Archive for Business

South Africa: A Trip in the Making

This is Part I in a series on my experiences in South Africa.

I left for South Africa just three weeks ago, flying from Denver to Frankfurt to Cape Town for a three-week stay. The trip was the zenith of a ten-month journey into the subject of leadership, which I started as part of a sabbatical.

I’ve worked with leaders my entire career, partnering with them and their teams to solve big problems and achieve big goals. In the last few years, I’d noticed that many of the principles that are core to my work – strategic thinking and big vision, broad collaboration and innovative governance, and the idea that working toward the greater good can be profitable in ways a balance sheet can’t count – seem to be gaining traction in our increasingly complex and changing world. I set out on sabbatical, in part, to validate this impression.

The sabbatical would involve travel to a wide range of leadership enclaves: the World
Business Forum
in New York, the Aspen Ideas Festival in the high mountains of Colorado and the Management of Change Conference in Washington DC. But I also hankered for an international component to add a global perspective to my study. Then, on a phone call a month or so into it, the invitation to South Africa was presented.

In that moment, South Africa sounded at the same time ideal and impossible. Ideal because it involved spending a week with world leaders exploring my very topic. Impossible because I had no previous experience of South Africa, no connections to it, and not even much of a desire to go – or at least, not at the time.

The invitation came from the Aspen Institute. It involved joining a group of fellows from the Institute’s global leadership network for a week’s exploration into leading in this age of globalization. An opportunity ideal for me, to which I said yes.

As the months passed, I went on the other trips and heard all kinds of people talking about leadership. Big names like Bill Clinton, Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer, media monarch Arianna Huffington, and many others less well known, but just as passionate and articulate. At each leadership forum, I’d mention South Africa, and from this, the trip began to plan itself. One person led to another and then more,
sprouting opportunities, ideas and connections that steadily grew into an itinerary.

The first week was spent with Aspen Institute in Stellenbosch, famed wine country known for its Mediterranean-like climate. The seminar was hosted by Spier, a wine farm and conference center with an ecological mission. In that spirit, Spier donates land to two conservation projects: a Cheetah protection effort and a Raptor Sanctuary.

During the seminar, we took time out for an excursion to Robben Island, where we toured the island and then the prison in which Nelson Mandela, Robert Sobukwe, and many more anti-apartheid activists were incarcerated up until the early 1990s.

The second week I was in Cape Town, Pretoria and Johannesburg for meetings with prominent South African leaders, whom I interviewed about their road to leadership and their challenges as leaders today. Interspersed with these were various tours, through which I gained a deeper understanding of the rich history and culture of South Africa.

My travel consultant, Sandy Salle of Hills of Africa, provided exceptional tour experiences with guides who were the perfect combination of knowledgeable and personable. Visits to Table Mountain, Cape Point, Kirstenbosch Botanical Gardens, the townships and Constitution Hill in Johannesburg were all memorable and meaningful.

The final week was for safari. Two different bush camps adjacent to Kruger National Park were the base for forays into the wild of wilds, to experience life at its most essential. In just five days, I saw, not only the big five, but many more species ranging in size from dung beetle to leopard to hippopotamus.

Careening down tawny dirt roads through brush as green as green can be, with intoxicating fragrance and the music of a thousand birds filling the air, I felt life’s magic bursting all around me.

And most magical of all was the reminder that, for all humans have accomplished, we are still children of the veld, so vast and mighty it dwarfs us with its presence. Now that’s a leadership lesson worth traveling half way round the world for.


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Secrets of a Fast Learner

One of my clients recently made a quantum leap in her thinking in under an hour. It was stunning.

That got me to thinking about what she did that enabled her to move so fast. You see, it had little to do with the issue (the content) she was dealing with, and everything to do with the way she went about addressing it (the process).

As I broke down each step of her process, I quickly realized that these steps are common to many of my most successful clients. In fact, they’re what you might call “the secrets of fast learners” – and the speed with which you are able to get through a problem, barrier or challenge is directly proportional to how quickly you do them. They are:

1. Get what you need.

2. Release emotional baggage.

3. Grasp the essence of the issue or lesson.

4. Integrate new information.

5. Apply it in real-time to a current situation.

6. Acknowledge your change.

7. Show gratitude for all the above.

In order to make each of these seven steps clear, let me first share a bit about my client’s situation so we can use it to illuminate how she applied each one.

The Story

The client, whom I’ll call Margaret, runs a pioneering small business she founded several years ago. She crossed my mind as I was driving home, prompting me to give her a call. The line was busy, so I hung up. Seconds later, my phone rang – it was Margaret. Turns out she’d been on a call with one of her team having a heated argument.

After a quick hello, Margaret immediately started telling me about it, her words tumbling fast from her mouth. Examples of how this person had a bad attitude and wasn’t doing a good job were punctuated by various self-recriminations. Margaret was clearly agitated, and each example of the staff person’s unwanted behavior only added to her upset.

After a bit, Margaret mentioned that the staff person had threatened to quit, to which I remarked what good fortune that was. Margaret stopped talking. A few seconds later she asked slowly, “Why is that good fortune?” I replied that it sounded like it was time to part ways, and it works out nicely when the person being let go offers to go instead. Margaret then explained that the person had said it in anger and would likely reconsider. I then asked her whose decision it was who worked for her. Again, quiet…and then, as if the answer slowly dawned on her, she said “mine.”

In that moment, Margaret shifted from complaining about the person’s behavior to realizing she had the opportunity to work on a core leadership issue: how to effectively manage a team - one of the key aspects of which is knowing when to let someone go.

The moment Margaret’s frame changed, she was able to see clearly that it was past time to let the person go. With this clarity, she began working through the issues of making it happen. Margaret walked into the future, imagining how she would inform the person, what the next few weeks would be like without the person’s help, and what potential consequences there might be.

