path forward was full of fear and apprehension. I didn’t have a model to follow to know what transformation would look like, and while there were still those in my life that wished me well, there wasn’t much in the way of trust and optimism. Engaging around the case for change was a constant effort, as each new day brought more confusion, more discomfort and, for a while, more pain. I faced self-doubt and plenty of external skepticism, as those who had seen me try and fail in the past kept an arm’s-length relationship with hope during my early period of change.

The misgivings of my network (i.e. the market/the organization) were often discouraging, but I kept coming back to the primary dilemma: If I succeeded, the market would eventually respond. If I failed, market sentiment would be irrelevant anyway because I’d be out of business. That is to say, if I couldn’t turn my life around I’d end up dead or in prison regardless of what anyone else thought about me, so I had better ignore the naysayers and the nagging voice of doubt and stay focused on the task at hand. The same is true for you and your organizational transformation. When in doubt, the case for change is your “true north.”

The “why” should be made vivid for as many people as possible at every level of the organization. This won’t be easy, and it may not be comfortable. Change is not an easy sell, and uncertainty is even more terrifying. To look into the eyes of your people and tell them “the old way must die, and the new way is not yet clear,” takes a lot of courage, and a lot of relationship equity. If you’re already starting with a culture of low trust, selling the case for change will be more difficult. It will also be that much more crucial to pull it off.

Refining your case for change:

  • What is driving the change?
  • What type of change is it?
  • What is the scope of the change?
  • What is the degree of urgency?

There are, of course, many factors to consider. These represent just a few of the fundamental questions you’ll want to answer when building out your initial case. What others might you need to address in your particular change effort?

Capacity and Engagement

Much like my own experience, getting people to engage on a journey toward a destination that isn’t entirely clear from the outset takes skill, patience, and a deeply strategic process to hold it all together. You will have to overcome the residual cultural fatigue of your past failed change efforts (and you most certainly have them). You will need to analyze and plan for the impact of both your change process and your desired outcome.

Change strategy requires broad vision and thorough consideration:

  • What will it mean to really change?
  • What specific impacts will the change make on various stakeholder groups?
  • What other change initiatives are already running throughout the organization?
  • How will you align them?
  • How will the work required for transformation impact the day to day work of your business?
  • What additional changes will be triggered by your primary change project?
  • What will you need to do differently to ensure the success of your transformation?
  • Are you actually ready and does the organization have the capacity to tackle the change?
  • Are you even prepared to lead it?
  • What will life be like in the new state?
  • What happens when something in the change process goes wrong and you have to change course?

Even without knowing the challenges you may encounter or adjustments you’ll have to make ahead of time, these and many other questions should be part of your planning process. Change is a process and can be “managed,” but there is an aspect of craft to it as well. Executing a true transformation takes more than a tidy spreadsheet of timelines and dependencies. Building the muscles for change and having a clearly defined process to address the way that decisions will be made as things unfold are aspects that should begin as soon as possible, not left until a critical moment to figure out on the fly. By laying out your tools and consciously thinking through how they will be used in advance, you’ll be able to employ them skillfully and with greater effect when the time comes.

Don’t Go It Alone

If I had to rate one element of strategy as most important, I might say it’s this: never go into uncharted territory alone. My journey was something I had never experienced before. I could hardly figure out how I ended up so hopelessly lost in the first place let alone what to do to change or what life would look like if I were to succeed. I had tried and failed to lead myself to shore more times than I could count. Finally, after that last, undeniable wake-up call, I decided to take a different approach. I took on a reputable process with a proven track record, and I enlisted the guidance of an experienced mentor to help me navigate the transformation.

Each individual and organization must ultimately establish ownership of their process to sustain change, but seeking counsel from someone with experience both navigating and guiding others through the phases of development, transition and transformation is a critical component of success. It’s also just smart business. Why stumble blindly along trying to reinvent the wheel when a process already exists and support is available to help you learn it?

Whether it be an internal change officer or an external consultant, the person leading your change should be someone with the expertise to guide the process, the capacity to handle the workload, and perhaps most importantly, permission to tell you the unvarnished truth when you need to hear it most. Change can be messy business – there will be corrections and new issues surfaced as you go along. If you want to succeed you’ll need to be prepared to address them as they are presented to you, not just brush them aside for the sake of meeting a budget or a deadline. Your change leader is the person you task with keeping you grounded in that reality.

Stages of Transformation

So what comes next? You’ve thought through the impacts and variables of your transformation, taken the time to develop a robust, conscious strategy that links and aligns your various change projects, and established a framework for keeping things on the rails as you move forward. Now it’s just a matter of pulling the trigger and watching everything fall smoothly into place, right? Well… maybe not exactly.

As I progressed through my path of personal growth, I didn’t exactly go straight from broken and afraid to stable and functional. I was trying new things, learning new skills, and I made mistakes in the process. I encountered many stages of development, each with important lessons to fuel my progress.

In the beginning I just wanted to escape the catastrophe of my circumstances. I was more focused on leaving the old than on building the new. Pain was the primary motivator. As time went on, my perspective started to shift and a vision began to take shape. I was often frustrated by slow progress or the small setbacks I encountered as I was working to build a new life, but I never stopped working and I never turned back, even when the way forward was unclear. I stuck to the process and leaned on my guide when things got tough.

My motivation changed from pain to hope once I had built a foundation of consistency and progress. The old way was far enough behind that my first impulse was no longer to look backward when I was facing new challenges. The picture of what was possible started to come into focus, and with that clarity came a greater capacity to integrate the lessons of my early growth and achieve greater results tackling new challenges. I now had a framework and new skills that I could employ. These had taken me through a major transformation process, and that experience became fuel for growth in future stages of my evolution.

Transformation is like that.

You’ll be able to implement the initial phases of work and get things moving, and if you’ve done well with preparation things may be fairly smooth. But once you leave the familiar shores of today, you will inevitably encounter unexpected challenges that will need attention on the way to tomorrow. These represent critical opportunities to course correct and expand your capacity for learning and change, and if you’ve done the work to prepare and are well supported, these can be powerful opportunities to engage your people and develop a learning culture.

The early stages of change can be precarious. They are more about calculated experimentation and perseverance than they are about mastery. As you begin to demonstrate that you are leaving the old reality behind, you’ll encounter resistance. There will be complaints and maybe even some voices asking to go back to the way things used to be. It will take time for people and the organization as a whole to adopt new skills and behaviors. But as the change effort begins to mature, it will find a rhythm and momentum for integration. Lessons learned and challenges encountered can be readily applied to the strategic evolution of the process, with new opportunities often emerging as a result.

Celebrate, and Keep Going

Organizational change is a big topic, and this isn’t a textbook. There is plenty more to say and I’m sure I’m already pushing the limits of attention span for a blog post, but there is one last aspect that I don’t want to leave out of the picture.

I remember a moment early on in my recovery when I landed a full-time job at a local health food store. It certainly wasn’t the culmination of my life’s purpose, but it was a major step forward from the three part-time jobs I’d been juggling up to that point. I let myself enjoy the feeling of progress and pride in the rewards of my diligence. I reflected on where I had been and how I had changed. I probably even bought myself a pint of ice cream to celebrate. Then I showed up to my new job the next day and worked my ass off just like I had done for all the months leading up to that moment.

The road to change holds many milestones. Some are big, like launching a rebranding campaign or executing a multi-site systems change. Some are smaller, like completing a project that paves the way for the next phase of your plan or promoting a change leader into a higher level of the organization in order to lead your initiative. These events, and especially the finalized implementation of your overall change, should be not just acknowledged but celebrated in some way. Take the time to honor the effort and learning that led to your change. Give people an opportunity to feel connected to the work and proud to be a part of it. Reflect on what you’ve learned, talk about it and make it real. Then take that reflection and put it to work.

