Monday, November 11, 2019

Good enough isn't good enough

When a conversation about leadership books ensues, Good to Great by Jim Collins often pops up, and I had been hearing about it so much that I had to check it out. Solid. A page-turner. Yes, it is part of 100 Nonfiction Books I Recommend.

However, unlike the other books in this leadership category, I find it hard to remember. I think that's because there are A LOT of points in Good to Great, and it's not as simple, or specialized, as some of the other books.

First of all, organizations must be brutally honest with themselves. A company's bread and butter can change, especially now with rampant technology, so a company must understand its exact place in the marketplace. Easier said than done.

Steal. There always are better organizations out there, so when relevant, I say analyze what the competitions is doing and do it better. Simplicity also is critical. Companies need to follow three key questions: 1) What can I do best? 2) What makes money? 3) What ignites my passion?

Another key in the book is to stop doing anything that does not align to the company's mission. Prioritize. If leaders find themselves wasting time on irrelevant actions or tasks, that needs to end. Yes, that is obvious. But I see it happening all the time with seemingly well-intentioned leaders.
Some of what is in Good to Great (2001) applies to leadership anywhere, including public schools, but some doesn't. One glaring irony about leadership in traditional public schools is that because there is no pressing need for a profit, leadership can be harder.

I used to think it would be easier, or should be easier, to lead in schools because leaders would only have to do what's best for students and have the green light to innovate, innovate, innovate. That's not always the case.

In the 21st century, the marketplace drove innovation among companies, and schools typically have no incentive or wherewithal to improve. I believe public education has hope, but elements of it are like the health-care industry. We all know things in the system are not efficient, and sometimes cruel, but the system has become too big for easy fixes.

Another irony in public schools is that because the stakes are so low for the workers, that everything becomes a big deal. The pay is standard in schools based on time served, yet there are small things workers can do for a little extra — such as coaching and some specialized roles. But, financially, it's not significant. Ironically, all of this stuff becomes a big deal, even though logically and mathematically, it is insignificant.

Where the stakes are higher with for-profit companies is where organizations truly must understand Collins' book to improve. Companies that cannot be honest with themselves and cannot do something better than the competition are doomed.

Saturday, November 9, 2019

Leaders embrace adaptive challenges

When I obtained a master's in education and a credential in California school administration at Cal State Dominguez Hills, the first book assigned was Leadership on the Line by Ronald Heifetz and Marty Linsky.

I don't think it's possible to leave Dominguez's program without understanding the concept of "getting on the balcony." If anything ever gets hairy in leadership, one key tactic is to go on the balcony, look at the big picture, soak it in and then make a decision.

Too often, leaders get hung up on details or lose sight of the organization's goals, so critical mistakes can be made. A true leader not only survives with difficult situations, but thrives.

Perhaps the bigger lesson of Leadership on the Line (2002) is that leaders face two distinct issues — technical problems and adaptive challenges. Often, these two issues are misdiagnosed or not understood. A technical problem is something that can be solved by experts, while an adaptive challenge requires new learning.

I immediately was drawn to adaptive challenges because I believe those are more difficult in which savvy leaders are crucial. Schools face both issues, and I've gotten frustrated with schools failing to understand and address adaptive challenges. If, or when, I plunge into school leadership, I can't wait to tackle adaptive challenge, but first things first, building a strong functioning team is the actual first step.
In addition to getting on the balcony and seeing the distinction between technical problems and adaptive challenge, other keys that come out in Leadership on the Line are that we must constantly build relationships, orchestrate conflict, delegate while helping and then hold steady.

These basics are the trunk to the leadership tree. One thing I have noticed is that in high-profile leadership positions, a leader's personal or personality issues are on display for all. So a truly strong leader accepts this and commits to constant self-improvement. If not, then the individual will stay stagnant, as will the organization.

It's been a fun ride for me since I read this book, earned another master's and qualified myself to be a California public-school administrator. I have grown more than I imagined and am feeling happier than ever.

For anyone who has been on a strong functioning team, it feels exhilarating. Unfortunately, if you happen to be on a weak functioning, well, that can be draining. For all team members, remember: "Get on the balcony!"

