I recently finished reading the Steve Job’s biography by Walter Isaacson and was blown away. I have read two other biographies by Isaacson over the years, Einstein and Benjamin Franklin - both were great. But this book surpassed both of those books. Why? Steve Jobs was a fascinating individual who many have called the Edison of our time. He is utterly influential and will continue to be long past his time here on earth. I think you could make the same argument for Albert Einstein and Benjamin Franklin, so Isaacson seems to be on to something with his writing choices.
In the book Steve Jobs has influenced me with his thinking and how he did business. He never went to business school, he never even finished college. He went to college for a while and went to classes that he was not signed up for because he found them more interesting. I am not advocating skipping college, but I am advocating not confining yourself to boxes that do not make sense for where you want to head in life.
Steve wanted to help create a whole new world of personal computers and he was able to help do just that. I would imagine I might write a lot about him the next few weeks so view this post as more of an intro. Three things hit me over the head while I was reading this book:
1) Market Research is worthless when people do not know what they even need yet.
2) If you do not cannibalize your own product, someone else will.
3) Collaboration is fine, but if you invite everyone to the table, including people who do not need to be there, you will water down what might be a great idea.
The point I want to focus on a bit is market research. One of my jobs puts me in the middle of graduate higher education. It takes us a long time to bring a new product to market, and sometimes our products get watered down by immense collaboration. Not always, but sometimes this is clearly the case.
We are thinking about a new product that I think will be groundbreaking for us, and you know what? I could care less if we do market research. I know this product will attract and equip students who we do not get right now. I am excited.
I am more excited about how inspired I am by the Steve Jobs book, and his legacy. He influenced me greatly.
My wife and I live in a fourplex condo building that is probably 100+ years old. It is a fantastic old building and we have inhabited our residence for eight years. During that time I have almost completely rebuilt our toilet. New flusher, new flap, and recently a new toilet seat.
I am not a handyman. I am not gifted in the ways of home repair. I do occasionally come through with a repair and I am surprised that I actually was able to do whatever the task is. I have a ton of respect for those folks who do handywork all the time. They amaze me.
Once our toilet seat broke, I knew this was one of those times I would need to venture to Home Depot, and try to not look lost among the professional contractor crowd who dominates that store.
Before I even went to Home Depot I watched a video on changing a toilet seat and did some heavy research on types of toilet seats. I was armed and dangerous with enough information to probably buy the wrong seat.
Off I went to Home Depot and bought a toilet seat. I took it home and installed it, and low and behold, it worked. I made my wife and child see my handiwork whether or not they were interested is not the point of this story.
The point is - what might you be able to do if you put your mind to it? More than I think you might think. Will I ever reach Master Plumber status? No. Did I learn something from being pushed into the unknown and having to figure it out? Yes.
I think you can to.
This week is a transition week for me in many ways. Hamline Volleyball - where I coach, our season ended last night and even though we lost, we had a winning season. We were able to double our wins (18) from last year, and our girls improved in many ways. But, as this season ends, it is a transition week for me going from doing volleyball everyday after my main job, to not having volleyball.
Weeks like these I often rush to fill the gap with more projects and stuff, but this week I choose to use as a week to focus, evaluate, and look out over the next quarter, year, and beyond.
Something that keeps ruminating in my mind is to focus on less, and have more excellence prevail.
Focus on less.
Hit your targets when there are fewer to hit.
Can you relate?
Yesterday a friend of mine texted me from Singapore and wished me a happy birthday. He said, “Hey, happy birthday, it is already your birthday here in Singapore.” I smiled and thought about how big the world is and how much our current ways of communication allow us to shrink that space. I had those thoughts, and then I also remembered that it was my birthday.
To be frank, I am not a huge birthday guy. I often forget it is coming up and shy away from making a big deal of this day, but for whatever reason this year, I wanted to take a bit of time and reflect on life where it has taken me, and where it might go.
Life so far?
It has been an interesting ride these past 38 years. I am so appreciative of my family and all the opportunity growing up where I did afforded me. My Mom and Dad did the best they could to make sure I had what I needed to be independent in life and hopefully some sort of productive citizen. We went through a lot as a family, as many do, and we ultimately lost my Dad to the disease of Alcoholism. I miss my Dad and always try to remember the best parts of who he was: Driven, smart, funny, focused and generous. That is how I choose to remember him, along with his other challenges. I am so glad my Mom is still alive, kicking, and reminding me of my family’s birthday dates when I forget - thanks Mom!