I’m not suggesting you throw a party every time someone checks an item off a to-do list, but a key part of the learning process is recognizing achievement, taking stock of the new reality, and deciding what aspects of that progress can be applied to future growth. The complexity of change deserves recognition. The most valuable change education your company can receive won’t come from a book or a lecture or a workshop. It will come from hard won experience and the integration of lessons learned along the way.

When you’re climbing a mountain, you can still stop to measure your progress and admire the view from the lesser summits on your way to the top.

When you’re changing your life, you can pause a moment to appreciate the fact that you’re on new ground before you keep moving forward.

When you’re transforming your organization, you can honor the work that got you started and the effort it took to begin the process of change as you reach for new horizons.

And then you get right back to work, because the next challenge is just around the corner.


*For the record, I didn’t actually learn all of this in rehab. I’ve had many brilliant and generous teachers over the years who have given me more wisdom than I could have asked for. My personal experience gave me a foundation, and my teachers and mentors gave me a structure. If not for them I’d probably still be putting boxes on shelves in a grocery store somewhere.

Follow my blog or find me on Medium for more thoughts on leadership, culture and purpose, and feel free to reach out directly if you’d like to start a conversation.




Why your service culture sucks.

I’d like to talk a minute about customer service. Ok, maybe somewhere between talk and rant if I’m being totally honest. In so doing, I invite the shedding of conventional dialog around all aspects of service – teaching it, providing it, expecting it, selling it as a tenet of the organization. This won’t be a list of “four things every service culture needs,” or, “how to motivate your service staff.” It’s a deeper conversation about the core identity of service and the role of leadership in facilitating impact. It will also be an incomplete view, because this is a blog and not a book. The goal is to challenge and inspire your thinking, and let you run with it. If you’re ready to go there, come on along for the ride.

The value proposition of great service isn’t really a secret. 5 minutes worth of light research will produce more data about the bottom line impact of customer service than you can handle. Top companies have built their reputations on their service experience. The C-suite has expanded to include Chief Customer Officers, Customer Success Officers, probably half a dozen other iterations of customer-focused leadership. All of this is great news and a natural product of the service economy that we now live in.

As a passionate advocate for service culture, I see and appreciate the value of this shift as a tremendous step forward. At the same time, I still find myself getting tense and annoyed with 80% of the “customer experience” articles, quotes and rants I see in my newsfeed. Even in the most modern, progressive companies they point it in the right direction yet still miss a fundamental truth.

Don’t get me wrong – I’m all for customer-centric leadership. It’s the not focus on the customer that’s a poor fit. It’s the way we define that focus when trying to solve for customer needs that leads to an all too common fault. The problem, or failure of perspective, is that when we talk about customer service we speak of it as an external condition. To “help the customer succeed,” is to meet service goals, reduce churn, increase per-customer revenue, “add value,” and so on. That’s great, and of course we can and should look at numbers like the correlation of deal size to churn rate, the cost of customer acquisition versus retention, or the likelihood of a customer to increase MRR over the lifespan of the relationship based on perceived value as metrics of success in customer service. But in dealing with revenue goals and performance targets it is all too easy to overlook the essential core of your business – the most crucial and valuable element of your success: your customer service team.

Call me crazy, but I believe that most company-sponsored customer service training initiatives start at the wrong end by viewing “satisfying the customer,” as the primary task, as facilitated by . How to minimize potential for conflict in the delivery of “our brand of service.” “Smile when you dial,” and “5 ways to control the call.” How to live through your workday. It’s all outside-in. It’s all about training the individuals to “feel empowered” while they do the work of the company. While those are all important skills and tactics – you need them if you intend to succeed – they aren’t endemic to a service mindset. To the majority of your service staff, they’re just devices and buzzwords.

The majority of my career has been focused on customer service. I’ve worked in customer service roles, in customer service industries, and consulted on customer service initiatives. Somewhere along the way I became passionate about the value and nature of service as a calling rather than simply a “job,” and I began to notice the delta between what I have experienced to be true and the way in which companies focus (or fail to focus) on their customer service centers. So much so, in fact, that the first inspiration that ultimately led me down the path to consulting actually came after being on the receiving end of a lackluster customer service training that left me feeling frustrated and knowing I could do better than the overpaid, inauthentic suit standing at the front of the room.

I hold the belief, informed by my experience, that true, durable service starts with inspiring and empowering the people who deliver it. Inviting them to open up and think in unconventional terms, and demonstrating that they are really safe and free to do so. Seeding the idea that the individual can derive satisfaction from the delivery of proper service. That people can and should have dreams and goals that are just a little beyond what they can currently achieve. Teaching that always having something to reach for means that as long as you strive for a greater goal and work with it in mind, you’re always moving forward. That is what I care about. Inspiration, creating an atmosphere that promotes the concept that this is your work, and that it matters.

Everybody believes in something, or they want to. We all have an inkling that we want to do some kind of good in either our own lives or the lives of others. A purpose. Even the most downtrodden and forlorn among us, when asked the right questions and given a genuine opportunity to be heard, can identify something within us that we believe in, that matters.

That’s why the film industry has been making money since the Great Depression. It’s why video games are huge and people read fantasy novels and play role-playing games and watch sports. We want heroes in whom we can place ourselves. We want a form upon which we can project all our yearning for greater purpose, the speeches we give to the invisible adversary when we’re alone in our cars or sitting in the waiting room at the dentist’s office, the great conquering general of our fantastic dreams. We see “The Transporter” whip across the screen in his Audi at 120 mph and leap out to dispatch an entire cast of unsavory characters and it isn’t just passive observation. In our minds it is us behind that wheel. We are the ones defusing the bomb, saving the day, getting the girl or the guy… We are the heroes of our own imagination.

This is where our journey starts. This is where the drive to serve – the impulse to perform beyond the scope of “bare-minimum” and to make a greater contribution – and the desire to care for the task rather than perform solely it by rote because it is what is expected and ingrained, is either won or lost. This moment of heroic aspiration requires inspiration and nourishment if it is to grow and flourish into a robust service practice.

Why is it that soldiers perform heroically in the face of chaos and disaster? Why do policemen and firemen persevere through all manner of hardship and obstacles? It’s because they believe. They believe in what they are doing, or rather they believe in something personal to them that makes what they are doing important or necessary.

I hear it said time and time again. “You can’t make someone care. You can’t teach them that.” I disagree. I will concede that it is difficult, not easily done by traditional means of training and not a formulaic process of the familiar. But I would also submit that the deepest obligation of leadership is to create conditions in which the passions and self-empowerment of your people can flourish.

If we are honest and willing to explore the idea, each of us can look into our own lives and identify something we wish to believe in. There is a secret hero within each of us waiting to be unleashed. Each individual has to dig in and do the work, and will need to stay inspired along the way. But if you can open a person’s mind to this kind of thinking, there is no limit to the level of service and dedication you can realize as a result.

Yes, skills are essential. They will need to be trained and measured. But are you putting warm bodies in chairs or are you building a true service culture? Do you just want to throw the phrase around because it makes you sound good, or do you want to be a holistically world class service organization? Do you want incremental compliance and improvement, or do you want breakthrough performance that leaves the competition in the dust?

So let’s say you’re on board with all my high-minded notions of inspirational service culture. What then? How do you make it a reality?

I promised you this wasn’t going to be another list of generic top 5 boxes to check to get the same results as everyone else who reads the article and subscribes to the blog. But if you just have to have something to satisfy your list-reading needs, I went ahead and published a companion piece for just such an occasion. Go ahead and check it out.

