Category Archives: Leadership, VBL

Influence and Impact-Avoiding Driving Yourself Nuts

Within the past week friends have voice their frustrations, and that has always been really worrisome to me. I’ve lost friends due to the ultimate acting out on frustration that had grown into hopelessness when nobody was looking, self included. Not beating myself up, it’s just that you don’t easily forget that kind of thing. Nip this one in the bud!

I’d love to change the world, but I don’t know what to do (Ten Years After, 1971)

This is a free-flowing quick-hitter for my friends and anyone else feeling a little extra frustrated with the holidays upon us (a statistical reality!). Some is recycled from earlier posts. This is also some much-needed self-talk. My frustration level has been climbing the charts because of my inability to make progress on a long-term (years!) project that is very close to my heart—an avocation I don’t get paid for but I’m passionate about it, still intrinsically driven. The physical and emotional investments have both been significant. But you can’t eat passion, Jimmy.

“We are stardust, we are golden. We are billions-year-old-carbon”. Maybe it’s the Curse of the Aquarian generation—perpetually cause-driven, trying to somehow make a difference in the world. A starchild, modern-day Don Quixote. A good deal of frustration at not making the impact I want and need to make. Still….

You’ll always miss 100% of the shots you don’t take (Wayne Gretsky)

The shots I take and miss are disappointing, some a whole lot more than others. The rumor is that falling down and failure will make you stronger, if you get back up. Running around with skinned up knees can get really old but it doesn’t stop me from skinning up my knees over and over. Not stubborn, not stupid. I’ll take committed and persistent.

I usually won’t take a shot if there isn’t a slight chance I may score. I’ll take the long shots without false expectations—that way I’m pleasantly surprised if I do score. Even though it seems like a shutout lately, skinning knees up is a tiny thing compared to wondering “what if” when I don’t take a shot, even a long shot.

What really helped me survive is to understand the difference between influence and control. The latter is the ability to directly change someone or something, for better or for worse-your choice. You can still impact things and others just through influence, which can be a double-edged sword:

You cannot get through a single day without having an impact on the world around you. What you do makes a difference, and you have to decide what kind of difference you want to make. (Jane Goodall)

I can’t pick up boulders and heave them into the ocean, but I can drop one little pebble into the pond directly in front of me and watch the ripples travel outward. I may not even be aware of all those who feel the ripples. Some of those others may be influenced to drop their own little pebbles, and create ripples in their own little ponds. And on it goes.

I’ve mellowed out. Now I only need to drop pebbles—lots of them. I still have a crazy, destructive urge sometimes to tackle a boulder like A New Model of Human Development, 35 pages (so far) of stuff I shouldn’t even be messing with. Been spending a lot of time and energy on it, tossing pebbles in the meantime to get by. But I always go back to putting my shoulder to the boulder, feelin’ kinda older…(HEY, that rhymes! It should, it’s a song lyric). I need companion pebble-tossers to help get that job done though.

We all need someone we can lean on (Mick and the Boys)

Many versions of this old parable are out there.

An old man was walking along a beach that was littered with thousands of starfish that had been washed ashore by the high tide. As he walked he came upon a young boy who was eagerly throwing the starfish back into the ocean, one by one.

Puzzled, the man looked at the boy and asked what he was doing. Without looking up from his task, the boy simply replied, “I’m saving these starfish, Sir.”

The old man chuckled aloud, “Son, there are thousands of starfish and only one of you. What difference can you make?”

The boy picked up a starfish, gently tossed it into the water and turning to the man, said, “It made a difference to that one!”

Be thankful, even if you have to move a lot of big-assed rocks to find one gold nugget hiding. And go save a starfish or two, toss a few pebbles. It feels good!

My pebble for the day.

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The “X” and I

(If engagement and values are interesting to you, the entire manifesto-length piece is available in the pdf file, The X and I which has functional links)

I’m a huge fan and avid student of engagement theory and values-based leadership. In particular I’ve leaned especially on engagement as presented by the BlessingWhite and Gallup Q-12 models, and David Zinger’s approach. There are a few recurring themes these approaches share, in particular these five attributes:

ONE: satisfaction and engagement are driven by personal core values and how fully an individual is living those values. So it is highly personal. My values did not fully come to light until the middle 1990’s. But it’s clear now these have impacted me since early grade school: creativity, growth / learning new and different things; freedom from unnecessary constraints.