Life so far has taken me from Chicago, to Wisconsin in the summers, to Minnesota for college, to Washington DC to work on Capitol HIll, back to Minnesota for graduate school and that is where I now live. Geographically I would still love to end up living in Kauai and Montana for different parts of the year. If you don’t have a target you can’t hit it right?
Life right now -
Life right now is a wonderful mix of family (fabulous wife Danielle, son JD), career, coaching, and more. I know without a doubt there are some big decisions to be made about more school, career path and more. I love my friends, family and colleagues who I get to work with. Coaching volleyball has been an awesome endeavor over the past eight years both at the collegiate level and junior olympic level.
Life in the future -
No guarantees right? Since a class in college that had a profound effect on me, I have tried to live a life where I make the most out of every day. Sometimes I succeed, and other days, not so much. But that is at my core. In that core also pushes me to help other people get better and that I would be generous and a man of my word. So, I really do not know what the future holds, all I can do is focus on today, and the people I impact - do I leave a pleasing aroma when I do that? Or, do I not add to a situation? Those are things I am working on and trying to model.
For those of you who frequent this blog, or if you are just here for the first time, I appreciate you being a part of my journey. It is an honor to know there are a few of you who read this.
Carpe Diem my friends…..
The Long View
I cannot believe it has been two weeks since I last entered my thoughts in this space. The last few weeks have had some of the more interesting challenges I have faced, or help others face, in leadership during my career. Those details of those events are not important, but suffice it to say the past two weeks took all of my ability as a leader to navigate.
What have I learned through these events? A lot. One thing that keeps coming to mind is the concept of taking the long view. I think I have written about this before, but the concept came back to me in a powerful way these past few weeks.
As a leader, be sure to look at all that has happened in a week, a month, a year, a decade to really rate where you feel you are at. If you are in leadership, and you are pushing for change, you will run into those who are, for whatever reason, change resistant. A great book on this issue some of you may have read is called, “Who Moved My Cheese.” I highly recommend it.
Seth Godin is a major influence on my leadership style and a while back he talked about the concept that if you want to lead you will be criticized, and if you want to blend in, you will be ignored. Your choice. I choose to lead and help make things better with the teams I am a part of, I would abhor being ignored. So, what that means logically is occasionally I see my fair share of criticism.
Types of Criticism
Here is the deal with criticism:
1) Sometimes we all deserve it because we just blew it, and it can be used constructively to get better at what we are trying to accomplish.
2) Sometimes it is unfounded and cuts us in a way that leaves a mark.
What do we have control over in both situations? How we respond. Sometimes we need to evaluate if the feedback or criticism is valid, and make adjustments as necessary. This is healthy and normal, and something I am working on getting better at as a leader.
But, when dealing with #2 make sure you ask trusted advisors if you are trying to see if the criticism is unfounded.
At the end of the day I go and hug my wife and son and make sure I put all things in perspective and not stress out over things that I have little or no control over. Trying to do the best I can, one day at a time.
Carpe Diem my friends…..
In every one of my roles, I work with teams.
On all of those teams, there are people who comprise those groups.
The effectiveness, or ineffectiveness of those teams has a direct correlation to how well each team member is positioned, based on their strengths to impact the mission of the group.
This plays out in a variety of contexts but, as Led Zeppelin sang so many years ago, “The Song Remains the Same.”
Do you get a chance to do what you do best every day? Does a majority of your day drag on and on, or does your day seem to fly by? If you answered no to the first question and find your days dragging on and on, these are easy clues that you are probably in a bad fit based on your own strengths.
Good Strengths Fit?
We recently hired a new recruiter in our office named Skip. Skip is high in the Gallup StrengthsFinder strength of “Woo.” Skip spends a good part of his day talking to people about graduate education and connecting them to degree programs. I know that this time flies by for Skip, not because he told me that, but I see his energy and passion for making lots of phone calls and finding energy in doing that activity. There are other recruiters who I work with who I could say the same about as well.
Bad Strengths Fit?
