Accompaniment

I got to spend the afternoon cooking with one of my daughters. We were making quinoa latkes, a recipe I highly recommend (even if you’re neither a vegetarian nor making piles of latkes for Hanukkah.) They’re delicious and, except for the bit where you cook them in oil, extremely healthy—they’re made with sweet potatoes, kale, quinoa, ginger, panko and eggs.

My daughter is a great baker and a good cook, so she’s comfortable in the kitchen. That said, even though she wanted to be in charge of making the quinoa latkes, she needed help, from time to time, in the form of accompaniment.

Accompaniment, when done successfully, allows someone to succeed at a new, stretch assignment while feeling supported along the way.

In this case, my daughter understood and could follow and execute the recipe. But there were a few steps that stumped her: How much should the boiling water bubble before turning down the flame on the quinoa? Do you use a peeler and grater on fresh ginger? How soft, exactly, do the sweet potatoes need to be?

Each of these questions was a quick, easy answer, small enough that they required very little from me, but important enough that without them she could have gotten stuck.

While she was cooking, I busied myself with other kitchen tasks: peeling and chopping up a big butternut squash and cutting up a pile of Brussel Sprouts for later. This was a good choice, because it kept me nearby—not pulled into another task—while also reminding me to resist my natural tendency to help a little too much (also known as “taking over”).

The latkes were great, and the lesson on accompaniment is one I’ll take forward into 2020.

When we accompany successfully we inhabit the essential space between giving too much freedom (“here’s what you need to get done, here’s how I’d like to you to do it, let me know if you need anything”) and too much direction (micromanagement). This allows the person you’re supporting to stay in the driver’s seat, even in the face of challenges, and to feel supported in overcoming these challenges without giving up control and agency. At its best, successful accompaniment begets pride in accomplishment, an increase in trust, and more confidence for the next task.

Of course, pulling this off when standing next to a family member, together in the kitchen on a relaxed holiday afternoon, isn’t too hard. Finding this balance—of staying present, available, and quick to help—in the midst of the push and pull of our busy days and jobs is harder.

The two must-haves are staying aware and being highly available and communicative.

  1. Staying aware: find a way to continually track, in a light-touch way, the progress of the person you’re supporting, so you always know whether things are on or off track and can be ready to help.
  2. Being highly available and communicative: it’s your job to demonstrate that the door is wide open and that, even though you’re not involved every step of the way, you are present and available. Being there to jump in quickly to solve a problem, and then pulling back again to give back the reins, is a great way to ensure that someone feels supported and still in control.

One final note: I want to thank all of you for accompanying me throughout 2019. I hope you’ve found this year’s posts useful, and that they’ve supported you in the important work that you do. I wish you all a happy, healthy 2020.

How we Support Each Other

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about what it takes to sustain someone trying to make a difference in the world, and about the kind of virtual contract we need to sign with each other if we are going to do this work together.

Here’s a starting list for what I’d put in that contract:

I will answer your call, even if I haven’t heard from you lately. Because I know that if you’re calling, it’s important.

When we speak, I will be there fully for you – emotionally as well as intellectually.

I will care for you.

I will express support and love.

I will ask tough questions, and I will be willing to search for answers with you.

I will help you hold up a mirror to yourself.

I will always show up in service of your purpose, which sometimes means holding your feet to the fire.

I will be kind, and tough, gentle and strong.

I will remind you of why you do this work.

I will help you to see that you are stronger than you think you are, and that you are stronger than you feel right now.

Additions welcome…

Why we need more and better groups to support social sector leaders

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about leadership development for the social sector, and how best to design programs that create the longest-lasting impact.

The starting question I’ve been asking is: what is it about the kind of leadership required for this kind of work that’s special, different, unique?

One of characteristics of this work is that it is long-term by nature. While it sounds (and is) exciting and motivating to “live a life of purpose,” the secretly difficult part is that when you’re ultimately measuring your success in terms of societal change, it’s easy to feel like you’re not making any real progress. Growing topline revenues is one thing; overcoming systemic bias and exclusion in a national education system is another.  One lends itself to quarterly reports; the other measures progress over decades. 

This is part of the reason that burnout is so common. It’s not because the work can be grueling, though it can be. It’s because the change one is working towards happens at a communal and a societal level, not just at the level of an institution or a company. To counteract the natural sense of alone-ness that this type of work can create, those engaged in social change need to create and embed themselves in strong and supportive cohorts of other change-makers, others who are walking this path with them.