TWO: engagement is more than feel-good. For engagement to be considered to be worthy by decision-makers, it has to add value to the bottom line, it can’t just be “I love my job.” BlessingWhite’s model of engagement (The State of Employee Engagement 2008 — North American Overview. See pp 3-4) defines high engagement as that rare state where maximum satisfaction and maximum contribution peacefully coexist. And there are buckets of hard data that show a clear and direct correlation between higher engagement and better results for every bottom line item that matters.

THREE: I need to fully utilize my strengths to be fully engaged. Strength is more than just “talent” or being good at something. A strength is a skill that I get satisfaction from utilizing because that talent means a good deal to me—it fits my satisfiers / core values.

FOUR: level of engagement is not a carousel it is a roller coaster. Environments, assignments, relationships all change even within the same position. Many of you have surely been to the same amusement park and on the same ride, some of you several times as I have. Are you terrified by the ride? Does it make you sick? Or do you have a ball? My roller coaster has been great fun.

FIVE: satisfaction and contribution impact each other. System thinkers call it a reinforcing loop, and it is a powerful force. A BlessingWhite article on Virtuous Circles details this relationship.

In closing: while I feel really silly quoting myself, in my last post The Natural Order of Things I proposed this:
“…organizational sustainability begins with me…Without people who are well-connected and personally aligned to their personal purpose and values, excellence and sustainability and all that other bottom line stuff is simply out of reach.

I’d appreciate your insights, please come back to share them.

The Natural Order of Things

I’ve been on a mission to develop a working understanding of the interrelationships among and the dynamics of impact and influence; values and values-based leadership; engagement, well-being and the Greater Good. In doing so, I’ve tried to stay objective, formulating a hypothesis then setting out to refute it—trying to prove my hunch wrong.

But every path I followed ended up at the same destination, the hypothesis refused to go down in flames: organizational sustainability begins with me. For a company to achieve performance excellence and sustainable maximum results, it must invest in helping people connect with what is truly important to them personally. What drives them—not at work, but what is their life’s mission? What values influence their daily actions and help them set personal priorities?
Without people who are well-connected and personally aligned to their personal purpose and values, excellence and sustainability and all that other bottom line stuff is simply out of reach.

That’s my story, and I’m sticking to it. But I’d love to see alternative views, so what do you think? The whole thing is a bit long, here’s a link to The Natural Order–the whole enchilada.

Shovel Work is Good for the Soul

“If a man is called to be a street sweeper, he should sweep streets even as a Michaelangelo painted, or Beethoven composed music or Shakespeare wrote poetry. He should sweep streets so well that all the hosts of heaven and earth will pause to say, ‘Here lived a great street sweeper who did his job well.” –MLK

Many years ago, I learned the irrigation system ropes (fancy underground, automatic, glorified lawn sprinklers) from a crusty old urban cowboy who was a regular at the honky tonk my band played at. One night I laughingly told him “Lee, you old fool-you party too much!” (truth) So he challenged me to keep up with him on the job, starting at the sunrise the next morning (it already WAS morning!) Of course I called his dare. Even though my “work” was music, I was young and in my physical prime. A whole lot younger than Lee, and I didn’t party like he did.

I had unknowingly signed on to dig by hand in the scorching mid-summer sun to install systems into the hard red Oklahoma clay…“trencher costs too damn much when you got a good back. Now we got two, right boy?” But digging was the wrong word. We’d soak where we needed the trench, let it sit a few minutes and attack the clay with a pick ax. Then we’d soak and pick again. And again. Hard chain gang labor. But it was just Lee. And now me. A chain gang of two, but now he was the guard.

After the first day my tongue was dragging a trench of its own. Lee encouraged me the best he could, and I let out a pained laugh when he said “you know son…shovel work’s good for the soul. You can dump the garbage out of your head, and at the same time you’re sweating the poison out of your body.”

We hit it off and I stuck with Lee, learning his trade the hard way. I also learned “never, ever wash your work coffee cup. Ruins the flavor”. His cup looked it, and pretty soon mine did too. Lee and I parted ways and over the years I came to appreciate the wisdom of shovel-with-soul and what it really meant. Thank you Lee—rest in peace. You were a worthy mentor.

