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Soup And Flowers April 10, 2009

Posted by Chuck Musciano in Leadership.
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Jerry Clower often told the story of the best neighbor he ever knew, a fellow named Ben:

Many years ago, Ben lived next door to an elderly widower, Mr. Johnson, and took it upon himself to help his neighbor.  Every day, Ben made soup and carried it next door for lunch with the old man.

Eventually, the old man passed away.  As he had for many years, Ben made soup and carried it to the old man’s house.  There he found the house filled with flowers, with many mourners paying their respects to Ben, who was laid out in the parlor.  The other mourners laughed when Ben arrived.  “Why did you bring soup? Mr. Johnson is dead!”  Ben didn’t miss a beat: “He can taste my soup just as well as he can smell your flowers!”

More recently, Susan Mazza posted a blog entry on Hidden Heroes.  She talked about the hidden heroes in each of our lives, those people that quietly influenced us and made us better people.  She shared the story of her hidden hero, her mother-in-law Ada.  She also admonished her readers to make sure that we tell our hidden heroes how we feel about them, while we can.

The resulting comments are inspiring.  People shared who their heroes were, and many concluded by noting that they would make sure to share how they felt.

Tim Russert’s book, Wisdom Of Our Fathers, is a collection of tribute letters written by adult children, about their fathers.  These letters were inspired by Russert’s book, Big Russ and Me, which is a tribute to his father.  Russert got so many letters he compiled them into a book. Many of the letters end with a similar regret: “I wish I had told him…” or “If only he knew…”

Ben’s elderly neighbor may or may not have been a hero to Ben, but he knew how Ben felt about him every day.  While those who brought the flowers to the viewing could claim to have shared their feelings, tasting that soup every day meant a whole lot more than heaps of flowers, after the fact.

Susan’s readers heard the same call to share before it is too late, and will have the opportunity to let their heroes know how they feel.  Russert’s, for the most part, are not so lucky, and missed a chance to say a few words that, guaranteed, would mean more than anything else (anything else) to their Dad.

We all have that chance to share, every day, with people that mean a little or a lot to us.  As leaders, do our people know how we feel about them? Do your mentors know how they’ve helped and how you feel?  Conversely, are you so wrapped up in your job that you haven’t shared your feelings with a neighbor or relative?

Last week, I encouraged everyone to deliver pansies but plant tulips.  This week, take the time to make sure someone tastes your soup before your only choice is to carry them flowers.

The CIO Is In January 26, 2009

Posted by Chuck Musciano in Leadership.
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Like almost every other executive I have ever met, I have an open-door policy.  I look forward to talking to my team and appreciate those that take time to stop by and chat, on matters large and small.  I try to wander about as well, keeping in touch with people whenever possible.  In spite of this policy and my efforts, though, I still don’t get enough contact with my co-workers.  In short, being accessible is easier said than done.

A big part of the problem is that I have a hectic schedule.  I am often out of the office and hard to find.  When I’m in the office, I am often in meetings and unavailable.  Even if people wanted to talk to me, I can be hard to find and pin down.  For those who might be a bit reluctant to stop by, I am essentially unreachable.

To make myself more accessible, I started scheduling “Office Hours.”  Simply put, I promise my people that I will be in my office, otherwise unoccupied, for a set period of time each week.  Anyone who wants to see me can stop by and know that I will be available and ready to listen.  If no one shows up, I’ll certainly find other things to do; when they do, I set aside what I’m doing and focus on them.

When I started office hours, I laid out the rules so that people would know what to expect.  Here are the rules:

  • I will be in my office every Thursday, 1:30-3:30, except when I am on vacation or a serious emergency has occurred
  • Anyone can stop by to talk about anything they want
  • First come, first served.  If I am talking to someone else, put your name on a Post-It and stick it on the door.  I’ll call you back when I am available.
  • Except in rare circumstances, you cannot “book” time during office hours.  Just show up!
  • Except in rare circumstances, you can’t shut the door while we are talking.  I don’t want others to be put off by a closed door.  If you have a sensitive topic, we’ll set up a separate time where we can have some privacy and adequate time to discuss it.
  • Topics should be relatively brief (less than 15 minutes) to give time for others

Office hours have been a big success!   Many times, I am the pacing item on some project, for a signature, approval, or recommendation. People know I will be available for these kind of “quick hit” items during office hours, so they stop by and get things moving forward. Beyond these kind of items, people stop by for almost every imaginable topic: advice, personnel issues, venting, bouncing around ideas, and just saying hello.