Otherwise, I invite you to comment below with your own thoughts and reflections on the subject. Do you agree with anything I’ve said, or do you think I’ve completely lost my marbles? Can you find value in taking this perspective, or do you wish you had the last 10 minutes of your life back? Either way, I’d love to hear from you.

Your mission, should you choose to accept it.

A few months ago I was studying some material related to guiding an organization through the process of defining their identity. As I was digging through my research, it dawned on me that while I am clear on what and why I do the work that I do, I had never stepped back and formally undertaken a similar process myself. As a one-man operation, I had done some exploration when I first started my business to come up with a purpose statement that related to my ideals, but I hadn’t taken it as far as to hammer out a consistent, cohesive identity that articulated my values and vision beyond that.

“I believe that there is a vast sea of untapped human potential in every organization just waiting to be released, and that 90% of all companies are missing the mark by not making that a central aspect of their culture and practices. I believe passionately in the power of the individual spirit to bring about widespread transformation, and the role of teams in moving vision forward into reality.”

That was my manifesto up to this point. When I examined this further in light of what I was now coming to understand, I realized that what I had was a core ideology, but that this was only one piece of the blueprint I truly needed in order to succeed. The ideology would inspire me and remind me why I was putting in the work, but it didn’t give me a real map or guidepost that I could use to build a lasting strategy. Given that I’m a firm believer in practicing what I preach, I decided to follow a process and get serious about putting the soul of my business on paper.

I’m sure there are a million ways to go about defining  identifying core values. I’ve seen a number of them in use over the years, some more effective than others. One method that I particularly like and have used with great results in both individual coaching and organizational work is a card sorting exercise.

The card sort starts with a list of values on cards or sheets of paper. Those cards then get sorted into piles according to where they fit in your sense of personal or organizational values – Always, usually, sometimes, seldom or never. This could be done similarly with just a list of values on a single sheet of paper, but the physical act of sorting them tends to add a deeper level of connection and thought to the process. However you choose to go about it, the first round of sorting is easy, but it gets challenging as you go. The goal is to end up with only 3-5 cards in the “always” pile, which forces some deep choices and reflection when it comes down to selecting those final values. This is where I really had to listen to my gut and explore the different reactions I had to various concepts in order to boil it down to my most fundamental beliefs.

I say “identifying” rather than defining, because core values are intrinsic. They’re not chosen based on how they’ll sound on a brochure or whether they rhyme with “great.” These are the defining truths within us that would be authentic no matter what – even if they became a competitive disadvantage. The goal of the process is to tap into the values that are deeply held by the group or individual, those that carry the most emotional gravity, the ones that breathe life into you and the people involved in your endeavor. These are central to your “why,” which, as we know, is the heartbeat of success.

At the end of my own card sort, I was left with four core values. When I looked at them, I could see that they were central to my sense of self. The reality in which I would feel completely fulfilled and at my best would have to include all four components. They resonate so deeply for me that even as I recall them now I get a chill up my spine. That’s how I know that I tapped into the true heart of my mission – these aren’t just a few superficial nouns slapped on a page, they are reflective of who I am and what I aspire to be.

Having teased out these guiding principles, the next step was to turn them into definitions that would clarify their meaning on a personal and professional level. How would I recognize them if they showed up in my work? Why did they matter and what were they moving me toward? If I could see myself and my work from the outside, what would these principles look like in action? With the help of a dictionary, some inspirational reading and a rainy afternoon, I was able to expand the values into guiding statements.

At this point things were starting to come into sharper focus. I could begin to see the frame of the vehicle I was building up around my work, and it felt powerful. Now I had to use that foundation to create a vision which would inspire a lasting emotional connection and give me something to strive for, and a mission that would make clear what my business was setting out to accomplish.

The terms mission, purpose, vision, and values are often used interchangeably. I’m not interested in claiming absolute authority on the subject, but it is important to develop a core identity structure that serves and supports the growth of your business. It is also crucial to understand what purpose each piece of that identity serves. In my work, I define it like this:

  • Values are what get me out of bed in the morning. They’re the beacons in the darkness, what I am about in my heart of hearts.
  • Ideology is what I believe in that makes my work necessary.
  • Mission is the the market state that I hope to create or transform.
  • Vision is the greater good that I hope to achieve – the perfect world that would be realized if I am able to fulfill my mission to its utmost.

Notice one very important detail that is not present in this list. Goals. This is a crucial point to hold on to. Goals are not defined in your vision and values. Values, vision and mission are embedded in goals. That is to say, the vision and values are a constant – these are the things that never change about the purpose of your work. They’re not checklist items to be achieved, but rather the foundation of everything that you will accomplish over time. Done well, the values process will create a powerful nucleus around which you can structure your long-, mid- and short-term goals when it comes time to map out your strategy. But again, creating that strategy is a different piece of work altogether.

After values, the next step is crafting a vision and mission statement. Typically these are two distinct items – the vision inspires the interior life of the company, and the mission makes the connection to the outside world you hope to engage in the process. In many cases, it’s easier for companies to grasp the concept of the mission. This has a more direct relationship to the work – what are you trying to do in your market? What sort of problem are you trying to solve?

The best mission statements are those that are short and to the point, but still inspirational and speak to the big picture. Some companies veer off that course for various reasons, and the results are telling. For example, consider Apple’s early mission statement under Steve Jobs: “To make a contribution to the world by making tools for the mind that advance humankind.” This statement makes clear what the company does, articulates a noble, lofty goal, and is pretty inspirational in the process. Under that mission, Apple pioneered the field of personal computing and became ubiquitous through their design and innovation. Now compare it to their current mission statement: “Apple designs Macs, the best personal computers in the world, along with OS X, iLife, iWork and professional software. Apple leads the digital music revolution with its iPods and iTunes online store. Apple has reinvented the mobile phone with its revolutionary iPhone and App store, and is defining the future of mobile media and computing devices with iPad.” Hm. Nothing sexy or inspirational there. It sounds more like the intro to a class paper than a message that can speak to the hearts and minds of designers and engineers in pursuit of “advancing humankind.” The change in messaging obviously hasn’t sunk their business, but one might wonder what kind of impact it has had on the soul of the company and their ability to engage talent while holding on to market share.

Whatever the approach you choose, the crucial point to consider is this: Your values exist. Whether or not you’ve taken the time to engage with them and develop their connection to your business reality, they’re there and they make an impact. Taking the time to harness and embed them into the lived-in reality of your work gives you the strongest opportunity to connect with your employees in a meaningful way, engage in an emotional connection with your market, and define the value of your work well into the future.

Oh, and in case you’re curious, here are the results of my own personal mission/vision/values process:

Adventure – To choose that which challenges and expands my perspective
Purpose – To be fueled by a sense of meaning and fulfillment
Compassion – To act with consideration for the experiences and needs of others
Mastery – To be known and sought out for having the highest skill and expertise

I believe that there is a vast sea of untapped human potential in every organization just waiting to be released, and that 90% of all companies are missing the mark by not making that a central aspect of their culture and practices. I believe passionately in the power of the individual spirit to bring about widespread transformation, and the role of teams in moving vision forward into reality.

To transform lives by connecting people with purpose, values and integrity.

To enable companies to attract, develop and retain the most talented people in their industries by building organizational cultures and leadership that inspire innovation, purpose, and mastery.

The cure for creativity and innovation.

What is leadership? I mean, really, what does it mean to you?

I was recently speaking with an executive at a creative agency who was frustrated with his team. No one was bringing any ideas to the table, at least none that he felt were worth seriously entertaining, no matter how many times he invited, enticed, or even demanded that they do so. He felt that no one understood his vision and they weren’t contributing to creative growth of the firm. He would make suggestions or reference certain sources to provide creative inspiration, with little to nothing to show for it. In the end, he usually ended up providing the final idea himself after shooting down anything submitted by his team.

