Sunday, May 31, 2009

A teachable point of view

Over my 20+ year business career I have had the chance to work for a wide variety of manager and leaders.  As I mentioned in my previous post "Three impact points of leadership", there is a significant difference in the work of management vs  the work of leadership.  In hindsight, I have had a number of bosses over the years who "got" that truth and maybe a larger number who unfortunately did not.  One such leader who I had the chance to work under and learn from for a few years was Neville Isdell, when he returned to the Coca-Cola Company in the role as CEO and Chairman.

As Neville came back from retirement in 2004, he lead an effort to reinvigorate a large global company and bottling system and re-establish a strategic direction for the future success of the Coca-Cola enterprise all over the world.  In that effort, he gathered a number of executives from around the world to work on what would become a strategic roadmap called "The Manifesto for Growth."  I had the pleasure and honor to be one of those executives at the time and to this day it was one of the most dynamic learning experiences of my career.  I am not going to go into any details about the content or the process of that experience, both of which were unique and inspiring.  What I do want to share is one quick story from one of those meetings that has dramatically altered my view on the role and nature of leaders.

As part of the process I mentioned above, Neville lead a series of meetings/workshops that gathered 125+/- executives from around the world.  The meetings were mentally and physically exhausting, and it felt like the work we were doing was crucial/vital to the future success of the enterprise.  It was at the end of one of those days that there was an open Q&A session where one weary participant asked what seemed like a simple question, "Neville, these meetings would go a lot faster if you just told us what you were thinking and we then could work on how to make that happen".  While I am certain this individual verbalized what was on other's minds, we were all surprised by the intensity of the response.  Neville came up on stage and with a strong voice quickly remarked that he didn't need leaders of Coca-Cola who needed to be told what to do!  He needed leaders with a point of view, no..." a teachable point of view".  Somehow this phrase hung in the air that night and I can still hear it ringing in my ears today.  Leaders with a "teachable point of view"... leaders as teachers.

Now this idea that great leaders should be great teachers doesn't sound very revolutionary.  Since my "epiphany", I have started to see this idea commented on and reinforced in many forums.   One such example is in the area of "Six Sigma/Lean Manufacturing" where there are numerous references to the idea of leader as teacher.  What has been new for me is to think about what makes a great teacher and how can I bring that into the workplace every day.  Think in your mind who some of your best teachers have been from your days at high school, college or graduate school.  As I have done this, a very clear images and memories come to mind.  I then thought about their common traits, their similarities (which is hard when you are thinking about a scottish professor of systematic theology and a southern professor of strategy).  

Here are a few of my reflections:
1.) Competence.  These folks all knew the subject matter/material, deeply!  They knew what they were talking about and didn't have to work very hard so that we students all knew that THEY knew what they were talking about.  
2.) Challenging.  They all set very high expectations both for themselves and clearly for us as students.  Somehow it was those expectations that became OUR expectations for ourselves.  We weren't working hard in a course just for the professor's appreciation, we started doing it for OURSELVES!
3.) Fairness.  Whether we were star students, average performers, or less, we were treated commonly and equitably.  From the grading of exams, feedback on papers, discussions in seminars, we felt that we were all given the same chance/opportunity to learn and succeed.
4.) Availability.  While it was not always as much as some of us needed, my best teachers had time for us students.  Time to ask the silly questions, time to make the naive point, whether in class, in their office, over coffee (or a beer) or in the hall.  We felt like we could be heard.
5.) Student orientation.  My best teachers somehow made it clear that the class wasn't about "them", is was about "us".  Even in times of significant lectures the best teachers would work to draw the students into the lecture, fostering (or sometimes creating) debate to advance "our" learning.

None of these five themes are very unusual, but they ring true for me when I reflect on my best teachers from my past.  What gets interesting is to use these five themes to assess the leadership around you.  If you have the honor to lead teams, how competent are you?  Do you set high expectations?  How fair are you with your team?  etc.  Do you have a "teachable point of view"?  Are you a great teacher?
If you are an individual contributor, are you learning the skills that will allow you to be available to your "class"?  Will you be "student" oriented?  Do you have a "teachable point of view"?  Are you a great teacher?

Let these questions linger as you reflect on your own situation.  Give yourself the freedom to always look for ways to learn, grow, build skills and become a better teacher! 

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Always pursue the truth

In a recent entry, “The story of Lester”, I mentioned a visit from an old friend named Bruce. I commented that he has ALS and that my visit with him was quite an inspiration. Since that entry, Bruce’s disease has sadly progressed dramatically. Over the past few weeks I have spent a number of days with him and his family, trying to help in any way possible. It has been an amazing and inspiring honor to have those moments, and I want to thank Bruce, Sarah and their daughters for allowing me that intimacy and privilege. I will cherish those memories for the rest of my life!
During one of those visits, Bruce had just finished a video that was shared across the company where he has worked for over 25 years. The following are a few themes from his video message, please take a look and think of ways of how to make some of Bruce’s ideas a reality in your life!

