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A View of Ubuntu

After three weeks in South Africa, the last of which I’d spent on safari near Kruger National Park, I flew to Johannesburg where I had a layover of a few hours before my flight back to the states. I’d scheduled to meet a friend at an airport café.

Even after just a week, the re-entry into teeming, jostling, noisy humanity was overwhelming.  So I scouted a table in an empty area opposite the cafe, where I could easily spot my friend’s arrival and also regain my equilibrium. As I took my seat, I saw a phalanx of people passing by on what I realized was a main artery of the airport.

Just come from long, quiet days in a game drive truck, the silent observer in me was still in service. So my instinctive choice of a seat next to a large white column that offered some cover made sense, allowing me to gaze at the crowd without being noticed.

Such variety marched before me – people in ones and twos, in groups dressed in matching uniforms (airport personnel and sport teams) and even costumes. People with dark skin and braided hair, people with lined faces, people with fair skin and hats. And the sounds – people laughing and shouting in Zulu and English and Afrikaans as they flung by, others with eyes darting about mumbling in Japanese or Italian, and some shuffled mutely as though lost.

It looked like the world parading by, the world of humans, that is. And I pondered the difference between this observation and that from the game drive truck. I noticed that in looking at my own species, I easily picked out unique individuals, as compared to when I looked upon a herd of zebras or elephants, who more or less looked the same. Watching a herd of elephants, or even following a lone leopard through the bush, I was really only aware of the species in general. And for the most part, each species hung out with its own.

One notable exception was the vervet monkeys and the impala, which we came across in a sunny meadow one afternoon. It struck me then that this was one of the few times I’d seen two separate species markedly together. The ranger explained that they join for protection – the monkeys have the advantage of tree-climbing heights to watch for predators, whereas the impala have incredible ears to listen for them. This kind of cooperation was remarkable because it’s rare.

Back at the airport, I realized I could see in two ways – the usual way of seeing people one by one, noticing the color of hair, of shirt, of shoe, but also the safari way, seeing all as one swarming herd of a single species. And in this view, the idea of ubuntu came to me.

We’d discussed ubuntu in the leadership seminar I took during my first week in South Africa. Our conversation was based on Archbishop Desmond Tutu’s essay on the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), where he explains the concept. After apartheid, South Africans had to decide how to deal with its aftermath – what legal process would be used to reach justice? Consideration of the options (criminal courts like those at Nuremberg or general amnesty) resulted in a third, now renowned, choice of the TRC – the process by which the accused could admit their crimes to the victims and be forgiven. According to Tutu, the choice to forgive rather than to punish was not only a necessary one for a country in dire need to unite itself, but also a culturally aligned one – aligned with the idea of ubuntu.

As Tutu explains it, “ubuntu speaks of the very essence of being human….It is to say, ‘my humanity is caught up, inextricably bound up, in yours.’ We belong in a bundle of life.” Rather than Descartes’ “I think therefore I am,” ubuntu implies “I am because you are.” This interconnectedness is at the root of humanity, and South Africa’s ability to come together even under the most heinous conditions Tutu attributes to the worldview of ubuntu.

As I sat watching so many humans gliding by, reminding me that globalization is no longer a theory but a living reality, I thought how terribly important it is now for us to engage the view of ubuntu. It may seem like an ideal or somehow impossibly selfless,
but then I recalled something else Tutu said: “To forgive is not just to be altruistic; it is the best form of self-interest.” And I saw the monkeys and the impala sitting side-by-side under soft afternoon light.

 

This piece is the last in a series on South Africa written for and published on www.Africa.com. This series explored leadership themes from her range of experiences on the South Africa trip. Reynolds will be starting a new series called Leadership Conversations, coming soon here and on Africa.com.

 

 

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Alphabetical Order

In college, I traveled to Italy for six months to study in the archives. My subject was, of all things, 18th century Italian opera. What I was looking for, namely letters from any of the prime donne (first ladies of the opera house), was not to be found in US libraries. So, I spent a semester planning, reading history, contacting likely scholar mentors, and learning Italian so I could go and search in the Italian archives.

