Strategy and Decision-Making: Reflection

Recently I spent a couple of days at our annual leadership team strategic planning retreat at a cabin on Lake Tahoe’s west shore.
This year the gray sky heavy with moisture, the wet snow falling on the cabin’s sky light window, and the icy wind chill all reminded me of the past 16 winters we’d just spent in Colorado—up until a year and a half ago when we moved back to Sacramento for me to join a great firm and, importantly, to be near family.

Lake Tahoe–what an idyllic setting to dream about the future.

So, this strategic planning session is my second time through with this talented and dedicated team, and just like last year, I know that these two days will shape the decisions we make over the next year.

While we don’t have all the details worked out, and likely there will be many pivots in the months ahead, this is the time when we commit. At the end of the day, the most important thing that comes out of a successful strategic planning process is the commitment of leaders:

  • First, we commit to an agreed-upon understanding of today (i.e. what happened this past year that has brought us to today), and
  • Second, we commit an agreed-upon picture of tomorrow (what does the future look like a year, 18 months, 3 years from today).

The strategy is how we are going to get there. At the core, strategy is about decision-making.

A strategic plan’s power is imbued by the commitment of each team member to the core approaches (strategies) regarding how the team will arrive at the destination.screenshot_508

One of the approaches I’ve had as a part of the proverbial “leadership toolbox” has been a decision making approach based upon double loop learning (Argyris and Schon, 1976).

In double loop learning a commitment is made to getting stakeholder(s’) input at every step of the process. Because we have (at times) a lot of leadership involvement in marketing tactics (a good thing as there is 20+ years of experience contributing to successful execution), it’s been important to try to structure the learning process in a way that captures all learning. Before I unpack that, a couple of explanations.

An illustration might be helpful here. If single loop learning is a thermostat set at 68 degrees, the question the thermostat asks to solve the problem is,”What is the room temperature?” Double loop learning, however, asks a different question–“Is 68 degrees the right temperature?” The first kind of learning solves the problem based upon a set of assumptions. The second kind of learning takes into consideration the assumptions themselves.

Which leads us to the heart of this approach: First, you need to recognize the difference between 1) the Espoused Theory and 2) the Theory in Use.

An example would help here (coming from one of my previous jobs): At a company where I used to work some 5+ years ago, we talked a lot about a new brand promise, and the importance of each employee’s contribution to the success of the company. The effect was brilliant for new employees especially, as they understood that they were part of “reinventing” this 20 year-old organization.

screenshot_509However, for a variety of reasons, over time the individual team member’s contribution became less and less important. Stifled growth put a tremendous strain on the company’s belief in the future, and an increasingly stressful work environment. This reality is what defined the implicitly stated “Theory in Use.” In the case of this company, it went something like this, “The fear of the company’s future (the company story) short-circuited the day-to-day employees’ experiences, leading to an organizational crisis.

Double loop learning adds an important step to the process of feedback, called “Reflection in Action,” or “Reframing,” and is built upon a very simple notion—that experience is the best teacher (told you it was simple).

A purposeful step back, with probing thoughtful questions, often exposes the mental maps we have, then affords us the opportunity to objectively evaluate them–how effective are these assumptions for making decisions that will help us reach our goals (what we want to accomplish) and will reinforce our core values (who we are).

OK, so some of you have connected the dots: Isn’ this just a fancy, business consultant-speak way of saying, “Look, we are going to approach strategy and execution with a brutal kind of honesty where WHAT is right is more important than WHO is right?” And, well yes, you would be right. This approach–double loop learning–takes a hard run at making sure there is deep learning.

Courageous learning where anyone in the room speaks up to offer a good idea.

Bold learning where past success doesn’t obfuscate the revolutionary ideas of tomorrow.

Passionate learning where all team members are invested in both the process and the outcome.

