Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Too Much of a Good Thing

Growing up in the Philadelphia area and going to college in Indiana was a bit of a challenge around certain holidays when I was a young man. For example, I could take an all night bus back home for Thanksgiving with the family but given how short the break was and how long the ride, by the time I returned back to college I knew I was going to be pretty exhausted and burned out from all of the travel which was not a good way to go into the last couple of weeks of classes and final exams.

So one year, I decided to stay on campus and find some place local to celebrate. Having friends who were older and lived off campus, myself plus others decided to gather at their house and make a huge Thanksgiving feast. Everyone helped out and we had all of the traditional food. There was turkey, stuffing,  mashed potatoes, green bean casserole, candied yams with the little marshmallows on top, cranberry sauce, rolls, butter, etc.

On the day of the big event while the turkey was resting and then being carved, my college friend, Ian, and I got corralled into making the gravy. We had both watched our mothers do this so it did not seem like it was going to be too hard.  

We started by collecting all of the pan juices left over from the baking of the turkey and straining off the fat. Then, we sauteed some mushrooms in butter in a big frying pan. Once they were the right color, we add the drippings and began to stir as it bubbled. We stirred and stirred and it did not turn into gravy. We were stumped and those who were carving the turkey wanted us to hurry up.

Next, we add a little white flour and we got the right color but it was not coming together like good gravy. Then, we remembered that our mothers tended to add cornstarch to thicken the gravy. So, we found a box in the kitchen cabinet and put some in. Sure enough, it started to thicken.

With the color being right and the “gravy” bubbling away in the pan, plus with ample encouragement to hurry up from the people now carrying the turkey to the table, we added some more corn starch to the gravy so that it would get thick quicker. Our reasoning was simple. The more you add, the faster it will thicken. We did not take into account that we were cooking the gravy and in the process causing some of it to evaporate.  

Once, it was thick enough, we rushed around to find a gravy boat to put it in. However, we were college students and this was off campus housing rather than some one’s childhood home. Being resourceful, we found a big bowl and poured our very thick gravel into it. Proudly we carried the gravy to the table.

After prayers were said by all, the food was passed around. Plates were piled high and then the gravy was sent around. The only problem was that it had continued to cook through the prayers plus cool a bit. Furthermore, Ian and I had added so much cornstarch and flour that the gravy had seized up into one solid block. There was no pouring. The only solution was to slice the gravy and serve it. It did not taste like Mom had made it back home, but we were hungry college students so we ate everything nevertheless.

There are days when we as leaders have to remember that too much of a good thing can at times be just too much. For example, I recently have noticed that some people are going overboard on their coaching.  They think that if once a week coaching sessions are good, then multiple times a week would be better. While this might be a good idea in a few rare situations, the best thing to do in most situations is to coach people and then to let them practice. They have to apply what they have learned in their coaching session and then learn from the application process. Too much coaching, like too much cornstarch in the gravy, can cause a person to seize up and not think clearly. We forget sometimes that one of the goals of coaching is accelerated learning and helping someone to think clearly through their choices plus end up making the right ones.

During the coming thirty days, post Thanksgiving, just remember too much of a good thing does not always generate something better. A light touch always makes a better gravy. Same with people, too.

Geery Howe, M.A. Consultant, Executive Coach, Trainer in Leadership, Strategic Planning and Organizational Change Morning Star Associates 319 - 643 - 2257

Monday, November 25, 2013

Count Your Blessings

This week across the country people will be gathering for Thanksgiving and Hanukah celebrations. Families will come together, share stories new and old, and eat some fantastic food. There will be laughter, tears, much sharing, and reflection. And someone around the table will comment about how fast time is going by and someone else will say how grateful they are that we all came together.

Many years ago when I was teaching seminars on stress management, I used to ask a series of questions to my students: “How many of you remember your parents? How many of you remember your grandparents? How many of you remember the names of their parents?”

These answers always led the group into a discussion about taking the long view on life. Sometimes the things that seem so big are really so small when we step back from the present moment. Sometimes we get so busy we forget momentarily what is most important.

This week I encourage all of us to learn more of our own family history. Listen again about days gone by. Learn more about your parents’ parents.  Explore their days, their lives and their challenges. By gaining this knowledge, we can put our own life back into perspective and perhaps grasp some keen insights about living well and healthy during this life time.

My hope for all of you is that you will count your blessings this week and be very grateful for all of the friends and family that you have. Much joy and happy celebrations to each of you!