When I arrived in what was to be my home, the small, medieval hill town of Siena, I immediately got to work. First, intensive language study; second, intense social life (I was just 24); third, practice in approaching the archives. Facing the mirror, I rehearsed my introductory sentences about being an American, studying 18th century opera, and looking for letters from singers of that period. When I’d got it down, I headed for the local library – a palatial edifice founded in 1759. I didn’t really expect to find anything there, just to practice, to get the feel of it.

My rehearsal was pointless; the arch fellow behind a monolithic desk barely glanced at me as he pointed, raised arm and index finger, at a stack of what I took for card catalogues. Not bad, I thought. Just like home. At the case, I peered at the tiny white cards on each mini-drawer. And here began the mystery that would engulf me for the rest of my six-month trip.

Each card was written in a sloping, curly que hand that looked like it belonged to the first librarian back in the mid-1700s. The drawers were in alphabetical order, but it was unclear of what. Some entries were name of historical figure, some of place, and some of author, with no obvious system denoting why or which. I was baffled. Upon closer inspection, I found there were also no numbers in the top right or left corner of the cards: no Dewey Decimal system. Egads – it never occurred to me that Dewey wasn’t ubiquitous! What was going on?

Enter Mr. James Gleick and his wonderful book The Information, out in paperback any day now. As it turns out, how we organize information is indicative of who we are. Makes sense. And the way we organized things early on had more to do with the things themselves than with the efficiency of the system. In other words, Gleick explains, information was ordered by subject, rather than by alphabetization (which, by the way, didn’t come into common practice for an astonishingly long time – 1613, to be exact).

What Gleick explained, that seems quite obvious upon reflection, is that humans think about things in terms of their experience of them. And then, bin them up accordingly. (Everything I eat, everything that breathes, everything that grows, etc.) This system worked quite well for a limited quantity of information used by a small and perhaps congenial group of people. So, it wasn’t until the amount of information increased and a larger, more diverse group was using it that the need for a more efficient cataloguing system arose.

This, significantly, would cause information to be separated from experience. Alphabetical order, as Gleick explains, “is unnatural. It forces the user to detach information from meaning; to treat words strictly as character strings.” The Dewey Decimal system takes abstraction a step farther since the number has nothing whatsoever to do with its correlated subject. (At least a letter corresponds with the name.)

With Gleick’s help, I see now that what I’d found in Siena’s small, but centuries old library was the layering on of alphabetical order over what appeared to be a prevailing subject matter system. And, as I would come to learn from living in Italy, Italians hold hard to how things are done – no matter how seemingly nonsensical or inefficient. But then perhaps, so don’t we all.

Back then, as I sat staring into a drawer (and by the way, the cards came fully out, which also made me gasp – how easy it would be for them to be stolen or put in the wrong order!), it suddenly occurred to me that I’d never find anything in Italy. All that way for nothing, simply because I had no idea how the Italians organized things! This was something, in all my preparations, that just hadn’t crossed my mind.

But I was in Italy and for six months too, so I endeavored to figure it out. As I traveled first from Siena to Florence to work in the archives there, and then on to Bologna, Modena, Parma, Verona and Venice, I began to see something I now refer to as an “organizing principle.” All this means is the method by which information is structured or catalogued: by time (date or period) or by subject (name, place, or field), and which is primary and secondary and so forth.

When I’d get to an archive, I’d challenge myself to think of every possible organizing principle with which to conduct my search. I’d try different methods and sequences as I scanned the shelves, the indexes and what card catalogues there were. I’d leave my own organizing prejudices behind and try to imagine how people in the 18th century might think. The more flexible my thinking, the faster I found the key for using each archive. And soon, it became the game, the researcher’s version of hide and seek.

The happy outcome of my Italy trip was finding seven letters from my favorite prima donna, Caterina Gabrielli, on which I based my thesis. The letters were hidden away in the Vatican Archives…but that’s another story.

The true treasure of that trip was the notion of the organizing principle. We all have them. And which ones we use dictates how we organize our worlds – both our physical one and, more importantly, the one inside our minds. Knowing this has proved invaluable in my leadership, collaboration and strategic planning work over the past 20 years (not to mention my travel).

