Strong ideas, loosely held

One of the best pieces of advice I got about five years ago was that I should have “strong ideas, loosely held.”

The feedback I was getting was on the “loosely held” part. At the time people experienced me as having “strong ideas, strongly held.” I think I’ve made some good progress on that.

Five years hence, as I come back to the central paradox inherent in this notion, I’m understanding that the suggestion isn’t to have any less conviction around my ideas. Indeed nearly all of the time we need more conviction, more passion, greater commitment, and greater follow-through.

The real point here is that the passion we have for our own ideas must be coupled with a core, deep-seeded belief that most ideas, most of the time, get better when they interact with, and are changed by, other ideas.

What they say, what they mean

“I’m not saying that…” = “I AM saying that…”

“By the way…” = “The most important thing to me is…”

“I’ll be brief…” = “You’d better make yourself comfortable.”

“Oh, one last thing…” = “Listen up.”

“I’d like this presentation to be a real dialogue…” = “Shut up and listen…”

No irrational action

I used to dismiss what looked like irrational action.  I’d watch people’s behaviors and, when things didn’t make sense to me, I’d let it go.

“Sometimes people do things that just don’t make sense” was a safe refrain.  Maybe they didn’t have enough information or do the right analysis or sometimes actions just don’t make sense.  My overly-rational mind would see irrational action and deduce that the person had failed to analyze something properly, understand its implications, or explain themselves clearly.

Talk about a misdiagnosis.

People only do things that make sense (to them), and while I know we all make errors of judgment and analysis, these days anytime I have a “that just doesn’t make sense” reaction a little alarm bell goes off.

By way of analogy, I only recently figured out that getting really nervous about a new idea or a project – and feeling like maybe I should just drop it – is a great indicator that I’m on to something really important (nervousness = my lizard brain resisting me doing something significant and worthwhile).

Similarly, every time someone does or says something really irrational that’s a great moment to pay extra attention, to try to figure out what’s really going on – not rationally, on an emotional level.

These are great sensors to have on in fundraising situations, because it is so difficult (and slightly taboo) to talk about why and how real fundraising decisions are made.  You spend time in a long cultivation, building to what seems like a strong, jointly-developed funding opportunity, and at the last minute something veers completely off-course.

There’s no such thing as irrational action.

When I see an “irrational” response, I know that I’m the one whose information about, understanding of, and diagnosis of a situation is not (yet) on the mark.

It’s a great time to pay extra, not less, attention.  It’s a great time to listen more.

The main reason, also, by the way

I used to think listening to people had to be pretty easy since, I figured, it was their job to say what they meant.

That feels like one of the biggest misconceptions I carried around (for way too long) –  it’s flawed on numerous levels, including but not limited to its American-ness (since culturally we value directness more than just about anyone).  It also willfully ignores how people come to conclusions and how people (especially persuasive people) explain their conclusions.

Put it this way: if Jonathan Haidt is right (and I think he is), we make decisions with our hearts (maybe our gut, or our elephant) and then explain and rationalize them with our heads (the rider).  To me that means that what we say to explain these decisions is necessarily a rational (re)construction of truth, rather than the truth itself: we will construct a story that uses the core truth as a springboard and then assembles the pieces that will be, in our judgment, most persuasive and palatable to the listener.

With this in mind, when someone is explaining something (a plan, a proposal, a decision) to me and he says…:

  • The main reason we should do this is….
  • also it has to do with….
  • and, by the way, there’s this one other small reason….

…it seems to me that the most logical thing to expect is that people’s “main” and “also” reasons are the series of facts/explanations that will be most convincing to me.

This makes the “by the way” a great candidate for what’s really going on.

Your (brand) essence is not an inert element

For many years, as is typical in more junior roles in most big companies, I spent most of my time inside the organization.  Working hard, doing client or customer work, but really on the inside.  From there I had a view of what my company was and what it represented in the world, but that view was mostly informed by whatever the company wanted to tell its employees.

But then I got into the real world: I interacted with customers, funders, competitors; I gave talks on my company’s behalf and saw the reaction people had (good and bad) during and after my remarks; I was required, day in and day out, to understand and distill who we were and what we represented in the world; and then I heard back, just as frequently, whether and how what I was saying resonated with people.  If I listened hard, new truths emerged.

In the words, reactions, challenges, and excitement you hear back, you learn a lot.  You discover surprising things that you knew and that were dormant.  You connect dots in unexpected ways.  You see yourself through other people’s eyes, and have the chance to bring that energy back into the organization.

By spending time right at the edge of your organization, you react to the outside world, and in that process of reaction, your brand and its positioning change, evolve, and sharpen.  Your brand has an active reaction every time it has one of these interactions.

I used to think that CEO’s like Jeff Immelt spent a lot of time with customers just to hear the truth about what GE did and didn’t deliver on in the customers’ eyes.  I’ve begun to understand that it’s only through spending time looking outside that Jeff, or any of us, can figure out who we really are, what our company or organization represents, and what it can become.


No hobbies

People dabble in everything.  Restaurants and bed n’ breakfasts are popular semi-serious pursuits – romantic ideas right up until the moment when you’re mopping the floors or scrubbing pots with ammonia at 2am.  Then, they’re just hard work.

Of course restaurants that don’t work flame out (not 9 out of 10, which is the conventional wisdom, but three out of five in the first five years): if not enough people come through the door to buy dinner – or if you don’t manage your staff right, or purchasing right, or any other number of things – you don’t make ends meet and you’re forced to close up shop.