Geery Howe, M.A. Consultant, Executive Coach, Trainer in Leadership, Strategic Planning and Organizational Change Morning Star Associates 319 - 643 - 2257

Monday, November 18, 2013

Timing is Critical

Many years ago, I got a phone call inviting me to northern Minnesota in mid-September to lead an in-depth senior management retreat on the subject of mission, vision and core values. The CEO had booked an entire lodge by a secluded lake for the day and had flown up a top notch chef from the Twin Cities to cater the meal.

The food was amazing. The setting was spectacular. The fall colors were at their peak, and the strategic level dialogue around mission, vision and values was very poor. It is no fun facilitating a group process when clearly something else needed to be discussed. After multiple attempts to get the discussion to a deeper level than superficial conversation, I invited the group to go with me for a walk around the nearby lake.

Once out in nature, people seemed to relax a bit and open up. Therefore, I turned to one of the vice presidents and said, “What am I missing here? This is an important topic but no one wants to participate.”

We walked for a bit and then he replied, “The setting is perfect. The food is over the top, and the subject is important. You are even doing a good job. However, we recently failed an inspection at one of our facilities, and the plan of correction is due to be submitted tomorrow morning at 9:00 am. Most of us were planning on having this day to review the entire plan of correction, coordinate our efforts, and make sure that this does not happen again. But the CEO thought it would be best if we talked about mission, vision and core values instead. Therefore, most of us after this retreat will be burning the midnight oil to make sure everything is in place related to the plan of correction. The retreat is a good idea. It’s just at the wrong time.”

As I continued walking around the lake, I reflected on how many times I have witnessed this take place. At times, it feels like an epidemic of missed opportunities. What should have taken place and what did take place were not in alignment. Talking about mission, vision and core values is very important, but holding this conversation at the right time is also important.

Our challenge as leaders is to pay very close attention to our direct reports and to know where each of them are in their journey with the organization. Great managers build on strengths, and great leaders build on clarity. This week I strongly encourage you to reconnect with each of your direct reports and to better understand what they are working on and what are their priorities.  As I learned many years ago while walking around a lake, timing is mission critical to success.

Geery Howe, M.A. Consultant, Executive Coach, Trainer in Leadership, Strategic Planning and Organizational Change Morning Star Associates 319 - 643 - 2257

Thursday, November 14, 2013

A Recommended Reading

For quite some time, I have been looking for something worth reading and sharing with others. I have plowed through a lot of books and articles and ended up in the land of slightly bored or frustrated by the number of old ideas getting repackaged and being called “new.” For the most part, nothing was thought-provoking or extremely well written to the degree that I would read it again or recommend it to others.

However, I did delight in reading an interview by Melinda Merino of Ram Charan, one of the worlds’s preeminent advisors to CEOs for the past 35 years, about decision-making in the November 2013 issue of the Harvard Business Review. Called “You Can’t Be a Wimp - Make the Tough Calls,” Charan points out that leaders now have to deal with many more variables and constituencies than ever before. In particular, they have to “cut through all of that complexity and to make subjective judgements about highly ambiguous, and constantly changing factors.” Given these difficulties, Charan  explains that “The best executives know which decisions to focus on (and which to delegate), when to make a decision, and what the risk of not making a decision.” The keys to successful decision-making, according to Charan, are to increase one’s ability to have perceptual acuity, i.e. “the ability to see change coming,” along with qualitative judgement and credibility which helps gain acceptance for difficult decisions.

Overall, this is a good article and one worth reading. Here is the link: Check it out and I hope you find it helpful.

Geery Howe, M.A. Consultant, Executive Coach, Trainer in Leadership, Strategic Planning and Organizational Change Morning Star Associates 319 - 643 - 2257

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

An Interesting Observation

I have been in the business of teaching people since the 80’s. I have spent many hours in front of large and small groups, helping them to become better leaders, managers and supervisors. Recently, I have noticed an interesting thing taking place when people come together to learn. During breaks, people have stopped visiting with each other, and are instead only interacting with their cell phones.

Years, ago when people came to a workshop or seminar, they sought out the content. They also sought out other people. During breaks, participants built networks of support and perspective. Regularly, I witnessed in-depth dialogue and visiting about life’s challenges and successes. People routinely caught up with each other at seminars. They enjoyed the time to share.

Now, when a break takes place during a workshop, the room empties out as people go outside to answer phone messages, to read e-mails, and to text people. Often, the training room is also quiet as people are absorbed in reading their tiny screens with great concentration and concern. Gone are the days of talking with fellow participants. Sharing collectively has started to become a thing of the past. 