Little did I know that dusty Italian archives would prove a useful training ground for a consulting career. Or that a book, with an unassuming cover, called The Information, would help explain a mystery a quarter of a century old.

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The Gift of the Skeptic

Do you know how in a group there’s often one person who won’t get on board? He or she just seems to be interminably skeptical and constantly throws stones at whatever the group is working on. And pretty soon, the work feels like a large rock is tied to the back of it, putting a major drag on forward movement.

The group inevitably grows weary. And depending on the situation, the rock’s drag may win out and the project gets dropped. Or in other cases, people will start to look back at the rock and give it nasty looks, shake their heads at it and maybe even come around and cut the rope. In some cases, the group just slogs on, dragging the rock forever.

What’s up with the rock?

At first glance, the rock appears to be the skeptic. Those who sit apart from the group, mutter under their breath or roll their eyes, and when they do contribute, speak out loudly with sarcasm or confrontation – all in the name of skepticism.

But not all skeptics employ these tactics. For instance, accountants and attorneys often play the skeptic role, and do so by calmly explaining legal or financial reasons for rethinking what everyone else is enthusiastically supporting. Although this can feel like a “wet blanket”, people are generally glad that someone bothered to “kick the tires” to prevent driving off in a lemon.

The skeptic then, is not a person or a set of behaviors; it’s a role. A valuable role that keeps us from doing things that we’ll regret, cause us harm, or waste resources and effort. We all use skepticism to protect ourselves: we are skeptical of politicians’ promises, skeptical of advertising claims, skeptical of things that seem too good to be true – some of us are skeptical if too many people endorse something.

In fact, we need the role of skeptic. It’s hugely helpful in situations involving large investments of money, a high risk of bodily harm or that defy generally established norms (remember the Wright brothers?) The adage “a healthy dose of skepticism” reminds us all to use this critical faculty in our daily lives. The “healthy dose” refers to using it appropriately to the situation.

So, the question is, how do we gain the gift of the skeptic in a way that’s
constructive and additive rather than destructive and an impediment to
progress?

First, design the role into group process. When the group recognizes the value of the skeptic’s gift, this role can be designed into group process, in a “healthy dose” appropriate to the situation. (For example, experimental brain surgery requires a bigger dose of skepticism than, say, exploring new restaurants for a dinner party.)

Designing the skeptic role into process means identifying the most opportune times for the full group to apply the skeptic’s perspective. In this way the role of skeptic is shared and the burden for tire-kicking isn’t left to one person or to a small minority. This also frees the group to be visionary and innovative together, to be practical and methodical together, and to be critical and skeptical together – each of which are equally important to the creative process. With everyone taking on the role of skeptic together, the group’s cohesion is increased, with outliers able to join in.

Second, distinguish the role from the behavior. Once process has been designed to include the skeptic’s role, the next step is for the group to create normative standards for participation and to clearly communicate what these are. Explain that the skeptic’s role has been designed into the process, and there is no need for one person to take it on him/herself. Nor will it be useful to play the role of the skeptic (i.e., interject criticism) when the group is still in the learning or idea generation phases. Once group process and norms are clear, the next step is to enforce them.

Finally, openly address “rock” behavior. When a process is new, it may take a bit of road testing to get it right. So if “rock” behaviors begin to appear, they need to be addressed right away, as a demonstration to all that the process is now different from before. The group needs to make clear that indeed there will be the opportunity to evaluate and critique as part of the development process, but not at this time. In other words, the mis-timed skeptic behavior should not go unchecked.

This can be done by group participants, the group’s designated lead, or, depending on the size, nature and track record of the group, this may be done best by a neutral facilitator. The point is, groups that do not check this “rock” behavior allow themselves to be held hostage by it.

* * *

So, the group develops its process to explicitly include the skeptic role, communicates this from the outset, and monitors that everyone is clear as the process unfolds. What if then some people still take on the lone skeptic role? What if these individuals continue to sit outside the circle, pitching rocks in, rolling their eyes, and even jumping up every now and then to rant and rave, or stomp out?

