Thankful

To my kids for their wide-eyed, wide-grinned, bright-eyed, PJ-clad good morning smiles.

To the internet for telling me how to keep the iPhone from skipping songs when I run or walk – something that had been bugging me for ages.

To my wife for making playlists with upbeat top 40 I’d never listen to otherwise – getting me up the hill fleet-footed

To these crazy Vibram shoes for letting me run again and to Christopher McDougall for teaching me that I (and you) were born to run


To my body, and my left knee in particular, for (mostly) putting up with my crazy schemes.

To holidays that bring families together, even if it seems awkward and sometimes painful – in this day and age, if not for this, when would we reinforce these connections?

To all of you for reading and for keeping the bar high

It’s a good day to give thanks. Try it. You’ll like it.

Hunt for thank you opportunities

Ari reminded me of a study I’d heard about but forgotten.  Donors to nonprofits were divided into three groups:

  1. A group that was called and personally thanked
  2. A group that was called and personally thanked and invited to a subsequent event
  3. A control group

The not-surprising finding is that the first group was more likely to give in the future than the third group.  The surprising finding is that the second group (“thank you” + “would you do this other thing”) was LESS likely to give again than either group 1 or group 3.

Here’s another way to summarize these findings: people are really good at smelling a rat.  We know when you’re faking, know when the “thank you” (or, as Ari prefers and I agree, “I’m grateful”) is pro forma so you can get on to the real reason you called.

This is why I hate newsletters that sounds like boring impersonal newsletters, why form thank you notes that are for anything other than tax purposes are a no-no, and why it’s a mistake to take any shortcuts at all when thanking people (meaning: if you can choose between thanking 10 people personally and 40 en mass using some clever Outlook email trick, do the 10 real ones).

It’s also why I’m going to search even harder for opportunities to tell the people to whom I’m grateful that I’m grateful, and I’m going to fight the temptation to say “thank you AND….” with all my might.

For you, for me

For some folks, the fact that I blog is a semi-mysterious black box of cool, kind of like talking with a great English accent (if I had one). It is something people kinda sorta want to do before they talk themselves off the ledge instead of leaping.

When they ask me about it, here’s what I say: that I had no idea what I was getting into when I started; that it’s been harder and better than I expected; that I learn from every post that I write and from the things I hear back from folks; and that I’m absolutely positively sure that I would stop doing it if I didn’t have lots readers out there reading.

There are tons of great external things that come from blogging but what I get from it each and every day – even (especially?) on the days it’s hard – is already plenty of payback.

Each person reading is part of what makes this possible, part of what allows me to bring something into your day and mine.

So thank you, because I write for you but I also write for me.

And, with that in mind, what about you? Why not make today the day you leap into that thing you’ve been thinking about doing? Why not get up and spread the word about something that you love?

Whatever it is you’re thinking of doing, do it already.

What’s working?

Last week I had a meeting that I’d set up with a colleague to get her perspective on how I’m doing at work.  It was a revelation.  She spent most of the meeting saying “What’s working well is…”  “What you should keep doing is…”

Seriously?  Do MORE of this??!!  That’s not how these meetings are supposed to go, is it?

No, what we all normally do is make broad, glossy, perfunctory generalizations about the good stuff and then take a deep breath and say, “And now here are all the things that you really need to get right,” while the person we’re talking to – who we like and respect and we think does great work – sits white-knuckled, ready to take the medicine.

But why do we do this? Do we really think this is how people learn and improve? It’s not like telling people all the things they’re doing wrong is any more actionable than telling them all that they’re doing right. And they’re surely doing a lot more right than they’re doing wrong, right?

I think we get confused because we’re not good at, nor are we in the habit of, giving people very specific complements. Yet we slowly, quietly practice the zinger critique ever time we walk out of a meeting, rolling our eyes, explaining to whoever will listen all we would have done differently.

It’s worth practicing. Telling people specific things that are going great will help them and you identify what’s going right, so it’s more likely to be amplified. Plus, doing this has the added pop of being so incredibly surprising that you’ll inevitably get people’s attention.