The possible backlash is what got her. So, we surveyed Margaret’s concerns about the person’s ability to sabotage, and she soon saw these were fears more about her own insecurities. We worked a bit on those, and she decided that the possible negativity the person might stir up was trivial compared to the energy drain that resulted from keeping the person on the team.

About 30 minutes later, Margaret’s tone had returned to normal, her breath came easily, and she was laughing. She hung up to go take care of the matter.

The Fast Learner Steps

Now let’s look at each step Margaret used to enable her to shift from a resource-less state to a capable one, getting to the heart of the issue, in remarkable time.

1. Get what you need: fast learners don’t sit around stewing over things. Instead, they’re proactive about getting help in learning about it, solving it, or delegating it. They notice problems as opportunities for learning and then bring the learning in, by asking for it, manifesting it, noticing it when it shows up – no matter what form the learning takes.

Margaret knew that she wasn’t at her best on the call and immediately reached out for help; she brought the issue right out, right away.

2. Release emotional baggage: fast learners recognize when their own familiar patterns and stories bring only pain and suffering, and willingly let them go to open space for new experiences and the feeling of curiosity intrinsic to learning.

Margaret didn’t continue venting her emotions about the person and the call, which only caused her more discomfort, but instead noticed how this was a situation she was ready to change.

3. Grasp the essence of the issue or lesson: fast learners watch and listen for key information that helps them with their situation – these “nuggets” stand out for them because they ring true. When they get a nugget, they ask questions to further their understanding, knowing that the nugget holds the gold of new learning.

Margaret heard the words “good fortune” for what they were: a non sequitur to get her attention. She stopped telling her story about the employee to ask what they meant, and then continued to ask questions to get to the heart of her issue.

4. Integrate the new information: fast learners are open to new ways of thinking about something, to new language and metaphors, and begin to explore the new thinking, turning it in their minds using their own analogies and examples as the way to make it their own.

Margaret listened to the idea of the person quitting as good fortune and found the metaphor for herself: her opportunity to learn and to meet the challenge of taking charge of her team. This was indeed her good fortune since it is something she desires to master so she can grow her organization to match her vision.

5. Apply it in real time to a current situation: fast learners put new information into immediate practice in a real situation so that it becomes part of them as quickly as possible. They do this first by using their imagination to “see” how it will go, trying different approaches to find what’s best, and identifying any additional issues to address before acting. Then they act on the new learning, and from this, are able to validate it and internalize it.

Margaret explored the different ways she could let the person go, as well as the consequences of this action. She anticipated issues that could potentially cause her more problems in the future (risk management) and used that information to guide the development of her solution.

6. Acknowledge your change: fast learners acknowledge themselves for the learning accomplished, rather than giving all the credit to something or someone else and becoming dependent on that.

After we hung up, Margaret wrote the email accepting the team member’s resignation. She then wrote me an email reporting her action, including how she felt after doing it. I didn’t suggest this; Margaret did it for herself. Putting accomplishment in writing, especially to someone you have asked to hold you accountable, concretizes it and makes it yours.

7. Show gratitude for all of the above: fast learners are sincere in their gratitude for the ability to transform problems into learning so that it becomes an easy way of life that they can share with others. Gratitude makes a thing precious.

Margaret not only thanked me on our call, but also wrote a testimonial of what she’d learned and how, expressing her appreciation for the process that helped her move out of useless story and into enlivening learning and action. Again, putting this in writing serves to make the experience more real. She created her own diploma.

The Sum Up

This process, when mastered, results in quickly transforming a perceived problem into an opportunity for learning – out of which comes effective action. Think about it: how much time are you wasting getting to your own greatness by stumbling on one or more of the Fast Learner’s seven steps?

Remember, life will always (thank goodness) throw us curve balls, put up apparent barriers, and give us challenges. It’s our job to learn from them, and the faster we do so, the greater our capacity for learning and for achieving great things. The slower we learn, the more our life will feel like it’s stuck in a rut. And, as Ellen Glasgow so pithily wrote, the only difference between a rut and a grave is their dimensions.



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What’s In a Home Page?

Today we launched the new home page of Rebecca Reynolds Consulting (RRC). I wanted to announce it and the blog seemed like a fitting place to do so. And that got me to thinking, what’s in a home page, after all?

It’s one page standing at the front of the line of our website, all newly gussied up to make an impression. Fascinating that.

Behind the RRC homepage – our little digital imprint by which we greet the world - lie who knows how many hours of concepts, drafts, revisions, decisions, code, links and more, waiting in the wings. It takes a Herculean effort indeed, by a team of experts, to bring this single page to view.*

But not so long ago – in the not-so-old days (pre-2000), there were brochures. The trusty tri-fold that gave your tagline and menu of services. This was companioned, of course, by “business papers,” which included a business card and letter set - maybe a presentation folder and an envelope in which to deliver it all. If you were really savvy, you added swag to the mix: pens, hats, and t-shirts emblazoned with your logo.

Way before that, in the real “old days,” was the calling card…evidently, also referred to as the visiting card.

  • “To the unrefined or unbred, the visiting card is but a trifling and insignificant bit of paper; but to the cultured disciple of social law, it conveys a subtle and unmistakable intelligence. Its texture, style of engraving, and even the hour of leaving it combine to place the stranger, whose name it bears, in a pleasant or a disagreeable attitude even before his manners, conversation, and face have been able to explain his social position.         - Our Deportment

Obviously, we have long traded in representations of ourselves that “place the stranger, in a pleasant or a disagreeable attitude even before his manners, conversation, and face have been able to explain his social position.” But today, this idea has exploded.

We are no longer limited by the number of copies and designs we can print, and the “bit of paper” has morphed into a bit (short for binary digit) of information. The proliferation of digital “profiles” (of which the website home page is the dinosaur) includes the giants of social media: Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, and YouTube, the newbies like Google Plus, and the lesser knowns such as AboutMe, Vimeo, Flickr, StumbleUpon, and on and on. Add to these, any shopping, banking, or membership sites and any one person may have scores (perhaps hundreds for the virally virtual) of online presences.

