Finishing Well: What I Learned From Ernie Harwell

“When people talk, listen completely. Most people never listen.”  — Ernest Hemingway 

About 15 years ago, I started interviewing leaders who seemed to be “finishing well” in life. To date, I have interviewed over 100 leaders.

Folks like Ernie Harwell, the iconic “voice of the Detroit Tigers” for 40 years of broadcasting. General Chuck Krulak, head of Armed Forces under President Clinton. Archie Dunham, CEO of Chairman of Conoco-Philips. And one of my heroes, Coach John Wooden, who still holds the record for the most NCAA National Basketball championships (10 over 12 years).

These, and many more–most not “famous” as these, but just as wise and insightful and successful. Over the next half dozen blog posts, I’ll share some of what I learned.

In most of the interviews, I started to recognize something that surprised me: I felt really “listened to.” In other words, my questions mattered to the person I was interviewing. On the surface, it appeared like immense graciousness on their part to give me some time to ask a few questions, explore some of their story. But it was more than that.

Ernie Harwell probably most of all.
“So, my friend, what would you like to know?”Ernie’s rich voice asks earnestly.
“First of all, thank you for taking the time–”  He interrupts me…
“It’s really no problem. In fact, I am delighted to talk with you today, Marc.”
“Well then, Mr. Harwell, did you always know that you would be a radio and TV announcer, way back when you were a young boy?”

And off we went, discussing the lisp he had as a young boy, how his mother gave him the belief in himself to overcome obstacles, how it really was a kind of miracle. Through the entire conversation, he returned again and again to me, to connect his experience with the questions I was asking and the discoveries I was seeking through our conversation.

It turns out there is a term for this ability in leaders to connect with people like I experienced. Empathy– technically “the capacity to recognize and vicariously experience the emotions of others.” Simply, it’s caring for others so closely that you identify with them.

And, it also turns out it’s key for successful leadership. I might say it’s key for a successful LIFE.

Probably more than any other behavior, listening to a person— reallylistening–is one of the clearest indicators of empathy.

Hemingway’s words are true; few of us really listen. We think about the next thing we are going to say. We look over the shoulder of the person who is talking to us, seeing who else is in the room. We go through a mental checklist of what we have to get done, the person’s voice fading in and out of the voices in our mind.

As a result of what these 100+ leaders taught me about listening, at least once a month I try to ask the people that I lead and my peers one open-ended question that is not “work related.” Here are a few of the questions I have asked:

  • When have you felt most “alive”?
  • What would your best friend say is your greatest quality?
  • What would your best friend say is your toughest challenge?
  • What older person has had the biggest impact on you and why?

You get the idea. I have tried to learn to listen for when a person’s voice becomes animated, they begin to talk with their hands, they lean forward as they talk. These are cues to what this person is most passionate about. Always, there is so much to listen for.

In fact, it’s been amazing what I have learned about my friends and colleagues over the years–especially when I really listen to them.

Who will you listen to today?

3 Strategies For When Your Work Gets Hard

laundry basket

[This blog appeared on The 2:10 Leader Blog earlier this year. I am importing this year’s blogs as I transition them to]

My 14 year-old daughter Annie and I have a running joke. It started one day  (a few years ago) while I was folding laundry (yes, you read that correctly). Annie asked me why I like doing laundry so much.

“Excuse me,” I asked, astonished at the question, and laughing at the absurdity of me actually LIKING to do the laundry.

“You don’t do the laundry because you like doing it?” she clarified.

“Ha! Not even close, Annie. I do it because it needs to be done,” I replied.

“Oh,” she said, her eyebrows furrowed with this new piece of information.

The running joke, now, is that I love doing laundry. Annie will say, “Well, Dad, I would help you, but I know how much you love to do the laundry and I wouldn’t want to take away all that joy you get.” Or, she will say, “Dad, why don’t you let someone else do the laundry for a change?” Annie makes me laugh.

It has given us occasion, too, to talk about the nature of work. We’ve talked about how work is hard, and often takes a lot more energy and time than we had imagined. She’s asked me why some people get to do what they love and others do not. We’ve even talked about the fact that some very hard-working and determined folks cannot find a job. Or don’t get paid enough to take care of life’s essentials.

The Good Book refers to these as “thorns and thistles” and explains that it’s “by the sweat of your brow” that we do our work. That’s what we are talking about. The reality that often, our work is hard. Time conspires against us. Problems creep up, miscommunication causes confusion even among the best team. Thorns and thistles.

So, when the thorns and thistles abound, here are a few strategies for rediscovering the deeper purpose in your work.

  • Build the team. When we’re slogging through work, take some time to focus on making the team stronger. In research comparing high and poor performing teams, communication, it turns out, is a controlling variable (Pentland, HBR, April 2012). So, whether you are the leader of the team or not, initiate an activity that gets people talking–together and more often, and even better, about meaningful topics for discussion.
  • Learn something new. The best companies know that a culture of learning is key to long-term corporate success. When obstacles arise, consider challenging them through proactive learning actions. Look for an online class, a workshop, conference, or series of books on a certain topic.
  • Unplug. Sometimes, when the thorns and thistles abound, unplugging is the best action of all. Stepping back from the problem creates a new perspective, restarts tired thinking patterns, and refreshes your energy to take another run at the challenge. The act of unplugging also gives you margin to see better, and that often has the effect of re-ordering priorities.