The key is to reflect on the action in ways that help us see the situation from a different and more effective or efficient point of view—whereyounggirloldwoman we experience paradigm shifts. It is similar to the psychology textbook examples like the young woman and the old woman (included here—you see both women, don’t you, in the same picture?).

Here are the kind of questions we are working through right now:

  • Our brand promise today for our company is, “We serve YOU.” This is a straightforward brand promise, but it prompts discussions about what is the heart of service, the role of humility, the nobleness of serving, and how often the person serving is getting as much or more from the action than the person being served.
  • The Reflection-in-Action/Reframing raises the next set of questions, Are we really serving our clients? If we aren’t serving them every time, why not? Are we serving each other, from the top of the organization down? And, we recognize there is a big idea here, if we give enough space for the process of building it out.

These questions flush out the Espoused Theory from the Theory in Use.

So, as we are building the strategies and tactics for next year’s plan, we are also working hard to make time for and valuing the outcome of Reflection-in-Action. While it requires courage throughout the organization and a dogged determination to align what we say with what we do, it also promises to integrate what we say with what we do, and that is the best objective of all, to integrate, which as the root word implies, at the heart is INTEGRITY. Now, there’s a strategy.

(For more information, see https://hbr.org/1977/09/double-loop-learning-in-organizations)

10 Things Being a Pastor Taught Me About Marketing, #6-10

Here is the second half of “10 Things Being a Pastor Taught Me About Marketing”…screenshot_Henry Ford quote

Taking the time to write out what I have learned at one job as I roll into the next job, or even just reflecting on the things I’m learning in my current job–this has been a great exercise for me over the years.

Here are #6-10 on things I learned that have helped me to be effective at marketing (#6-10 here)–

6. No is also a powerful word: Pastors also have the challenge to help people know how to say, “No.” No to the cultural message that “you can have whatever you want.” No to the “new car purchase that buries you deeper in debt and anxiety.”

Marketing—true marketing—doesn’t appeal to the lowest view of human desire, but to the higher view of the human person. It is aspirational and lends a helping hand to help people by addressing their fears and worries, for example.

Especially in my work at a financial advisory firm, we develop marketing messages that develop wisdom, and don’t play on people’s greed to earn better returns than our competitors.

Instead we tell our clients, “No, no one can guarantee you higher returns. But we can help you choose the right strategy that is aligned to your goals.” No is powerful and it is a key to marketing with integrity.

7. Your job is an assignment, not your identity: Pastors have to resist the challenge to see themselves defined by the work they do, that their identify as a person is more than their job. Frankly, we all do well to see ourselves first as a brother or sister, son or daughter, husband or wife, friend, etc, than by our role and title at work.

How much easier it is to do marketing when I don’t wrap my identity up in being the VP of Marketing at a successful firm.

8. Servant leadership is the best approach: As a pastor, I discovered Robert Greenleaf’s Servant as Leader essay. And later (like many of you) I found wisdom in Jim Collins’ Level 5 leader profile, a modern version of Greenleaf’s leader.

As I transitioned eventually from pastor, eventually to head of marketing positions in the for-profit world, I discovered that the servant leader model is just as powerful as in the church and non-profit setting. These servant leader principles have guided my approach in leading marketing teams: listening, empathy, awareness, stewardship, commitment to the growth of people, building community, etc. I look for leadership teams who are practicing this approach, or who at least are open to this specific leadership model.

9. Core values are the language of the heart: As a pastor, the Bible provides a grid for corecore values-4 values, and importantly it’s the living out of those core values that is the heart of the matter. From this experience, I have learned that people need to live for a higher purpose than just their paycheck. What specifically is that higher purpose?

That’s where transcendent notions become a part of each day: integrity, service excellence, love, freedom, responsibility, learning, collaboration, sharing, giving, courage, innovation, diversity, humility, and many other possibilities.

Look closely at your organization’s DNA–you’ll see your core values embedded right there.