At RRC, we recently did the exercise of assembling ALL our online presences created over the past few years. The number was staggering. And admittedly, seeing them all staring out at me from the PowerPoint my able team member put together made me feel just a bit schizophrenic. What prompted this little exercise was an offhand remark my marketing consultant made to me: “Be sure that all your online presences are in alignment and reinforce one another.”

In the moment, I thought that sounded like solid, fairly obvious advice, but given how many platforms there are for announcing oneself to the world, this is, in reality, far from a trivial matter. In fact, managing one’s online “image” has become a full time job, and the notion that “it conveys a subtle and unmistakable intelligence” is an understatement of gargantuan proportion.

Even so, achieving image alignment across online platforms is a fairly benign effort. In a seminar on the First Amendment I took earlier this year, we discussed the more sinister side: the case of a woman whose reputation was forever sullied by a single, ill-chosen image posted on MySpace. In 2006, this was such a lone incident, it became big news, but now, this is so ubiquitous there are firms that specialize exclusively in image makeovers – online. These specialists work to scrub out the deeply worn tracks of search engines in the hopes of creating pathways to new, more preferable bits of character recognition.

And there is an even more seamy underbelly to this whole thing: our searches and purchases are being snapped up by bots that create aggregated online profiles, unbeknownst to us. A friend recently reported that one day she’d been shopping online for a friend and the next, she found an uncanny digital trail not only of the sites she’d visited with her name connected, but also the links she’d clicked on while there. This is a credit report on steroids, except you don’t get free access to yours once a year. Take a peek at Spokeo for an indication of what your aggregated profile could include.

So, what to make of all this?

There are as many takes on this as there are people: some could care less and chalk it up to the progress of humanity; others are sounding the alarm bells about Big Brother; some take great care to hide from the online search monster; others flash a bright light directly into its eyes to ensure its attention. For those on the receiving end of the information and who profit by it, there is great glee. For those regulating or competing with (or attempting to) the Giant of Search (if you have any question about what this refers to, you are in a category all your own), there’s a lot of, for the most part, fruitless complaining and litigation.

I have yet to come to my own definitive position on all this. Although, I am more keenly aware than ever that behind the RRC home page lies more than mere ideas and hypertext. In the ether, I am creating a record that is, not only complete and exacting, but in all likelihood, permanent. And unlike the calling cards of old, that served as a polite prelude to a real person complete with “manners, conversation, and face,” this record, for most, will be all that is ever known of me. We are a long way from that elegant bit of paper, placed on a silver tray.

But if this thought is sobering, there is another that provides a measure of comfort. The digital ether is very much, if not exactly, like the Karmic or Akashic Records of spiritual tradition or the idea of the Universal Mind - basically, the repository of every mental, emotional and physical act, no matter how insignificant, and not just of this life, but for all eternity. Isn’t it amazing how we persist in creating in very real terms what many have taken as the metaphors of mystics and esoteric thought?

And, who knows? Digital karma just might turn out to be a very good thing.


*RRC’s Herculean website team: Design by the talented Matt Keever ( and transformation of art into bits by the amazing webmaster Bill Witt .


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Internship by Design

Fresh out of college 25 years ago, I walked into the makeshift offices of a three-year-old nonprofit, and told them I wanted to work there. Of course, no jobs were open. I told them I’d work three days a week for three months for free, but they’d need to cover my bus fare. If they didn’t want to hire me after that, I’d leave. They agreed.

At the end of the 90 days, guess what happened? They created a position for me that launched my career.

In these tight economic times, internships like the one I had at the nonprofit are a really smart strategy. Here’s why.

  • On the company side: interns add to people power, but for a fraction of the cost of an employee or contractor and without the same risk. Plus, the company gets all the passion, energy and tech literacy of the younger generation, while being able to develop the intern to fit the company’s culture and needs.
  • On the intern side: gaining job experience, making contacts, and exploring and developing your skills and interests are all benefits. Even better though, this is the opportunity to create the job of your dreams. In a time when increasing numbers of college graduates are, for the first time, not in the position of finding a job, but rather will need to create one, this is awesome news.

But just last week, I heard the Executive Director of a major local nonprofit lamenting that their internship experience was not effective: not for the company or for the intern. That got me thinking. RRC’s experience has been the exact opposite – why is that?

To figure it out, I sat down with RRC’s first intern, Ellen McCormick*, and we came up with the following secrets to internship success.

Key Secrets

1. Have a Plan. A common mistake with internship programs is that they really aren’t. In other words, something is slapped together to post on an intern website and the job is considered done. Instead, the key to success is having a plan for it. This means thinking of an intern very much like an employee, with goals and needs that can be anticipated. Only more so. An intern is in the work world likely for the first time, so not only are they learning your office culture, they’re learning to work in an office.

  • One question I was asked after more than a month in was: “Is it alright to eat at my desk?” It pained me to think how long the young woman hadn’t known it was just fine. We immediately revised the Team Handbook to include this and other more basic office protocol.

2. Internships are for learning. Another common mistake is treating an intern either too much like an employee or too much like a volunteer. In fact, the intern is a breed of its own. An internship is primarily about learning, so creating an environment in which learning is encouraged and supported is key to success – both for the intern and the company.

  •  We deliberately ask what the intern enjoys doing, is good at, and wants to learn, and then design the scope of work to fit. Assuredly, there is a fair share of errands and filing in the mix, but we want the intern to have work of substance that they enjoy and learn from so they become vested in it.

3. Great learning requires a mentor. Interns, like employees but so much more, need strong supervision. This doesn’t mean harsh correction or micro managing, but it does mean regular and consistent check-ins and solid feedback. It also means creating space for mistakes, from which some of the very best learning is done.

  • We use a simple weekly update form and show our interns how to use it. This way they take the initiative with their supervisor for reporting their week’s work and forecasting their plans for the next. We get to see their thinking, their ownership and their ability to sum up and plan, all key indicators of the kind of employee they will be.