The new normal during seminars and workshops is constant texting, posting, connecting, searching and scanning. We are now more distracted than ever by electronic interruptions. It appears that we are attempting to live and work at the speed of software.  

The challenge for many who truly want to learn is to set aside their electronic tether and to become actively engaged in the learning process and in-depth reflection that comes with quality learning. Rather than trying to become more efficient with our electronic devices, we need to relearn how to set them aside for a bit, and regain the ability to think long and hard about issues and topics which we care about.  

I challenge all of us when we go to a meeting, workshop or seminar to put aside our addiction to instant-access and instead dive deeply into thinking carefully and thoughtfully about the world of leadership and the future. It is time to regain perspective and realize that relationships and learning are more valuable than e-mail and text messaging.  While this may be a big step for many, it is an important one if we want to make a difference in the world where we serve and work.

Geery Howe, M.A. Consultant, Executive Coach, Trainer in Leadership, Strategic Planning and Organizational Change Morning Star Associates 319 - 643 - 2257

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

What Great Leaders Know

Every year, I meet thousands of people in leadership positions. Whether we cross paths in training sessions, conferences, meetings or executive coaching sessions, the best of the best all know one simple fact. Great leaders do not create followers. They create partners and colleagues.

When people come and work for a company, they bring two things with them, namely their willingness and their ability. The former is based on their commitment to, and motivation for the work. The later is based on their knowledge and skills. Hopefully, they will have a supervisor, manager or leader who can build on their talent and help the individual make progress and be successful. 

However, after decades of working with great leaders, I have learned that these individuals also do two other things with their employees, namely offer support and perspective. Both of these elements significantly influence people’s willingness and ability.

Our challenge this late fall into early winter is to help good leaders to become great leaders. We need them to learn to work effectively and efficiently, not just keep everything and everyone under control. This means that they must create clarity about the standards we all hold and clarity about the mission. In short, they need to learn a form of leadership which will result in people becoming engaged and feeling like they are a valued member of the team.

One way to help good leaders to become great leaders is to enroll them in the 2014 From Vision to Action Leadership Training. Through this challenging, interactive curriculum which blends lectures, selected readings, small and large group discussions, and how to skill-building exercises, participants in this four part leadership training gain critical knowledge and skills which improve their ability to be become better leaders.

Now is the time to sign people up for this unique and in-depth learning experience.  For more information on how to register for the 2014 From Vision to Action Leadership Training, please click on the following link: 

Great leaders are role models and mentors. They inspire people and guide them to a whole new level of performance. If you are seeking people who will create partners and colleagues, then now is the time to get them involved in the 2014 From Vision to Action Leadership Training. 

Geery Howe, M.A. Consultant, Executive Coach, Trainer in Leadership, Strategic Planning and Organizational Change Morning Star Associates 319 - 643 - 2257

Monday, November 11, 2013

More On Adapting to Complexity

Moving through complexity is not easy for the leader or the follower. both get stretched in the process. Still, there are things leaders can do to help all involved stay engaged, focused and effective.

First, constantly check for understanding rather than awareness amongst the followers. Leading and following through complexity is an iterative process, a process in which repetition of a sequence of steps and key information yields results successively closer to the desired result. The key in the beginning, the middle and the end is to not create information overload, which is a normal situation for leaders and followers. We can avoid this situation when we assist all involved in seeing how what we are doing now will assist them in what they will be doing later on. In essence, we as leaders need to help people connect the dots between today’s decisions and actions, and tomorrow’s results.

Second, we must consistently set up the follower for short term wins. I can not emphasize enough how important this is in the building of confidence, clarity, and competence in the life of the follower.  We also must praise often when the follower gets it right. By reinforcing right action, we also are reinforcing right thinking which again boasts confidence and competence.

In short, always remember that success breeds success, and confidence breeds commitment.

Geery Howe, M.A. Consultant, Executive Coach, Trainer in Leadership, Strategic Planning and Organizational Change Morning Star Associates 319 - 643 - 2257

Monday, November 4, 2013

Adapting to Complexity

Last December, our oldest son gave my wife a hiking trip in Arizona for her birthday. Once we coordinated schedules and settled on doing this trip in late May, I went deep into planning mode.

First, I created an initial gear list that she and I would need. Referencing back to my major hiking days in the 70’s, I began collecting all sorts of stuff from the attic. Finally, having not hiked in the southwest since my college years, I asked my oldest son for help. His list included some things that I was not thinking about such as nylon hiking pants, a very wide brimmed hat to keep the sun off my bald head and tender, fair skinned ear tips, and under-armor t-shirts. We also borrowed gear from our younger son who had recently worked in the back country in the southwest for six months as an Americorp volunteer. This included a dromedary with hose and mouth piece for carrying water.

