My learning doesn’t stop

January 21, 2016

 

I’m learning with every step, becoming clearer, more curious, asking better questions that help others find more insight and clarity.  Here I’ve tried to trace some of this development:

  • As an undergraduate at Swarthmore College I learned to ask deep questions, to tell the truth, to be skeptical about making any assumptions, and to listen carefully to get past surface chatter.
  • My scientific training (at Swarthmore and at Harvard) taught me about creating and refining models. A model is useful because it leaves almost everything out, but can be problematic for the same reason — because it leaves almost everything out. We create and evaluate imperfect models all the time, and knowing how to deconstruct them is critical.
  • A summer working with the respected social scientists Robert Abelson and Philip Zimbardo on the manuscript for “Canvassing for Peace” gave me very practical experience developing strategy, testing its application on small sample sizes, responding to surprises, and implementing a revised and well grounded plan. It was also an opportunity for me to explore collaboration between academics and activists.
  • Several years working with the American Friends Service Committee – first as a member of their Peace Education Staff and then as director of public relations (at AFSC this was called “Information Services”) taught me how to target and focus messages about controversial topics — keeping some edge, but building on shared values and concerns.
  • Years of experience as a manager in a small rapidly growing software company, that during my tenure became a division of General Electric, taught me how to work effectively within complex organizations, collaborating with competing management segments. This job offered me a “sandbox” to learn about power, loyalty, innovation, and the importance of clearly defined mission and plan.
  • Working as an independent consultant – designing and developing information systems for business and non-profit organizations,or focusing on usability and user interface – I honed my skills of listening, of change management, and of assessment and evaluation.
  • Through all these years, I served on the boards of a variety of non-profit organizations – nurturing the Merriconeag Waldorf School (now called the Maine Coast Waldorf School) from a nursery and kindergarten into a K – 8 school with a million dollar building and significant organizational capacity, running a capital campaign for a Quaker study and conference center in Western Massachusetts, helping a local interfaith organization grow from a dream into a vibrant reality. I also had the opportunity to work with organizations that were seriously fractured, and learned what kinds of weaknesses most easily lead to failure, and how best to address these.
  • Participation in the year long “Leadership Intensive” program offered by the Institute for Civic Leadership (now called “Lift 360”) gave me a chance to reflect on all these experiences, to explore models of collaborative facilitation and leadership, and to develop more connections within the greater Portland business and non-profit community.
  • As a consultant to non-profits, I’ve honed my skills at facilitation, strategic planning, coaching, questioning, collaborating, and leading workshops and retreats.
  • For three years, I was Recording Clerk of the New England Yearly Meeting of Friends – taking minutes of week long gatherings at which as many as 500 Quakers from around New England conducted the society’s business. My task was to listen and record, with each formal minute approved as the meeting progressed. Often it was my job to suggest a minute that reflected the unity we had found, but also the matters that still required more work together. I was considered part of the session leadership, but viewed my role as a servant task.  I found my gift of helping a community find its voice — both the voice of its agreement, but also of the discord or lack of clarity.  It’s a gift to be able to articulate clearly the points of our disagreement.
  • I’m a great listener, a reconciler, and a creative force skilled in consensus-based approaches. I was one of the authors of book chapter on the process of Quaker decision making, and have often been called upon to help divergent groups work together. Working within complex organizations, I know how to formulate great questions, and draft talking points that will help others facilitate constructive change.
  • I’ve another life as a photographer of dance. While this might not appear to be parallel to the other experiences listed above, I do believe that deep engagement in a creative process – where even with best efforts things don’t always proceed as expected or as planned, and where agility can be as important as mastery – offers many lessons that are surprisingly applicable.

 

My best mistake (!)

September 6, 2012

Does something sound wrong with this title? Most of us want to trumpet our successes, and hide our mistakes. And yet it’s through important mistakes that we can learn the most important lessons.

With this thought in mind, here’s my “best” mistake. Mark (no, not his real name) had hired me before, as a consultant with two of his companies. And now he was CEO of an interesting multi-division firm, with lots of appeal. He brought me in first to rework systems in a smaller division, and then to work on the major corporate systems. I was doing a great job (or so I thought), even though I was running into resistance. Projects that create change always incite some resistance, so this was not a concern. But then Mark left the firm.

All of the sudden, I was alone, really reporting to nobody. Nobody owned the project that Mark had created. And, not surprisingly, I was asked to leave as well. It wasn’t because of my work, or my results. I was just an orphan, and nobody was a stakeholder in my success there.

What did I learn from this? Well, no longer after he left, Mark referred me to another firm, whose CEO, Peter, was a friend of his. Again, it was the CEO who wanted to hire me, and I was instrumental in his plans to bring the organization to another level. But I didn’t want to repeat the same boom and bust scenario again. So, this is what I set in place:

I insisted that Peter form a management team, to take supervisory responsibility for my work.

Each month, before I arrived for a week of week, they would set the agenda, identify goals, and develop detailed plans to insure that I was given the needed resources.

Then, after I finished my week of work, they would meet and review the results.

My work was valued, and so there were often conflicts about which projects were given to me. I could deflect all of these, pointing to the management team that was setting the agenda.

In short, I created a place for Arthur Fink the consultant in their management chart — even though I was never a full time (or even part time) employee. And even when Peter became the target of criticism for some of his decisions (or lack of decisions), I was well insulated from this political stuff.

Business, and the work of non-profit organizations, is all about relationships. But when your position of tied to one possibly frail connection based on one relationshp, everything is at risk. By creating groups or communities, and establishing relationships with them, one can be better informed and much better protected.

Making big mistakes

October 13, 2011

I still remember that deadly class period in Junior High School — social dance class.  After reminding us to stand up tall, lead firmly, look your partner right in the eye, smile, start with the right foot, listen to the music, be aware of other couples on the dance floor, point your feet straight forward, hope that your teeth were brushed and that your breath is okay, and more pointers that I’ve surely forgotten, she gave us one last piece of deadly advice:

 “If you take little steps, you’ll make only little mistakes”.

That was horrible advice for the dance floor and for life, for me in Junior High, and for every later period of my life.  Even as I first heard those words, I knew they were a motto for the life I didn’t want to live. Read the rest of this entry »

I was in junior high school, and it was time for our first “dance”. I put dance in quotes, because it wasn’t about dancing at all, but about sitting on the far side of the room, not getting to courage to ask a girl (young woman) to dance. Any real dancing happened in the mandatory dance class that our gym teacher taught. And that’s where I heard it:

If you take little steps, you’ll make little mistakes.

Yes, it’s true, the tiny step might not take me too far in the wrong direction.  And small steps in dancing might be more graceful.

But as advice for life . . . totally wrong! Look around, think ahead, plot your course, and take a real step.  Don’t be afraid of mistakes.

Mistakes?  The original  core values and beliefs ftext from Earthlink.com (an Internet Service Provider) included the statement that they encourage employees to make mistakes.  They’ve left out that part, but still include the following helpful clarification:

We see a huge difference between “good mistakes” (best effort, bad result) and “bad mistakes” (sloppiness or lack of effort).

With this distinction, it should be clear that the best response to not knowing how to dance isn’t taking small steps — it’s learning more about dancing, making a real effort.  The steps taken should be deliberate — not tentative — steps.

A dose of realism: It may be fine to take measured steps.  Introduce a new product, a new dish on the menu, a new service — but don’t bet the company, the restaurant, the consulting firm on this innovation.  Measure the resources you’re spending, and be aware that it might not work as planned.  Be prepared to lose sometimes, win often.  But don’t hide from your mistakes — embrace them!

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