Always Pursue the Truth Always Pursue the Truth levisay7349

Monday, May 11, 2009

MaMa's Tomatoes

As I think about all the people who have had an impact on my life (and there are many!) I often think about my paternal grandmother, known to many as "MaMa". My first entry in this blog was about a long ago thanksgiving dinner and an experience that I often think back on today. The entry is entitled "Legacy", go and take a look if you have a second.

Well MaMa was not only an influential person to me an many, she was also a wonderful cook and gardener. Over the years I enjoyed many meals at her table, often laden with homemade rolls, deviled eggs, southern pole beans, and if in season, fresh tomatoes from her garden. One variety that she raised over the years was some sort of yellow tomato that when ripe, took on pink stripes. She would save the seed year to year and over the years, those seeds were passed to my father , my brother and me to propagate season to season. Not of us are certain when MaMa started raising these tomatoes but my father remembers them from when he was young and he was born on 1930.

I have planted those tomatoes in various gardens and cities over the years and have shared the seeds with friends across the country and across the world. Recently I taught a module in my son's 5th grade class focused on family/history/ and botany. We took the seeds that I had saved from last season, planted them into "mini greenhouses" and watched the process of germination up-close. After a few weeks we thinned the seedlings and finally after enough growth, we transplanted the seeds into little pots and all the students (and the teachers) had at least one tomato plant to take home and plant in their own gardens. It was something special for me on my last day in the classroom to see a picture of my grandmother posted on the wall. It made me smile to think of MaMa and all the things she has passed along to so many over the years, including a class of 5th graders in Atlanta!

My lesson from this experience is that we are all affected by many important people in our lives. Whether a parent, a spouse, a boss, a friend, an aunt or a grandmother, we have all learned many "lessons of life" from those that have meant the most to us. My encouragement is to try to find ways to be "generous" with those lessons to others in our lives. Find opportunities to share a story, pass along a recipe, or maybe a few tomato seeds, and in the process continue the chain of finding and sharing ways to make this life better for all!

Below is the prep-sheet that I used with the 5th graders recently, take a look!

Mama's Tomatoes Mama's Tomatoes levisay7349

Saturday, May 2, 2009

The Crease of Dawn

Recently I have had the pleasure to work on a number of very interesting consulting assignments. These assignments have ranged from working on new product launches, sales force redesign, strategic planning, board communications, team meeting facilitation, and executive coaching. One executive coaching project recently took me to work with a client based in Melbourne, Florida. Now I don't know about you, but I had never been to Melbourne until recently. The city is on the east coast of Florida, very near to Cape Canaveral. Upon arriving at the airport (MLB), you are greeted by a sign that welcomes you to the "Space Coast" of Florida.

On my last visit, the schedule called for me to stay overnight and I asked my client for a hotel recommendation. He gave me a few ideas but somewhat offhandedly suggested that since I was from Atlanta and rarely saw the ocean, maybe I might like to stay on the beach. It just so happened that his company had a great rate at a beachfront hotel so very quickly, reservations were made. That day was a busy one, full of discussions and content reviews , that merged pretty seamlessly into a dinner with my client. I want to highly recommend the restaurant, The Yellow Dog Cafe on the Indian River, and the deck is a perfect spot to unwind and work on the problems of the Universe! With that said, I was dropped off that night at around 10 pm at the above mentioned hotel.

After traveling extensively for my work over the past 20+ years, a late night hotel arrival is no new territory. Upon checking into my room, I set my blackberry alarm, plugged in my computer, turned on ESPN, and proceeded to crash for the night. The 5:30 am alarm came and brought me back to life. After a few groggy thoughts wondering what hotel I might be in, I arose to start the little in-room coffee maker. It was at this sleepy moment that I almost made an unfortunate error. Thinking that I had a few hours before I needed to catch the airport shuttle, I began to sit at my computer and begin working on a summary of my past day's work. It was after the second sip of the unassuming in-room coffee that I started to put together a simple logic stream of:

1.) It's before Dawn...... 2.) East Coast of Florida......3.) Beachfront Hotel......

I started to think that if I got my act together, threw on shorts and a t-shirt and got outside, I might be able to watch the sunrise. Leaving my computer idle, I donned my togs and made my way to the beach. Unbelievably, the sky had started to lighten with shades of turquoise, and yellow but as of yet the sun was still well below the horizon. I started to walk up the beach, mostly accompanied my pelicans fishing and sandpipers chasing the waves. Everything was very quiet and still and after 15 minutes or so, I stopped to sit in the sand and watch the "lightshow"! The sky was perfectly clear at the horizon and it was unbelievable to watch the first glint of the sun break the horizon's plane... "the crease of dawn." The awe and beauty of the moment was breathtaking and I sat on that spot in the sand for 20 minutes or so until the entire orb of the sun had entered our skies.

As I walked back to the hotel, completely in the "afterglow show", I was blown away by how close I came to missing an amazingly beautiful moment. How easy it would have been for me to pour that second cup of adequate coffee, work on the computer for an hour or so, and miss the entire experience. How many times have we all "stayed in the room" and missed the amazing experience just outside our doors? My lesson from that recent morning in Florida is to slow down the "normal routine" long enough to look around, remember that life is fleeting, and think if we might be able to see the "crease of dawn" or it's equivalent, just outside our doors.