Second, I started preparing my body and my mind. Every day all winter long, I walked very fast for 30 minutes, seeking out all the hills in our small town.  Given I grew up in an outdoors focused family with scouting roots, lots of summer camp hiking, and being a former back packing leader in the 70’s, I knew this trip could be challenging. Therefore, I was a bit apprehensive about the physical challenge that could surface when hiking in the southwest at 8,000 foot elevation.

Once we arrived in late May, and transitioned to the higher altitude in Flagstaff, AZ for 24 hours, we started to pack out for the trip. As I pulled out my 70’s based gear, my oldest son frequently gave me the “don’t bring that” head shakes. I trusted his opinion given he had been actively involved in outdoor work for many years in the southwest. Nevertheless, I started to feel not very confident, competent, or current as we started off on this multiple day back packing trip.

On the first night of our camping trip, I felt like an 11 year old, Tenderfoot Boy Scout all over again. I couldn’t set up our tent right without help and instruction. I did not know how the stove worked and I did not know what was coming up next. I didn’t even know how to pack the high quality, expedition backpack that my son had borrowed from a friend of his for me.

Still, with his assistance and patient teaching, my wife and I made it through the first night. Our son and his amazing girl friend created some spectacular meals on the trail such as pesto and fresh veggies over noodles, red curry with sweet potatoes, and fresh veggies, mac and cheese with red wine plus desserts like scrambled brownies, jello cheese cake, chocolate nut bars etc.

Meanwhile, I started from the very beginning and learned how to pack my own back pack all over again. While I was not confident, competent, or current, I was trainable. I slowly connected the dots around the terminology of “cannon balls”, i.e. heavy stuff, and “fluffy stuff”, i.e. light things, when packing my pack. When I did get my expedition sized back pack to stand up on it’s own, I was elated.

On our first day on the trail, I tried hiking with with trekking poles because they were supposed to reduce the shock on my older knees as we hiked down into a nearby canyon. Beside making so much noise with the poles clicking and clacking over rocks and the like, I felt totally awkward and uncomfortable. I was afraid I might trip over the poles that were suppose to be helping. In the end, I skipped the poles and hoped my knees would handle the stress. I realized that I was close to overload on new stuff and the hiking poles were just a hinderance more than a help.

The second night on the trail my wife and I set up our own tent and I realized again the power of a short term win.  For a brief moment, I felt invincible, and regained a bit of confidence. 

On the third day, I finally started to get the daily rhythm of hiking and setting up camp. The following morning I even figured out how to use the hiking stove and heat up water for the tea.  

We hiked out the fourth morning and upon reflection, I had learned some very important lessons. First, small and/or large shifts in environment, i.e. context, can dramatically undercut the capacity and confidence of the followers. As a follower on this trip, I started from a place of limited ability to fully understand and assess the right path or choices. I also kept second guessing myself and assuming I was making the wrong choices. It also was hard to figure out what I needed because I was not sure and did not have many reference points for this kind of journey. I realized that I was not current with the new technology and modern way of moving through this landscape. I had to unlearn my 60’s/70’s way of camping and hiking, and instead embrace a more modern way of doing things. That was much easier said than done.

Second, without a safety zone and a patient teacher/leader in my son and his girl friend, I often ended up becoming a watcher, overwhelmed by too much external stimulus and information. While the environmental shift to camping in the southwest was normal for my son and his girl friend, it was complex for my wife and I. We had our own physical and mental challenges, e.g. we really did not know what was going to happen next on the trail, and we had to completely trust our experienced son and his girl friend to guide us along the way. We had to take “baby steps” to move through the world of constant change.

Third, moving from one level of effective action to a new level of effectiveness requires tremendous faith in one’s self on the part of the follower, plus faith in the leader and faith in the journey to a new level of competency. This journey  also came with more than a few “ego bruises” along the way. True unlearning and relearning is not easy.

There is an old hiking prayer that goes as follows: “Lord, if you lift them up [i.e. my feet], I will put them down in the right place.” It was not just the lifting them up but also having no idea where we were going other than a name on a map that was challenging. It took me quite some time to connect with interpreting a USGS map again and to translate it into what it means in actuality.

Thankfully each step of the way we had a kind and patience pair of people helping my wife and I along the way.  Their leadership made all the difference between a good trip and a great trip.

Geery Howe, M.A. Consultant, Executive Coach, Trainer in Leadership, Strategic Planning and Organizational Change Morning Star Associates 319 - 643 - 2257