Having worked together in the past, I had an idea about the potential cause of his dilemma but I wanted to unpack it a bit further to see if he would come to his own realization.

Q. How much autonomy does the team have to produce their own work?
A. They have total autonomy. I want everyone to contribute.
Q. And are they talented and capable enough to do the job?
A. Oh yeah, they’re brilliant. I’ve seen their other work and it’s really fantastic.
Q. Ok, great. And how well do they understand your vision?
A. Of course they understand it, I’ve told them a million times. I want to be the biggest, most successful and brilliant creative agency in the world!
Q. So you’ve told them where you’re trying to go. Do they understand what it looks like to get there?
A. Yeah, I mean I told them what I wanted, so…
Q. You told them. And when they came back to you, did the work meet your expectations?
A. No. It wasn’t even close. I end up rejecting their ideas and doing most of the work myself because they just don’t get it.
Q. Sooo…
A. …


It may or may not be obvious here, but what happened here was that my friend was inwardly deeply and painfully clear on his vision. So much so that it never occurred to him that others might not be on the same page. In fact, he was so convinced that his ideas were obvious that he couldn’t see where his external communication hadn’t been clear in the first place. And he certainly wasn’t making the connection between his taking the reins on every project and the team not bringing fresh ideas to the table.

Setting a vision is a vital step in building a resonant culture. Leaders should absolutely have a clear, compelling, brilliant picture of where they would love for their business to go. The only way to orient toward a goal is to have at least a representative image of what it would look like to get there. But far too often, we see people thinking that dictating an outcome with vague expectations is the same thing as communicating a powerful vision.

Leadership requires investment – we have to invest the time to gain an understanding of our audience in order to deliver our message in a way they will be able to receive. We have to share in the power of communication. If I tell you “I want something magnificent,” that’s aspirational but also pretty vague. If I give you some examples, “Here are some things I think are magnificent,” that’s a little better but still leaves room for misinterpretation. If I get clear on what I really want to convey, “What I find magnificent about these three examples are quality A, quality B and quality C,” then I’ve given you some details to emulate or design around. More focused, and likely will produce better results. But even still, I’m substituting tactical and technical considerations for actual values-based leadership.

The often overlooked element of communication is action. What I say will not inform you nearly as much as what I do, or don’t do, to support my words. This is where impact is either achieved or lost. The leader who says “bring me great ideas!” but consistently responds with “your ideas are no good!” will never be able to elicit brilliant work from his teams no matter how emphatically he insists on greatness. He creates a power vacuum by failing to bridge the gap between his vision and the lived-in experience of his team, and then further assures failure by conditioning the team to believe that their work doesn’t meet these ill-defined standards. The team becomes disempowered, and so relinquishes all capacity for innovation and creative ownership.

I have seen this play out countless times in many businesses. The leader assumes ultimate control and authority, and may even be the most skillful or talented individual in the organization to execute on the vision. So they are high achievers with equally high standards, which they brandish like a weapon. They then fall victim to a common dilemma – confusing the idea of leadership for that of power. They hope to create productivity by exerting force and dominance, but generally do more harm than good. Teams become demoralized, reactive, and generally disengaged. Creative energy is diminished and the people become dependent on the power of the leader, rather than the empowerment of their leadership.

Leaders have to be attuned to their own strengths and weaknesses, and the extent to which they tend to over- or under-utilize their core traits, before they can hope to influence, inspire, and move others. Truly great leaders are not those who solely dictate outcomes or activities. The best leaders do relatively little of this. The most resonant leaders will define and communicate the vision, and then help create or illuminate the path for their people to achieve it. They build value in the relationship between the mission and the individual, and create alignment between personal purpose and business success.

There will always be times where power is required. But if your goals are creativity and innovation, the question is: will you be in a position to know the difference, and make the difference, when leadership requires a loose grip and a nuanced approach, or will you be left standing there with smoke rolling out of your ears wondering why nobody understands the vision you failed to inspire by beating them into submission?

Culture isn’t an idea. It’s a practice.

Culture, culture, culture. It’s everywhere, and it’s all everyone wants to talk about. But what is it, and why is it so important?

Once upon a time, management theory was all about one-way communication and that was that. Leaders would “insert their meaning into words,” pass those words along, and the recipients would simply extract the intended message at the other end and act accordingly. No muss, no fuss. The idea was that, as a worker, you simply showed up and did what you were told in order to support the goals of the company. This kind of thinking came about largely related to manufacturing jobs, and in fact some theories view the organization itself as a metaphorical machine. Roles were seen as specialized, standardized and replaceable. You do your part, do it to an established standard, and if you burn out or fail to meet the standard we just pull you out and plug someone else in to replace you.

If you try to superimpose this kind of thinking onto the complex environment of today’s business realities, things come apart quickly. Yes, directive-based leadership is still necessary, and success still requires consistent and predictable output. But that alone just isn’t enough to succeed in the market, or to retain the talent you need to remain competitive. People aren’t staying in jobs for 30 years to maintain the status quo until they retire anymore. In fact, in the past year the current generation of workers changed jobs at 3x the rate of previous generations.

That level of millennial job turnover comes at an annual cost of $30.5 Billion.

So what do we do? Is your company’s future at the mercy of these fickle brats*? Do you just have to accept and live with the idea that today’s employees are disloyal and entitled and all you can do is complain about it while you watch them walk out the door?

Not by a long shot.

The solution starts with values. Every company has them, but a surprising number leave them to chance rather than investing in the process of deliberately defining them. This oversight comes at a cost, both in market share and talent retention. In fact, in contrast to other workforce demographics, modern workers are more inclined to place their personal values ahead of those of the company when making business decisions. Interestingly enough, despite that fact I still find in my coaching work that most people haven’t put a lot of time or effort into defining their personal values either.

So that leaves us with companies of undefined values hiring individuals with unclear needs in the blind hope that some magical act of divine alignment will pull it all together in just the right way to breed success.

Great plan, everyone. Excellent work.

“An organization is nothing more than the collective capacity of its people to create value.” – Louis V. Gerstner, Jr.

What may have once been a fascinating novelty, the culture-driven organization has clearly transcended “Willy Wonka” territory to become ubiquitous, in many ways the minimum standard in the eyes of new entrants to the workforce. Ping pong tables, Nerf guns, and free snacks aren’t dazzling and special, they’re expected if not a bit of a worn cliche. And they’re certainly not a substitute for real values-based cultural strategy.

In order to create a successful culture, companies need to first invest time and effort in uncovering, refining and defining their values. It’s not a checklist item to be casually knocked out in the middle of an hour-long marketing meeting. It’s a deep, introspective process that, when properly conducted, will reveal the fundamental truth of your business and provide a compelling north-star by which to align your strategy.

But it’s not enough to stop there. Our words and concepts don’t do us any good until we activate them. We have to take the information we find in the values process and thoughtfully build it into the way we function.

There are a variety of ways to operationalize values and culture. One of the most successful yet relatively under-hyped is a method used by Intel, Google, Twitter and numerous other successful tech enterprises – the process of using OKRs (Objectives and Key Results) to align vision, goals and outcomes.

OKRs work like the mission, vision, values process in miniature. If vision is the what, mission is the how and values are the why, then Objectives become the what and Key Results the how of your annual and quarterly operations strategy. The why remains constant – organizational values should be such that they are true and meaningful at every level and over time. If I am in the transportation industry because I believe passionately in connecting people, then my quarterly goal of building bridges over every river in the county connects to those same values.

OKRs ask you to set aspirational goals, and then implement and measure the activities required to approach the target. If you have taken the time to get clear on your organizational values, the OKR process becomes a familiar extension of that work and allows you to dynamically drive your vision forward in a clear, transparent way that engages your teams and centralizes your culture.

