All posts by Chris Proulx

5 things I learned about teams from washing pots on silent retreat

I recently returned from a nine-day silent meditation retreat at the Insight Meditation Societyin western Massachusetts. This was the longest time I was going to spend on retreat and I was a little unsure about what to expect from such an extended time of quietude and reflection. At the same time, I was not exactly alone, as I was sharing this journey with 95 other retreatants. As part of the experience, each person is expected to work a 45-60 minute job each day to help keep the costs lower and to explore how to apply mindfulness to work and daily life. I was assigned to wash pots with two other retreatants every day after the midday meal. What happened next was completely unexpected!

Although the three of us met briefly on the first night and exchanged introductions, by the time of our first shift, I could not remember their names (and as it turned out, they could not remember mine either.) So, here we were, three people who didn’t know each other (or our names), who had each taken a vow of silence, and we had to work together in a very tight, very wet and very warm space. What emerged were key lessons that could make any team more successful.

Lesson 1: Clarity of purpose

While we were unable to direct each other’s work, ask questions or even make small talk—we knew what we there to do. We had 45 minutes to wash pots, pans, pitchers, utensils and other miscellaneous kitchen equipment from the day’s lunch preparation and service. Everything needed to be soaped, scrubbed, sanitized, dried and put away. And the entire work area had to be cleaned and reset for the next work crew who would replace us at the end of our shift.

How many times do we find ourselves adrift in our normal work? or debating as a team (halfway through a project) what we are actually trying to accomplish? Consider the impact of that confusion on productivity, team relationships and individual job satisfaction. When that happens pause and take time to explore, agree, and document your team’s purpose and outcomes; it will make everything easier.

Lesson 2: Well-defined roles, responsibilities and processes

To facilitate efficient work without talking, we were trained on arrival day on the three roles in the pot washing team. We each selected one for the duration of the retreat. For me, it meant washing all of the smaller items in one of the sinks, placing them in a plastic rack, and sliding that rack into the sanitizing machine. Benizio scrubbed (and scrubbed) all the larger items and hand sanitized them. And, Rebecca took all of the sanitized items, dried them and put them away. Easy—we knew what each had to do, we knew what each other was doing, and we had access to job aids if we had any questions. As a result, without speaking, we worked efficiently and effectively towards our desired outcome—everything clean and reset for the next crew.

Even if our day-to-day jobs are more complex than washing pots, this lesson still applies. How many times have you heard in your office, “I don’t even know what he does!” So ask yourself, what can you do this week to better define your team’s work?

Lesson 3: Awareness and generosity

Yet, of course, just like in your work and mine, the flow and scope of the tasks in our workspace was uneven and unpredicatbale from minute to minute and day to day. Depending on the meal, or on the work pace of others in the kitchen or dining room, work would pile up for one of us. Meanwhile the others might have an empty work station. Without a word, we would pitch in and help. Aware of the backlog (this was a meditation retreat after all!), motivated by a generosity of spirit and effort, and supported by a well defined work process, any one of us could help each other out. I often started drying the multitude of salad dressing ladles and water pitchers that had piled up in Rebecca’s work station. Or Benizio would start washing some of the smaller items in his sink while waiting for more baked on stainless steel pans to show up.

How does that work in your team? What is preventing people from lending a hand when needed? When the work is buried in our laptops and phones, sometimes what needs to be done is not so obvious as a pile of messy pots. Agile project management is great for making the backlog of work transparent—so anyone can see what needs to get done, pull the next item and get started—without even speaking!

Photo by Austin Neill on Unsplash

Lesson 4: Appreciation

At 1:15 each day, the next crew would arrive. The three of us would finish the last few items—keen to leave the work station clean and ready for our nameless and silent replacements. When the work was done, we’d hang our aprons and gloves to dry. Then, we would turn to each other, and with a slight smile, gently bow to each other; a slient and implicit “see you tomorrow.” A simple gesture that meant so much and sustained the team.

Do it—today—send a simple thank you email or Slack message, or take 5 minutes at the end of your next meeting to reflect on what you accomplished in that hour. It will feel good—and might even become a habit.

Lesson 5: Patience

This last lesson did not come from my potwashing shift but was shared by our traditional yet radical retreat leaders, Ayya Anandabodhi and Ayya Santachitta. They are western-trained Buddhist nuns who have been working together for over twenty years. They and a few colleagues have recently partnered to start one of the few all-women monasteries. Their insight about working relationships was that even when you have a clear purpose, well-defined roles, are generous with your time and energy and appreciate each other—working together is hard—especially over a long period of time! Yet, the benefits are powerful. These working relationships can be compared to the effect of rocks tumbing against each other in a mountain stream. What starts out as rough and gnarly pieces of earth, become, after years of rubbing against each other, smooth, glossy and beautifully rounded stones.