Fast-forward, studying a 1990 Gallup survey that asked “How important to you is the belief that your life is meaningful or has a purpose?” 83% said “very important,” and 15% said “fairly important.” Plenty of research holds clues as to why. Why is it important? Because purpose is one of the primary drivers behind higher engagement and markedly improved bottom line performance. And purpose helps reduce stress, and helps people live longer, healthier, happier lives. Wildly important stuff to all concerned.

Whether or not we are aware of it, we all crave having meaning in our lives. It’s a part of the human psyche. Some of us actively search for meaning, some don’t know what we’re missing. If the latter, chances are we feel like something big is missing, but we don’t know why. We do know we don’t feel “right”.

Last summer I had several purpose-based conversations with a friend of mine who was CEO of our community’s hospital. Steve’s concern: how do you fully engage the night shift janitors, and the people who do graveyard in the basement of the hospital doing laundry? How can you help them understand their work has meaning? Steve’s questions prompted me to dig much deeper, and I’m still digging (Patience, Steve). Interestingly, research has shown that people in health care have a surprisingly low connection to a greater purpose.

Yale School of Management’s Amy Wrzesniewski researches how people make meaning of their work in difficult contexts. She professes the power of “…a belief that work contributes to the greater good and makes the world a better place”. She differentiates between job, career and calling:
Job: I get good enough pay and benefits to support my family, that’s why I’m here;
Career: I’m in the game to advance, and I’ll do what I need to if it helps get me there;
Calling: my work contributes to the greater good, and I love what I do.

From Gallup’s “12”: “If a job were just a job, it really wouldn’t matter where someone worked. A good paycheck, decent benefits, reasonable hours, and comfortable working conditions would be enough. The job would serve its function of putting food on the table and money in the kids’ college accounts. But a uniquely human twist occurs after the basic needs are fulfilled. The employee searches for meaning in her vocation. For reasons that transcend the physical needs fulfilled by earning a living, she looks for her contribution to a higher purpose. Something within her looks for something in which to believe.”

Mike Rowe’s original claim to blue-collar fame was Dirty Jobs followed by Somebody’s Gotta Do It.  Both enjoy a large following. Rowe takes on the nastiest jobs and makes them interesting, and he is an advocate of bringing a greater sense of pride into the world of blue collar, typically thankless work. He glorifies the grungy side of work.

The Kicker, From Humans of New York …
…which has got to be the most uplifting site around. HONY has over 13m “Likes” and 10m Followers…positivity does pay! The header photo featured the worker proclaiming “This is the cleanest bathroom in New York City!” The Comments thread, as always,  holds some priceless nuggets. One in particular grabbed me (thank you, Sandra Sasvári!):

“I’ve been a hotel maid for the past 10 years and you wouldn’t believe how starved we cleaners of all kinds are for appreciation. Tip us when you can, but if you can’t, PLEASE at least always let us know you appreciate our service. We work so hard but we usually only get feedback when it’s of the negative kind and everyone takes what we do for granted.
So please…be kind to us. Just to put things into perspective: reception and kitchen staff usually get a lot of praise, but the maids really don’t. You kind of get used to it, but it’s still not very nice. But then this one time, a guest brought me a plain dark chocolate bar to show his appreciation “because you guys work so hard”.
I cried. Over a chocolate bar. Okay? So please…don’t take us for granted. Say something. It means so much more than you could ever imagine.”

Kindness, simple acknowledgement of appreciation with a sincere “thank you” costs even less than a candy bar. But it’s absolutely priceless to the receiver. It gives their Calling a louder voice.


So we know something bigger drives people beyond a paycheck, whether or not they know it or will openly admit it. People want to take pride in their work, no matter how seemingly unimportant or menial the task. Leaders need to find, understand and leverage what it is that makes each person feel good about doing a good job, whatever kind of work their job involves.

What’s at stake when people hear—or don’t hear—their Calling is sustainable success for organizations and a healthier, happier life for the person.

The Ripple Effect-One Pond, One Pebble

Maybe it’s the Curse of the Aquarian generation: I’ve always been cause-driven, always trying to somehow make a huge difference in the world. A child of the universe, modern-day Don Quixote. A good deal of frustration at not making the impact I wanted and needed to.