By engaging in this level of connected cultural strategy, organizations can inspire vision in their employees and create alignment between personal and corporate values. When the two are aligned, there is resonance and amplification of purpose which will foster innovation and success. When they are out of alignment, well, it’s only a matter of time before your company becomes job #3 on last year’s resume.


* I don’t believe that millennials deserve all the negative backlash that people throw at them. I don’t like talking about it as a “them” either. The change in personal values and workplace needs is not limited to an age demographic so much as it has been brought about by the unprecedented rate of social change as the result of digital technology. It doesn’t require “these kids” to “act right,” it requires an evolution of understanding and ideas about workplace values to integrate with the current reality.

Feel free to reach out if you’d like to discuss these ideas further or collaborate on a cultural strategy to enhance the success of your organization. I love this stuff, and I’m always happy to share ideas and make new connections!

Don’t be busy. Get things done. There’s a difference.

“Never mistake motion for action.” – Ernest Hemingway

How many times in my life have I found myself hurrying and scurrying to “DO ALL THE THINGS!” when in fact all I’ve really managed to do is whip myself into a frenzy of stress and confusion? Or how about the times where all my primary responsibilities have been dealt with, but here comes the boss so it’s time to “look busy.”

The trap is an easy one to slip into. More activity must = more output, right? Well, maybe…

The truth of the matter is that without a plan, we can spin in circles all day long without ever producing the progress we’re so desperately chasing. It’s an easy thing to fall into; I struggle with it myself. Doing a little bit of everything leaves us with a whole lot of nothing, including time and satisfaction.

My typical work week at the moment consists of planning and implementing social media, writing (hopefully) compelling marketing material, blogging, going to networking events, following up with contacts, staying up to date with the latest market trends, reading for leisure and development, and leaving enough time for the unexpected when someone reaches out to start a conversation or I land a client and have actual onsite consulting to attend to. So I come in to my lovely little co-working office each day and start doing everything I possibly can to keep all those plates spinning like an acrobat in the Chinese circus. Five minutes here researching keywords and hashtags, then a few minutes there hacking out a couple paragraphs for a new article, then checking email, then back to research, then “oh yeah, I have to email that woman from the business luncheon the other day!” and then… wait. What was I just doing?

The outcome? I feel frantic and busy nearly all the time, I’m constantly worried that I’m overlooking something, and I can’t measure or predict the results of my actions. Sounds great, right?

When I was 20, I packed my bags and headed off to film school. I was enrolled and ready to go, couldn’t wait to show up and grab a camera and start making my dreams come true while saving the world from a never-ending stream of lousy, boring movies. The big surprise came when class started. We were told that we wouldn’t even turn a camera on for at least three months. The first half of the project would be spent in pre-production, as if it were a real film. As we went on, I learned that the pre-production process takes up more time than actually shooting a film, and is far more detailed than I ever imagined. It’s not just about deciding on the story and shouting “lights, camera, action!” Every aspect of the shoot is planned in advance, so that by the time the cameras start rolling it’s mostly about execution. The crew doesn’t just show up on Monday and say “ok, let’s make a movie!” They show up on Monday to shoot the scenes that were planned for Monday. Then on Tuesday, they do the work of Tuesday, and so on. Everything is planned in advance and drawn out, every action has been thought through and refined to make the best use of time and resources

So when it comes to work habits, why not take the Hollywood approach? Would I rather have a poorly-planned, slapped together B-movie or a well crafted blockbuster? Do I want to go straight to video or break records in the box office?

The hardest discipline to develop is often that of sitting still and planning our actions before we take flight. When I take the time to plan my week, or even my day, in advance, I find that I get more done and I feel better doing it. I do Monday’s tasks on Monday, and leave the rest for its own time. I’m able to take the time I need to plan and implement each aspect of my business without the mental gridlock of everything needing to happen all at once. And I gain more of a sense of accomplishment as each task is completed and I’m able to move on.

That may be an overly simplified analogy, but the fundamental truth is the same – to be truly productive, the answer lies in planning, priorities and strategy. If I work for myself, I need a strategy to keep things organized and consistent. If I work for someone else it can be a bit trickier depending on the requirements of my job but I can still use a strategic approach to structure my time in the most effective and rewarding way. And if I get everything done and the boss walks up to my desk to find me without an active project? Maybe my strategic system is so good that I can show them how it works and score some points for workplace innovation in the meantime.

Don’t let your culture be an accident.

Look, it’s not rocket science. If you need me to convince you that having clearly defined values is an important part of being a successful business then we’re already off to a rough start.
The debate isn’t about whether values matter, or whether you need a culture to survive. Sure, you could likely get by without paying specific attention to these things for a period of time. But given the rapid shift in the workforce as millennial now make up the largest segment of the working population, and buyer behavior that’s changing faster than ever before as a result of new technology, you absolutely need a cultural strategy if you hope to survive and thrive in the long run of today’s competitive landscape.
Your company has values and culture, whether or not you’ve taken the time to formally engage with them. The enacted values show up in the way things get happen in your business. Do you have a command and control environment where people have become dependent on a top-down sense of direction and approval? Are your players bound by directive to follow the letter of the law and leave the thinking to the top brass? If so, then maybe your company values obedience, or perhaps you as a leader value strength, dominance, or even fear. Do your teams struggle with deadlines and accomplishment, working in an environment of overly permissive autonomy that leaves them acting confused and rudderless most of the time? Sounds like maybe your enacted values are independence, unaccountability and conflict-avoidance.
These probably don’t sound like the warm, fluffy ideals that we generally associate with “vision statements” or the cute little corporate recruiting video on your website. And they’re probably not the strong, results-oriented ideas you hold about yourself or how you want your organization to behave. But the fact is, if no one is taking the time to craft and implement your desired values, then they are going to be defined purely by the side-effects of your daily practices. Sounds like a bummer, right? But wait – there’s more. The bigger trap is when companies do take the time and money to spell out their ideas and ideals, talk them up at staff meetings, emblazon them on the walls, boast about them in the corporate newsletter… but never actually do anything to make them true for the people who do the work day in and day out. And if you’re thinking that it shouldn’t matter what the grunts in the trenches think as long as you’re able to maximize production and crank out products or services to your clients, you’ve got another thing coming. If your teams can feel the gap between what you preach and what you practice, then you can bet that it will show up in your client relationships as well.
As with anything that has a lot of buzz and “sounds like something we should really take care of around here,” there can be a tendency to look at values and culture as boxes to be checked. Let’s just workshop it and move on, figure out what our words are so we can get back to business. The problem with this line of thinking is that in some cases it can be more dangerous to pay lip service to values-based culture than to do nothing at all. Take for instance the current situation over at Wells Fargo – thousands of employees fired, millions of dollars in fines, and untold reputational damage because the claimed values of “trust” and “ethics” were undermined by internal pressures to live up to the operational values of greed and high-pressure sales targets.
External values: trust, integrity
Internal values: hit your numbers, no matter what it takes!
The point is that you can’t just slap a few words in a Powerpoint deck and call it a day when it comes to culture and values. Neither can you purely dictate them from the top down. You can define the values that you hope to embody, but culture is collaborative in nature. Leveraged effectively, it is a guidepost by which to navigate and it represents the most effective fusion of your aspirations for the company with the best qualities of your talented people. Because in case you weren’t aware, your people have values too, and they will usually look to first and those of the company second. This is particularly true of millennials.
deloitte millennial values
*Deloitte 2016 Millennial Survey
Culture will inform the types of decisions that get made in your business, and the level of engagement you get from your staff. And for better or worse, if there’s a problem with the culture inside the office, it’s going to reveal itself to the client in one form or another over time. So the real question isn’t “why do I need to worry about the soft stuff like culture and values,” it’s “how much longer can you afford to wait before you develop a cultural strategy?”