4. Everyone needs a challenge. If internships are all about learning, then creating opportunities for stretch milestones is essential. An intern signs up for a period to learn – the demonstration of that learning, both to the company and to the intern herself, is the culmination of it.

  • We watch our interns carefully to determine when they are ready for a challenge, and design the experience based on their skills, ability level and goals. Each intern’s stretch is unique. We help them prepare and then let them fly – it is a glorious thing to see them do what, just weeks before, was impossible.

5. Incentivize with acknowledgment and reward. In any work place, but especially in the learning environment of an intern, generating interest in success, both personal and corporate, is key. We find that people become interested the more they are acknowledged in the ways they recognize. Some people like parades and plaques, others like time off, and some yearn for travel. Give what is meaningful.

  • We use an intern information form that includes what types of acknowledgment they prefer. This way, the notion that the intern will perform in ways deserving of acknowledgment is a given. It’s only a matter of when.

In Summary

Internships are as rewarding for the company and the intern as both choose to make them. The company is in the lead on this, and should develop a clear plan, communicate in advance, and give supportive feedback, early and often.

If a company can have more than one intern at a time, or even a whole incoming class of them, this is terrific as it creates synergy and support among the interns for an accelerated learning environment – also, a little competition never hurts!

On the intern’s side, a little moxie and initiative is a good thing. Don’t be shy about asking for what you want to make your internship experience meaningful. Remember, the nonprofit I approached had no internship program, so I offered them the terms of one. Also, a flexible and open attitude are a huge help – companies appreciate those who can “roll with the punches,” and who make getting the coffee an adventure in service!

Finally and most importantly, the best internships, just like all relationships, are based in a strong values alignment between the company and the intern. Find the intern(s) and the internship that feel like a good fit by doing your homework, asking a lot of questions, and paying attention to the information that is not on paper. Who knows, you could just end up with the job and employee of your dreams!


*Ellen McCormick, an English grad from Colorado College, joined RRC as a generalist intern. Now she is RRC’s social media administrator, managing ten platforms, aiding in content ideas and their development, and staying abreast of new trends through regular research. Her job didn’t exist when she started. For her internship story, click here

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Hot Off the Press: “All About Governance”

A while back, I wrote about net neutrality, and my team and I wondered whether it belonged on my professional blog – covering leadership, strategy, collaboration, and governance topics – or if it was better suited to the personal one. Intuitively I felt it should go here. But it wasn’t until I created my online journal on governance that the reason came clear: net neutrality is essentially a governance issue.

All About Governance is a journal I started a few months ago to help me keep tabs on how we’re talking and thinking about governance, and in what areas. The journal monitors a broad range of international news organs, pundits and popular perspectives I’ve chosen to give me a view of the world. These are then filtered by “governance” as well as related subjects such as collaboration, leadership, and decision-making.

The journal has proved to be a highly efficient tool for assimilating a lot of information, from which I am able to identify larger themes and trends. One of these is that governance is playing an increasingly important role in many of today’s big issues – from net neutrality to Arab Spring to the debt ceiling debacle to education reform and more. The underlying trend of all these issues is toward greater participation, transparency, and accountability in decision-making, which challenges existing governance.

Common to these issues is also a call for adaptable, learning governance systems that are responsive to varying timeframes (emergencies to 100 years or more).  And for governance that can open to bring in more information and ideas when needed, and close in so a few highly capable and accountable decision-makers can deftly handle situations well-understood and of critical importance. And in either case, decisions must be monitored for results, and decision-makers must communicate their decisions and be held accountable for them. This is what governance can be designed to do.

But something else All About Governance has reminded me is that governance is still a tricky topic. For something playing so powerful a role, there is way too much confusion over what exactly governance is, how it affects us and what we can do about it.

As I read All About Governance, I notice “governance” is still often used interchangeably with “government” or even “governing.” And, perhaps because governance is the underpinning of both, it tends to get overlooked. Leadership’s lack of agility, both in identifying governance as the source of a problem and in redesigning it for optimal effectiveness, leads only to more problems. Our rapidly changing times demand high level governance acuity among leaders.

Toward this end, I am making All About Governance available to you.

We plan to publish All About Governance each week on the RRC Facebook page as well as on Twitter. This way, you can easily join me in viewing world events as they relate to and are affected by governance. For more direct and timely access, please feel free to subscribe to All About Governance and it will be delivered daily to your inbox.

Do join me in reading All About Governance. As a leader, can you afford not to? I look forward to your insights and comments.

What’s Hospitality Got to Do with It?

Collaboration’s time has come. And it’s time to get everyone, not just talking about it,
but really good at doing it. Collaboration isn’t a set of tech tools or an ideal. It’s a verb – something we do. And we can do it well or really poorly. What makes the difference? The answer might surprise you: hospitality.

What’s hospitality got to do with it, you may wonder. Everything.

The simple concept of hospitality is the foundation of collaboration. By “collaboration” I mean convening – whether in government, business, or community, in person, on the phone or online – a group of people, diverse in background and perspective, toward a common purpose. The supposition is that the people being convened are in some way unknown to each other: either actual strangers meeting for the first time or at least people who have among them unknown, foreign or differing perspectives. It is to this meeting of strangers that hospitality speaks.

Abraham Offering Hospitality

The concept of hospitality comes to us from ancient times when people depended on each other in a way we don’t as much today, at least not in the developed world. There were far fewer of us then and there were great distances between our encampments. Travel was arduous, dirty and dangerous, making hospitality not merely a matter of kindness, but also of survival.

Strangers arriving at your door was not an uncommon event, and hospitality dictated how you treated them. Welcome with a bath, food, and drink, a place to sleep – this kind of hospitality seems extreme and is unthinkable for most of us today. And yet, its vestiges still hold as our protocol for overnight company and in hotels the world over.