One reason for “rock” behavior by the skeptic is that the group isn’t really playing the role. In many groups, the majority of people will seek convergence. This is a human trait: we are relationship-oriented. This can lead to acting too quickly or to “group think” resulting in the status quo. In these situations, the skeptic may resort to “rock” behaviors to get the group’s attention. Since the skeptic role is essential to achieving effective and lasting results in anything, but particularly in something new, groups need to be sure it is given real attention. When this happens, many times the “rock” behavior will simply disappear, because it’s no longer needed.

Sometimes the skeptic needs more certainty before acting than others – s/he is more risk averse. Or the skeptic may have specialized knowledge that causes them to see risk that no one else does. In such cases, even if the group dons the skeptic role, this may not feel sufficient to the skeptic, so s/he will continue to tire kick long after everyone is well-enough satisfied to give whatever it is a go. The key here is to try to understand if the skeptic has a valid point the group hasn’t considered, or if the individual’s risk tolerance is really at issue. The more self-aware the individual is – the more able to identify this for him/herself – the more easily the situation can be resolved.

In some cases, the skeptic role has become so second-nature to the person that s/he no longer distinguishes between the role and self. This type of person has become the role. The person has come to identify with it and to use “rock” behaviors as self-expression. This is an unfortunate state for the individual because any skeptic that’s unaware that skepticism is fine as long as it remains in a “healthy dose” risks becoming the boy who cried wolf: ignored by his peers and ostracized to the back of the room. Coaching can be very helpful with this kind of individual, with the aim of increasing self-awareness and options for self-expression.

In other cases, the skeptic is playing the role to prevent change. Some will even continue the skeptic role into the implementation phase, looking for opportunities to say “I told you so” to undermine the process. This is the worst type of skeptic behavior because the criticisms are really masking a hidden agenda. Most groups can sense this, even if it’s not openly discussed. This shouldn’t go unchecked if a group desires to make progress. But even this skeptic has something s/he is concerned about protecting – whether for the greater good or for him/herself - listening to what this is can bring valuable information to the group.

* * *

In summary. The issue is not with the role of the skeptic. The role has the inestimable value of avoidance of pitfalls. The issue is with how, when and by whom the role is played. The skeptic role is far more productive if openly recognized for its value by the entire group and then designed into group process. The skeptic role is also more effective if it doesn’t get played by the same one or two people in every situation. And finally, the individual who seems trapped in the role and/or in “rock” behaviors should be coached to see that the role is a choice and that other roles can bring just as much satisfaction.

Remember: A little skepticism goes a long way. And “rock” behavior is really only suited to preventing something from going over a cliff.

This is a follow-up piece to Collaboration: What to do about Politics and Power Plays? 

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King: Civil Rights or Sameness

Last weekend, I visited the new memorial to Martin Luther King, Jr. in Washington DC. This followed a trip to Anacostia, MD to see Frederick Douglass’ home – who came 100 years before King, and both visits came on the heels of a recent trip to South Africa, where Nelson Mandela lives still. Civil rights have been on my mind.

Civil rights. Two little words for such an enormous concept, such an important idea. The idea that we all need food and water to survive; we all want some voice in how things go in our lives; we all want to LIVE – to express ourselves, to discover, to work, contribute, relate, find meaning and connect. A grand idea, I notice, reduced by these two words to a legal concept – that of rights.

When I entered the MLK memorial, my first sight was King quotations, writ large across granite walls that hug the landscape, the letters of which are made crisp by the play of sun and shadow. What struck me about these words was that King wasn’t really talking about rights. He wasn’t talking about a platform or legal precedent or even a group of people.

He was talking about truth essential to us all – deep truth, as basic as bone.

He said things like:

“I have the audacity to believe that peoples everywhere can have three meals a day for their bodies, education and culture for their minds, and dignity, equality and freedom for their spirits.”

And:

“We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.”