10. It’s not about me: As a pastor, I knew it wasn’t about me. God’s agenda, the people’s needs and hopes and dreams–that part was easy. Well, maybe not easy, but at least straightforward. The tough part was in keeping an eye on my motivations. Self awareness is what the leadership and management gurus call it.

I call it the “It’s-not-about-you” principle of leadership. In this environment, good things grow: honesty, authenticity, kindness, generosity, friendship, and…yep, profit. Self awareness and humility are also good for the bottom line.

screenshot_typing laptopWhat are your experiences? What have you learned from different jobs and roles you have had?  (Email me here: marc@marcfey.com with the subject line: What I learned).

10 Things Being a Pastor Taught Me About Marketing

screenshot_Henry Ford quote

I often get the proverbial “tilt of the head” when I talk about this part of my work history: “And then, for 7 years I was a pastor.”

“You were a pastor?” people ask, the question now rhetorical.

“Yes, and you wouldn’t believe all the things I learned that apply to good marketing.”

Today, I work in marketing, but it’s been the privilege of serving God and people in the role of pastor that gave me the grid I have today for the work I do.

Maybe many of you have also worked in different fields or roles in your career. Certainly, you have worked in different environments, some with strong cultures, others maybe not. And, you’ve done different kinds of work (great fit or not, inspiring or not), and you’ve had different kinds of supervisors (skilled or not, supportive or not). And, you too have learned wisdom along the way.

Taking the time to write out what I have learned at one job as I roll into the next job, or even just reflecting on the things I’m learning in my current job–this has been a great exercise for me over the years. As you read my list here, consider, “What are 10 things being a [one role] taught me about [next role]?” And then, would you consider sharing these discoveries with me? (Email here: marc@marcfey.com with the subject line: What my job taught me).

So, for those 7+ years I spent as a pastor, here are the first 5 (of 10) things I learned that have helped me to be effective at marketing (#6-10 in next blog)–

  1. The story is the most important thing: Hospital rooms, weddings, funerals, and many, many times around the dinner table, our most important values are revealed in these places. It’s where the real story happens and gets talked about. Marketing—true marketing—is about understanding people’s stories, what they care about, what they have experienced, and realizing how sacred every person’s story is.Being a pastor taught me empathy, shaped in me a commitment to honor people’s dignity and the mystery of each life. In marketing—true marketing—we bring this same respect to the people we are serving with our products and services, and it makes all the difference in the world.
  2. Commit to truth: I’ve seen pastors maketruth-1 courageous decisions—standing up for the underdog when it cost them a popular board member’s allegiance–and their monthly tithe check. Authenticity, courage, and candid exchanges about real results–I’ve learned these are the only meaningful bricks on which to build a strong foundation. Marketing—true marketing—avoids posturing and posing, and instead digs deep into the data to find out what is really happening, honoring that truth every day.
  3. Give—always: The vast majority of pastors I have known in my life are really good at giving, First, from a salary standpoint, pastors typically make 50% of what they could make in the for-profit world. They share their time, their dinner table, and many holidays with folks who might not have anywhere else to go. As a pastor I learned to– give credit to teammates, give compassion to employees who are going through a tough season in life, give time to others by looking them in the eyes–to really listen.books-3
  4. Value creativity at every step of the process: I was amazed over the years in m role as pastor what incredible talent and creativity resided within the church community. Artists, children’s workers, thespians, singers, musicians, and poets—I was blessed to lead in churches rich in creativity, and to serve on leadership teams who valued this creative energy.As a result, I saw the transformative impact of creativity on otherwise normal ideas and activities. Marketing—true marketing—values creative input at every step of the challenge, not just at the conceptual stage but through to the problem solving, optimization stage.
  5. Yes is the most powerful word: A big part of the life of a pastor is getting people to say “yes,” and, for the right reason. Yes to volunteering in the youth ministry, yes to contributing to the financial needs of the church, yes to reaching out to less fortunate members of the community, yes to living for others instead of oneself. These are important challenges, and frankly, are the key to ushering in a new way of seeing and experiencing life. For wise pastors, helping people say “yes” was about helping live in a story larger than themselves.There’s an art of helping people say “yes” for the right reasons. It’s a big skill I use in my work today in marketing–carefully honoring each person’s own motivations and values. Maybe marketing 20 years ago was about manipulating people (remember all those discussions about subliminal advertising?). Today it’s about serving people with the products and services that fit them.

