Stepping Away to Improve Your Peformance

Do you ever find yourself spinning your wheels while you’re at work?  Do you ever feel like no matter how hard you concentrate on something, that it just takes that much longer?

Whenever these moments hit, I take time away from what I am working on to reset my brain.  This way, when I come back, I’m refreshed and ready to tackle it.  Oftentimes, I find a solution I was looking for far away from the problem.

Here’s what I did.

What about you? What do you do to reset?


The Honor In Being Prepared

Préparation de Gnocchi

If you’ve been a member of Kitchen Table Companies, then you can appreciate that one of the best parts of KTC is the Monday Morning Mojo email from KTC host, Joe Sorge.

This week was no exception. Except that Joe didn’t have much to say, which is fine. Instead, Joe had read a post that he thought we all needed to read and pointed us there. That’s the easy part, almost lazy, right?

Not on your life.

One of the things I’ve always appreciated about Joe, is how open he is to learning and beyond that, how prepared he is to take it in.

Joe didn’t just point us to a link at the end of the post, he lays out some instructions:

Please don’t just click on over without preparing yourself to absorb what you’re about to read. Give yourself five minutes to take it in.

In these two simple sentences, Joe shapes the situation a little differently. He sets certain expectations. He tells you that you should check out this post, but ‘only if you’re ready to learn from it’, only if you’re willing to take it seriously.

To Joe, this post contained valuable information, important enough for him to forgo writing his usual email. He also honors your time, both by referring you to the post and helping you to gain something from it. That’s the point after all. Joe understands that you read these emails because you want useful information for your business.

With those simple instructions, Joe managed to stir in me a need to honor his request and either click through prepared, or not click at all.

Prepare yourself

I had a crappy day yesterday, in fact the week got off to a shaky start such that I considered scrubbing it and starting over.

What I am most upset about though, is this feeling of falling off the wagon on a commitment that I had made.

Each week I have the honor and privilege to sit with one of the smartest people I know to work on my business. Last week, Becky and I set some clear expectations and goals for our next call and while I did some of them, I missed the mark on so many more.

I know we all don’t hit our goals each week, but it’s more than that.

The real issue, is that I didn’t come to our time together prepared. I didn’t manage my time well, my commitments well leading up to it and came to the call cold.

My default when this happens is, ”let’s talk about you…”.

Try as I might to keep the focus on her and her work, she called me out.

I squirmed, I deflected, I scraped for something that I had done that was worthy of noting for our time together. I didn’t have much.

Game Time

The real work is done in between.

So often in my life, I’ve made the meeting the work. It’s not. It never has been.

Athletes know this well. They know that the real work is done leading up to the game. Game time is simply a demonstration of everything they have been preparing. They can’t show up, wing it and expect a successful outcome, at least not consistently.

As a reasonably smart person, sometimes it works. Sometimes it works to arrive on the scene and rely on your skills to pull you through. It might even work often and that’s what makes it harder to shift.

The reality though, is that not only are you not honoring the time, work and attention of others (I’m sorry, Becky), you are not honoring yourself.



Photo Credit: spookymic

Can you afford to fail?

Screen Failure

I recently read “Poke The Box” (Affiliate Link) , Seth Godin’s newest and first Domino book.  While I found the book to be oddly laid out and organized, I did find a number of very useful ideas throughout and many that got me thinking.  One of those ideas, is from a small section called “This Might Not Work”.

Seth encourages us to say those words, often and operate from that position where failure just might exist. In that section, Seth asks the question, “Is your work so serious and flawless and urgent that each thing you do, every day, must work?”

Oh, The Pressure

I got to wondering about how this might be different, or should I say be perceived differently, by leaders in the non-profit sector.   As a contributor at 501 Mission Place, I’ve been thinking about the constant pressure that non-profit leaders put upon themselves, that the margin of error for them, appears much smaller.   As a former non-profit Executive Director, I am familiar with how narrow that margin feels, both financially and to the mission.  There is a sense that one must constantly serve the mission or else risk it all falling apart.


What I notice with some non-profits, is that the mission traps them.  The mission and service to it, tends to narrow the focus of those working in it.  In fact, that’s often the challenge, finding a way to work on your business instead of in it.  If non-profit leaders get stuck in their business, surrounded by mission and service, how then do they grow their organization?  How do they move from being so enmeshed in the day to day realities of who their mission serves, to a place where they can take risks and innovate, to a place where they can comfortably say “This might not work”?

