Monthly Archives: March 2015

The Sheepherder

I recently visited with a group of international students for the US Education Without Borders program. The message I shared with them was heavy on philosophy, including the one pond, one pebble principle. Short version: dropping pebbles and letting the ripples travel where they may beats the heck out of trying to heave boulders into the ocean and accomplishing nothing—make a difference by influencing what you can, where you can.

When I was done the organizer, a Chinese gentleman, introduced me to a young man from Ethiopia. He took us to a conference room and told the two of us to get acquainted. What a fascinating young man-I wish I could relate all the stories he crammed into one short hour, but they would not come across the way he told them. So just a little…

Growing up, he was a sheepherder in the back country. Gone from home for a week at a time, just him and the animals, sleeping together in a cave at night for protection (“the animals ate the grass I gathered for bedding every night, and sometimes they would pee on me”…plenty of laughs!). He decided to learn as much as he could in every way he could to better himself.

He walked five miles to school where the only books were donated and you read anything you could get your hands on regardless of subject matter or level, just to be reading. He would read all night by candle light or if the moon was bright enough, sticking his foot in a bucket of cold water to help him stay awake. He religiously kept a journal to sharpen his writing skills and to track the journey that was unfolding.

He became the star student of his small rural school and found a sponsor who gave him a chance to go to the city to study in a better school. The city students bullied him, calling him a ‘stupid shepherd boy from the back country’ until he started consistently scoring at the top of the class.

He learned English with the help of a new friend who he taught his native language to in return. He eventually found his way into the Education Without Borders program.

The reason the young man shared his story was a lead-in to explain his “pebbles and pond” vision for his own life. His dream is to help others in the same situation follow the same path he has taken.

Once a sheepherder, always a sheepherder. Protect the herd first.

I’ll have no way of knowing how far the ripples from this little pebble will travel, and I don’t need to know. With his passion and his drive, I’m certain Wubetu will succeed. If I can be even a small part of his journey, I’m good with that. I plan on mentoring him in whatever way he can benefit. I’m pretty certain I will be the one getting the most out of the relationship, starting with what I hope will be a lasting friendship.

Are They Buying It?

John walked trough the revolving doors of the ivory tower, on his way to HR to fill out his retirement papers. He had his 30 years in and it was “time to get the hell out of this place”. As he walked for the first time across the polished marble floor of the lobby toward the elevators he spotted a large brass plaque on the wall. He stopped to read it.

At XYZ, we believe our people are….Our Guiding Principles are…

John shook his head and muttered under his breath “did I come to the right place? What planet did that crap come from? I’d stick around a few more years if those words really meant anything to anyone…”

The scene has played over and over—grand statements of purpose and values imprisoned on the wall, never to see the light of the workplace beyond the front office foyer. This has to be toward the top of the list of Most Common Silly Leader Tricks, and it is one of the most simple to resolve:

If you don’t mean it, and if you can’t or won’t do it, don’t say it!

Doing the Vision and Values thing has been a sexy leadership exercise for over two decades. Senior leaders sequester themselves away in some exotic place and roll back their word-smithing sleeves, taking a break only for a planned round of team-building golf. Beautiful statements of purpose along with appropriately warm and fuzzy values are crafted and tweaked. Affirmations of support are solicited by the biggest kahuna or a surrogate, and there is a great round of cheers and pats on the back. Mission accomplished, back to our real work.

Somebody forgot to add the stickiness, how to ensure this stuff will really accomplish anything. No one checked to see if the fancy words were relevant and meaningful to John Everyman in his world.

The impact of strategic narrative is well-known. It is an essential component of a high-performance work environment that enables high engagement. And increasing engagement levels has been proven over and over to enhance bottom line performance. As defined in the Macleod report:

LEADERSHIP provides a strong strategic narrative which has widespread ownership and commitment from managers and employees at all levels. The narrative is a clearly expressed story about what the purpose of an organisation is, why it has the broad vision it has, and how an individual contributes to that purpose. Employees have a clear line of sight between their job and the narrative, and understand where their work fits in.

A compelling statement of purpose-why the company exists-and heartfelt, meaningful values shouldn’t be that difficult to come up with. But the “say-do” gap keeps getting in the way, and when the plaque on the wall has no relevance to what really happens in the workplace there is a significant problem.

If you don’t mean it, if you can’t or won’t do it, don’t say it!

“Meaningful Performance Management” is Not an Oxymoron
Performance management, when designed and executed the right way, builds a bridge from individual accountabilities to the strategic narrative. It can also be the means to breathe the life of reality into values: identify actionable behaviors that exemplify each value in action, and make them expectations in peoples’ plans.

It Starts With Me. Individuals need a strategic narrative too. If we have our own purpose and values identified, the company’s narrative will make much more sense and greater buy-in will follow.

For more on effective and meaningful performance management, see The Right Things.  Scroll down and look for the three pdf documents under “Performance Management”.