Although the concept of hospitality has equivalents in all ancient languages, the English word comes from the Latin hospes. Interestingly, hospes refers both to the host and to the guest, as does the Greek counterpart xenos. This ambiguity of the term still exists in modern derivatives of Latin, for example, the Italian word ospite. I remember when I first lived in Italy 20 years ago this confused me plenty: was I invited to the party or to host the party? The root of my confusion was, of course, my mother tongue, which divides the concept: host (from hospes) and guest (from the German gast, meaning stranger). I remember vaguely wondering why the Italians suffered under this confusion, thinking that they must somehow be bereft of vocabulary.

Today, hospitality has come to signify more of a nicety than a necessity. And yet, there is a renewed need for it. The technology of travel means that we can get anywhere pretty much any time, and the technology of information means we can do so virtually in seconds. The borders of our encampments, both geographical and ideological, constantly bump up against each other now, bringing new resonance to the notion of hospitality. We are being called to apply hospitality to the entryways, not just of our homes, but of our hearts and minds. Collaboration begins here.

Collaboration is hospitality on steroids. If you’re the convener, it’s as if a caravan of travelers has descended on your doorstep, and what’s more, you invited them. And there’s something you need from them, so making sure they feel welcome, they’re clear about the purpose of the visit, and how they’re going to get their needs met are all essential to a genial, productive relationship. The adept collaboration convener plans for these logistics well before any of the participant guests arrive (see more on this here).

In the same way ancient hospitality ritualized the treatment of strangers in the
home, collaboration calls for ritual that welcomes strange opinions and foreign modes of self-expression in the conversation. The ritual itself signals the participant that “strangers” are indeed welcome. And like all ritual, it is the attitude behind it that endows its meaning. Anyone can go through the motions of hospitality, but it is the feeling of the open heart that makes us know we are welcome. Collaboration is ultimately defined by this.

But there’s another important dimension of hospitality at work today that takes us further into territory useful for collaboration. The Latin hospes is formed
from hostis, which meant “to have power,” and the Online Etymology Dictionary gives the literal translation of “host” as “lord of strangers.” Where the ancients took for granted the roles of guest and host as sacrosanct in the ritual of hospitality, today we push against such conventional relationships.

Jacques Derrida, originator of deconstruction, put this hospitality power dynamic into sharp relief for us. What Derrida saw was that hospitality is a paradox: what makes hospitality possible is ultimately what makes it impossible. If being hospitable requires that someone has the power to host, which means, in some measure, the ability to control the guest, then, says Derrida, this control is, in fact, inhospitable. On the other hand, if hospitality means the host is obligated to welcome without rules or boundaries whoever arrives (say, a complainer, or worse, a thief or harm doer), then the host is stripped of the very power and control that makes hospitality possible.

Derrida’s reasoning is, I think, instructive for collaboration as well. If I convene a
collaborative process and act as host by creating the rules and protocols by which the “guests” will participate, haven’t I taken control, thereby constricting the participants and undermining the very goal of collaboration itself? The goal being an interaction of equals toward a shared creation. And if, on the other hand, the convener does not act as host, does not develop and maintain process rules and governance, thereby causing chaos or a survival-of-the-fittest contest of wills among the participants, won’t many feel disenfranchised and leave? And again, the goal of collaboration is unrealized.

Derrida’s hospitality paradox – and the peril of collaboration - lies in the apparent power struggle between the host and guest (convener and participant, in collaboration). It’s as if these roles sit opposite each other on a set of scales, with things weighted all on one side or the other. But the key to their balance is, for me, found in the, well, ambidextrousness of the ancients’ language.

The fact that the same word (hospes, xenos) represents both roles may not signify a dearth of vocabulary as I once thought, but rather a deep understanding of the very nature of hospitality itself. The ambiguity instructs me that guest and host are but two sides of the same coin, interchangeable among us. No one is always host and no one is always guest, no one always in control and no one always compliant.

Hospitality is the proscribed ritual for bringing strangers together well. The roles of host and guest are part of this ritual, but they are simply a means to the ultimate end of what hospitality intends. The key again comes from the ancients’ language. Hospes is the root of, not only hospitality, but also hospital and hospice. What these have in common, more than tending to the ill or a protocol for doing so, is the way that’s done. This is the essence of hospes: Caring for people.

It is the caring then that enlivens the ritual created for bringing people together
well and that acts as the fulcrum for the role of host on one side and that of
guest on the other, tempering the extremes of each. Caring is both the underlying method and the intended outcome of hospitality.

The same is true for collaboration. Caring for each other in the process of collaboration, and caring for the higher purpose to which we all are invited as the ultimate outcome of it is the foundation of collaboration done well. As conveners, if we will remember this and let it guide our role as host, our participant guests will do what humans do in a hospitable environment: enjoy and learn from each other. Great things come from this and it is within our grasp.

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Getting to Sabbatical

My father’s PhD in history made me aware of the concept of sabbatical early in life. The only one he ever took was due to a Fulbright that enabled us to live in Paris for a year. It was grand. I was three.

I’ve used the word “sabbatical” now and then. It’s a word I like. It has a big fat history behind it – Greek, Hebrew and Latin all have antecedents. It’s a word essentially about rest. Cease planting the ground every seventh year, rest after making the world on the seventh day, leave work on one of the seven days of the week: divine instruction about the idea that everything needs a break from activity and routine for rest, reflection and renewal.

But in our modern lexicon, the word sabbatical has grown narrow and sits on the high shelf of academia. Tenured professors, after much labor and achievement, earn one: time away from professorial duties, bestowed by their dean, to renew their scholarship. To sit in the quietude of the mind, whether on a beach or in a dusty archive, and deepen one’s intellectual grasp of the world is an idea that makes intuitive sense to me. However, I wouldn’t have said the word “sabbatical” applied to me; I wouldn’t have presumed.

And then on an airplane flying to a client last summer, I was reading Hemispheres magazine and came across at least two articles with the same theme. They described people who’d achieved striking success in different professions and who’d elected to close up their businesses in order to re-invent their work – in order to come up with something entirely new.