Reflect, Redraw, Rejuvinate

Estrella Rosenberg suggests that we lead with vision instead of mission.  I think she’s onto something,  but I’ll ask the question that I love to ask, “So, what does that look like?”.  No it’s not rhetorical and it might be a bit different for every circumstance, but I am certain that it starts with a few things:

1.  Step away from your work often enough to ask yourself if you are working on the right thing?

2.  If your mission is to serve people at a certain point along ‘the stream’, take time to look further upstream at why folks end up at your spot.  Look for opportunities to become involved in advocacy and legislation that would reduce the need for you to serve.

3.  Look outside your organization, community, and cause to see what you can learn from successful people, organizations and businesses that have gone before you.

More than anything, ask yourself, “What would that look like?” and find the space to try bold new ideas even if they ‘might not work’.

Shooting Free-throws: Cultivating a Practice Ethic

Boys playing basketball outside

March Madness

I caught a bit of ESPN this morning and saw a player from the UCONN women’s team practicing free-throws.  My mind quickly leapt to the stories of Larry Bird (hey I’m from New England) practicing 500 free-throws before school each day, then to Michael Jordan’s legendary practice habits.  While his physical gifts helped propel him to being perhaps the greatest player of all time, it was his work ethic during practice…his practice ethic that made him better than everyone else.

Practice makes…

We’re all familiar with the value of a strong work ethic and we know successful folks who appear to possess a strong work ethic.  What if we discover that  the people who we most admire for their success and apparent work ethic actually possess a strong practice ethic?  The people I know  and have worked with spend tons of time at the free-throw line, shooting hundred of baskets working on the fundamentals, doing the stuff that others might find boring.  They spend time mastering the simplest aspects of the game enabling them to recognize and make the difficult moves more easily.

What does that look like?

This is one of my favorite questions to ask.  I love to ask it when I’m working with other people.  It helps me to take my conceptual understanding to a more meaningful place where I can begin to see something in action, actually working.

It leaves me wondering; What does a practice ethic look like in business?  If you are going to be at the top of your game in your work life, in running your business, in working for a company, in running a non-profit and trying to change the world:  What does practice look like?

I was having a conversation with my friend and business partner, Joe Sorge yesterday.  He talks about being able to ‘work on your business instead of in your business’.  Having only worked with Joe for a short time now and having had the opportunity to visit his restaurants in Milwaukee, it is clear that Joe works on his business.  Joe has a great practice ethic.

For Joe, practice looks like learning, extrapolating and repurposing.  It’s looks like reading;  industry magazines, blogs by Chris Brogan, Seth Godin, John Jantsch and others.  It’s about reading the Harvard Business Review and books by Scott Belsky (Affiliate Link) to glean ideas and repurposing them for his own business.  It’s about engaging people from other industries and thought leaders.  It “looks like” asking questions and contributing to the conversation.

What good is practice if you don’t play the game?

It’s also about action.  It’s about asking ‘So what would that look like if we did that at AJBombers, or Swig, or Water Buffalo?’  Putting all of these ideas into action, testing and experimenting is the important part of ‘Then What?’.  Chris Brogan’s Blog Topics is also a great example of years of practice in idea generation and the craft of writing, put into action.  At over 425 subscribers, it seems like a pretty good game.

Success clearly isn’t coming from just a strong work ethic, it’s coming from a strong Practice Ethic. So, what does practice look like for you?  Are you spending enough time shooting free-throws?

Three Words – 2011

I’ve been a bit busy over at Human Business Works since I joined in August of 2010 and we are working hard to grow peoples capabilities. The real thrust behind everything we do over there is about looking for opportunities to lift people up, provide opportunities for them to learn, connect, share and be successful.

The work that I am doing there is somewhat new to me in that it’s a different industry but it is also very familiar to me. My prior work was working with children and families where I was supporting the growth of professionals who serve them and creating environments for them to be successful. Interestingly enough I still find myself doing that in this role, not the children and families part, but supporting the growth of professionals. We’re also creating environments for people to grow and be successful. The big difference, is that the folks I work with and I, don’t necessarily share a common language, we have to discover it. I have a lot of listening to do. I have a lot of learning to do.

This is the thrust of my Three Words for 2011.

Frames – In my work with the team at HBW I am going to be focusing on frames. Frames are necessary to build. They help us to build a common understanding of our business goals, our relationship. Frames support the structure of what we’re building. Frames provide the parameters in which we are working and serve to outline our mutual expectations of not only what we’re trying to accomplish, but how.