We all know that when the going gets tough, it is easy to lash out, or worse move on to the next project or the next team. This image of the stones is an inspiration to stay with it and let the turbulence of the project help the team to shine.

(Photo by Wil Stewart on Unsplash)

So, give it a shot. If your team is working through a conflict or facing a tough time, pause—and speak less. Take time as a team to clarify what you are trying to accomplish. Assess the work and make sure the roles and process are well defined. Be aware of when the workload is unbalanced and help re-balance it. And create regular times and rituals to appreciate each other. Then see what happens, maybe your team will also be a little shinier today than it was yesterday.

Originally Published on LinkedIn on April 22, 2018

Re-imagining the role of generosity in leadership

“Life’s most persistent and urgent question is, ‘What are you doing for others’?” ― Martin Luther King Jr.

Generosity, and its role in leadership, is often an unexplored frame in how we manage and lead. Even more specifically, how can leadership teams make strategic decisions while using generosity as a frame? I spent some time before the new year thinking about leadership models and my own intentions to bring more authenticity to my work. I am aspiring to bring more focused intention to how I use my attention and how I make decisions, be more generous with my time and expertise, and stay open to being wrong by seeking the truth, however inconvenient.  This blog post expands on a discussion thread I started on LinkedIn around the theme of generosity because I think it is misunderstood. It generated a wide range of comments, several of which I will address here.

First, what do I mean by generosity in this context?

Several comments to my thread interpreted the definition with a narrower framing of the leader as a generous individual, giving of one’s time, energy and expertise to others on their teams and or in their organization. This is an important component of generosity in leadership. However, I am interested in taking it a step further—how can generosity affect our strategic decision making and how can it shape an entire organization’s interactions with its ecosystem—its customers, suppliers, partners, and even its competitors. Generosity is not only about being a responsible leader or an ethical organization, i.e., generosity should not be equated with corporate social responsibility. And, by the way, not for profits, or social enterprises may not necessarily be led by leaders using generosity as a frame.

Generosity in leadership is the practice of using your organization as a means of giving freely to the world around you—without expectation of getting anything in return. It is grounded in a mindset of abundance about our assets and our opportunities. From this mindset of abundance, an organization also practices generosity by recognizing that its success, indeed its existence, is dependent on everyone around them and that it cannot truly act independently without consideration for its employees, suppliers, customers, regulators etc.

Now, two disclaimers. First, I am not suggesting that leaders should be financially irresponsible—an individual or an organization must sustain itself—otherwise, generosity is undermined by the failure to thrive. Second, I am also learning about my practice of generous leadership through this process. Therefore, I don’t claim that I, or the organizations that I have led, have gotten this right in every or even most instances. It is with humility that I am exploring these topics in more depth. 

Here are a few areas where we can explore the nuances of generosity.

1. Content marketing and thought leadership have become commonplace and a standard part of a marketing strategy. Looking more closely, is the starting point generosity, i.e. sharing our personal or organizational expertise with its community, or is it self-serving, i.e., content marketing as a lead generator? And if by sharing content, we are generating leads or growing followers in our network does make the process less generous?  A few commenters to my LinkedIn post shared their struggles with this balance with questions such as “Am I writing/sharing content with the goal of fostering meaningful dialogue, learning, connection, and community?”  “Am I writing/sharing content that offers my authentic perspectives and insights?” The critical issue is what is our intention? And are we are expecting a specific response? We can ask ourselves by sharing this content am I being authentic, and will the reader be better off for having engaged with that content? Will they be able to take action on that piece of content without purchasing the product or service that we offer? One comment summed it up best with, “Generosity is the only way to build [a] network in my mind.” Why? Because most people can see through inauthentic attempts to share.

2. There is a massive growth in ‘for good’ initiatives across multiple sectors. This should be applauded and welcomed. It reflects that customers want to do business with organizations who are giving back to the communities. However, I would argue that to truly resonate in a market, an organization need to start with being radically open and view the sharing of their product or service with non-profits, or other social sector users as part of an intentionally generous approach, without the expectation of business growth. I have noticed, however, an increase in companies viewing the “for good” space as a new channel. There is nothing wrong with charging for services or having differentiated prices for non-profits. The slippery slope comes when organizations design their ‘for good’ initiatives to specifically open up new channels while branding them more broadly as being part of their ethic of generosity. And, it probably doesn’t work anyway as customers are becoming increasingly savvy to these types of inconsistencies. Instead, leaders could focus on how not to ‘give back’ to make up for excessive profit but to ‘give’ as part of their business model. Open up your API. Provide a pay-what-you-can option. Offer a Creative Commons version of our content. And, so on.