A discussion series on mindset and methodology for strategic organizational culture; Pt.1 – What’s your problem?

The problem with problems is that we often don’t start working on them until it’s too late.

This is especially true of organizational culture. By the time an issue becomes big enough to demand attention and real effort, the symptoms have usually been coursing unchecked through the system and wreaking havoc for quite a while. It’s not that we’re negligent and irresponsible (I mean, we might be, but diligent, attentive people have problems too.) It generally has more to do with our capacity for strategic thinking and the efforts we invest in that process. We may be good at solving problems, we’re just not so great at preventing them.

Some problems are obvious and the solutions easy to recognize. Others may be more subtle, hidden within subsystems that generate indirect symptoms. In operations we can easily see when a conveyor belt isn’t moving, a door is jammed or a process is breaking down and causing waste or inefficiency. With culture, we have to rely on a deeper level of insight and awareness in order to get to the true cause. What may initially seem like marketplace or management issues such as losing a contract or declining productivity more likely have their roots in unexamined culture.

This isn’t exactly breaking news; it seems like culture is the hot topic everywhere you turn these days. So much so that 82% of respondents to Deloitte’s 2016 Human Capital Trends report consider culture to be a potential competitive advantage. But when it comes to culture, most organizations stumble along in the status quo until something happens rather than seek improvement before its collapse. The reason? Sadly, the answer often comes down to the fact that we just don’t know what to do about it.

In the same survey, fewer than 28% of surveyed executives and HR leaders believe that they truly understand their own culture, and 19% believe that they have the right culture in place.

Take a minute to think about that. 82% believe culture is a key to success. Only 28% understand their culture and only 19% think they’re getting it right.

So we agree that culture is important, and we don’t think we’ve mastered it. But if we don’t understand it, how can we hope to change it?

Social psychologist and organizational theorist Kurt Lewin observed that “to break open the shell of complacency and self-righteousness it is sometimes necessary to bring about deliberately an emotional stir up.” Similarly, noted psychologist Carl Jung commented in his work with the early members of Alcoholics Anonymous that “huge emotional displacements and rearrangements” were critical in propelling alcoholics to experience an internal transformation capable of sustaining them through the stages of change required to achieve permanent sobriety.

The practical wisdom of such claims shows itself in our organizations daily. In most cases, cultural change occurs only when driven by outside forces – a merger or acquisition, the exit or entrance of a notable leader or influential player, a corporate downsizing; something happens, and we react. Sometimes that something is mild, like a new person on a team with a fresh set of ideas that cause us to rethink the way we do things, and sometimes it’s more drastic like a loss of market share and the grim specter of imminent layoffs that causes us to scramble our resources and react out of self-preservation. Or maybe it’s the rising tide of Millennials in the workforce that we’re struggling to properly engage. Whatever the case, it takes a wake up call to get us moving and by that point we’re forced to address damage control and forward motion simultaneously.

The downside of all this is that if we wait until we’re in crisis to implement change we’re stuck in a reactive mode, and living, working and operating in a state of reaction sucks. It costs us momentum, morale, and often money. But what if we could bring about a level of self-awareness sufficient to prompt action in the absence of a crisis? What if we could, as Lewin suggests, bring about a stir up intentionally and with strategic forethought in order to avoid tragedy later on?

Before we dive into such depths of organizational psychology, let’s step back and look at a simpler example to illustrate how change occurs from a practical standpoint using a fairly universal metaphor: fire

If we haven’t encountered fire before, we may reach out and touch the flame out of curiosity. We get burned, it hurts, we pull our hand away. Cause, effect, reaction. But maybe we didn’t really get burned all that badly. Perhaps we’re so fascinated by the warmth and flickering light that after a while we try again. We reach out into the heat a second time only to be met with the same result. We maybe get singed a bit more harshly this time around and we give up our heroic notions of conquering the mysteries of the flame once and for all.

It all really comes down to a simple proposition: at what point do the negative consequences of dysfunctional behavior outweigh the effort and discomfort required to honestly identify the source of the problem and put a solution in place? Put simply – how bad does it have to get before we get honest and do something about it? The answer to that question typically boils down to a matter of pattern recognition, resource allocation and where we fall on the functional-pain spectrum.

  • Pattern recognition – can we see what’s really happening? Just because it hurt the first time, we weren’t convinced that it would always be that way. The second time around we learned our lesson: fire is always hot, and getting burned is no fun.
  • Resource allocation – what will it cost us to change? Do we have, or can we create, the capacity to stop reaching into the fire? Yes. We don’t need any special tools or additional personnel. In fact, it would take less energy to stop than it would to continue; the benefit seems obvious.
  • Functional vs. Painful – what are we willing to tolerate? Here’s where the decision really gets made. The first burn was just a quick, mild hit. It was a shock and there was discomfort, but it wasn’t catastrophic. It may have even felt like a challenge, increased our need to master the fire and claim victory over it. We could tolerate the pain (and the memory of the pain) and continue to investigate. The second burn told us that we couldn’t beat the heat. It may have felt a bit stronger on our already flame-kissed skin, and we were hurt and sick enough of these results to change our actions and avoid future pain.

Now we had a second memory that compounded our initial discomfort, the needed resources to change our behavior, and a couple of data points as evidence that the fire will burn us every time. From this we establish an enduring perception based on our experience and we opt to change our behavior.

If change were easy or comfortable, there wouldn’t be so many books, workshops, consultants, and resources dedicated to it. We’d simply change whenever we needed or wanted to and that would be that. But while it is rarely such a simple proposition, the solution needn’t be overly complex. The fire example presents an overly-simplified reduction of a change process, but it contains the key elements we need to begin an effective transformation effort. The first phase always requires objective observation and reflection. If we dive headfirst into action, we miss the entire point of strategic thinking. If we think without acting, we’re equally ineffective. Significant effort is required to initiate and sustain change, but if we’re prepared to spend a little time developing a strategy then the process can be our guide on the path from where we find ourselves to where we envision that we must go.

In the coming weeks we will continue this discussion to dive deeper into models and strategies for cultural transformation, but for now let’s simply familiarize ourselves with the concepts and begin to generate awareness for the work ahead. What are the patterns that you think you might find as you begin to analyze your organization? Where do you think you’ll meet with resistance, and where will the idea of cultural change be the most strongly supported? Take just a minute to write down your initial thoughts, while not getting too caught up in the details or expectations.

Questions for reflection:

* Pattern Recognition: What is my current practice for identifying problems as they develop? Do I generally acknowledge when an issue is developing or do I tend to avoid the early signs?

* Resource Allocation: What would I have to invest (time, effort, $) to address this situation differently? Can I afford to do so? Can I afford not to?

* Functional vs Painful: How do I define “pain” as relating to the culture of my organization? How might I measure this in order to understand what is tolerable and what is not?

Feel free to comment below with questions, thoughts or experiences that come to mind along the way!

Start where you are, and practice.

I was a bit nervous when I came into my first week of coach training a few years ago, feeling excited but self-conscious and wanting to make the right impression with this new community. I had come to this place through a long, meandering path of circumstances that seemed to be steering me along a path, but I still had some elements of fear and doubt about whether I would fit into this new arena. I’m intuitive and I pick things up quickly, so I have a tendency to slip into student-expert mode in these settings, to be the pupil with the compelling insight and demonstrate my competence in order to validate my presence. In effect, I trap myself in this space of feeling the need to be seen as expert even from the outset.

Near the end of the first day we broke out into small groups to conduct our first supervised coaching sessions. We each took turns coaching one another using the techniques we had learned that day, receiving feedback from the other students and the instructor. Our particular group was supervised by Eddy, one of the program’s founders.