Here’s the preview for #6-10…

6. No is a powerful word too

7. Your job is an assignment, not your identity

8. Servant leadership is the best approach

9. Core values are the language of the heart

10. It’s not about me:

screenshot_typing laptop

What are your experiences? Consider sending me your answer to this question: “What are 10 things being a [one role] taught me about [next role]?” (Email me here: marc@marcfey.com with the subject line: What I learned).

Overcoming Worry

Walk in His truth...Confession: I am prone to worry. I can be unusually preoccupied by the circumstances right in front of me. It is a battle for perspective. A struggle to keep the big picture in view.

Worry is one of the biggest enemies of vision. Because vision connects us to our calling and purpose in our work (and life in general), I worked hard to deal ruthlessly with worry—treat it like an undercover spy threatening state security or the suave sociopath asking for just a little help on his next project.

Worry does that–it threatens the good things we have going on.

Which reminds me of a funny—if embarrassing—story that illustrates this specific consequence of worry, namely the loss of context and perspective.

About 5 years ago I joined a work-sponsored city league softball team. Sure, it had been 10 years since I had played in a men’s softball league. I didn’t have any illusions that I would be tearing it up on the field (albeit a few concerns I might tear up my hammy). However, I did expect to contribute, play my part, to at least approximate my abilities, even if they were mostly in the past.

I had some reason for my confidence. As a Little Leaguer I was always selected for the all-star team, as a high school baseball player I competed at a high level, then later as a high school teacher, I coached baseball, always mixing it up with my players on the field through hitting and fielding drills. And, for about 10 years after college I had played centerfield for our city league softball team, where I tracked down deep fly balls and turned singles into doubles as I competed against other weekend-warrior 20 and 30-somethings, all of us in trying to recapture a glimpse of former glories.

In fact, I figured I had enough experience under my belt to jump right back onto the field, and frankly, do “more than my part” for the team. Call it confident expectation.

Pride comes before the fall. Or, more to the point, “Pride comes before the dropped fly ball.”

Here’s how it played out: I had spent my workday like most workdays writing and editing an article that I was finishing up. As a policy analyst (one of many varied jobs I’ve had over the years), a big part of my workday was spent staring at a computer screen. Certainly not a physically taxing way to spend the day. But there was a downside, which you’ll see in a moment.

The first game arrived, and with not a little bit excitement, I went straight from the office to the field. Parking quickly and grabbing my mitt and cap, I jogged to the field, my cleats clicking on the asphalt parking lot. I saw the familiar bright green grass under the glow of the evening lights, heard the laughter and cheering from across the diamonds, and that familiar “tink” of the bat as a player swung from his heals and legged out the hit. I could even see the glisten of the evening dew on the grass.

Yes, I had missed playing softball with buddies. I hustled onto the field to warm up, and before I knew it, the game had started.

Then, I jogged out to take my place in left field. And that’s when the wheels fell off.

The second batter lifted a “routine” fly ball to the outfield. I heard it, knew in my gut it was headed my way, and scanned the sky to find the ball ascending and descending in my direction, destined for the soft leather of my awaiting glove.

Only, I couldn’t find the ball.

In those split seconds, as I drifted toward the blur that I thought I saw in the dark night sky, panic rose up in my gut… “Where is it? Where is the ball?!” And then in a flash, that ball came down from the heavens like a meteor afire diving to the earth.

