Generosity Thresholds

It’s understood in manufacturing that to be sure you hit a certain standard, your production quality needs to exceed that standard by the amount of the variability of your process.

This means that for processes with high degrees of variability, you need to be way above the standard, so that even when things get messy you’re still staying above the standard. For illustrative purposes, a typical control chart.

In assembly-line manufacturing, the goal is to exceed the standard and to decrease variability, since quality delivered beyond the spec is wasted resource.

I’ve been thinking about how this thinking applies to us as human beings, given how variable we are by nature. It’s true that part of our own deep work – in terms of groundedness, mindfulness, good habits for sleep, food, relationships and health – is to become less variable despite all the vagaries of day to day life.

At the same time, we are (and I certainly am) still, by our very nature, more variable than any manufacturing process. Variability—in our mood, attitude, hopefulness, tolerance, optimism, to name a few—is what makes us human.

And yet there are standards we must hit in terms of how we show up in the world: a minimum threshold for treating everyone with respect, staying fully present, always seeing the best in those around us, being patient, raising others up, being generous of spirit….

And all of this not just because it’s the right thing to do, but also because, for any of these core behaviors, that one time we fail to meet the mark on something so fundamental can, like one bad meal at a restaurant, destroy trust that’s taken years to build.

The only solution I see is to show up with an over-abundance of all the behaviors that matter. We show up with, and practice, excessive respect, presence, patience, raising others up, being generous of spirit and seeing the best of those around us. So that we are sure that, each and every moment of every day, we are above the emotional line.

This extra generosity, kindness, respect, patience, and care are the opposite of the “wasted” resource when we over-deliver on manufacturing quality—indeed they replicate and ripple out in positive ways that are impossible to imagine or quantify.

Plus, living above and beyond in how we show up to others is self-reinforcing. Over time, we  continually and effortlessly keep raising the bar.

Following up on my follow up

I no longer try to reply immediately to every email. It’s not only impossible, it leaves me reactive, tired, and less productive (though very busy). I still try to be very responsive most of the time, and even this only works if I’m pithy while also being predictable and clear when it will take me longer to reply.

Everyone has their own approach to managing their communication flow, and part of the trick is to get my flow and someone else’s flow in sync. This boils down to is a series of pairings: my communication has a tone, a style, and a cadence; and, when a communication flow is working well, that evolves into a nice groove of clear mutual expectations (again, in terms of tone, style and cadence) with the people I’m in touch with regularly.

Where things get dicey is in higher stakes, infrequent communications – and these are the ones that we want to be getting right: reconnecting with a (potential) donor; reaching out to invite someone to speak at your conference; asking for advice from someone I don’t know.

The unspoken reality is that, in the absence of a strong existing relationship, the person doing the cold call (email) is taking advantage of the email medium to interrupt someone and borrow some of their attention. The only way this works is either by being exceptionally brief and clear in these sorts of notes (which seems to happen almost never), or by writing a note that itself adds value in exchange for that interruption (by being interesting or useful to the recipient, not to the sender).

Lately I’ve been noticing a lot of bad email etiquette that wrongly supposes that no one will notice or care about being interrupted and asked for something. This feels like the unintended consequence of an unstated but widely-followed norm that personal emails merit a personal reply, even when they don’t.  The result is more and more people asking for things without stopping to think about how to complete the circle of the ask they are making.

Hints that this is going wrong are phrases like: “I know we haven’t been in touch for a while, but…” “I realize I’m emailing out of the blue, but…” “Things got busy on my end, but I’d like to continue the conversation we started…” and, the worst, “You don’t know me but…” Essentially, any first sentence with a “but” in it is a problem.

(Even worse is any chain that contains any of the above phrases and is followed, one day later, by some version of “Hey, why haven’t you replied to my out of the blue email that I wrote on my timeline in the hopes of getting your attention?”)

Email can be quick and immediate, but relationships are not, and trust is earned or unearned each and every day. Don’t be confused by the medium (quick, easy, immediate) and the expectations of the people who are reading your notes.  The technology has evolved very quickly, but our expectations march to a different drummer.

