Flush With Pride

When I was in the third grade, I entered the school science fair with a project entitled, “How Steam Engines Work.” I built a trifold display with found plywood and cabinet hinges, affixed several carefully drawn schematics to the display, and — my pièce de résistance — fashioned an aluminum foil turbine that sat atop a tea kettle and hot plate and turned when steam escaped from the kettle spout and pushed up on the crumpled aluminum.

It was a fantastic looking display that should’ve made any third-grader proud.

Except me. While my project looked great as a display, it couldn’t function because I’d neglected to bring an extension cord for the hot plate. It was a profound lesson in the importance of marshaling the right tools for a job.

I’m sure teachers said at least a few nice things about my project — “you should be proud!” — but I couldn’t hear any of it. All I heard was callous jeering from the all-too-far power outlet.

I kicked myself the entire way home, award-less and pride-less.

Sure, there is a dark kind of pride: the kind that has given rise to countless cautionary memes and aphorisms dating back to Aquinas. Destructive pride that crushes empires, strung-out celebrities, and botched criminal enterprises. The selfish pinky-ringed-Gordon-Gecko sort that hordes credit for outrageous accomplishments like the invention of oxygen.

But it needn’t always be so. As a parent, I beam with pride over the most quotidian accomplishments of my kids. In a professional context, I’ve enjoyed the proud camaraderie that forms over hard-fought victories. And, loathe as I am to admit, I myself have felt the seductive charm of pride over my own nominal accomplishments, especially when I remember to bring an extension cord.

Lately, I spend considerable time thinking about how to instill in my two sons a sense of pride and confidence without unleashing two more rapacious heathens into this world. And as it goes with most parenting insecurities, the problem starts with the parent’s own limitations: just as I never learned to throw a curveball, it’s tough for me to teach the skill.

For my part, I’ve always had an uncomfortable relationship with pride. Maybe it’s the catholic upbringing, or an undeveloped sense of gratitude, or the ossified chip on my shoulder — I feel wildly uncomfortable expressing pride in my work and accomplishments. Instead, I cringe over mistakes, missteps, and misunderstandings. I dismiss kudos as superficial politeness, even from my own family; you better believe I will not hesitate to call my own mom’s baby ugly.

To be clear, I’m not proud of my inability to express pride. I think there should be plenty of room for the healthy sort of pride before ever veering into the ecclesiastically sinister variety. And I think it’s especially important for women and people of color to feel and express pride over their own accomplishments so that we remind one another that it’s entirely possible to strive and succeed.

And it’s now important for me as a father to model an appropriate degree of confidence and pride in well-earned accomplishments. So I’ve made a pact to assess myself a little more honestly, both good and bad. After all, there’s still plenty I manage to screw up, and the universe has its own way of tempering one’s ego with hilariously new causes for humility.

I recently shared this post with my LinkedIn network because, yeah, I’m proud:

My wife showed our two boys while we drove to get dinner. The seven-year-old asked his typically rational questions: “what’s a board and what’s a director?” My wife made a valiant attempt to explain corporate governance to a first grader. “This is now one of the things papa will be doing for work cause he has some valuable experience to share.”

At which point the four year old contributed his own incisive observation.

“And papa can fix toilets…cause he has the right tools.”

I don’t know what made me prouder: that it’s finally true or that he noticed.

Sobadtickle Reflections

As I say goodbye and good riddance to 2021, so, too, do I formally bid adieu to the sabbatical I had begrudgingly allowed myself to take for some indefinite period of time. When I first decided to indulge in this luxury, I naturally wanted to make good — nay, the best! — use of my time. A sabbatical, after all, isn’t a time gourd oneself on daytime Netflix shows and pretzels. To the contrary. Earlier in my career, I recall hearing legend and lore about others who had taken sabbaticals to accomplish such aspirational feats like writing the great American novel, trekking through Kodiak, or decoding mutated DNA strands, all while making it home in time for dinner and Parcheesi with the family.

And I harbored similar illusions for my own sabbatical: get calm, get strong, get right with god over a period of weeks and return to professional life ready for another tour of duty.

The time off felt awkward at first, like walking barefoot through a patch of mud: irresponsible and messy yet more than a little soothing. I don’t recall exactly what I did that first “official” day off, but it likely did involved lots of Netflix and pretzels because that’s what the first several days involve, waistline be damned! After all, we’re talking somewhere near the COVID-19 nadir. But I did eventually manage to incorporate more traditionally productive endeavors: discarding expired post-it notes from my desk (“administrative tasks”), trotting around the neighborhood while texting my wife, “what shall we have for dinner?” (“Fitness & nutrition”), and alphabetizing each genre of my vinyl collection (“mental health & spirituality”).