And not into my mitt.

dropped fly ball 2

I scrambled over to retrieve the ball, then flung it in frustration to the shortstop. I shudder to imagine all over again what I must have looked like trying to catch that fly ball.

Sure, I tried to blame it on my fuzzy eyes, as I sheepishly jogged to the dugout at the end of the inning: “Wow, I think I need to wear glasses to play softball…” But there was no getting it back. I was that guy who looked like he had never played an inning of baseball beyond little kid sandlot pick-up games.

Because my eyes had become more comfortable focusing on what was right in front of me, I just couldn’t focus on objects at a distance—certainly not objects moving fast through the night sky. Fixing my eyes on circumstances right in front of me day in and day out affects my perspective, making it difficult to see the bigger picture. You could say that I “lost sight of the forest” as I fixed my attention “on the trees”—

cant see the forest-4

There is a physical condition for this, of course, called myopia. Short sightedness. It’s like having blinders on, suffering from a narrow point of view, a one-track mind, you might say. All these describe a lack of perspective, physical and otherwise.

And like my experience on the softball field, worrying is exactly that—staring at the circumstances right in front of me, losing sight of the big picture.

Recently I have started organizing my days again around my top priority, and I am finding these 3 ideas helpful in staying committed to the big picture: context, retrospection, and circumspection.

Context specifically is “the circumstances that form the setting for an event, statement, or idea.” It makes up the “terms of which a thing can be fully understood and assessed.” Worrying occurs when we don’t take the time to consider the context. We don’t seek to understand fully or realistically the setting. We stop taking in data, understanding the bigger picture.

  • A preoccupied manager doesn’t notice his colleagues’ subtle references to how unpredictable the incentive compensation is, undermining the motivating effect it’s supposed to have, while he focuses only on weekly results.
  • A well-meaning but anxious CEO loses count of how many times she has changed direction, leaving her leadership team with whiplash of sorts, never stepping back to see the cost of changing direction over and over and over.
  • A worried dad forgets to affirm his son for the hard work he’s doing in the classroom, focusing instead only on the 3% of missing or late assignments.

Research on literal shortsightedness—myopia—is instructive for us in understanding this challenge of perspective. Researchers point out that shortsightedness is a phenomenon of the 20th century. Pointing to findings among the Inuit Native North Americans’ older generation who had next-to-no cases of short-sightedness, they contrast this with today’s rates between 10-25% of the Inuit children needing glasses.

“Short-sightedness is an industrial disease,” says Ian Flitcroft at Children’s University Hospital, Dublin. “The research points out that while our genes may still play a role in deciding who becomes short-sighted, it was only through a change in environment that these kinds problems began to emerge.”

glasses on child

Here is the kicker–Researchers point to children being indoors, away from horizons and large-scale perspective, as the cause for the increase in myopia among children.

I think the same is true of our generation when it comes to worry. We stare at what’s right in front of us, lose our ability to “see” the bigger picture, and as a result, learn to live with worry.

A recent poll called this generation the most stressed out. On a 10-point scale, Americans ages 18-33 reported an average stress level of 5.4 compared to the national average of 4.9, and 52% said stress made it hard for them to sleep at night in the past month. If any adult should be sleeping well at night it’s an 18-33 year-old, but that’s no longer the case.

Like my long days spent inside staring at a computer screen, and my ensuing inability to track a fly ball soaring into the sky, I need to get outside, see the horizon, gain some perspective on the context of my life.