Fire – Passion and execution are the elements of this word for me in 2011. Passion drives our organization. Just spend 5 minutes with Estrella Rosenberg at 501MissionPlace, Joe Sorge at Kitchen Table Companies, or Josh Fisher our new Creative Director and you will get a sense of the passion and fire I’m talking about.
My role is to recognize it, find ways to tend to it and support its purpose. That’s where execution comes in. A useful purpose for fire is used to forge. Fire is built on passion is a great first step, but we can’t loose site of how to use it.

Masters – I want to spend 2011 learning from Masters. I have the good fortune of working with one of them. Actually, I have the good fortune of working with many of them. In 2011 I want to spend time getting to know more people, sitting with folks, listening and learning from Masters.

I learn a ton in a five minute conversation with Jon Swanson or by reading one of his posts. Part of this will be reading, listening and watching to find masters. You can bet that this applies to appreciating the mastery that emerges from my children and my wife.
I also have an ongoing list of folks I’d like to meet in 2011. I bet you’re on it.

So, there you have it. My Three Words for 2011. Stay tuned and thanks for stopping by

A note and preview: One of the Masters who I’ll be talking a lot about here is world renown pediatrician, Dr. T. Berry Brazelton, who is a master at relationships and a master of observation (I quite think the two are connected).

Be Helpful

I saw this Tweet from Tom Peters the other day and the first line struck me immediately. Being helpful is something I think about often and in fact train people to consider often in their work in supporting families through something called the Touchpoints approach.


Dr. T. Berry Brazelton is a pediatrician and the Founder of the Brazelton Touchpoints Center in Boston. Dr. B’s approach to working with children and families (Touchpoints) is based on relationship and focusing on the strengths of the parent. As a practitioner working with families; a pediatrician, a nurse, home visitor, teacher or other family service professional, Touchpoints asks us to be mindful of the family system we are entering. It asks us to join collaboratively, rather than prescriptively.


In order to accomplish this, Touchpoints asks us to operate from certain Assumptions which for many in the field of early childhood education or family service might be challenging. The Touchpoints Assumptions are:

  • The parent is the expert on his/her child
  • All parents have strengths
  • All parents want to do well by their child
  • All parents have something critical to share at each developmental stage
  • All parents have ambivalent feelings
  • Parenting is a process built on trial and error

These Assumptions ask us to reflect on our own practice and imagine what a relationship with a family would look like if we truly operate from these Assumptions.

Strengths, Collaboration and Offering Advice

If we simply look at and think about operating from the Assumption “All Parents Have Strengths”, it begs us to discover what those are. The only way we can discover those strengths, is by engaging in a relationship with them. If we assume that this person ‘has strengths’ and, to go one step further, that they “have something critical to share” with us, all of a sudden, the relationship is less about what advice I have for you as a parent, but about discovering together what will be helpful to you based on your strengths, your own knowledge, your expertise.

So, when a parent says that their child is not sleeping through the night, I can either choose to launch into a prescriptive diatribe about what I think she should do, or I can begin by earnestly wondering with her about what those nights are like for her, or if it is even a concern for her. Based on what she initially told me I really don’t have any idea what would be helpful in this situation.

Being Helpful

If you haven’t guessed by now, I believe we can recast these Assumptions for our everyday relationships, in our organizations, in our business practices. What would happen if we look first for the strengths in others, if we seek to understand what they know and what is important to them? Maybe then we can begin to understand how we can be most helpful.

I’m off to read Ed Schein’s book.

Up Too Late: Bad Parenting

We let our ten year old stay up too late last night.  I think it was 12:30 when he and his mom and I finally went to bed.  I am sure there will be consequences.  In fact, this morning he woke up and one of the first things he said was, “that movie was intense”.

Yesterday on a whim, I rented “The Great Debaters”, with Denzel Washington.  It is a story about a debate team from an all black college in the 1930′s who, after beating so many other small black colleges and one white college, are invited to debate at Harvard.  What I loved an appreciated were the many examples of bright minds, passionate about learning, knowledgeable about poetry, the Bible, mythology and literature and a lovely quote that summed the culture of one hard working family, “We do what we have to, so we can do what we want to”.

There were grim reminders of our country’s racist legacy, and oscillation between worlds that challenge the watcher to understand that the path these students were on was not just difficult because of racism.  It also flew in the face of leaving the comfort of a culture that they were part of, to exist in a culture where members of each believed they did not.