I’d like to believe that the time off left me feeling recharged and reinvigorated, ready to tackle the next professional challenge, whatever that might be. I wish I could report that this sabbatical renewed my respect for the grind and the toil and the highs and lows of professional life. And I really wish I could report that my sabbatical felt sufficient, at least for another decade or three. I wish I could claim all of this cause it would help me feel like less of a schlub.

As my local barfly-philosopher often reminds me, “hope springs eternal!”

The reality is none of this feels true. My desk and office still look like a huge middle finger to Marie Kondo. I’m no more fit today than when I began. I’ve no Great American Novel or one-person play or confectionary TikTok video, even, to show. And my vinyl collection remains a studied example of chaos theory.

Truth is, the bit of solitude and quiet I enjoyed have left me longing for even more of it because it has helped me remember a few important things:

  • My passions and interests are far broader than my professional life to-date has reflected.
  • I’ll likely never feel like there are enough hours in a day.
  • Slowing down feels. So. Damn. Good.

I am, of course, happy for this much clarity because, despite the countless Netflix shows and pretzels consumed, I think renewed clarity is productive.

It took me several — like, at least five — attempts at sitting to write this all out before it crystallized into anything remotely cogent. It probably didn’t help matters that, soon as I punctuated a poorly written sentence, my immediate inclination was to grab a de-tuned guitar, or review the dated post-its on my monitor, or play another stack of disorganized vinyl.

Or grab the remote and pretzels…

This sabbatical business ain’t so bad after all.

Dedication and Fallibility

I recently debated a policy issue with a longtime advocate who had spent their career researching and writing in support of a particular perspective. I, in turn, expressed a contrary viewpoint. My basic thesis was that certain policy prescriptions of the past had failed to yield the intended results, and that the underlying assumptions needed to be reviewed. This went over like a lead ballon. The advocate dug in and reminded me that they had spent 20+ years studying and supporting their particular perspective. The not-so-subtle implication seemed to be that I could not possibly be correct since I had not dedicated the same amount of time during the course of my own career.

I should acknowledge two things right upfront. The first is, while I haven’t logged as many miles as some folks, my experience is not negligible. I usually don’t wade into territory about which I know nothing about, and my views on this particular topic are not entirely uninformed.

Second, I should note that I generally like and admire the advocate with whom I disagreed. Maybe they don’t believe this and maybe it doesn’t matter to them. But it sure matters enough to me to acknowledge that, despite the political and social climate of the past few years, it is still possible to disagree respectfully and with admiration intact.

And this is precisely why I was so disheartened during this exchange. No, it’s not because I unsuccessfully swayed the advocate’s opinion. Rather, it was the categorical unwillingness to consider an alternative perspective because of what it might mean for the person’s 20+ years of advocacy. The fear, left unstated, seemed to be that if this person’s sincerely held belief turned out to be wrong or incomplete, then the person’s 20+ years of advocacy would have been all for naught. To my mind, this kind of thinking aptly illustrates the sunk-cost fallacy. And the problem with the sunk-cost fallacy is that it is, well, fallacious.

What I wish I could convey to this advocate is that their 20+ years of dedication is no less valuable or admirable by shifting one’s perspective. I wish I could convey that all of our perspectives are subject to change amidst a changing world with changing facts and circumstances. And that it is not at all a sign of weakness to show some degree of elasticity in one’s perspective but, rather, it is a sign of strength and courage. These are the things I wish I could have conveyed but for the advocate’s categorical refusal to be proven wrong by anybody.

Of course, I could be wrong. What the hell do I know?

Leadership During Crises

Newsom. Cuomo. Trump. Each has responded to the COVID-19 crisis with a different tact. Newsom transparently relays realtime data to Californians. Cuomo has embraced the structured slide presentation sprinkled with anecdotes about his family. And Trump, well, apparently he wants to disinfect your innards

Leadership in crisis is more art than science. We all know good leadership is sorely needed in a time of crisis, but few can point to a playbook because, by definition, an unprecedented moment lacks precedent. Still, there are some immutable principles that would well serve the leader in all of us in a time of crisis.

Connection is paramount in this moment given the various shelter-at-home mandates (or guidance, depending on your views). As of late April 2020, good chances are that your local traffic is sparse and parking plentiful. And if you’re like me, you’ve seen the same four faces — no more, no less — everyday for the past month. Whatever broader community we previously belonged to isn’t as visible, hence, rise of the zoom happy hour and virtual dance party. And thank goodness for these outlets because they allow us to remain connected in this weird time. Leaders can use these outlets to help their organizations feel a strong, empathic connection to one another despite being physically distanced.