The ties that bind us

I’m OK with grumpy and tough, with funny and jolly.

I’m OK with hard-edged and soft, warm and cool, clever and obtuse, quick and slow, brassy and classy. You can laugh or cry – or not – that’s all fine with me.

But kindness is something I can’t budge on.  We’ve all seen that someone who is nice in all the right ways to all the right people, and then her true colors come out when she thinks no one’s looking and she has nothing to lose.

A person who is consistently kind is a person with humility.  In being kind, no matter what, she chooses not to create separation by tearing others down.  Her kindness demonstrates respect.  It shows that she knows that she shares her humanity with everyone she interacts with.  It even shows confidence: by extending a hand to another, in ways big and small, whenever she can, she shows that she knows that raising others up doesn’t cost anything, doesn’t use up any scarce resource.

Kindness is abundance manifest.

The Yankees put safety first

I’m no big baseball fan, but I was excited to go to a friend’s surprise 40th birthday party at Yankee stadium the other night. In addition to wanting to celebrate with a friend, it felt like a very New York thing to do.

I happily rediscovered that Yankee stadium is really easy to get to by public transportation – Google maps told me I could take any of three subway routes or Metro North. I got there from downtown Manhattan in 30 minutes, taking the A train to 145th street and transferring to the B train along with the guy in the Yankee’s jersey who was trading stories with his 9-year-old daughter who was going with him to the game.

I got off at 161st street and I made my way to Gate 4. There was a guy inspecting each bag perfunctorily and asking each person to turn on their cellphone, which I didn’t pay any attention to until he told me I couldn’t bring my bike helmet into the stadium.

My bike helmet? The bike helmet I wear so that I can use the Citibikes that are Mayor Bloomberg’s pride and joy?

“Why?” I asked.

“It’s a security risk….If you like you can talk to my supervisor.”

The supervisor was worse. He talked to me for a minute, then got a call on his cellphone and disappeared. I waited. Five minutes later I went back to the first guy and asked for the supervisor again. When he came back out, my pleas notwithstanding, he told me there was no way the helmet could come in, no way they could hang on to it for 5 minutes while I got my friend’s car keys to put it in her car, no way I could leave it behind one of the many desks in the lobby. What I could do was go to the nearest locker, which apparently was seven blocks away at a bar.

“What do you suggest I do?” I asked.

“What you do with your property is not my concern, sir.”

(I beg to differ. I didn’t have a “disposing of or storing my innocuous property” problem until I bumped into you.)

So there I am, outside of Yankee stadium, the clock ticking on the “surprise” moment in the surprise birthday party, with an apparently illicit mostly-foam bike helmet that I have no way to store or dispose of. I wish I’d known at the time that there is no mention whatsoever of bike helmets not being allowed in Yankee Stadium on the Yankee Stadium Security Policies web page (though it says laptops are not permitted, and they are), but I didn’t. So instead I pleaded a bit more, I asked for more explanation, and I’m told that a bike helmet can be used as a weapon, at which point it also didn’t occur to me to say that a beer bottle would be a better weapon, as would a full soda can, both of which I later had access to inside the stadium.

Trapped, powerless, and out of time, I gave in. I walked 20 yards to a nearby lamp post and clipped the helmet on to it, assuming I’d never see the helmet again but secretly hoping that the better angels of human nature would prevail; that something hidden in plain sight would somehow be overlooked; or that the surly supervisor would surreptitiously keep an eye on my helmet for me (it was in his line of sight), as a sort of karmic payback for being so woefully unhelpful and unsympathetic.

Sadly, there was no happy ending. When I got back a couple of hours later the helmet was gone.

The helmet only cost me 30 bucks at Dick’s Sporting Goods, and this is mostly a trivial story – except for how patently absurd the whole thing is, how an incredibly low bar wasn’t crossed by anyone who could have said “hey, this is crazy, go ahead” or “let me help in some small way,” and how it’s so easy to have rules and institutions and just a little bit of power, be abused, even in the smallest of ways.

And, if Citibike is going to become a real part of the fabric of New York City life, perhaps our fine Mayor, as a parting gesture, could mandate a blanket permission for bike helmets to be allowed in buildings, museums, and, yes, stadiums.