You can start with yourself, you know.

What’s going great that you want to do more of?

add to del.icio.us : Add to Blinkslist : add to furl : Digg it : add to ma.gnolia : Stumble It! : add to simpy : seed the vine : : : TailRank : post to facebook

Questions and answers

A close friend and loyal reader of this blog has asked me a question enough times that I thought I’d share it and take a stab at an answer:

“A number of your posts have questions without any answers, and you sometimes pose these to your readers as if THEY should have the answers.”

Implicit in the (paraphrased) question:

  1. Your job, Sasha, is to give or find answers for your readers
  2. If you don’t know the answers, how do you expect that your readers will?

Fair enough.

So here’s how I think about it.  When I started blogging a year and a half ago, I had no idea what I was getting in to or how big a step I was taking.   What does it take consistently to develop observations/thoughts/insights/questions and making them sharp enough that they’re worth sharing? This is the gift from readers to the blogs they follow, because without readers what you’d have is a journal (something I’m sure I would have abandoned long ago).   Without the audience, the thoughts won’t get completed; the ideas would lie there, undeveloped and fallow.  This is one of the many reasons I’m thankful to all of you for reading and for spreading the word.

Thank you.

The big unanswered question before you start blogging is: what’s “good enough” for a blog post?  At the outset, you can share all the totally-unique-this-one’s-really-important thoughts you’ve been storing up for a while.  But then you run out of those.  And, for me and for this blog (which isn’t a “I read this blog/article, and here’s my take on it” kind of blog) I know that if I thought each post had to contain a world-changing insight, I’d never post anything.

For me, blogging is the discipline of continuing the conversation I’ve begun with my readers and fellow bloggers, constrained by the time I’ve allotted to blogging given my already too-full plate. So when it’s time to post I am where I am: sometimes I have an insight, sometimes I have an observation, sometimes I have a reaction, and sometimes what I have is a question I think is worth asking.

And here’s the secret: when I ask the question and I don’t share the answer, it’s because I don’t KNOW the answer.  But forming the question and honing it into something worth posting requires refinement, it requires getting to the heart of something that’s I think is worth exploring.

And my hope is that you agree that figuring out which questions are worth asking is as important – maybe more important – as my take on answers.  If I can help you discover a question worth asking, you’re confronted (and I’m confronted) with thorny issues you (and I) would rather run away from.  By sifting through and distilling a good question, I hope to offer up something worth answering, a direction for focusing your (and my) energies.

So on the days I don’t have answers, success is a tough question that readers decide is worth sitting with, worth grappling with, worth sharing with a friend, and worth resolving.

(And when you come up with a great answer, by all means, let us know.)

add to del.icio.us : Add to Blinkslist : add to furl : Digg it : add to ma.gnolia : Stumble It! : add to simpy : seed the vine : : : TailRank : post to facebook

It’s not you

I busted my left knee a little more than 15 years ago in a skiing accident – torn ACL, meniscus tear, the works.  I was on ski vacation with 20 people I didn’t know, the guest of a member this big group.  The first morning, I awoke groggily at 7am to a foot of fresh snow piled on the window sills.  But most of the group slept in, and between putting on snow tires and getting ski rentals for nearly everyone, we only made it to the top of the mountain by noon.  Young, eager and frustrated, I soon pitched myself past a sign marked “cliff area.” Three turns in, I discovered a side of mountain without a lick of snow.  Crash!  It’s amazing I didn’t do more damage.

That was in 1993, and over the years I’ve quietly eliminated one high-impact sport after another in deference to my ailing knee. A year ago, my knee started acting up again, and with it went the last semi-high-impact activity – squash – that was left in my repertoire. The good news is that, thanks to a good (if gruff) orthopedic surgeon, a successful arthroscopic surgery and some rehab, I’m back on my feet, and slowly making my way back onto the squash court after a one-year hiatus.

As the excitement of getting back on the court has waned, I’m smack in the middle of ample opportunity for self-criticism – all the things my squash game once was and is no more. And this has gotten me thinking: how can I fix the things that I need to fix on the court without spending all my time thinking, “I’m terrible! This is awful! That’s an easy shot I just missed!”? How do I grow without all the self-criticism?