Leaders should also relay timely information to their organizations. Whether good news or bad news, there ought to be healthy information flow from leadership to the rest of the team. This serves two purposes. First, it helps sustain an organization’s mission alignment, whatever that may be. If your organization’s mission is to spread love and joy, then your organization needs to hear that message reinforced in the midst of a decidedly joyless situation. Second, sustained information flow helps organizations stay motivated in uncertain times when individual team members are all experiencing personal interruptions.

Next, leaders must provide direction in a crisis. Where do we go from here? When will this end and will my job survive this all? Because it’s not enough to know that you remain connected to a broader team and mission. A leader should lay out a vision for what follows, good or bad. Be a rudder. Now, it is all too tempting to forgo this piece for fear of being wrong. Call me crazy but I believe organizations are far more forgiving of a course-correction so long as the leader is forthright about their operating assumptions. This brings us to a final and perhaps most important principle…

Leaders must embody honesty. Because the only thing worse than a crisis itself, contrary to some belief, is a lie about the cure.

Death to the Pre-Call

Conference calls, previously shunned by technologists and social-media acolytes, have reemerged with great vigor in our socially-distant work environment. More equitable and less invasive than a video conference, a conference call satisfies the need for real-time discussion. It allows cross-functional teams to check in on the status of things, and gives managers a sense of control.

Read on…

People Management and Team Leadership

Managers and “stupivisors” are generous founts of comedy and derision in our popular culture. Michael Scott. Mr. Burns. TPS Reports. Chances are pretty good that none of these names conjure up a particularly flattering view of management or leadership. And I think this is quite a shame considering how much of our professional lives we spend, or will spend, under the management of another.

To further complicate matters, the vast majority of managers find themselves managing in multiple directions: down to their direct reports; across to their cross-functional contemporaries; and up to their own boss(es). Given the multidimensional quality of people management, it’s no wonder we managers (yes, I’m one) manage to strike out as often as we do — we take a lot of at bats. So it is worth considering a common grammar and framework to improve our impact as managers.

Let’s start with managing down to a team of direct reports.

First thing’s first: management is not the same as leadership. To be clear, this is not an original idea of mine. And yet it is easy to trivialize. Management elicits compliance either through fear of some punishment or hope of some gain. Leadership, by contrast, means inspiring a voluntary choice to follow.

Here’s the difference.

One can lead through fear of deprivation. “Do this or else you won’t get a bonus.” “Complete this by Friday or else I’ll give the next assignment to someone else.” Or simply, “Do this because your job is on the line.” To be sure, these are hard nosed tactics and may not always fly in certain settings where policy or decorum dictates otherwise. But I’d venture to guess that this is the framework — the proverbial stick — most people have in mind when they think of “management.”

Of course, one may also manage through reward and incentive. This is also a form of manipulation, albeit more benign. What does this look like? This is the proverbial carrot: “Accomplish this and you’ll get a bonus.”

Now, candidly, either approach can work a short while because we’re all somewhat conditioned to respond to them. And, honestly, should be part of a leader’s arsenal. But the mistake many people manager’s make is that they fail to diversify their leadership toolkit.

In an ideal world, people would follow you, not because they fear recrimination, and not because they’re compelled by personal financial gain. But because your vision of a path and destination a naturally aligns with where they want to go as part of their own personal or professional development.

How do you do this?

First, start by making your path and destination explicitly known. Your team cannot willingly follow you if they don’t first know where you plan to go: Want to build lean team of legal generalists? Say so. Or do you want to build a bench of seasoned subject-matter experts? Tell them so they’re not surprised. Do you envision building a vertically integrated legal team or more of a matrix style? Whatever the course, tell your team, first and foremost.

Next, expressly invite your team for the ride and make clear that the ride is optional. We all know from experience that employees do not always buy into the strategic vision or direction of a company, yet they suppress voicing opposition for fear of recrimination. This is a destructive paradigm, in my view. It is also completely fine to acknowledge differences of opinion.

Finally, and critically, ask your team to hold you — the leader — accountable to the direction you have set. Give them a mechanism to provide feedback like a regularly scheduled check-in or survey. Now, this is hard to do because feedback always invites criticism. But, as a leader, you need the wherewithal to consider feedback of all sort, and to turn it into action for the benefit of your team.