“It happened one step at a time,” Randall Grahm says. “One day I discovered I was in charge of an organization that was so convoluted and Borgesian in its complexity that it was beyond out-of-control.” Still, had he produced any truly distinctive wine? That was the question he began to ask himself…The answer was no. “I don’t think I have made a deep contribution yet.” So he sold off two high-volume brands and spun off his Riesling brand into its own business. Then he took a gamble on his plan to create a vineyard of hybrids straight out of The Island of Dr. Moreau.


Spanish chef/guru Ferran Adria blanched the culinary world when he announced he would be shutting down his revered restaurant, El Bulli, for two years starting in 2012…”People wonder, if El Bulli is where everyone wants to go and if we are winning all the prizes, why change?” says the 47-year-old Adrian…”We’ve spent the last 25 years creating something new every year, but working 15 hours a day leaves us very little time to create.”

The articles remarked on the boldness, the audacity of this decision. I remember thinking, right – how can one re-invent when one is so busy doing what one does? What other choice is there but to close up shop? To take a sabbatical.

In the talk I gave my clients that week, I used the articles as a way of contextualizing our work. The client had recognized a serious dysfunction in one of its key business support areas worth about $2B, and made the bold decision to charter this group to figure it out. The work was grueling at the beginning: looking squarely at the problem and discovering that it lay at the feet of badly outdated cultural norms and processes. No easy fix. But the group persevered and was coming out the other end, with the light of possibility shining on them. And this happened because they were willing to take time out - to step away from the day-to-day, to sit for long hours in an unglamorous room with strangers, peering deeply into the face of problem.

Courtesy of Sivananda Yoga Vedanta Dhanwanthari Ashram

It is my work to be a companion on these journeys, a kind of Sherpa to help my clients navigate the shadowy terrain of uncertainty as they reinvent the new. This is a tremendous journey to experience, whether in an individual or an organization. And I saw that this too is a kind of sabbatical: a rest from routine to re-envision the work, in the fullness of the context of their world, and to rekindle both meaning and relevance. And to be clear: although sabbatical does imply rest, it does not mean inaction.

The act of ceasing what one knows to voyage into the yet unknown of the new takes both great courage and great confidence. Yes, audacity. What if all that looking amounts to nothing? What if the grand re-visioning ends up right back where one started? What if nothing can actually change? Choosing sabbatical in the face of those fears is exactly wherein lies the beauty, the risk, the sheer mysticism of the practice.

As Chef Adria says, “There are no references. That’s the magical part. That’s the challenge.” And Grahm wrote in a blog post just today about his nervousness in calling his vin de terroir quest a spiritual journey.

But sabbatical is fundamentally an act of faith. Faith in oneself, in the group, in the process. Faith in the divine instruction that just by quieting, stepping off the busy-ness loop and contemplating the situation at hand will produce something new.

There is a lot of talk about doing, getting on with it, stopping the chatter and actually getting something accomplished. I am all for that. I am also for stopping now and again to consider “is all the doing working?” To ask “have things changed such that we should re-think it?”  What would a whole new take on the situation mean? What would happen if you rekindled your passion; what then could you do from the engine of your heart?

We have a long history of those who took sabbatical and accomplished greatness: Christ’s 40 days in the desert brought him full on into his calling; Buddha stepped all the way out of his life, never to return and achieved the highest level of human mastery; Gandhi took respite from his activism for deep self reflection, which he described in his autobiography, giving us a kind of manual for how. And more and more, I see people today, like Adria and Grahm, and organizations, like my clients, who are taking this same path. The quiet path of reflection, the active path of inactivity, from which renewal and reinvention are born.

My narrow child’s view, the three-year-old’s story of a father with a Fulbright – that sabbatical is something bestowed rather than chosen – veiled for me what is so obvious. Sabbatical is part of life, whether we are given it, take it for ourselves, or are somehow painfully thrust into it by circumstance. The cycle of work and rest, going out into the world and coming back, of doing and reflecting, is as natural as breath, rising and falling. But too often, rather than celebrating the opportunity and the fruit that comes of it, we worry. Worry that it will be for naught, that we will be embarrassed, that we shouldn’t be doing it, that whatever place we left will no longer be there when we return (Odysseus taught us about this). And that worry robs us of the very gift of sabbatical itself.

And I thought, it is time for a different choice. It’s time to reclaim sabbatical for us all, as a grand and ancient way of life. Time to recall the divine wisdom that says every individual, every organization, everything needs time out for reflection, for renewal, and in the stillness of inaction – or a different kind of action, to re-find meaning. And this is so we can bloom again, fuller and richer than before.

So now, I use the word freely, knowing how fortunate, august, and accessible the thing called sabbatical is. It is indeed a divine call; our first step is to heed it.


The July 2010 issue of Hemispheres included the articles The Grape Nut by Edward Lewine and The Thinker by S. Indramalar.


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Give Me Relevance or Give Me Death

Lately, I’ve had a few conversations with people whose organizations are going through a not uncommon, but often painful and sometimes even terminal, phenomenon: questioning their relevance, their place in the world.

Even as I type those words they feel heavy. There is weight to the idea that a thing, once useful and full of life and purpose, is now struggling. The warning signs are clear: fewer dollars, programs that aren’t working, staff attrition and low morale, confusion over mission and leadership apathy. Look around. Things may even look dreary: piles of boxes and papers strewn about, too much furniture crowding the space, faded posters hanging askew.

The weight may have to do with grief over the loss of something once great; it may be about the lack of energy to face the situation; it may be because this time in organizations is metaphorical for something we also experience as individuals.

Think of Death of a Salesman, Arthur Miller’s 1949 play. It epitomizes the sheer torture of what losing relevance, one’s place in life can mean. It is one of the most brutal plays I know, and everyone should see it. Once. For my part, I will never, ever see it again because I am too afraid I’ll jump up on stage and shake the living daylights out of Willy Loman. Yell at him to wake up, to get him to see that he has choices, and they are way beyond what he has known. Poor Willy. There weren’t any coaches or transition consultants in his day.