Communication is crucial to our success as leaders and to our teams.  Office hours have had a big positive impact on communication within my team. What started as a quick experiment has turned into an important part of my weekly schedule.  I couldn’t imagine removing office hours from my schedule.  Give it a try; I hope you find it as useful as I have.

Listening and Waiting January 9, 2009

Posted by Chuck Musciano in Leadership.
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I recently overheard an exceptionally useful observation: “Some people listen.  Other people just wait to talk.”

Waiting to talk is easy.  While the other person rambles on, you can politely gather your thoughts and prepare your next statement.  When the noise level drops off for a moment, you can jump and and take your turn, sharing your very important thoughts and views.  At that point, the other person begins listening, of course, and you can hold the floor until you run our of ideas or breath.

Listening is hard.  To begin with, you have to pay attention.  You have to absorb what is being said and think about the ideas being presented.  There may not be enough time to come up with a response right away, and you may have to think and work a bit before you know what to say.  Some silence might occur as a result, which can be awkward.

The effort of listening is rewarded with valuable conversations.  Ideally, you’ll actually share ideas with someone else, and you might occasionally learn something. Everyone wins when people truly listen, even if you cannot agree on the topic at hand.

As leaders, communication is perhaps our most important tool.  It is easy to view communication as a stream of information from us to our teams: coaching, advising, cajoling, and directing.  But don’t forget: as soon as we stop listening, as soon as we start just waiting to talk, we lose a crucial connection with our people.  Listening builds respect and trust, something that can never happen if you are just waiting to talk.  And without respect and trust, true leadership can never occur.

So, what do you think?  I’m listening…

What’s Your Iron Boat? December 8, 2008

Posted by Chuck Musciano in Leadership.
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In planning for his great trek across the United States, Meriwether Lewis had a brilliant idea: a portable boat, made from a collapsible iron frame and covered in animal skins.  After leaving the Mississippi, his group would carry this boat until they reached the river rumored to extend to the Pacific, whereupon they would assemble the boat and sail away.  It was cutting edge technology for 1803 and Lewis absolutely loved the whole idea.

You can imagine what his men thought of it.  The boat frame was cast iron and weighed 176 pounds.  Fully assembled, it would be 42 feet long and could carry 8,000 pounds of men and equipment.  If you were one of the men assigned to lug the boat halfway across the United States, I’m guessing that you were not so enthused over the boss’ pet project.  You can almost hear the muttering and cursing as 176 pounds of iron were loaded up each morning and carried all day, day after day, across the continent.

Finally, the time came to assemble the boat.  Lewis had envisioned covering the boat in animal skins, sealing any holes with pine tar.  There were just two problems: they didn’t have enough animal skins, and there were no trees in the spot where they were building the boat.

For almost three weeks, from June 21 to July 9, 1805, Lewis directed his men to hunt elk and skin them.  It took a lot of elk to cover a 42-foot boat.  Every day, instead of heading west in the perfect weather of early summer, the men stayed in one place, shooting and skinning elk.  Lewis supervised, trying to figure out how to seal the boat without any tar.  Again, imagine the griping, growing each day, as the skins piled up and the boat slowly took form.

Finally it was time to put the boat in the water.  Within minutes, it sank.  Years of planning, months of dragging it across the country, weeks wasted for the skins, and the whole thing was over in an hour.  Lewis was embarrassed, certainly, and his men were vindicated.  Can’t you see them all at the river’s edge, biting their tongues and rolling their eyes, afraid to look at each other for fear of laughing at the boss?  I’ll bet no one could even say “boat” for the next week, without a lot of snickering from the back of crowd.

What is your iron boat?  What idea has captivated you, in spite of what your people are trying to tell you?  What bit of technology are you totally enamored of, regardless of its utter uselessness in the real world?  What piece of your plan made complete sense two years ago, but is now on the verge of sinking because you just won’t let it go?

Every leader has an iron boat, strapped to the backs of his or her team.  None of us can see the boat, but our people certainly can.  Are you listening for their feedback?  Do you trust them when they complain about your boat?  Are you humble enough to see your boat and let it go?

(For more on the spectacular trip of Lewis and Clark,
look for Undaunted Courage on my Books page)