Which of course is connected to my professional life.

I’m a firm believer that the best jobs are ones that offer real opportunity for growth.  People often take that to mean jobs where you can take on more responsibility and get promoted, but I think that’s only half the equation.  The other half is finding an environment where people give real, constructive criticism (positive and negative) about what you can do to grow into the leader you want to be.  Work environments that encourage and nurture this kind of feedback are rare.  Rarer still is having the professional trust and personal confidence to be able to take on this kind of criticism, hear it for what it is (constructive), and integrate it in a positive way.

Which brings me back to the squash court, and all the games that I used to win that I’m currently losing.  And it’s forced me to ask: why is it easier to acknowledge a criticism on the court than it is at work?

I think the answer is that, on the squash court, (self) criticism is about what you do.  “Don’t stand too close to the ball.”  “Anticipate the next shot sooner.”  “Take your racquet back earlier.”

At work, self (or external) criticism feels like it’s about who you are.  So when someone gives you feedback on how you run meetings or speak in public or what you put in emails or the way you go about analyzing problems, you first reaction might be, “How dare he say that about me?”  

“About me,” not “about what I do.” This is where you might trip yourself up.

The trick is to remember that both situations are the same. Both are about what you do, and how doing some things differently, some other things more, and another set of things less, you can be more effective.

Separating yourself (the actor) from the things that you do (the action) might just give you the space to hear the criticism for what it is: an act of support; an offering by someone who wants you to succeed, showing you what you can do differently to be the leader you want to be.

add to del.icio.us : Add to Blinkslist : add to furl : Digg it : add to ma.gnolia : Stumble It! : add to simpy : seed the vine : : : TailRank : post to facebook

How we say ‘thanks’

Though I’m not plugged in to popular culture, I do try to catch the Oscars.  Like the Superbowl and the Olympics, it is a chance for the whole world to tune in and dream of a simpler world full of villains, heroes and movie stars.  The Oscars on Sunday night felt appropriately subdued, reminiscent of old-world Hollywood – complete with Hugh Jackman’s impressive retinue of song-and-dance numbers.

They tried something new this year.  In the major categories, Oscar winners from years past come on stage together to announce the 2008 nominees.  (Tony award winning actor Sarah Jones tweeted (@jonesarah) during the show “A bit disoriented by the multi-presenter format, it’s kind of like the ghosts of oscars past. Can’t decide whether I like.”)

I felt the same way at first, until the Best Actress award.  The five previous winners came on stage, a group of powerhouses:  Sophia Lauren, Halle Berry, Shirley MacLaine, Marion Cotillard, and Nicole Kidman.

The defining moment was when Shirley MacLaine spoke with genuine warmth and respect to Anne Hathaway, praising not only Hathaway’s work this past year in Rachael Getting Married but reflecting that she’ll be a star for years to come.  Hathaway was visibly moved, with tears welling up in her eyes.

Lately I’ve been involved in the selection process for a few sought-after positions – not quite Oscar-like in their desirability, but hundreds of applicants for a handful of spots (most recently the Acumen Fund Fellows Program).  What strikes me is that we (all, collectively) may be reasonably good at whittling down an applicant pool to, say, the top 10%, but when you only have spots for the “top” 1% or so, there’s no fair, totally objective answer to “who is best?”

Which is why I liked what they did at the Oscars this year.  There was real, honest thanks and acknowledgment offered to the nominees, and I suspect that Anne Hathaway’s night was a lot different than it would have been with a different format — one of film’s all-time greats sung her praises, to her and to the world.

Too often in life, the winners (who get the award, the job, the acceptance letter) win and the almost-winners get polite declines.  Can’t we do better?  Can’t we find ways to acknowledge and honor all the people who were really great and who put themselves out there…and can we go a step further to create communities that allow these outstanding people to connect with and support one another?