I also know that in the past I have had employees who were not in good fits. I can think of one person in particular who seemed to be counting the days until retirement even though they were not close to retiring. The days dragged on for this employee. They were hired for one job, that was a decent strengths fit, and then the job changed and they were suddenly in a bad fit. They were rarely successful in what they were trying to do and became frustrated when challenged to do better. The job changed and what was newly required did not give this person energy. I remember that they used to leave the second their scheduled hours were over - it was like they could not wait to get out of here.
How do you find a good fit?
1) Take an assessment test, MBTI, StrengthsFinder, etc. Find out how you are wired and careers that might fit your temperament and strength mix.
2) Go through your results with people who understand the instruments and how they might tie into career options.
3) Do some informal interviewing and ask managers in careers that you are interested in how your strengths might work, or not work, in that opportunity.
I can guarantee if you do some of this self-discovery you may improve your own setting, or at least be prepared when a new opportunity arises to make a clear decision of whether that path is a good one for you to take. Life is too short to be in a role that you can’t wait to be done with each day.
The process I refer to above should also be done in a team setting to evaluate whether or not your entire team is pulling in the right direction based on strengths and temperament. The leadership impact is exponential if you have a bunch of people in good fits helping each other achieve a common mission.
Continuing on in my mini series about my own strengths and how they play out in my day to day life, today I focus on the strength of “Significance.” From Gallup, the definition of Significance:
“You want to be very significant in the eyes of other people. In the truest sense of the word you want to be recognized. You want to be heard. You want to stand out. You want to be known. In particular, you want to be known and appreciated for the unique strengths you bring. You feel a need to be admired as credible, professional, and successful. Likewise, you want to associate with others who are credible, professional, and successful. And if they aren’t, you will push them to achieve until they are. Or you will move on. An independent spirit, you want your work to be a way of life rather than a job, and in that work you want to be given free rein, the leeway to do things your way. Your yearnings feel intense to you, and you honor those yearnings. And so your life is filled with goals, achievements, or qualifications that you crave. Whatever your focus — and each person is distinct — your Significance theme will keep pulling you upward, away from the mediocre toward the exceptional. It is the theme that keeps you reaching.”
The very first time I read this definition, my reaction was, “How is this good?” I have spent the last 13 years living into this strength and my opinion could not be more different now.
How does this strength play out in my day to day life? It invades my everyday. I think at least once a day, how am I making a difference in this world, and how am I making the most of this life?
To get at how this plays out for me I have to share a story from earlier in my life. When I was just out of college I decided I wanted to try a career in politics. I had always enjoyed politics, studied it a bit in college and loved Washington, DC. So, went to work to find an internship on Capitol Hill with a Senator or Congressman. I ended up applying for probably 50+ internships and was turned down straight away by most of them. From there I was top four for an internship with former Senator Fred Thompson, and then did not make the final cut. That left me with two chances:
1) With my Senator from Minnesota, Rod Grams, which was a paid internship ($1,000 a month :) )
2) With a Congressman from Illinois, William Lipinski, which was an unpaid internship for the summer.
I remember flying out to Washington, DC and interviewing in the spring of 1998 and how in awe I was of the city. The buildings, the people, everything - I had to be a part of this. I wore my only suit on the plane and of course there was a delay in my flight. By the time I arrived on Capitol Hill I had to run from Union Station to one of the office buildings in my suit and by the time I made it there I was drenched in sweat. I took a moment to compose myself and went into the interview with the staff of Congressman Lipinski. They, somehow, offerred me the internship on the spot. I told them I would think about it and headed off to my second interview. That interview with the Senator’s staff went well and they offerred me the paid internship, which I jumped at.
From there I moved to Washington, DC and worked my way up the chain there for the next few years before I left to go to graduate school.
As I look back on that process, the strength of Significance kept pushing me forward to achieve my goal. I wanted to change the world, it seemed like Washington, DC was a place you could do that. All of that gave me energy and kept the dream alive. One thing that has morphed for me about this strength is that in my younger days, it was very ‘me’ focused. What would I accomplish? What would I achieve?
Now, it gives me more joy to help other people accomplish their hopes and dreams and help them to change the world in the way that they are wired. I want to be someone who helps raise the bar for everyone I am around. People who are not interested in improving? I typically do not spend a lot of time with those folks.
Significance - changing the world, one day at at time.
In my life I have had a series of mentors who have helped me become who I am today. Without those people, and their investment, my life would surely look a lot different than it does today.