As I moved along the wall, I came upon the monument itself, made of massive granite chunks. One of which has King’s body emerging from its end – like a ship’s figurehead, facing into the wind of the future, eyes wide and standing tall. King’s visage stares across the Tidal Basin toward the Jefferson Memorial, out of a bright whiteness of stone. I wondered at the choice. His face, his lips, his massive hands, holding in place arms folded across his body, all seemed a bit wrong. I longed for the warm tone of his skin; I longed for his open arms, his hands reaching out to us all.

But instead, the memorial casts him in hard lines, imposing, stern, and seemingly miffed at us. Arms crossed as though holding back, keeping his distance. Why? Was this who he was? Or who we need him to be? Is he posed this way to let us know there is more to do? A stern father towering over us with authority and disappointment?

Maybe that is comforting or inspiring to some, but I hoped to look into the countenance of the man representative of the words carved deep into the rock behind him. The words reminding us all that we are one.

“I believe that unarmed truth and unconditional love will have the final word in reality.”

It struck me that rights are an unnecessary concern in a world where unconditional love prevails. We need only be concerned with rights when they are in jeopardy or worse, being transgressed. But the entire idea of rights rests on the notion that we are fundamentally different from each other. That some of us are different, and because of that, deserve to be treated differently.

As long as this difference remains the ground we stand on, we will continue to have to fight for equal rights. Whether it’s poor, uneducated, one color or another, large, small, male or female, this set of beliefs or that, across a river or an ocean, these differences appear, in retrospect, so terribly arbitrary and archaic. And yet, we persist in justifying our obsession with difference with whatever current rationale for this group’s inferiority or wrong or lack of some fundamental sameness the rest of us share. Yesterday were those with black skin; today those who love people of the same gender; tomorrow it’s me; the day after it’s you.

When will we begin with the idea that all people, in fact, all life, is made of the same stuff? And the differences so much smaller than the sameness, they are very nearly inconsequential? When will we accept that our focus on difference is our undoing? This is not a political or legal position, although great politicians and lawyers have espoused it. This has been the stuff of spiritual teachers since time immemorial, but more recently has been argued by philosophers and proven by science.

And in this moment, when our lives across the planet are being pushed closer together with globalization and King’s “inescapable network” is the very real internet, it’s time to rethink “protection of rights.” King presaged the way:

“If we are to have peace on earth, our loyalties must become ecumenical rather than sectional. Our loyalties must transcend our race, our tribe, our class, and our nation; and this means we must develop a world perspective.”

These words today seem so simple and right, and even obvious. Maybe that’s the irony of Truth. The bigger it is, the simpler it is in the abstract, but the more challenging, even impossible it seems in practice. So, although Martin’s loving words, from the heart of a deeply spiritual man, are the surround of his memorial, it is King as stark, harsh, massive presence that commands its central position. And isn’t this just exactly our problem? We take what is so tender and lovely – our sameness – and make it so hard and brutal – our fight for right against which we must fight for equal rights.

For me, the real feeling of King’s memorial is evoked not by his massive, stalwart, near-grimacing presence, but rather by the expanse of the space surrounding it. Four acres nestled among walls of such beautiful words, where visiting people look up, out and through a lens, the narrow focus of the mind as it penetrates meaning. They cast their reverent gaze on the man, his idea, and each other. And his legacy is reflected in those faces, laughing, reading, chatting, all the while, perceiving the gift. The gift of what is right. What is true. Against which, all the tyranny and smallness and meanness of spirit, all the torture and brutality and disregard simply look petty.

We think about rights as a way to get to equality – when in fact, our sameness, our fundamental equality, as King would say, is where it all begins.

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Greetings of the Season!

From our holiday newsletter…stay tuned for more from South Africa.

Dear Friends,

As we approach the final days of 2011, the sense of satisfaction of a year well-lived is upon me. 2011 has certainly been a big one at RRC, full of milestones and new ventures.

First, the company turned 20, an achievement that snuck up on us in all our flurry of activity! Then, in February, I began a sabbatical to explore who and what is on the cutting edge in leadership, and planned travel to Aspen, Boston, Colorado Springs, D.C., and New York to participate in a wide range of leadership events. I also started this blog to share my experiences and reveries along the way – and have been so gratified by your readership and comments.