What strategies do you employ to deal with the things in your work that you don’t necessarily love to do–like laundry?!

When We Make Mistakes: What Google’s Glitch and Gmail Failure Teach Us

[This blog appeared on The 2:10 Leader Blog earlier this year. I am importing this year’s blogs as I transition them to]

Gmail and Google+ went down yesterday, and in a weird coincidence, Google users searching on the term “Gmail” experienced a bizarre glitch, inadvertently sending emails to a guy named Dave from Fresno (read these Tech Crunch articles if you’re interested in the details:

“Temporary Error 500. We’re sorry, but your Gmail account is temporarily unavailable.”

Wow. Really? Gmail? …I mean, Google?

The idea of Google experiencing this level of failure is sobering. If you have any responsibilities at work–an at all– or are in a service role, here are 5 things Google’s colossal technical failures can teach us about work and failures and the challenge of supporting customers, especially if you work in the unpredictable world of technology (as I do):

1. The colossal failure WILL happen, and likely it will be at the WORST time possible. If Google can experience this level of technical failure, you and I can forget about getting it right every time. Google made $51B last year (, so resources wasn’t an issue. This is a hard reality, because the people we serve in our organizations don’t typically have a grid for “count on it, failure will happen.” Well, let me say, they might, until it happens to them.

What can we do? Socialize the expectation that failure WILL happen. Mistakes will be made. Technology, processes, people..lots of things will let us down. But also communicate that when it does, “I will take full responsibility and will do everything possible to rectify the situation.”

2. Brace for the criticism (and the fact that there will be a lot of laughter at your expense). At the same time Gmail went down, engineers responsible for keeping Google alive just happened to be sitting down for a Q&A on reddit. Imagine that? In the words of Tech Crunch writer Greg Kumparak: “Heh. Worst.Timing. Ever.” He also went on to point out that this team of engineers are called the “Site Reliability Team” who are “responsible for the 24×7 operation of” Funny, really funny stuff. Poking fun at Google+, one writer wrote, “The problem is currently affecting a huge number of users. Google+ is also down, although you’d be forgiven for not having noticed that sooner.”

What can we do? Not much. Except laugh. Remember not to take ourselves too seriously. Let the criticism shape the kind of leader you are: take responsibility, respond with patience and grace, and do everything we can to “make it right.”

3. Use this as an opportunity to reinforce and shape your company’s culture. Probably one of the most telling moments of the story was revealed during the Reddit ( interview. The engineers kept answering questions while the services were down (because you can bet Google employs more than 4 engineers). Here is the revealing exchange:

Reddit user notcaffeinefree asks: “Sooo…what’s it like there when a Google service goes down? How much freaking out is done?”

Google’s Dave O’Connor responds: “Very little freaking out actually, we have a well-oiled process for this that all services use— we use thoroughly documented incident management procedures, so people understand their role explicitly and can act very quickly. We also exercise this [sic] processes regularly as part of our DiRT testing. Running regular service-specific drills is a big part of making sure that once something goes wrong, we’re straight on it.” (

And that, in a nutshell, may be why Google banked $51B last year.

Initiative + Risk = Reward

 [This blog appeared on The 2:10 Leader Blog earlier this year. I am importing this year’s blogs as I transition them to]

I love the word “initiative.”  It’s the first step toward something.

Practically, a step toward a solitary person who you see standing awkwardly in the gym—among so many people talking with others they already know—following our kids’ basketball game.

It’s a phone call to initiate an uncomfortable conversation with the person whose words earlier in the week stung, delivered in a casual, off-handed way, leaving you wondering, “Where did that come from?”

It’s bending over to pick up a piece of trash—the same crumpled up, discarded fast food paper bag I just watched 8 people walk right past, from across the parking lot.

It’s poring over the Excel spreadsheet because you have a hunch something doesn’t look right, staring at it a long time, until you finally see the mistake.  And that “catch” is going to save the company tens of thousands of dollars. (An example from a smart person I know who also has a lot of initiative).

Initiative is also the motivation behind every new invention, technology improvement, safer way to do something.  It’s not an overstatement to say that initiative is responsible for a lot of the best things we have in life.

Rock climber Alex Honnold

I also think initiative is the thing that evens the score with the propensity for things to “go south” in life.   Initiative solves problems before they come up, it pulls up the weeds and rocks before the seeds go in.  When you and I become people with initiative, it’s amazing how much better our luck turns out.

You can also think of initiative as “leading action.”  People with initiative are leaders, whether they see themselves that way or not.

They take the step before anyone else does.

Sometimes they take a step when no one else would.  Maybe never.

But they do.