Nonprofit work is a sometimes hobby too, but without the floor-scrubbing to keep us honest.  So nonprofit service, philanthropy, board service or a part-time CEO role can be something we do a little bit on the side, when it’s easy and convenient (meaning: a little bit well) because, well, doing something is better than doing nothing.

It’s not though.

Doing something poorly and inattentively, especially service work, can be worse than nothing, because we’re making promises we can’t keep to people to whom too many promises have already been broken.  Real lives, real hopes, real dreams walk through our doors every day, and if we don’t treat these dreams with the respect, the seriousness, and the professionalism they deserve, we and they are better off just staying home.

We can do this just a few hours a week, do this as part of something bigger, do this in whatever way works in our lives.  But no hobbies, please.  It’s just too important.


How are you doing? How are you doing? How are you doing?

Last week I went to my 20-year high school reunion – which was neither as dreadful nor as exciting as the hype would lead one to believe.

Over the course of a few hours, a group of people (most of whom live in the same city even when not reunion-ing) who once knew each other well assemble to engage in a speed-dating type dance, trading 2-5 minute updates on the last 10-20 years of their lives.  Mostly I found it positive to hear how people have grown, the paths they are walking, how they are making their way through the world.

What’s unique about a reunion is that it combines long-lost friendship (trust, openness) with the expectation that you’ll give shorthand update on a few decades of your life.  There’s an intimacy that’s absent from cocktail party conversations, which I found breeds honesty and directness if you actually stand up and listen.

Perhaps most interesting was the simple answer to the question, “How are you doing?” asked repeatedly.  In the context of a high school reunion, this innocent phrase carries some real weight.  Peoples’ short answers to this question revealed joy, excitement, the desire to impress, openness, closedness, happiness, disappointment…the whole gamut, if you listened closely.

Hearing 30 people answer this same question in 60 minutes certainly made me think about how quickly first impressions are made.  And then I thought: wait a minute, maybe high school reunions aren’t any different at all in terms of what you can learn from how folks (how you, how I) answer this question.

Fundraising tip

Silence is your friend.

When you’ve shared the great work that you’re doing, when the person across the table from you is clearly excited and ready to jump in with both feet, and when you’ve asked them to make a significant donation…then be quiet.

They probably feel a little uncomfortable at this exact moment.  You probably do too.

If you’re an empathetic person (which you obviously are), you’ll be dying to rescue them from being uncomfortable, and you’ll do it by filling in the silence.

Don’t do it.

If the partnership is the right one, and the funding decision is the right one, then the kindest thing you can do is stay quiet.

Let them fill the silence by saying yes.

Tacky plastic

Some thoughts for the upcoming holiday season.

A few years ago my wife and I bought my son a beautiful, wooden, ecologically friendly, made-in-Thailand-from-recycled-materials airport set.

Guess who they’re selling that product to?  Me.

Guess who never played with it?  My son.

It took us a while to admit that our kids want the big, tacky, plastic toy with the characters they recognize.  As a parent I get to choose how much I want to try to change this, but my starting point had been getting them what I wanted them to want instead of what they wanted.

How often do we do this with our customers?  Any person who is successful at building relationships, at selling, at partnership will tell you that the key is “good listening.”  The word “listening” causes confusion because (especially to someone who’s not a good listener) it sounds like it’s talking about the literal act of what the person is saying.  To me, “good listening” means consistently hearing what the person is actually saying (irrespective of the words being said).

My kids were saying they wanted Disney or Star Wars stuff with lights and sounds.  Your customers might be saying that they want something other than what you hope they want or think they need.

What are your customers saying?

Do you understand the words…

Listening is probably the most important and least developed skill for creating strong relationships and connecting with people.

I’m reminded of the great moment in the movie Rush Hour, in which Chris Tucker’s character shouts at Jackie Chan, “Do you UNDERSTAND the WORDS that are coming out of my MOUTH???!!!” (it’s funnier when he says it), because we often fail to do just that.

The stage is set before the meeting, when you decide, out loud or quietly, to care or not to care about what the person you’re meeting has to say.  How much you (pre)judge will have a huge impact on your head space as you go into the meeting.  Just think of the attitude you adopt when sitting down for a conversation with a mentor versus when you sit down with a cranky customer who, you feel, complains all the time.  Night and day, for most of us, in terms of how much real listening we do.

And then in the meeting itself, it starts with actually hearing the words that are coming out of the person’s mouth.  What mostly gets in the way here is:

  1. Thinking about the last thing the person said, instead of what they’re saying right now
  2. Thinking about the last thing YOU said, and how you could have said it differently
  3. Dreaming up the next clever thing you’re going to say
  4. Just plain being distracted

For inspiration, remember one of the most basic techniques for remembering names when you meet someone new.  When someone introduces themselves to you, you repeat their name back to them a few times.  “Hi Celeste, it’s very nice to meet you Celeste.”

You not necessarily going to repeat back what people are saying (though it’s amazing how often it is appropriate to say, “So what I’m hearing you say is…..”), but you can bring that same level of attention to what the person is saying.  Plus, the simple act of deciding, no matter how awkward it feels, to pay more attention will (a)Probably force you over time to get into the habit; and (b)Make the person feel like she’s being heard.

(by the way, this all applies equally well in job interviews, in first meetings, in conversations with work colleagues, with your spouse, with your children.  It’s a universal skill.)

So before your next meeting, think about Rush Hour.  Because having a smile on your face doesn’t hurt either…and think, “Yes, I UNDERSTAND the WORDS that are coming out of your MOUTH!!”

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