One mentor that sticks out in my mind as much, or more than, many others was my college advisor Dr. GW Carlson. GW as he was affectionately known by students recently retired from teaching at Bethel University after a 40+ year career. I know I am not alone is saying he was greatly influential in my time as a student, and on into my life post-college. Let me tell you a story about GW, and how he helped reset my priorities in the face of me thinking I knew everything, and why I think he has all the marks of being a great mentor.
I transferred into Bethel University after two years at a junior college. At my junior college I did well enough to have a high GPA and make the President’s list. For sure I thought I was a pretty stellar student - but, Bethel University was much harder academically than my junior college was. During junior college I held down two jobs and still pulled a high GPA. I was under the misguided impression that I would be able to do the same at Bethel University. I was wrong. While working 30 hours per week at American Eagle I was not putting in the time necessary to excel in my classes. After my first semester my GPA was nowhere near what it had been at the junior college.
When I went to meet with my advisor, GW, he looked at me and the look he gave me is best symbolized by this image:
He in no uncertain terms told me I was acting like an, and I quote, “Academic Playboy,” and I needed to start taking school seriously. I remember thinking, who does this professor think that he is? Where does he think he can just tell me what to do? I left the meeting frustrated and a bit mad, but after I cooled down I realized he was right. He cared enough about me to tell me the truth even when I would not like what he had to say.
After that intervention I was able to buckle down and do much better in class, and forever thereafter look more seriously on the commitments that I was taking on and how they would effect one another.
What made GW a good mentor and why you should have someone like him in your life:
1) He was not afraid to tell the truth of the situation
2) He cared enough about me to tell me something that I did not want to hear
3) He was not so impressed with my talent that he did not push me further than I thought I could go
4) He did not need me to ‘like him’ and could be completely honest with me
5) He saw the future, what needed to be done to help me get there, and intervened at an absolutely key moment in my life
Do you have someone like GW in your life? If not, find someone. If everyone tells you what you want to hear, you will not continue on in your development.
Sometimes it literally takes me years to learn a lesson that is so obvious it just sits there in front of me but I cannot grab onto it. This past weekend I finally learned one of those lessons and I want to share it with all of you.
Many people want to be leaders. I work with lots of college students and if you ask them if they want to be a leader, many, most, if not all - will say yes! Yes, I want to be a leader. Yes, I want to be in charge. Yes, I want to tell people what to do and have them listen to me. I have been there, I remember wanting to be in charge.
Then, some people actually make it into positions of leadership and the truth hits them in the face. You have to build up your credibility before people will listen to what you have to say. You have to earn the right to be heard. You have to lead by example. Oh, so many good lessons I have learned over the years from experience and good mentoring.
One lesson that, as I mentioned before, just hit me like a ton of bricks is the leadership situations where you have to deal with a sticky situation. I am calling this the 5% of leadership no one really talks about. Employee problems, angry constituents, conflict resolution - you name it, if you are a leader, those things will roll up to you and you will have to deal with them.
This is reality. If you want to lead, you will deal with these things. I have been at it long enough to know this is true. Here is the lesson that I have learned in dealing with this leadership “5%”
1) If you learn to expect that these things will happen and are able to deal with them in a non-emotional way, you will not let those things run your life while you are dealing with them.
What do I mean by that? This past weekend I finally just accepted that there will always be a 5% of these issues that come my way as long as I am in a leadership role. When one of these things happens, I just put myself to work in resolving the issue but do not let it take over my life during that time.
If I do this, when one of these things comes up, instead of dread and sorrow I can just deal with the issue in a pragmatic way. Oh, it is one of the 5% situations? Ok, no problem, lets accept the fact that these things happen and get on with resolution.
This shift in attitude will help ease your stress during those times when you may be likely to get stressed out. I think that leaders who learn this lesson and figure out a sane way to deal with these issues will help them be an effective leader for the long haul without letting some of these issues become the 5% that take up 95% of their time.
I have heard this blessing a few times in life, at funerals and other places, but thought it was such a wonderful piece of prose that although some of you may have heard it I wanted it here for you.
May the road rise up to meet you.
May the wind always be at your back.
May the sun shine warm upon your face, and the rains fall soft upon your fields.
And until we meet again, May God hold you in the palm of His hand.
I hope you all have a fantastic Sunday.