Here are some practical ways that I have found to do just that, which makes me  a better leader and team contributor–

  1. Make an effort to see through the eyes of the people I am leading at work: Slow down, look the person in the eye, listen beyond the words being said in the moment for the subtext of the conversation. I do this by reminding myself that we all have roles in our lives–spouse, parent, neighbor, friend, classmate, daughter…
  2. Reflect on the consequences of my decisions over time on the people around me. Every decision has an impact. While all or most of us are good at considering the impact of a decision in the moment, few of us look back and learn from that decision, and still fewer connect that specifically to the people who were affected by the decision. This is the big view of decision making.
  3. Revisit my goals monthly. Looking at my personal and professional goals every month puts the day-to-day challenges into perspective, keeps me from losing context for why I am pushing hard through the things that make me anxious. Just looking at your goals regularly, research says, makes you 90% more likely to achieve your goals.
  4. Ask the person who reports to me to share one goal with me. Hearing about other people’s goals also provides good context for our perspective–pulls us out of the echo chamber of our own anxiety.
  5. Develop a discipline in how I evaluate circumstances by looking also for what’s going right, what’s getting done: Then, affirm the person (and yourself for that matter) for positive results. Resist the temptation to focus strictly on what needs improving.

Of course, there are thousands of details to the context of our lives, and thousands more strategies to focus on that context so that we don’t suffer from a proverbial myopia. To the degree that we seek to take in the bigger picture, pay attention to the broader view, and step outside of ourselves to see the grander view of the sky’s horizon, we step back from worry and toward a better view of life, of others around us, and of ourselves.

Research shows that stress and anxiety can lead to mental toughness and increase clarity about life’s challenges and opportunities. It can also result in greater appreciation for one’s circumstances, and contribute to a sense of confidence . This confidence becomes a foundation you build every time you overcome an obstacle, and this is the best, most long-lasting kind of confidence you can have. Hard fought and well earned, indeed.

In the next blog, I’ll take on the importance of retrospection and circumspection.

Question: What do you do to keep focused on the bigger context in order to maintain good perspective in your life?

What is a Generous Leader / Influencer?

generous

Make no little plans; they have no magic to stir men’s blood . . . Make big plans; aim high in hope and work. – Daniel Burnham, American architect (1846-1912)

All work has inherent value.

Because work has value apart from the collective value of the whole project, both in quality (excellent and not so excellent) and in quantity (a lot and a little bit), what we do with that value is an important test for each of us.

The challenge—and opportunity—is to offer our work as a gift, and to value others’ work as a gift (even if they wouldn’t see it that way):

  • Do the people who work with/for me know I value the work they offer?
  • Do I see my work only in a transactional way, based on the number of dollars, or the “prestige credits” it gets me?
  • Or, do I offer my work to others, and to the world at large, with a conviction that it has inherent value, whether or not others acknowledge that value?

Some people just get this. Seth Godin describes these kinds of people as a “linchpins,” who “work without a map, solve interesting problems, lead, connect and create an impact.”

They know that their work stands on its own, independent of another’s opinion of it, and its value goes way beyond what a fickle economy would say (through the salary and benefits package). Rather, the generous leader/worker sees her sweat, creativity, intelligence, skill, experience, passion, opportunity, and/or emotional effort as the true indicators of its value.

Here is a challenging notion: Work has value even apart from the motive and attitude of the worker. Attitude, initiative, quality—these factors influence work’s long-term value, but they don’t have the power to eclipse or cancel out its contribution to the world.

I’ve had some crappy bosses (and probably been one myself at times). It’s a good thing this hasn’t canceled the value of my work or the work of my boss or colleague.

This should change the way I see the people around me: the guy fixing my car, the vendor on the other side of the contract who is (apparently) charging me more than I prefer, the boss whose emotional outbursts are clues about his own internal struggle, the DMV person helping me swap out my Colorado driver’s license for a California one (along with the additional taxes and fees, but that’s another blog), the cashier at the local grocery store who, from the look on her face, clearly doesn’t think her work is of much value or consequence.

I think it’s a cool notion that we all have the opportunity to offer our work as a gift, knowing it has inherent value. And, importantly, to RECEIVE others’ work as a gift, whether they consider it a gift or not.