Friday, November 8, 2019

How do we build conversational capacity?

When I was younger, I used to think "conflict" was a negative thing. Why can't we just get along here? Why do we have to fight here?

Oh, man, I had major misconceptions on what conflict even was, and looking back, it held me back. Conflict is critical to organizations, and even for families, to grow, but in order to embrace healthy conflict, one must be skilled with how to handle it.

Conversational Capacity by Craig Weber is an excellent book that offers skills and ideas on how to value and embrace conflict while building team and growing.

It's not as if anyone can read Conversational Capacity (2013) and be a maestro with business conversations, building teams and addressing conflict. However, Weber does offer a lot of food for thought and skill building. For me, it changed my mindset with how to approach work conversations. I am more intentional and will help guide conversations to where I perceive it is meant to be. Of course, my perceptions sometimes can be off, but heck, at least I am trying.
One of my favorite chapters in Conversational Capacity is titled "Intentional Conflict: Why Good Intentions are Never Enough." It's about how many participants in conversations either minimize issues or "try to win" conversations, and so that keeps the conversation out of its sweet spot where things can progress. Minimizing and trying to win are progress killers. If we continue with that, organizations and ourselves remain static.

Why do so many people hate meetings? Why did I used to hate them?

Well, many participants in meetings do not have any training on how to run them or how to contribute. Maybe we think it's common sense, but it really isn't. I believe it is reasonable to focus on "how to run and contribute to successful meetings" for 5 percent of an organization's meeting time. Usually, it's zero percent. (By the way, I also recommend Patrick Lencioni's book Death by Meeting, but I already have a Lencioni book on this list. So I did not officially recommend it in this project.)

Anyway, back to Conversational Capacity, I highly recommend it because I believe conversational skills must continually be worked on, especially in professional settings. The first step with improvement typically is an honest and real conversation.

Thursday, November 7, 2019

Conversational skills are crucial

When I was fighting to save my first marriage, somebody recommended Crucial Conversations. Thank you!

I always thought I was a good conversationalist, and even in high-stakes situations, I thought I always handled myself well.

As I look back and open up, I must admit that I wasn't as good as I thought. I often would act smug, like I knew it all, and I sometimes discounted emotions because I was thinking they're just weren't logical.

Crucial Conversations by Kerry Patterson, et. al., is an excellent tool for anyone who is either 1) in a leadership position, 2) in a relationship or 3) finding themselves in frequent conversations that don't work.

I honestly find myself in many so-called "conversations" that aren't even conversations. I'm in a lot of "hey, let me talk at you" type of situations. Not fun for me.
As a high-school English teacher, I have realized that many teachers love being the pundit on the pulpit, the lecturer at the lectern, where young students are forced to listen. Ugh. They become so used to that role that it transfers to others, and conversations don't really happen.

So if teachers, by and large, have a hard time with conversations, how is everybody else? I surmise they're equally as unskilled — or worse.

Some conversations are what the writers of Crucial Conversations call "violent" — controlling, labeling and attacking. Sadly, after studying this book and Nonviolent Communication, I realize that I often myself in violent conversations. I'm only one component of the conversation, so I do my best to create a safe space and am deliberate about what I bring to the conversation.

Crucial Conversations (2002, 2012 edition) provides excellent tools of how to respond when conversations get hairy and how to make it safe to talk about anything. I loved the book so much that I also read, and also recommend, Crucial Accountability and Influencer by the same authors. At the bare minimum, readers can see their tendencies that might not help conversations and then grow from that.

Wednesday, November 6, 2019

Why do we stop questioning?

As a journalist, my job entailed asking questions, and I realized pretty quickly that the best questions were:

1) Actual questions. Ones I honestly didn't know the answer and had to ask.
2) Floaters. Oh, I knew the answer. But if I floated one up, the person being interviewed might just double down and hit it out of the park.
3) Under the skin. I knew very well that the interviewee doesn't want this one, but let's see what he/she does. Former L.A. Times columnist T.J. Simers was a master at this, and in soft-balling L.A., he was one of the only writers who went there. In New York, journalists toss out constant under-the-skin questions.