Jonathan Haidt, in Chapter 10 of his book The Righteous Mind, beautifully captures the texture of how groups can transform the experience of individuals. In describing army veterans’ experience in battle, he quotes William McNeil, an army veteran and historian.  “McNeill studied accounts of men in battle and found that men risk their lives not so much for their country or their ideals as for their comrades-in-arms.” McNeill continues:

Many veterans who are honest with themselves will admit, I believe, that the experience of communal effort in battle . . . has been the high point of their lives. . . . Their “I” passes insensibly into a “we,” “my” becomes “our,” and individual fate loses its central importance. . . . I believe that it is nothing less than the assurance of immortality that makes self sacrifice at these moments so relatively easy. . . . I may fall, but I do not die, for that which is real in me goes forward and lives on in the comrades for whom I gave up my life.

This observation speaks to a paradox of social change work: we get into it because of a sense of higher purpose, but we need something beyond this high-minded objective to sustain us beyond the first few months or few years. To pull that off – to succeed at recommitting ourselves time and again to our higher purpose – we need to be part of a collective. The right kind of collective (cohort, comrades in arms…the language is less important) helps our ego-driven selves dissolve into the acts of service that further the objectives of the group as a whole.

It strikes me that the notion of the heroic entrepreneurial leader isn’t helping us here. This isn’t a framing that pushes us to create the kinds of infrastructure that help larger numbers of people develop and sustain their commitment to a life of service. Amazing generals don’t materialize fully formed, they emerge from a collective that has a strong sense of norms, identity, and values as well as a well-honed approach to tackle the problems at hand.   In fact, while it’s certainly lonely at the top nearly everywhere, I’d argue that it’s lonelier still at the top of a social purpose organization that has a multi-decades time horizon to make change.

This is not a path one can or should walk alone.

What this means is that one of the biggest and highest-leverage way to invest in this ecosystem may be to facilitate the creation of the sort of deep and lasting bonds needed to sustain a lifetime of commitment to the work of making a difference.

The nod

Earlier this year, I had a chance to give one of the biggest, highest-pressure talks of my life. Going in, I was nervous, but overall I felt pretty good about it. The topic was interesting, the narrative arc of the story compelling, and I felt like I’d done enough “big talks” to be ready for this one.

Because this talk was filmed, there was a formal dress rehearsal for all of the speakers a few hours before we went on stage. This was a chance to iron out any bumps in the talks, get a final bit of feedback from the event organizers, and make sure that the talk took less than the allotted 10 minutes.

As I sat listening to the other speakers rehearse, I was reminded of my time as a high school wrestler, when I’d always be a bundle of nerves on the sidelines before the match. In a wrestling meet, the matches progress by weight class. I remember watching each of my teammates finish their matches and walk off the mat, and how I’d feel a huge pang of envy that they’d gotten it over with and my turn was yet to come.

The first speaker nailed her talk. So did the second one. On and on….Deep breath.

Finally I was up. I started, and though I made a few wrong turns and hit a couple of dead ends, it seemed like the talk was going fine. Then, two-thirds of the way in, one of the staff from the event team raised a sign saying I was out of time. My 10 minutes were up. I mumbled my way through the last few minutes, and walked off in a cold sweat.

What a moment to discover that timing myself reading the talk and timing myself actually speaking were two different things. It turns out that I speak about a third slower than I read. Great.

I had exactly 120 minutes to cut one third of my talk and re-learn the shortened version. In those two hours, it was as if that quiet voice in the back of my head, the insidious one that whispers “you are going to fail!” suddenly had a microphone and it was drowning out any clear thinking or sense that I could pull this off.

Thankfully, I had help. Friends and colleagues rushed to my side to sift through what should stay and what should go, and, after pacing and sweating and delivering my rewritten talk as many times as I could to an empty room, I stood in front of the audience and in front of the cameras to give the new talk.

That’s when I received a gift.

All the other speakers – the people who hadn’t made the mistake I had, the ones I was secretly jealous of – were in the audience in the front row. And as I looked out to them just before the cameras started rolling, they were a collective source of positive energy. As I started to speak, many of their faces lit up – they smiled, they nodded, they affirmed. This group that had seen me fail just two hours ago had clearly decided that they wanted to help me succeed. And so they morphed into a band of new friends who, with every nod and smile, rooted me on and communicated that I could do it.

It’s so easy to focus on the guy or gal at the front of the room, sweating under the lights. This is why it’s so easy to forget the real gifts we can deliver from any seat.

The opportunities to lead, to support, to encourage, to reinforce, and, yes, to cheer on – even with something as simple as a smile and a nod – those opportunities are everywhere, and they are (and we are) much more capable than we realize to help others shine.