Otherwise, pretty soon I’ll get sick of buying new helmets, and will be tempted to flaunt all the rules and sit outside the game with my helmet and a 32 ounce soda, jeering.

Deep and abiding respect for…

…the philanthropists who, along with you, make it all possible.

The philanthropists who dare to dream of a different, better world.

The philanthropist who decides, when she doesn’t have to, to do something, not just to talk about it.

The easy thing to do is to badmouth fundraising, to slight it in some way, to say that you’re above it or say that you respect it but you don’t know how to do it and you don’t really want to do it. It’s easy to say that it’s someone else’s job – because how important, how strategic, is it really?

It’s easy to, quietly and behind closed doors, gripe about how hard fundraising is…and then to chuckle about how difficult some donors themselves are…and then to slide down the slippery slope all the way down to a lack of real, deep, abiding respect.

Without that respect, you’re a terrible fundraiser. Without that respect, change doesn’t happen. Without that respect, you don’t get the chance to meet and learn from the incredible philanthropist who combines exceptional success and accomplishment with off-the-charts humility.

Without that respect, you don’t get to change, they don’t get to change, the world doesn’t get to change.

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.



Twice in the last week I’ve been on important conference calls where severe “telephonitis” set in.  “Telephonitis” is the process whereby otherwise conversant, engaged, active people become silent in the face of a group conference call.

Maybe someday videoconferencing will become the norm, but I think phone calls are here to stay – at least for the next few decades.

You probably conduct enough business with meetings by phone that this is worth correcting.  Here’s where you can start:

  1. Create an “in the room” role.  You assign someone (or have them spontaneously volunteer) to be the voice of the sentiment “in the room,” explaining to people on the phone what’s going on.  This person fills in the silences with comments like, “Yes, everyone agrees,” or “Angela, you look like you’re not convinced by that last remark, can you tell us what’s on your mind?”
  2. When silence starts to set in, start cold calling people.  This has two effects: making sure you’re hearing from people, and creating an incentive (for those who don’t like being called on) for people to speak up when they have something to say.
  3. Create a norm that when an important question comes up, you’ll go around the horn and ask everyone to say something
  4. Have people who are not “in the room” lead the call.  Keeps them engaged and validates that just because they’re on the phone doesn’t mean they are less important.
  5. Never equate silence with agreement. It’s bad enough to do this in person.  Worse still on the phone.
  6. Keep calls short.  More than 30 minutes on the phone and you’ve probably lost the person dialing in.
  7. Keep groups small.  Less than 4 is ideal, but 6 or fewer seems to work.  After that, see above.

It’s almost impossible to overestimate how hard it is for someone on the phone to stay engaged in a conversation without visual / physical cues as feedback.  And if the person on the phone is not engaged (if they are a listener) or not getting feedback (if they are a speaker), you’re missed the entire point of a meeting – to inform the people who are on the call and, often, to get their input or assent to a set of decisions.

And one last suggestion: if you’re asking people to call in to a conference call at an inhumane time (very early or very late), be religious about starting the call on time.  It’s the easiest way to show respect for people who aren’t in the room.

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Everybody wants something

The next time you sit down to talk to someone in a professional setting, remind yourself that that person wants something.  There’s a reason they are sitting across from you.  Their reason may even be that they want to help you. But they have their own separate motivations and agenda.

It’s so easy to get tied up in what YOU want that you forget altogether that the person with whom your speaking has an agenda, has wants, has needs, has motivations.

I find that remembering this actually makes it easier, not harder, to ask for things.  It allows you to say, “You and I are both here for a reason, and if we have a good meeting we will get something done – something will happen as the result of our conversation.  This means that I don’t have to pretend that I’m talking with you just to make conversation.”

In fact, I think it’s a great show of respect – of people’s time, their worth, their value – to be clear and upfront that there’s a reason you are meeting with them.

This isn’t to say that there isn’t an art to asking for things.  There is.  But it’s so easy to talk yourself out of making that ask that it helps to remember that the person to whom you’re speaking wants something too.

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