Enter the good news: today we know that the phenomenon of declining relevance is part of a natural cycle, like the seasons. All living things, including people and organizations – for profit, nonprofit, and governments - traverse through stages in life. These stages of growth, maturity, harvest and repose may take place over different time spans (months, years, even eons – remember the dinosaurs?), but they are inevitable. And seasoned leaders are seasoned because they have learned to watch for the symptoms, the harbingers of each, and to act in accord.

Without such seasoned leadership, the first of these stages is usually the most uncomfortable in an organization. Each stage comes as a surprise, throwing people into a reactive mode rather than a responsive one. On one end of the cycle are start-ups. Many more start-ups fail than make it because the people running the start-up fail to recognize and anticipate the symptoms, have no plan for addressing them, and otherwise are as spring green as their organizations are.

On the other end of the seasonal spectrum, an organization (or an industry, a sector or even a nation) that’s been around for a substantial amount of time and achieved relative success, even major success, may begin to experience signs of decline. If this is the first time this has happened, leadership is often confused by what’s going on and may or may not even be willing to name it. The more seasoned leaders utter the word “relevance.” The bold ones look it square in the eye and start getting creative (Steve Jobs is the stunning example of this kind of bold creativity at work).

Relevance is a great word. It stands for currency in the world. Does the organization do something, make something, serve something that is currently recognized and needed? Does it do this in a way that people respond to, that works now? Relevance is not about resting on our laurels. We once could have been the greatest thing since sliced bread (or Polaroid or Blockbuster), but now is what counts.

The key to relevance is knowing that it is all about currency, all about the NOW. And for this reason, everything, every organization has a shelf life. The question then becomes, how do we recognize the signs before we are obsolete? And what will we decide to do when those signs are in our sights?

How do we recognize the signs? Should we wait until the catastrophic ones like apathy, attrition and bankruptcy are looming? Of course not. The best way to see the signs is to develop a regular process for taking a look, for assessing institutional viability in the marketplace. Most organizations do this to some degree. Combine this with a regular process for looking out into the world, to watch for shifting trends that may affect your business, and now leadership can effectively maintain a course for continued relevance.

Then, when the signs are in our sights, what are we willing to do? Is leadership willing to act on the signs, swiftly and decisively? Are they willing to do what it takes, to reinvent the organization, if called for? This could mean shutting down a major part of the business or opening a new one on the other side of town or the other side of the world. It might mean giving away a whole line of products to ensure the continued vibrancy of the core business. (Sound familiar? Google does this.) It might even mean shutting things down altogether. If relevance is so threatened, is it better to choose death or to go down by increments, painfully, publicly, perhaps even infamously? (Circuit City comes to mind.)

I suggest choosing death, remembering that death too, is part of the cycle. Willy Loman killed himself, and maybe, in the end, it was his best choice. I like to think that, with a little (ok, a lot) of coaching and perhaps some skills development, Willy could have reinvented himself. But unlike Willy, in the case of organizations, even death isn’t final. It can result in rebirth, in a new beginning toward relevance, even greatness.

How’s Your Relationship with Risk?

At a conference I attended last month (blog post on it here), the keynote contained this nugget: the need for leadership to transform the relationship with risk. My ears pricked up as I wrote it down. I wondered how many other people heard it, registered it, wondered what it might mean? I noticed it because it gets right at how I think about leadership.

A leader without a vision is like a carpenter without wood. And we all know, having the wood doesn’t make a carpenter, making something from the wood does. For someone to be a leader, he or she must first have a vision, and then, make substantial progress toward it, if not achieve it in full. That progress is made by leading others to join in, to see the glory the vision holds, to believe it is possible and to make it so.

A vision is (or should be) something grand, luminous, audacious, perhaps even seemingly impossible. In fact, many of the very best visions teeter on the edge of insanity (and some even topple right off!) “Are you crazy? That will never happen.” A vision stands in the face of the naysayers, taunting them and inspiring others to do the extraordinary.

How about the dream of a country where race didn’t separate people at a time when schools, restaurants, buses, every facet of daily life was drawn by this line? Or the vision of a sovereign France and leading her countrymen to win it at a time when England ruled handily over the land, and men didn’t take orders from girls?  And centuries before, the idea of a round earth when everyone else’s world was, and would remain for a very long time, flat. These visions were “out there.” And an interesting paradox is that the more out there a vision is – in other words, the more it differs from what currently exists – the more likely it is to inspire us.

What makes such vision possible? What enables some people to reach way beyond conventional wisdom, the norm, see far into future time, into what humanity will become, and lead us there? One important part of the equation is their relationship with risk.

This relationship is both an essential element of leadership’s ability to conceive a worthy vision and the ingredient that makes for how far leadership will get in achieving it. Too much risk aversion makes for lousy, uninspiring vision, or for overly cautious steps that take forever. Too little attention to risk, on the other hand, makes for flying blindly into the fire and being burned before anything much happens.

So, what is the meaning  of “transforming leadership’s relationship with risk?” Transform it how?

  • Does it mean get over risk? Stop being stymied by it? We have big problems in this world; we need big visions to address them and an aversion to risk results in winnowing vision down to so many tiresome to do lists.
  • Does it mean pay more heed to risk? Use it to curb our impulsive activity? We are so busy and so apt to leap to solution before we truly understand the scope of the problem, let’s use risk as an assessment tool to focus our action on what is truly important.
  • Does it mean get really good at identifying and managing it? “The times they are a changing” is the new normal, and we need experts at identifying risk and managing the unexpected as a matter of routine.

The answer is it means all of them.

The thing about risk is that it’s relative. One person’s risk is another’s walk in the park. If your leadership is lackluster, tending more toward a commute than a discovery of the unknown, you may be too risk averse, and your transformation is to move toward risk with more congeniality, even appetite. If your leadership style drives you toward many exciting opportunities all at once, while driving your team to distraction, your challenge may be to learn to use risk as an assessment tool that focuses activity with laser-like precision. And if you find yourself hanging solo and rope-less from a cliff, sweat loosening your grip, your work may be to stop dismissing risk and learn its value in developing strategy.