Now, the thing to know about Eddy is that he has a presence unlike that of anyone else I’ve ever met. He’s got a way of speaking that makes even the most mundane comment seem profound, and there’s a certain sense of playful and knowing mischief about him. His deep voice and soothing Zambian accent convey his wisdom with such immense gravity, like a combination of James Earl Jones, Yoda and Mr. Miyagi.

So as we all filed out of the room after the practicum session ended, I found myself walking next to Eddy trying to think of something clever to say that would sufficiently impress him.  There I was, walking next to the sensei and laboring over my thoughts, when he turned to me and said, “you know, not everyone goes on to hang a shingle and become a coach.”

I was absolutely clear on what he meant; that there are many ways to use the skills and discipline of coaching in the world beyond the path of simply going into business as a coach. But what I heard in my head was something more along the lines of, “you know, you may not be cut out for this. You don’t belong here. Your “I’m an expert” routine isn’t fooling anyone and you should probably just give up. You’re going to die broke and alone living under a bridge with nothing to show for your whole miserable failure of a life.” I don’t recall what I said to him in response, only that I had a feeling of being utterly lost and deflated in that moment.

Later that night I sat in my hotel room reflecting on the day. Should I just give up? Was I trying to go down a path that didn’t fit me? It had all felt so right leading up to this moment, and yet there I was facing this moment of peril. Slowly, it dawned on me: I had been so busy trying to manage everyone’s perception of me that I had failed to fully show up. What had led me to this experience was having a connection with my heart and mind manifest in a sense of purpose. What I was doing now that I was here was pushing that aside in order to try and look the part. I was a measured, muted version of myself in the classroom and it was undermining my success. I had a serious gut-check moment and realized that if I were to have any hope of success I would need to stop trying to manage the perception of others and simply be present in the moment, in all my uncertain, unknowing, imperfect glory.

The next day I had  a moment to bring this up with Eddy. I told him about my realization and that I had fallen victim to my desire to seem like an instant expert. He looked at me, and with so much kindness and insight said, “Why do you want to be an expert? You’re a beginner.”

I can not overstate the value of that simple statement.

Beginner’s Mind

The concept of beginner’s mind is not new or novel. Zen Master Shunryu Suzuki wrote about it in his book, Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind in 1970. The concept itself is far older. The idea is that as a beginner, we are in a pure state of experience. We have not accumulated the cynicism and disappointment or preconceived notions that come with time spent at any endeavor. We are able to absorb new information with objective curiosity and wonder, like a child when they first come into contact with each new experience in life. Everything holds the potential to be fascinating and wonderful. It is only our judgment that makes one experience better or worse than another.

With this beginner’s mind comes a particular kind of power. When we enter an experience with clear eyes, we are open to every option. Often, it’s the beginner or the newcomer who offers the innovative solution or the profound perspective. They are not bound by the structure of perception that forms around us as we progress deeper into our work. The beginner has an objective authority free of the corrosive effects of politics, agency and expectation. To attempt to bypass this stage of our development is to disrupt our own potential and leave possibility untended.
Practice makes more practice

While all this talk of remaining in a beginner’s mind is lovely, at some point we do need to begin to seek growth and move toward a more expert level in our leadership. As leaders, our role is not simply to become experts or authorities in our own right. To truly lead, we must seek to increase the expert capacity of our people and organizations. We want to inspire and provoke change, growth, and mastery at both the individual and collective levels. But how do we go about this?

Change is not a singular event, nor is it a result. In any context, change is an ever-evolving process that can often be more circular than linear. Whether the change being sought is personal, professional, singular or implemented across a large system, the value of consistent practice is perhaps the most crucial element of any effort. That consistency of action is best incubated in miniature and consistently modeled. But that doesn’t mean it’s easy or that we will not make mistakes. The very nature of practice is that we will take missteps on our path to mastery.

If we want to create a pattern of consistency, we as individuals must learn to be consistent.  A simple enough concept, but one that can quickly become challenging if we lose sight of our beginner’s mind. We blow things out of scale, make them daunting by causing them to seem too big, too overwhelming. If I want to make a change, I have to become a CHANGE EXPERT, if I intend to create consistent behavior in my system then I must be UNFAILINGLY CONSISTENT IN EVERYTHING I DO.

While these bold ideals may be admirable, they’re really just excuses. They serve as roadblocks and escape hatches that excuse us from achieving progress.

“I can’t start now because I haven’t mastered it.”

“I’m not an expert, maybe I should just quit.”

“Changing my system is hopeless. It’s not working now, and it probably never will.”

The power of consistency isn’t derived from our ability to apply it unilaterally across every domain of our lives. It is much simpler, much more subtle. Consistency is simply about doing one thing repeatedly until it becomes habitual and produces predictable results. It’s true power lies in our ability to use this practice to intentionally normalize our experience so that we can better understand and develop ourselves and those around us.

Practice does not necessarily make perfect, but it gives us data. When we experiment we have an opportunity to test our ideas. When we experiment consistently, we become more comfortable with the nature of innovation. With a beginner’s mind approach, we can actually reroute our neural pathways to associate experimentation not with fear and uncertainty, but with hopeful curiosity and excitement. We can program our brain to be comfortable with the uncertainty of the beginner’s stance, and to use that as a platform for robust learning and development. We must practice so that our practice becomes consistent.


Start where you are

There are many ways to establish an attitude of consistency. One that I’ve found particularly useful involves a simple daily practice that can be done in just a few minutes when preparing for the day. You can do it with no training or experience, and you can start exactly where you are right now. It involves finding your message, building a sort of mantra.  It should be simple, and it should represent the principles that resonate with your heart.  It can be conceptual or tangible: “embrace uncertainty” or “eat more vegetables.”  It doesn’t matter which, as long as it is meaningful to you and supports your goals in developing mastery.

Once you’ve found your message, say it aloud.  Make it yours; by voicing it you give form to the thought.  Commit this message to your awareness for the day. Then, at various times throughout the day when you find yourself with a moment, recall your mantra.  Close your eyes, take a deep cleansing breath and speak the words in your mind (or out loud if you’ve got some privacy and it won’t make anyone think you’ve lost your marbles). Remember your intention.  What do you wish to be on this day? What are the principles that guide you? Where are you in your process?

While this kind of self-affirmation exercise may seem like a bunch of new age foolishness, it has been proven to be effective in lowering stress and improving problem-solving ability. I consider it a sort of on-the-spot meditation practice, allowing me to bring an element of focus forward into my day. It brings me back into the moment of what I’m doing, reeling me in from the unproductive stresses of projecting myself into the future.

So if you’re at the beginning, start at the beginning. Be the best beginner you can – ask questions, try things, make mistakes and try again. Don’t waste your time rehearsing poses for your victory photo; start by being in position when the starting gun goes off. When you take one step toward the universe, it takes ten toward you.  Start each day with just one step in the direction you wish you were going.  Before you know it, the view won’t be so far off on the horizon as it once seemed.

Lessons from the road: Where you look, you go.

I am not a perfect motorcyclist.

I got a late start compared to many, first swinging my leg over a bike at the ripe old age of 31. Growing up, motorcycling was always something that other people did. It seemed cool but I had never been exposed to it or had an opportunity to learn, and it wasn’t something that I was curious enough about to look into.

When I finally did discover riding as the result of a three month staring contest with an old ’72 Honda CB350 I found stored in the shed of an apartment I moved into, my life was revolutionized. It seemed to open a door to a part of me that I didn’t realize had been waiting to come to life. It also filled everything with more possibility, more joy and depth. Routes I had been driving on auto-pilot for years suddenly became pathways to brand new adventures. The hour-long drive to visit my parents became a favorite weekend passtime. I would get out of work, fire up my bike and just take off with no destination in mind, riding only for the sake of the ride. Every spare moment was one to be savored with two wheels underneath me and the wind in my face.