3. Generosity and a mindset of abundance seem to be closely linked. As leaders, we can be regularly cultivating a mindset of abundance in our teams; reflecting on the talent, skills, products, capital, opportunities etc. that we have. Doing so can overcome the tendency to focus on constraints, budgets, competition etc. 

I always recall one of my early mentors reminding me that “you need to spend money to make money.” John was a very disciplined manager in terms of managing his costs, our dining hall at Cornell University always had one of the lowest cost structures. Yet, he never let that discipline get in the way of investing in new menu items, new equipment, or other upgrades that would enhance the customer’s experience to grow our business—in a university dining hall! John understood the power of thinking abundantly on customer expectations. And, despite his gruff manner, he generously invested in his employees: teaching while on the job and giving and sharing with employees who hit rough patches outside of work. 

I can track my career, and when I have let go of fear and invested in customers or invested in employees—generally, success has followed. And conversely, when I have allowed constraints to influence my decision making about those investments, it has usually started a downward trend that I would need to spend more money later to reverse.

The lesson for me is that great leaders can create success by tapping into the deep well of others’ passion by opening themselves up through their own sharing.  

Organizational psychologist and researcher, Adam Grant, sums up this topic well on his LinkedIn feed with: 

“We need more leaders who are givers, not takers. Takers demand attention. Givers pay attention. Takers brag about success. Givers take responsibility for failure. Takers aim to be better than others. Givers strive to do better for others.”

So, think abundantly, take risks and try sharing a little more today than you did yesterday.

Originally Published on Humentum.com In on February 21, 2020

Can we solve complex leadership challenges with simple habits?

Feeling overwhelmed by the pace of change? Does it seem that the complexity of our world is outpacing the ability of leaders (political, business, NGO) to manage? Me too, and we are not alone.

The latest survey of international NGO (INGO) CEOs demonstrates that leaders are deeply concerned about the multi-factor changes buffeting our sector and the ability of their organizations to respond in an appropriate and timely way. Sixty percent of CEOs reported that their organization is not matching the rate of change and complexity. Notably this is higher than a similar survey conducted by Toffler Associates which reported 42% of private sector CEOs reporting that their organization is “challenged” to weather change. This makes sense when you look at the types of concerns reported by INGO CEOs: digital transformation (#1), rising inequality, migration flows, climate change, changing financing models, financial disintermediation, and declining trust in civil society institutions.

These are global, complex and multi-variable problems with no simple solutions. And they are in strong alignment with how Toffler Associates summarized the disrupting forces in their recent report including societal collisions, power dynamics, human and computer interactions all evidenced by eroding trust, digital confusion, innovation and regulation misalignment. (Note: the CEO of Toffler Associates discussing these factors in more depth in this podcast.)

So, what to do?

The Toffler Associates report advocates for leaders to re-commit to building human-powered organizations. Despite all the tech and digital solutions, Toffler Associates believes that we are in the midst of another human-centric revolution, but worry that leaders are losing sight of that fact. “ Recent studies illuminate that many of our current leaders are inclined to forget that the modern organization is human-centric. Globally, around 85% of employees are not engaged or are actively disengaged in their job. In the U.S. that number is closer to 69%, but it still lis woefully concerning.” They advocate for leaders to increase their investment in culture and aligning their culture with organizational values and human-capital and performance programs to increase engagement. 

That sounds great, but if you are like me, don’t you want to dig deeper into the how? 

If culture was so easy to change, every organization would be doing it easily—and CEOs would be less worried. Well, recent work from the NeuroLeadership Institute (NLI) suggests, by applying what we know about brain science, that much of what leaders have been historically doing to change culture has been wrong (or at least less effective). Organizational leaders tend to over-emphasize communications, awareness building and developing organizational competency and employee skillsets. Their research and recent work with companies such as Microsoft and GE has focused on simpler and potentially longer lasting approaches.