(HT: Shooting an Elephant)

TGIM

“It’s almost there. Today’s Thursday,” I hear a fellow passenger say to her friend as we all walk off the train. Yet another person counting the seconds until the weekend.

(At that moment, she had 115,200 seconds to go.)

On and on we tromp down the endless treadmill, until, perhaps, we step up and step off.

It is especially rare to wake up one day and muster the courage to jump off alone. The treadmill’s moving too fast, and we might hurt ourselves when we jump.

What gets us there is the slow, consistent work of finding like-minded people to dream with, to experiment with, to discover what a different world might look like. We draw our courage from them, as they do from us.

When the moment finally does come to leap, we are surrounded by a community trust, that catches us, shows us the way, and cushions the fall.

Happy Monday to you.

7 words to increase your productivity

“What would help me the most is…”

Whether to a peer, a boss, a Board member, someone you are fundraising from or a friend, the act of clearly and specifically asking for help is transformative.

Of course it is easier to sit on the sidelines bemoaning the one thing that someone didn’t do.  This gives you a person to blame and it keeps you off the hook for taking the next step.

Or, you can take the much more powerful step of (figuring out and) asking for that one thing that would really make a difference.

And then you can get on with the important work of make the changes that only you can make.

Closing the loop

In asking for help, you are often giving a gift to someone – exposing your own need and vulnerability (which can be hard), and giving them an option to shine.

You are not necessarily incurring a debt of any kind, but instead (when you ask in a genuine way for a genuine thing) are giving someone the chance to be generous.

You have the same opportunity to be generous in return.  Sure, you can thank someone.  Much better, though, is to let them know how their help helped – be very active here, very specific, and share your success, bathe them in that same warm glow.

You’ll feel better and they will too.  Otherwise, they might feel like all they’ve done is howl at the moon.

In asking for help, you are often giving a gift to someone – exposing your own need and vulnerability (which can be hard), and giving them an option to shine.

You are not necessarily incurring a debt of any kind, but instead (when you ask in a genuine way for a genuine thing) are giving someone the chance to be generous.

You should take that same opportunity.  Sure, you can thank them.  Much better, though, is to let them know how their help helped.  Share in your success.  Bathe them in that same warm glow.

You’ll feel better and they will too.

In asking for help, you are often giving a gift to someone – exposing your own need and vulnerability (which can be hard), and giving them an option to shine.

You are not necessarily incurring a debt of any kind, but instead (when you ask in a genuine way for a genuine thing) are giving someone the chance to be generous.

You should take that same opportunity.  Sure, you can thank them.  Much better, though, is to let them know how their help helped.  Share in your success.  Bathe them in that same warm glow.

You’ll feel better and they will too.  Otherwise, they might feel like all they’ve done is howl at the moon.

 

Otherwise, they might feel like all they’ve done is howl at the moon.

 

Critics’ critiques and cheerleaders’ cheers

There was a guy I went to school with who earned the (affectionate) nickname “Yes, but…”

In any discussion, whether of microeconomic models or where to go for lunch, he started most sentneces with a nod to the contradiction, the course correction, the “on the other hand” point of view he was about to espouse.

In fact most humanities academia is built on the “Yes, but” philosophy – a peer writes a paper, the academic finds a small flaw or oversight and writes a follow-up article exposing that small miss…and in so doing gets her next piece of work published (which is the main milestone in academia).

No surprise, then, that the “yes, but” mindset passes for “critical thinking” which, in turn, is raised to the highest pedistal in our instituitons of higher learning.  “Yes, but…” comments score points with teachers (“great analysis, kid!”) and are the safest form of one-upmanship.

I used to be a terrible offender.  From a good and honest place, and a heartfelt desire to come up with the best solutions, I was most comfortable and most in the habit of finding the logical flaws and asking the tough questions.

I have a colleague who does the opposite, and from whom I’ve learned a lot.  She has an uncanny ability to find what is best, what is most inspiring, what is unique about what someone has said or done, and she shines a light on it with a smile and with no apologies.

When you’re blazing a new path, you’re constantly dogged by critics’ critiques of all the reasons that this won’t work, why it’s been done before and it crashed and burned, why it would be better if you just did it the way everyone else does.  And, of course, sometimes they’ll be right, but usually not.  They’re doing the easy thing: playing the clever, detached critic.

Much harder, and less celebrated, is to be a cheerleader who applauds victories, however small; who props people up when fatigue sets in, when the road seems to long, or when they have, just for a second, lost the will to go even one step further.   In work as in life, when times are really tough, those voices of support are priceless, especially from cheerleaders who help you break through barriers, who lean in with you, who are fully invested in YOUR success – rather than taking pot shots from the sidelines.