I’d love to change the world, but I don’t know what to do.
So I’ll leave it up to you.
(Alvin Lee and Ten Years After, 1970)

Twenty years ago I was fortunate enough to take part in a personal vision and values identification workshop. A lot of soul-searching left me with this: “make an impact, leave a legacy”. But I needed an adjustment for this holdover-from-the-1970’s Vision to survive. I needed a shift in strategy.

I’m a firm believer in individuals’ ability to impact the greater good, even through small actions and by impacting seemingly insignificant numbers. It’s similar to the Butterfly Effect and “pay it forward”. And it holds true for not just social media (certainly greater reach) but for daily actions and person-to-person interactions.

No one can pick up boulders and heave them into the ocean, but I can drop one little pebble into the small pond in front of me. The ripples travel outward, and I may not even be aware of those who feel the ripple. Some of those others may be influenced to drop their own little pebbles, creating ripples in their own little ponds. And on it goes.

Brings to mind an old parable, many versions of this have been around.

An old man was walking along a beach that was littered with thousands of starfish that had been washed ashore by the high tide. As he walked he came upon a young boy who was eagerly throwing the starfish back into the ocean, one by one.

Puzzled, the man looked at the boy and asked what he was doing. Without looking up from his task, the boy simply replied, “I’m saving these starfish, Sir.”

The old man chuckled aloud, “Son, there are thousands of starfish and only one of you. What difference can you make?”

The boy picked up a starfish, gently tossed it into the water and turning to the man, said, “It made a difference to that one!”

The privilege of influencing others is not bestowed like a position or title; it must be earned. It’s starts with me, and it requires the highest level of integrity.

Workplace Stress-Five Easy Pieces for Leaders

A recent article’s headline caught my eye: High-stress workplaces equal lower productivity, say experts, this line in particular:
“Organisations are finding that work cultures focused towards high pressure and competition environments often lead to high staff turnover and ultimately poorer business results.”

Makes sense to me. The logical causal chain creates a reinforcing loop, more like a whirlpool of water swirling down the drain: stress leads to health issues > health issues trigger absenteeism and lowered productivity from those who work ill > absenteeism and lowered productivity cause increased stress levels from falling behind / catching up / pulling extra weight. All this leads to burn-out and people leaving. Or even worse, burn-outs staying and going into survival mode, a short-term coping strategy at best for the company and the burn-out alike.

The evidence is compelling and I could cram this whole article full of factoids. Stress is not only killing us, but it does incredible damage to organizational performance. Go here for more about Stress by the Numbers-Indicators and Impacts.

Deloitte’s third annual Global Human Capital Trends 2015: Leading in the New World of Work (a heavy hitter) reports that “…companies were struggling to decrease workplace stress, simplify business processes and reduce complexity….66 per cent of respondents believed their employees were “overwhelmed” by today’s work environment and 74 per cent cited workplace complexity as a significant problem.”

We see the enormity of the problem, yet we do very little to resolve the issues.

Stress Management Makes Good Business Sense

I was born and raised in the Midwest where we are born with the tribal knowledge that contented cows give more milk. Translated: when people are less stressed they perform better, produce more and better results. Beyond that, there are other good reasons to be mindful as a leader of stressors that impact your people. These five stressors are in your control, and there is little to no cost involved in doing something about them.

(ONE) “74 per cent cited workplace complexity as a significant problem (Deloitte)”
Systems and processes grow and morph over time when we’re not looking, through a continuous stream of small and seemingly insignificant modifications and tweaks. Tweaks add up. Stress can go through the ceiling from attempting to make over-designed, obsolete, ill-defined processes work. What better reason to analyze and improve the way the work gets done? Lean techniques, especially process mapping, can pay back in buckets by not only increasing throughput and productivity but by reducing stress. Especially if you involve those who know the work best.

(TWO) Confusion over purpose, goals, methods.
Believe it or not this is a genuine issue highlighted in numerous studies. It’s the lowest of low-hanging fruits and is low cost, high impact…for cripes’ sake, lead your people! Show them their target, make sure they understand the importance of hitting it, verify they have what it takes to get the work done: information, instructions, tools, time…all the right resources. Then let them perform and be there if they need you.