So I put in a lot of time into asking questions, the intricacies of questions, and I responded to Warren Berger's A More Beautiful Question. Innovation might be as simple as asking the right questions at the right time and to embrace "what if."

So many companies, leaders and individuals play it safe by doing the same ol' stuff. But in our constantly changing marketplace, playing it safe eventually will not be economically viable. That's why Big Tech has pretty much taken over the world. Tech had the technology, knew how to integrate it, and Google, Apple, Facebook, Amazon and more continue to get bigger and badder.

Philosophically, I absolutely love A More Beautiful Question (2014) because it's been my experience that folks stay on the non-questioning side more than the over-questioning side. When we talk about Tech companies, and the power of questions, well, that's tricky because a lot more is involved than mere questions.
Berger points out that parents often don't ask open or inquisitive questions, so that contributes to killing curiosity and creativity within children. Adults need to be on a constant search for deeper understanding and innovation, and if they're not doing that, their children will follow suit.

It's amazing how so much innovation is occurring nowadays with the Internet as its backbone, and it's also amazing how so many things remain backwards because of the United States' mega-big economy. I've heard the phrase "too big to fail," but I say it might be "too big to work right."

I can think about the health-care system, colleges and loans, cars still using fossil fuels, for example, and wonder: Why are we still OK with this? If we're not OK, what will we do? Why aren't we constantly questioning practices that hurt ourselves or planet?

The first patent for rollers on suitcases came in 1972. The first commercial jet service happened in 1952. We had 20 years of people carrying suitcases. Where was the questioning? Say what?!?

I believe that we all have important questions inside of us, but unfortunately, our culture implicitly kills those questions. I must give Berger props for pointing out and exploring the power of beautiful questions.

Tuesday, November 5, 2019

Ego blocks growth

When I was getting involved in leadership, I did some soul-searching and asked myself why. At a certain point, leadership becomes the natural progression in the workplace and in life, yet misconceptions abound on what true leadership is.

So Ryan Holiday's Ego is the Enemy is an easy-to-read manifesto on how our egos get in the way of genuine leadership, collaboration and moving organizations forward.

I respond to Holiday's books because they're quick and have a lot of truths in them. He is a young, accessible philosopher of sorts and is part of the Daily Stoic. In a way, Holiday's books are like Patrick Lencioni's books because they feel easy but a lot of leadership truth is in them.

Several key concepts pop up in Ego is the Enemy, and one is how we must live with purpose. Too many people are not even aware of how they spend their time and money, and we must be deliberate in what we do. True leaders likely will be treated poorly at some point and may be degraded. But if we live with purpose, and I would add honesty and integrity, the people who degrade us are actually doing that to themselves.

Being a lifelong student and talking and thinking less while doing more also are key tenets in Ego is the Enemy (2016). I could not agree more with this more. I've been trying to talk less for years. Not easy for this Polack.
One of Holiday's strengths is his aphorisms. He often puts deep concepts into a pithy phrase, such as "what is rare is not raw talent, skill or even confidence, but humility, diligence and self-awareness."

Another gem is: "Most trouble is temporary ... unless you make that not so." I also like: "What is most obvious but most ignored is that perfecting the personal regularly leads to success as a professional, but rarely the other way around."

So true. I have found that many workaholics are escaping their actual personal lives. These folks will be capped off in the workplace because they typically face something that holds them back and needs reconciling. There is much more to Holiday and this book, and here is a lengthier review of it.

But irony runs rampant with Ego is the Enemy because Ryan Holiday is a personality himself with 269,000 Twitter followers. He is only 32, but, yowsers, he seems to boast a lifetime of wisdom. He kind of reminds me of the character Ryan from The Office, but eh, maybe I'm just prejudiced because I'm a Gen Xer and he's a Millennial.

Monday, November 4, 2019

Multiply or divide — easy math

Leaders can be a bizarre sort. Many of them are hellbent on personal accomplishment, and I think that holds them back in leadership.

Are they leaders because they want to look, or feel, accomplished, or are they leaders because of their ability to connect, empower and develop?

In Liz Wiseman and Greg McKeown's book Multipliers, they point out a hugely important concept: Either you're a multiplier or a diminisher.