In the course of all this, I discovered things about myself. I also learned some valuable lessons that followed me into my work. In leadership it is imperative to draw from the full scope of our life’s experience if we are to be of maximum effectiveness. The lessons learned on the road are no exception.

They don’t look out for you. You look out for them.

It’s no mystery that people are at perhaps their most self-involved when driving. We feel entitled, we have no patience, and we’re quick to get hot under the collar if things don’t go our way. What’s more, a sort of silent competitiveness comes out on the road. Ever try to pass someone who’s clearly not going as fast as you are only to have them gun it when you pull up alongside them? Or roll up to a four-way stop with no light and watch everyone try to get into the intersection at once like they don’t know who got there first? Pretty dangerous, and even more so on a motorcycle.

Think about your leadership in the same way. Not in a paranoid “everyone’s out to get me” sense, but to the extent that you’ve got to stay focused and watch for danger and opportunity. Learn to read the landscape and the competition. If you’re operating with this in view, being mindful of their moves and learning to predict your own opportunities to pull ahead, you will find yourself in a much better position. If you focus solely on your own path, you may miss the danger coming up behind you. If you focus only on where everyone else is going, you’ll miss your chance to set yourself apart. The strong leader will develop a balanced view that takes the whole picture into scope.

Ride your own ride

Whether riding in a group or just on a popular route with a lot of other traffic, it can be tempting to push yourself harder than you’re used to in order to keep up or to not feel like a newbie. While riding with more experienced mates can be a great way to learn and improve your own skills, it’s important to always stay in touch with your own instincts and purpose. Just because they’re going fast and taking chances doesn’t necessarily mean that you should follow suit.

Even as a leader it may be tempting to run with the pack, to see what our competitors or more seasoned colleagues are chasing and set our sights to match, even if we may lack the skill and experience to keep pace. Ego creeps in, we don’t want to seem less capable than our peers.

You may work for an executive who approaches things in a certain way and think, “well, that must be how it’s done around here” even though their behaviors and attitudes may not feel quite aligned with your own sense of purpose. Do you follow the actions they have modeled, or do you define things for yourself? Using those around you as a benchmark is often necessary and not always the worst thing if you stay true to your goals and values, but if you’re competing just for the sake of pride you may want to reevaluate.

Stay in tune with your vision. Build habits that help you to maintain your objectivity. Working with intentionality and a competitive spirit is a good way to grow. Wearing yourself out and compromising yourself  in an attempt to keep up is a good way to get hurt.


When I ride, I ride.

One of the things I love most about motorcycling is that I get to experience the world in a way that isn’t otherwise possible. It isn’t just about the adrenaline rush that comes with running full-throttle through a series of technical switchbacks or discovering how fast my bike can go on a deserted straightaway. Don’t get me wrong, those things are fantastic, but they aren’t the whole picture. On a recent ride I was on just such a road – a long, straight, unpatrolled swath of California blacktop pointing out into the desert. I opened up to a pretty good speed, but not so fast that I couldn’t take in my surroundings. The sun was at my back, just past its apex and falling perfectly on my shoulders. My nostrils were filled with an intoxicatingly subtle combination of desert scrub brush, dry red earth, and the faintest hint of expended fuel. The sky was a perfect blue, and at one point a hawk took flight off to my left and soared along above me for several miles. It was magical, not because of where I was going but because I was present to the details of the journey.

In our work lives, things can happen fast. We’ve got to think strategically, focus tactically, and navigate effectively all at the same time. So much of the focus is on the outcome, the results, the ROI, that often we overlook our love for the craft itself. We lose awareness of the little details that make up the landscape of our leadership, and when we do we begin to burn out.

The greatest gift a leader can give themselves is to create and maintain the space to stay present and appreciative of the process. There is an endless stream of talk about mindfulness in leadership these days, most of which I agree with.

When the going gets tough, the tough calm down.

One of the things that makes motorcycling so rewarding is the constant challenge. It requires you to engage all your senses, motor skills, coordination and instinct as you navigate your chosen route. The stakes are obviously high, and the margin of error is very slim. When you’re weary from a long day’s ride and you come across yet another technically demanding stretch, the tendency is to tense up. I’ll start to feel it in my shoulders first, then maybe I’ll notice that I’m gritting my teeth or clenching my hands too tightly on the grips. I start fighting the bike harder than I need to, which only compounds my increasing fatigue. Each new turn becomes a battle of will, one in which I’m focused on my stress, fixated on the fight rather than engaged in the greater context of the ride.

In the most successful of these moments I will pause and recall the bits of wisdom I’ve gleaned from other riders. Treat the grips like two small birds. Don’t crush them, hold them lightly. Apply only as much pressure as is needed to maintain control of the bike. Loosen up the hips, don’t let the shoulders from creeping up around your ears. Relax. Trust your instincts, and remember what you love about what you are doing.

What we look for in these moments of stress is a way to reconnect with our state of flow, a concept perhaps most frequently associated with the work of Hungarian psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. It’s a state of connectedness, of being at one with one’s experience and environment and thus achieving a seemingly effortless state of mastery. If we can access this flow, we retain the ability to elevate ourselves above the stressors of the moment and maintain focus. We can actually use these experiences to increase mindfulness and reduce power stress  to lead from a healthier state of objectivity.

Where you look, you go.

The concept is simple enough – look all the way through the turn, keep your eyes and head pointed toward the farthest edge of the spot you’re aiming for. If you’re making a slow U-turn, turn your head to look over your shoulder in the direction you want to go and the bike wheels itself around almost effortlessly. But if you’re nervous and don’t look all the way around you won’t make the turn. Your balance may falter, you’ll swing wide or possibly even lose it all together and have what I affectionately refer to as a “set down” – the non-catastrophic but highly embarrassing parking-lot case in which the bike’s weight tips past the fulcrum and you have no choice but to lay it on it’s side, as gently and nonchalantly as possible. And of course the stakes get exponentially higher as you take this principle up to cruising speed. If you’re shuttling along at a respectable pace when you come across a stone or a pothole or an especially tight corner, the natural tendency is to fix your eyes on it while thinking as hard as you can, “do NOT hit that!” 9 times out of 10? Bang! You hit the rock, or the hole, or have to break harder than you planned because you’ve taken the turn wide. And if you’re the wrong combination of fast, unlucky and off course, you’ll find yourself in much greater danger.

It took some time to learn to ignore my default reaction of looking directly in front of the bike and focus instead on the horizon. It didn’t come naturally, I felt that if I was looking out ahead I might miss something in front of me and veer off course. It took practice and patience to learn to entrust the immediate path to my peripheral vision while keeping focused on the longer range target around the next corner.

When your primary focus is the danger, you’ll go toward the danger. If you can learn to see and acknowledge the risk but focus primarily on the goal on the other side, your odds of success increase dramatically. The same is true of leadership. As discussed in much of the research in contemporary positive psychology, there is a stronger stance and greater potential in working toward a goal than there is when putting energy into avoiding an obstacle.

These are just a handful of the many lessons learned on the road. And “on the road” can mean something different for each of us. For me, it’s on two wheels with the wind in my face and the world spooling out before me in an endless lattice of new adventure. For others it may be standing on the banks of a bubbling stream with a fishing rod in hand, or free climbing the stone face of a towering mountain. The method itself is less important than the ability to connect these aspects of our experience to our deeper truths and bring these out in the work we do as leaders. These lessons serve to move and fuel us, and in turn create more resonance in our ability to inspire growth in others.

What’s your “road”? What has it taught you that you about leadership and service? Comment below or email me at info@executiveinspiration.com – I’d love to learn more about what moves you!