(THREE) Feeling unnecessary, unappreciated, alienated.
People need to know how they are doing, need to feel they are part of something that is worthwhile. We naturally assume no news is bad news. Or worse yet, we fall apart under a constant barrage of criticism without specific and sincere thank you’s to balance things out. We will pressure ourselves to do more and worry, worry, worry while we’re at it. Which leads to sub-par performance and even more criticism, pressure, worry.

We’re loyal to a fault, lovable mutts who’ll do anything to please their master in hopes of earning a treat or a pat on the head. We show unconditional love even when we get nothing but scolded for something the damn cat did. When we are conditioned long-term by nothing but negatives, if a rare reward comes along out of the blue it shocks and excites us so much that we may pee uncontrollably.

(sorry, you could have probably survived without the dog analogy even though it’s mostly true, at least up to the “pee” thing)

(FOUR) Forgetting to Feed and Water the Plants.
Most people want to be all they can be (certainly not all!). Most people get stressed out if they perceive they are going nowhere. Worse, they begin to question their worth. Give them opportunities to learn and grow!

(FIVE) Not Letting the Rabbits Run
Squirrels climb trees. Ducks take to water like…well, a duck taking to water. And rabbits run. A rabbit will swim if forced to, and will maybe survive. A duck can exert a short burst of respectable ground speed. But these animals are best suited to do what they do best, and they love doing it.

Poor fit is a major stressor. Unfortunately, a leader does not always have the luxury of following the natural order in making assignments. People are sometimes forced into a role that doesn’t fit them, and they may do a respectable job in the short run. But they are very likely to be miserable and will very probably burn out long-term. Leaders, find out what species of animals work for you and what their capabilities are. And find out what they love to do, which means you may have to talk with them and build a relationship (!). Assign and develop them accordingly, as much as possible. Strengths-based leadership makes a world of difference.

Engagement and Stress are Inversely Related!

All of the above stressors are in the hands of a leader. The reducer suggestions are actionable, and they all happen to be enablers of a high engagement work environment that supports performance excellence. So stress management is good business. Reducing workforce stress increases engagement levels, just as leveraging known enablers of engagement reduces stress, both of which make organizational sustainability more attainable. “Really?” you say…

“Sustainability” is more than recycling, reducing carbon footprints, being mindful of pollutants. Organizational sustainability is making sure the company itself lives a good, long life. And corporate social responsibility is more than an occasional cancer walkathon or read-with-kids program. Social responsibility is tending to the well-being of the community, starting with the community that is your workforce. It’s one big reinforcing loop:

-> engagement -> stress reduction -> sustainability ->

Stress by the Numbers-Indicators and Impacts

(this is support data for another post addressing workplace stress)

Stress Indicators and Impacts

  • Deloitte’s third annual Global Human Capital Trends 2015: Leading in the New World of Work: “…66 per cent of respondents believed their employees were “overwhelmed” by today’s work environment and 74 per cent cited workplace complexity as a significant problem.”
  • 2012 Workplace Survey (American Psychological Association): 41% said they “feel tense or stressed out during the workday” up from the year prior’s 36%.
    38% of employees can’t stop thinking about problems like emotional, health, financial and job concerns (annual wellness report, Employee Assistance Program provider ComPsych)
  • Stress costs American businesses $300 billion dollars a year (World Health Organization)
  • Stress is the most common cause of long-term absence and several other productivity deflators (CIPD’s 2014 Absence Management Survey)

From ComPsych’s 2012 Stress Pulse Survey:

Effect of stress on daily productivity
41% lose 15 to 30 minutes of productivity a day
36% lose one hour or more each day
23% report their productivity is not affected by stress

Effect of stress on attendance
55% miss one or two days a year to stress
29% miss three to six days a year
16% miss more than six days a year

Effect of stress on effectiveness
46% come to work one to four days per year when too stressed to be effective
30% show up that way five or more days per year
24% say stress does not influence their effectiveness

Effect of personal tasks on daily ¬productivity (FYI)
41% lose less than 30 minutes a day to personal tasks
40% lose 30 minutes a day
19% lose more than an hour a day
Source: ComPsych Stress Pulse survey, October 2012.