Let’s be honest. Initiative involves risk. No one may see the step you take. Risk = anonymity.
Some may see and consider “what a fool.” Risk = ridicule.
Others may, at best, just look at you with a curious, head-tilt and wonder, “what’s that about.” Risk = Really?

But be assured. The world belongs to those with initiative.

What will you do today to “take the initiative”?

Life-Changing Power of Gratitude

[This blog appeared on The 2:10 Leader Blog earlier this year. I am importing this year’s blogs as I transition them to]

I posted a discussion question in a LinkedIn leadership forum on the topic of gratitude–a simple question about its importance in the workplace, “What do you think is the role of gratitude in the workplace?”

Wow, that struck a cord–dozens of responses, some quite long in length, full of insight, wisdom. I share the top 10 quotes below. But before that, a few thoughts on what I have been discovering/rediscovering in my own journey right now.

It turns out gratitude is not just good for the people around you–it’s just as good FOR you as it is for others. Author and researcher Dr. Robert Emmons (coincidentally a professor at my alma mater UC Davis) makes this bold claim: gratitude has the power to give life meaning (click here re: his book).

I love how Emmons puts it: “People who view life as a gift and consciously acquire an ‘attitude of gratitude’ will experience multiple advantages: Gratitude enriches human life; it elevates, energizes, inspires and transforms. People are moved, opened and humbled through expressions of gratitude.”

Emmons calls gratitude a “chosen attitude,” that we are “willing to recognize and acknowledge that we are the recipients of an unearned benefit.” (You probably won’t be surprised to hear that Emmons proves that the enemies of gratitude are a victim mentality, and attitudes of deservedness and entitlement.)

Research shows that grateful people are:

  • More empathetic than others
  • Themselves generous and more likely to share their possessions and time with others (McCullough, Emmons, & Tsang, 2002)
  • Less likely to judge themselves and others’ success based on the accumulation of things
  • Resilient, showing that life events have little influence on experienced gratitude (McCullough, Tsang & Emmons, 2004).
And here is my personal favorite research finding: “Grateful people are more likely to acknowledge a belief in the interconnectedness of all life and a commitment and responsibility to others” (McCullough et. al., 2002).Along the way, I also came across a fantastic video clip on a gifted film maker’s take on gratitude (click here ), beautifully illustrated through people and places in this 9:55 min presentation:
Louie Schwartzberg’s presentation at TEDxSF

One practical take-away is to keep a gratitude journal. Here are some of the research-proven and tangible benefits of developing this practice:

  • Feel better physically: In an experimental comparison, those who kept gratitude journals on a weekly basis exercised more regularly, reported fewer physical symptoms, felt better about their lives as a whole, and were more optimistic about the upcoming week compared to those who recorded hassles or neutral life events (Emmons & McCullough, 2003).
  • Attain more personal goals: Participants who kept gratitude lists were more likely to have made progress toward important personal goals (academic, interpersonal and health-based) over a two-month period compared to subjects in the other experimental conditions.
  • Increase how engaged you are in life: A daily gratitude intervention (self-guided exercises) with young adults resulted in higher reported levels of the positive states of alertness, enthusiasm, determination, attentiveness and energy compared to a focus on hassles or a downward social comparison (ways in which participants thought they were better off than others).
So, here’s my question: How do you cultivate gratitude in your life?
Finally, Here are the Top 10 Quotes from my LinkedIn discussion on Gratitude in the workplace:
  1. “Appreciated people move mountains.” Dina Haase
  2. “I hope that by showing gratitude to my team regularly I’m helping them to able to learn faster, organize information better but also able to engage in more complex analysis and problem solving, to be more creative and see more ways of doing things.” Ana Paula Calado
  3. Genuine gratitude comes out of genuine humility. Humility dislodges and displaces feelings of deserving; one cannot be grateful for what one believes is deserved. Genuine gratitude will have significant impact on both the receiver and giver; genuine gratitude from a leader will shape an organization. Ken Lanteigne
  4. A quick circle of appreciation will do wonders for your team – it’s so simple, many organisations don’t realise the value in it. Lisa Rowles
  5. “Thank you” represents a controlled ego and empathy. Mike Sacco
  6. Being grateful is so important in liife .. and it begins with our private life. Karin Sebelin
  7. To quote leadership maven John Maxwell: leaders touch a heart before they ask for a hand. David Ogilvie
  8. Another insight I believe is important – differentiate feeling gratitude with showing gratitude – I made this distinction recently when writing in my Gratitude Journal. When leading others it is important to stop and reflect on what you are feeling grateful for – it creates inner calm and peace – critical to being an effective leader. Then you are more capable of seeing what is happening with others and can turn up to show gratitude to them – inspiring them to feel significant and engaged! Mandy Holloway
  9. The key, I believe is to “keep it real”. Kimanshu Shah
  10. Gratitude as well as humbleness is key to leadership in my opinion, at any level. I certainly have far more admiration for people who adopt that approach in a corporate environment and as a result you see far happier teams, producing far better results. Melissa Buxton