Aidan watched this.  At every reasonable interval we checked in with him to see if he was awake and whether he was “ok”.  His responses were groggy though not from being tired, but from the rapt attention he gave this movie.  At some of the more intense moments when we thought it might be confusing or overwhelming, he simply replied, “That’s so sad.”  What we knew from both his attention and response is what we have come to know and appreciate about Aidan.  That he understands humanity and is able to comprehend the context in which something is presented.

What happened last night was one of those moments when you are reminded that you are raising a person who, while needing the support and guidance of his parents, has gifts to give and a strong role in our family.

We talked for a short while afterward.  His mother and I discussed with him some of the language we heard.  He and I talked about the characters love for reading and his own passion for greek mythology, novels and more recently, poetry.

The epilogue of the movie demonstrates not how these events and characters changed the course of history, but how this experience changed lives of the characters.  This too is important.  For while it was wonderful, the experience of watching something like this with Aidan revealed far more for me than the story itself.

What do you really do with it?

dart balloons

I’ve been reading Chris Brogan and Seth and Jon and Darren and Marc for awhile now.  Each site is wonderful and unique and keeps me coming back for different reasons.

Recently I have been following Jon’s posts about deliberate practice.  It’s one of his three words along with focus and something else and yes, he knows that makes it four words.  But in his posts around deliberate practice and links to those of others, he mentions that it takes 10,000 hours to be world class at something.  You can go read about that here.  My point (at least the one I’m getting to eventually) is this:  What do you really do with all that stuff you are reading online?


If you read Seth Godin at all and you are even remotely responsible for marketing, building relationships, telling the story within your organization (I know, everyone in the organization is responsible), I was wondering if reading Seth actually changed not just the way you occasionally think, but the way you approach your work?


Chris’ site has evolved into something that I don’t even recognize as what he started in 2006 with 4 comments a post and a heavy dose of Self Improvement.  It is however, immediately recognizable as Chris Brogan.  It’s about value and relationship and breaking things down into manageable chunks and measuring and trying something new with purpose and intention.  For those of you who read Chris, what do you really do with that information?

So, I am wondering.  We have so many passionate, thoughtful, creative, and brilliant individuals producing piles of content emerging from their experience and constant experimentation.  Are you really using this stuff?  Is it changing the way you do approach your world, your business?  I’m just asking.

N.B.  My friend Jon has been thinking about this too and has some suggestions here.

“I’m looking for work”

Today:  snow

I was sitting in my office the other day and through my window saw a gentleman walking around outside our building.  He was in his late fifties and due to the fact that part of the building we are in is empty, he was wandering from door to locked door looking for an entrance.

I saw him approaching our back (locked) staff entrance and so I left my office and went to greet him at the door to see if I could help.

“Hi.  Can I help you?”

“I’m looking for work……I don’t even know what this place is.”

I immediately took everything in.  I looked in his eyes, at his rough, aged skin, his coat and gloves.  I felt the cold air and welcomed him inside. It was -2 degrees outside.  He’s walking from place to unknown place looking for work.

I explained what we did and he knew immediately it wasn’t for him but went on to say that he was really looking for the guy across the street because he had seen some “activity” over there and wondered if they needed help.

I shared what I knew about the business across the street.

“Oh” he said, “I know that place.”

Although it was clear that he didn’t know before I told him.

It was also clear as we talked that he was looking for manual labor of some sort, his rough hands belied the fact that he had relied upon them for years.  Only now…
There is a part of me that wants to write about job search skills and how ill equipped this man was to find gainful employment.

There is a part of me that could talk about learning first about whom you are approaching or proposing better methods than walking from door to locked door of warehouse style buildings looking for work, but I think you might understand that.  It’s not what this was about.

It is about vulnerability and this man’s polite and honest expression of his needs to a complete stranger.  It is about desire and self-reliance on skills that may not be efficient or by any other measure terribly effective.  It is about the idea that someone perhaps will appreciate this direct, honest approach and the expression of a willingness to do anything within his skill set (and I am guessing that it is broad and he, resourceful) to be employed.  Even though it was so far from our norm of inquiry, even though we don’t generally have opportunities that suit his skills at our agency,  I certainly appreciated this direct, honest approach.
I stood with him for a moment and rapidly searched my head for some sort of maintenance work that we may need done (oh, but we have him and him and her already).  I searched my head for names and other businesses to approach (I gave him what I could).

I’m still not sure about the technique, but oddly enough I feel that had I something for him, I would have hired him in a minute.

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