This assumes a very noble and high view of work, a view that not everyone shares. In fact, yesterday I read a crazy quote on a Chipotle to-go paper bag:

“Hope that, in future, all is well, and everyone eats free, no one must work, all just sit around feeling love for one another.” (George Saunders)

CultivatingThoughtBags_SAUNDERS-14

Wow. The assumption behind that quote is stunning. Work is bad. To be avoided. It certainly doesn’t afford dignity and value to the notion of work.

What if a big part of the way we love happens through work, and how we get along happens through what we offer to one another through the work we do.

I am interested in the part of work that goes beyond these external value systems. I am interested in that ineffable part of work that a person offers as the expression of his passion, her creative effort, problem-solving skills, and determination to bring value beyond the superficial, two-dimensional work product.

Instead, these inspiring people see work as three, even four-dimensional, as both a very private and very public matter. They see their work as an expression of the way they see the world, others, and themselves. It’s core values, culture, mission, vision, and strategy all wrapped up in one elegant package—a person offering their work to the world as A GIFT.

They take full ownership and responsibility of the work they offer. It makes them fearless and ultimately impervious to criticism. They learn from it, instead of it chipping away at their confidence in what they offer.

I can build a great team with generous people. I can be a great team member by being a generous person.

How can you move toward becoming a generous leader/influencer? Who can you talk to today about this idea of generous leadership?

Some generous leaders/influencers I have known:

Paul has served leaders around the world for more than 50 years. But its his genuine enthusiasm for the day-to-day realities of young leaders that fuels his passion. Most people miss this. They see a man who flies all around the world speaking at leadership retreats, coaching high level leaders…but it’s the look in his eyes when he is talking about the real-life struggles of his friends and colleagues that is the true gift of his work.

Ashley is a stubborn believer that better is always possible. So, whether she is sending out an email campaign, organizing a corporate annual event, or weighing in on the fissure she sees in the corporate culture, she is all in.

Thomas compares himself to the friends he’s known for over 30 years, trying to figure out where his work fits in compared to the more traditional routes they took. But he misses what I see: the creative and circuitous route he has taken has been driven by a love for a group of people from the Middle East and for the others who have given their lives to serve. That’s a powerful notion: that a whole work life trajectory has been driven by love for others.

Stephanie’s infectious smile and energy at a 6-foot table, on a break where IT folks are running past her to restrooms and coffee bars, prevails. By the end of the day, people have noticed her. When Stephanie catches your eye, you are curious about what she is so excited about.

Aaron is a unapologetic software sales executive who drives toward profit like the proverbial “bull dog on a pork chop.” However, he also applies that same determination to not “sell out” to the superficiality of a merely successful career. Instead, he writes a blog (www.AaronMcHugh.com) where he fearlessly and candidly articulates a pursuit of the deeper life, one of passion, significance, and authenticity.

…and the stories of hundreds of other generous leaders/influencers.

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?

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 MarcFey.com]

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: http://tcrn.ch/1dY6vMW).

“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 (http://bit.ly/KVu8sy), 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 Google.com.” 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 (Reddit.com) 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.” (http://tcrn.ch/1d2FQIK)


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

Patience…rebuilding my website!

Hello friends,

As you might have noticed, I am in the process of rebuilding my website. What timing! I am also relocating from Colorado Springs, CO where my family and I have lived for the past 16 years. We are trekking back to Sacramento, CA (Rocklin, technically) where Kathy and I both graduated from high school, went away to nearby UC Davis, where we met, then moved to Southern CA (12 years there).

So, 28 years later, we will be close to parents and other family, reconnecting with friends from long ago, and rebuilding our lives as our 2 sons finish college this year and our daughter starts high school in the fall. What a day of new beginnings.

So, please be patient with the new site…and offer suggestions along the way if you have them. I am wide open when it comes to getting it right–and know from personal experience that the input of all the smart people around me makes the a better person–professionally and in every other way!

Changes and transitions

Growing plant.

“For last year’s words belong to last year’s language
And next year’s words await another voice.
And to make an end is to make a beginning.”
(Little Gidding)”    ― T.S. Eliot