A diminisher often is a diminisher by accident. This person follows common leadership practices and tradition, but in the process, shuts down the growth of others. A multiplier is the opposite.

A multiplier promotes the growth and intelligence of others. A multiplier understands that the best measure of leadership is to perpetually create and develop other leaders.
One minor technicality I have with Multipliers is that it uses the word "intelligence" as for what we are multiplying. I get the concept. But by using "intelligence," it seems to promote a fixed mindset instead of growth one. I believe everyone can grow, or be smarter if you will, and we all have the capacity to be multipliers — if we see things that way.

Diminishers often are overworked and tired. They blame a lot and control a lot. They work hard, but keep adding elements to try to help themselves. They often look to outside sources as opposed to inside.

Multipliers focus on wanting their team to have fulfilling opportunities that foster growth. They repeatedly hand off the ball, but stay involve. By staying involved, they don't necessarily direct, but they support. Multipliers expect extraordinary results. They yearn for talented people to be around them, and then they double down on that talent.

Wiseman goes through much more of what makes a multiplier, and the book moves quickly and is rife with insights. I always give leaders the benefit of the doubt, but when we look around us, we sometimes sadly realize that too many diminishers are in our midst. But I am optimistic that they can realize the errors of their ways and become multipliers.

Saturday, November 2, 2019

Trust, conflict and a healthy organization

I felt like Pac-Man.

When I got my hands on The Five Dysfunctions of a Team by Patrick Lencioni, I gobbled it up and then read all of his books. Lencioni's books are wildly easy to read with interesting narratives and are spot on with their messages.

The Five Dysfunctions of a Team (2002) points out that a strong-functioning team must have five crucial points in order, and at the base is trust. Without trust, an organization really is not a "team." Rather, it is a fake type of entity where people's insecurities and infighting will attract more time and even headaches than actual production. Trust is crucial!

After trust is in place, healthy conflict is a must? What type of team can move forward if it does not address its important issues? In some worlds, the word "conflict" is negative. Some use it synonymously with "fight" or "bad." That's not what conflict is at all. It is dealing with issues that prevent the organization from moving forward.

Commitment is the next step to a strong functioning team. It's important to define what "commitment" entails. I have seen commitment defined as absolute No. 1 priority in life. I don't think that is what it really is. Rather, commitment applies to certain values and missions that define the team, and that is a more accurate definition.
The next steps involve accountability and results, and they all stem from trust. Recently, I was told about an organization with accountability as its focus for the year. Is that even possible if trust, conflict and commitment are not in place? Well, I think you know the answer.

The Five Dysfunctions of a Team focuses on the absolute basics of team and leadership, and I urge all to read it. It was presented to me as a handbook for a team, and it is exactly that.

Friday, November 1, 2019

A good sports book is hard to find

For 12 years of my life, I was employed as a sports writer for Newsday and the Long Beach Press-Telegram. It was quite a learning experience, and it was cool to realize that sports stars and celebrities are just real people.

Yeah, many of them have egos, are self-important and self-absorbed, but they're just people. I never was really into the celebrity culture, but a whole bunch of folks in L.A. and our country are into that stuff — that fake stuff.

So I have my own view on sports writing and believe that a lot of the most popular books on sports are actually over-hyped and not too readerly. Like any book that I might enjoy, a sports book needs to find subtle truths or look at things in a different way or be so well-written that I can't put it down. Honestly, I haven't run across many sports books like that.

But I do have my favorites, and here are 10 sports books for 100 Nonfiction Books I Recommend:

1. A Pitcher's Story (2001) by Roger Angell
2. Why Baseball Matters (2018) by Susan Jacoby
3. String Theory (2016) by David Foster Wallace
4. Little Red Book (1992, with 2012 anniversary edition) by Harvey Penick with Bud Shrake
5. Zen Golf (2002) by Joseph Parent
6. The Big Miss (2012) by Hank Haney
7. The Whore of Akron (2011) by Scott Raab
8. Back from the Dead (2016) by Bill Walton
9. Word Freak (2001) by Stefan Fatsis
10. Relentless (2013) by Tim Grover

We are now 80 books into this project with the categories of leadership and readers' choice left. We'll kick off with our first leadership book tomorrow. Enjoy!