The culmination of my leadership sabbatical was a three-week trip to South Africa. I traveled there to take part in Aspen Institute’s Global Leadership Initiative with 60 leaders from around the world. My itinerary also included individual meetings with prominent South African leaders, tours of the country’s rich history and culture, and finally, safari in the famed Kruger National Park area. It was a “trip of a lifetime”, opening my mind to new ideas and grand possibilities with amazing people.

Following are some tidbits from my travels, illustrated with a few of the more than 2000 pictures I took while there.

It is indeed a year for gratitude at RRC – for the bounty of what the year has brought, which includes our relationship with each of you.

Season’s best to you and yours,

Lessons from Safari

Spending time in the bushveld of South Africa’s Mpumalanga province affords not only incredible wildlife viewing, but also some quiet lessons. First, the word safari is Swahili for “long journey,” bringing new meaning to what a safari portends. Next, the hours spent on game drives watching animals in the midst of their daily lives – taking a drink, preening, knocking down trees, nursing, rolling a matrimonial dung ball, or slithering across the road – bear witness to how great are the gifts each of us is given.

Every animal, no matter how small, has its ability, its camouflage, and its distinct role in the order of things. And they are, surprisingly, adept communicators: the impala snorts at the leopard, telling it that it’s been seen. The leopard grunts back, “Ok, relax, I’m not hunting you.” Simple, straightforward messages are key to getting along.

And finally, despite the enormous power of these animals to harm, there’s an understanding that allows humans such privileged access. The bush: an uncommon place for leadership learning.

RRC Celebrates 20

RRC is in its 20th year – yes, that’s right, 20 years of partnering with our clients to achieve great things though visionary, collaborative processes. To celebrate, we launched our new homepage, that features images that reflect the enormous breadth of our work over the past two decades: buildings built, watersheds cleared, balance sheets balanced, homeless sheltered, performances sold out, forests renewed, refugees protected…and so much more. Many of you will recognize photographic representations of your projects!

2011 also marked new levels of RRC involvement in a wide range of organizations doing good in our world: Colorado Public Radio, Boys and Girls Clubs, and the Museum of Nature and Science, to name a few. We are indeed grateful for this rich and varied history, and look forward to the next two decades of dreams becoming reality!

Leading from the Boma

Aspen Institute’s Globalization Seminar took place in Stellenbosch, just outside of Cape Town, assembling 60 world leaders in dialogue. Three groups of 20 convened in a boma, an open air, thatch-roofed structure indigenous to Africa, that allowed the breeze to ruffle paper and billow minds. The topic was leadership in the age of globalization, which was addressed through a series of readings from Seneca to Conrad, Thomas Friedman to Desmond Tutu.

What the immersive conversation showed was that, although the challenges are great in this time when the world is truly becoming one, there are far more similarities among us than might be expected. Economic prosperity, environmental justice, cultural expression, resource sustainability, and social well-being are priorities no matter who is talking. The question is, how will we create a new model of global governance through which these shared priorities may be realized equally for all?

Cape of Good Hope for 2012

Standing at the bottom of the African continent (okay, actually Cape Agulhas is the most southerly point) is a place conducive to historical reflection.

The first European to name the rocky point was Portuguese explorer Bartolomeu Dias, who called it Cape of Storms in 1488. But later, John II of Portugal changed it to Good Hope. Dias must’ve encountered the vicious weather that prompted the namesake. And perhaps, the name also aptly described his mood since his crew forced him to turn back before he could proclaim the spice route for Portugal.

For King John, on the other hand, Dias’ adventure proved that the King’s tremendous investment in exploration would, in fact, pay off – he had plenty of good hope for a future maritime voyage to India. The cape’s name, then, is a case of perspective – and the optimist’s won the day.

As we stand at the end of 2011, gazing out to the open seas of 2012, let us appropriate the name for the coming New Year. 2012: the Year of Good Hope. Let’s raise a glass to it – Cheers!

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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 (keeverdesign@comcast.net) 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.