Giving thanks is a dying art.  In a world with more communication than ever, we have dwindling amounts of personal connection.  People are thirsty for genuine interaction that starts with candor, respect, and honest words of thanks.

How can we best begin?

add to del.icio.us : Add to Blinkslist : add to furl : Digg it : add to ma.gnolia : Stumble It! : add to simpy : seed the vine : : : TailRank : post to facebook

Welcome to 2009, my namesake

From the BBC, and hat tip to Chris Blattman’s blog:

A Ugandan woman has given birth to a baby girl on board an international flight from Amsterdam to Boston after going into labour mid-flight.

The six-pound (2.7kg) baby named Sasha was delivered on New Year’s Eve with the help of two doctors on the eight-hour-long Northwest Airlines flight.

Sasha was deemed a Canadian citizen for customs’ purposes because she was born over Canada’s airspace.

Mother and baby were taken to a Boston hospital on landing and are doing well.

For whatever reason, this makes me feel connected and reminds me how small, international, and interconnected our world is.

I’m not a big believer in New Year’s resolutions, but I do like the idea of turning over a new leaf.

The problem with most resolutions is that they’re based on an accomplishment (“I will lose 10 pounds”).  Real change comes by changing your orientation and attitude.  The outcome is a result.

Some suggested resolutions that you might be able to keep:

“Be more interested.”

“Be more open.”

“Be more generous.”

“Smile more.”

“Breathe.”

What I like about these resolutions is that every day, every moment really,  you  have the chance to accomplish this goal.

Happy New Year, to little Sasha and to all of you.

Becoming a must-read blog (or, tackling my RSS feeds)

As part of my year-end housecleaning, I’ve been trying to catch up on the 30 or so blogs that are in my RSS feed.  It’s been time-consuming and stressful.

(for those of you not using an RSS reader, I encourage you to start.  It makes blog-reading incredibly easy and frees up your Inbox too.  I use Bloglines but Google Reader or any reader out there will do).

I discovered that the blogs I subscribe to fall into four categories:

  1. Must-read blogs: absolutely read every day
  2. The contenders: potential to move to must-read status
  3. Shoulda/Coulda/Woulda: read only in catch-up mode/am planning to delete
  4. Wildcards: New, recently added, haven’t figured out what to do with them

“Must-read blogs” are the blogs I’m passionate about.  If someone asked me, “what blogs should I absolutely read?” these are the ones I’d name.  The rest are just the rest.

If you’re a blogger, think about what it takes to make it to someone’s must-read list: they have to hear about you, read a post, be excited by that post, read some more, add you to their reader or an email feed, and keep on reading daily…. until you’ve worked your way into the fabric of their day.  Phew!  That’s a lot of work.

So I’m flattered and thankful that I’ve made it onto some of your must-read lists.  I know how valuable your attention is and how short everyone is on time, and I know that every day you make a small decision to keep me on that list.  So thank you.

I do hope that you keep on reading, and that, when the mood strikes you (and I write a post that’s compelling enough) that you keep on spreading the word about this blog.  (Commenting and pingbacks and forwards all count).

Also, I’d like to ask you dedicated readers tell me more of what you’d like to hear about in 2009.  Write a comment on this post or just email me directly via the Contact form.

The corollary here is if you’re in a nonprofit, your constituents (Board members, advisors, donors) have their own implicit list of where you fit in with their priorities.  And it’s easy to confuse the people who have the biggest names or write the biggest checks with the people who are most important to you.

Hint: these people ARE important, but they’re often not as important as those people who put you on their “must-read list.”

For example, if a major donor just told you that they were planning on giving to you this year, but other organizations they support are more in need, you’ve just learned that you’re important to them but not at the top of their list.  Listen to that feedback and act on it in 2009.  You want to build an organization that’s at the top of lots of (powerful, smart, influential, visionary) people’s list, and you want to figure out how to engage and motivate those folks who love you best – to journey together with you in the coming year and to co-create the change you’re trying to make in the world.

Lots of work to do, but it’s exciting.

Here’s wishing all of you a Happy New Year.  You have my thanks and gratitude for tuning in.

Be well.