First, organizations, like individuals, need to adopt a growth mindset in order to increase resiliency in the face of these societal changes. Just as research indicates that focusing on effort rather than performance measures (like grades) builds more adaptable and resilient minds in individuals, adopting the same approach when used by leaders can increase innovation, risk taking and agility in organizations. It’s about organizations learning to learn! As they note, one of the key aspects of the growth mindset is the fundamental belief that growth is possible When INGOs are facing such complex challenges, we MUST believe that change is possible for our organizations and our society, otherwise, the challenges we are facing will be interpreted as threats—increasing organizational stress, paralyzing decision making, and reducing our ability innovate.

Now comes the simple part. 

They advocate a focus on Priorities Habits, and Systems (PHS) to drive culture change in organizations. As a self-improvement junkie in my personal life, I was immediately attracted to the idea that if you can help an organization build new habits, you can facilitate long-term change. It seems so obvious—but somehow feels like it is overlooked as an approach to change. The NLI Guide, How Culture Change Really Happens, points out that most of the time leaders describe why we need to change, and maybe what we want to change, but NOT doing the day to day work of helping people understand how to change—at the individual and the organizational level. At Microsoft, for example, they helped leadership distill their leadership focus down from 100 priorities to three really simple ones: “create clarity, generate energy, deliver success.” This simplicity and clarity of focus enabled their employees to align new work habits to an easy-to-use and even easier-to-remember framework. (Disclaimer: in full disclosure, this sounds simple in concept, but is hard to implement in reality; I know that I am struggling with converting priorities into habits with my work at Humentum.) 

I often listen to the Tim Ferris podcast, where he asks his guests to describe and deconstruct (in great detail) their own personal habits that lead to success. He recently interviewed Jim Collins, author of Built to Last and Good to Great—two books in the 21st century business leadership canon. In the interview, Jim describes his own system that ensures that he is focusing the right amount of time on his own writing and creative work. First, he has identified a metric to help him stay on track in terms of the number of creative hours worked per month and year. He backs that up with a a daily habit for recording his time each day. But, more importantly, he records not just the time, but the qualitative information about how he spent that time, and how it felt. Doing this step enables him to adapt and adjust throughout the year to overcome barriers and obstacles to achieving his goal (growth mindset in action!). Describing his approach using NLI’s framework, he has a priority (spend 1000 hours per year writing and creating), a habit (of tracking and describing how he spends his time, and a system (a spreadsheet tool ) to support it. 

Coming back to the challenge for the NGO sector, let’s frame it up in our context

How do we simplify our priorities? Both as organizations and as a sector, we love complexity. We have spent decades perfecting frameworks, standards, evaluation methods and tools, theories of change and on and on—but how do we simplify that into easy to use set of (a few) priorities aligned to addressing the complex challenges we face today? 

How do we create new habits? For example, can we break down any challenge, such as digital transformation, into smaller bite-sized habits for people. Then, regardless of where in the organization an individual works they can “ digitally transform , as opposed to hoping that one big tech bet will turn an INGO into Apple or Amazon. Our work with NetHope on the Digital Skills Framework is very much a step in this direction by focusing more on comprehensive behaviors and less on tech literacy skills.

How do we change the systems? NLI uses an example in their Guide, about trying to developing healthier eating habits while working in a sweets bakery—obviously very difficult. What is the NGO equivalent? If we are trying to change our funding models, do we need to spend less time talking to “traditional donors” and more time with impact investors, tech entrepreneurs, B-Corp CEOs and others using capital in innovative ways to drive change?

What does this have to do with trust?

Finally, I want to come back to the issue of trust. Both the Interaction survey and the Toffler Associates report emphasized the decreasing trust of most organizations, not just NGOs. Specifically, the Toffler Associates report describes the problem this way: “ Free flow of information (and misinformation) crosses virtually every traditional boundary, leading to lack of trust between organizations, individuals, institutions, and communities.There is confusion on where to put the resources that nurture these crucial bonds of trust, forcing organizations to be more in tune with their customers and stakeholders at local levels.” This could easily describe the trust shocks that have rocked our sector related to: “aid too”, aid diversion and fraud, and community mistrust of NGO intentions and outcomes. This is why Humentum has made trust a core issue of our convening focus this year, especially at our conferences.

By applying the PHS framework, NGOs (and the sector) might be able to rebuild a culture of trust. Fundamentally, trust is about doing what you say you are going to do—consistently—and demonstrating it with transparency. By clarifying what we want to do (priorities), defining how we will do it (habits), and creating the mechanisms to support those priorities (systems)—we are changing a culture, delivering on our promises, and re-building trust.

Originally Published on Linked In on March 25, 2019

Photo by Drew Beamer on Unsplash