There are also different kinds of risk: risk of life and limb, risk of failure, of public ridicule, of wasted time and energy, of someone else getting there first. When you travel abroad, are you more concerned about getting sick, spending more than you budgeted, or not having as good a time as your friends who went last year? Knowing your risk awareness (what you consider risky and what you do not) and your risk tolerance (the level or amount of risk you can endure without compromising effective functioning), provides a valuable starting point for transforming your relationship with risk.

And risk changes according to context. Not only are there different kinds of risk, there are situations in which some risk is higher or more threatening than in others. An Everest summit expedition presents different types of risk than opening a new division overseas or developing national policy on climate change. This is one of the reasons why leadership can be off-the-charts amazing in one situation and a dismal failure in another. Are you considering the right risks given the context in which you are leading?

Whatever your particular relationship with risk, know that it is a defining factor in your ability to lead. It determines the scale of your vision and how far you’ll get in achieving it. It affects how you see and deal with those you lead (people more risk averse than you seem timid, and people less so, crazy). And the same principles hold true for leadership teams and organizations.

So, if you’re headed into leadership, learning about your relationship with risk and working to transform it to full advantage is really a darn good idea.

Sincere thanks to Dr. Jorge Haddock for putting the idea into his keynote.

Collaboration: What to do about Politics and Power Plays?

What makes the difference between a collaboration that results in brilliant, new thinking and the ugly opposite: more entrenched, polarized, stuck thinking? One of my readers asked me recently, how do you deal with politics and power plays in collaboration? This is such a great question because it gets at the heart of exactly what makes the difference.

Let’s start by looking at what “politics and power plays” are. Simply put, they are some of the ways people get what they want. They are the way some people work when a clear, open process to get what they want doesn’t exist.

The more vested someone is, the more important it is to them to know how to influence decisions that affect them. And the more extreme their behavior will become in contexts where this is unclear, inaccessible or both. We want to be heard, and if it’s important enough, you and I will go to extreme lengths to be so, even if we look manipulative, rude or downright crazy to everyone else.

Every one of us has experienced areas of life where the way things work is murky, overly complex, and badly (if at all) communicated. Think neighborhoods, schools, municipalities, banking, the office, the tax code, even the produce section at your local grocery store – who is deciding produce selection and what criteria are they using, anyway? Do you take what you can get, or try to influence the process through the suggestion box or a visit to the manager? And if that doesn’t work, do you take your business elsewhere, throw your weight around, or jump up on your soap box?

So, if we all have the capability of extreme tactics to get what we want, what hope is there for collaboration? When we want to use collaboration to get something important done, like develop a plan for sustainable water use, or design and implement a major fundraising event, or develop new office policy around flex time? Won’t these efforts be killed every time by politics, power plays or people just giving up?

The hope comes from understanding these dynamics, what causes them and what to do about them. First, those managing the collaborative process need to remember that people come to the table because they care. They want something. And that’s a good thing. Second, since we want and need vested people in the room, we should anticipate that for them to participate in a productive, effective way (instead of resorting to more extreme behaviors like power plays) they need to understand a few key things:

  1. the scope of the collaboration – what is being addressed and, just as important, what is not?
  2. the role of those involved in the collaboration – is it to frame the issue, to develop recommendations on it, to provide expert knowledge, or…?
  3. the governance process – how will the issue(s) ultimately be decided (what, who, when)?

So, at the beginning, these questions are carefully considered and decided. Let me emphasize: this work happens well in advance of the start of the collaborative effort. These are NOT issues to “wing it” on or to address as you go! Then, communicate the decisions (referred to a “process parameters” or “rules of engagement” or whatever term best fits your situation) as an explicit part of the invitation to participants. Surprisingly, most people are pleased to see that this has been thought through.

Next, re-emphasize the process parameters at the first session, and at all subsequent sessions as needed (e.g., when the collaboration is open and new people come each time, review at each meeting is essential). And all while the collaboration process is underway, it must adhere to the scope, role and governance process as decided. This may seem terribly obvious, but the number of times I have seen people transgress their own process (scope of work, bylaws, charters, job descriptions, etc.) is both stunning and remarkably self-defeating.

People can accept rules and parameters, which are essential to well-functioning group process, but not if they change without warning or reason. And disregarding them wholesale is even worse.  Managing the collaborative process in a way that honors agreements is exactly like a personal relationship: people trust people who do what they say they will.

And this trust is fundamental to achieving great things from collaboration. It’s simple: if people are always worrying about how something is getting done (process), they have less energy to focus on what is being done (content). In collaboration, the goal is to get the collaboration participants fully engaged in the content so that great outcomes can result. The more participants distrust or don’t understand the process, the more they will focus on it – with some people resorting to those negative behaviors that cause collaboration to fail. In countless such efforts, I have experienced the most seemingly aggressive and manipulative participants shift to invaluable members of the team simply because they come to trust the process.

By the way, this is not to say that process parameters can’t change – in multi-year collaborations, there is often a need to re-think them: scope may need to expand or contract, roles shift, governance change. When this occurs, giving participants the heads up well before changes are made and the opportunity to give input is the way to maintain credibility.

In summary, politics and power plays, as well as other challenging behaviors, show up in collaborative processes when there is:

  1. lack of clarity about the scope and intent of the collaboration
  2. lack of clarity about the roles and other process parameters of the collaboration
  3. weak or ineffective adherence to process parameters during collaboration

The good news is that, understanding this, you can see unwanted behavior not as a threat or failure, but as a terrific signal that it is time to re-look at and/or re-clarify these. And remember, basic sincerity about all of this goes a long way in repairing any mis-steps.

For a follow-up piece to this one on addressing challenging behavior in collaborative process, see The Gift of the Skeptic.