Monday, April 30, 2007

How to Be an Effective Manager

I’ve learned that there are four distinct styles of management: Directing, Supporting, Coaching, and Delegating. Each can be effective when applied in the right context.

One of the most intriguing aspects of management is that each person requires a slightly different approach to realize their full potential. A management approach that yields spectacular results with one person may result in abject failure with another. Even using the same approach on the same person for different tasks on different days may give significantly different results. I think that one of the great challenges of people management is the ability to recognize the skills and motivation of an individual and match your management style so that they are primed for success.

This seemingly simple goal – match your style to the individual you are managing – is very difficult to do well. It is hard to recognize an individual’s skill, confidence and motivation, especially as levels will vary from day to day and task to task. It’s challenging to pick the right management style for each situation. And it’s very hard to become comfortable with the wide variety of styles and approaches you’ll need to handle each situation.

Over the years, I’ve used a framework to make this task easier, and I believe it has made me a better manager. I use categories for individual development levels (competence, confidence, and motivation) and categories of management style that match to each. These are not hard and fast rules, but they help to take the mystery out of things.

The first step I take is to identify the level of development of the individual I am managing. I take into account their experience, training, past performance on similar tasks, confidence, personality, and level of excitement they have regarding the present task. I use this information to determine their competence and commitment. Competence is derived from experience, training and past performance. Commitment is derived from confidence, excitement, and individual personality characteristics. Using this information I categorize into one of four mental buckets. These don’t cover every scenario but they are what I’ve found to be the most common combinations:

1. Low competence, high commitment. This bucket tends to contain inexperienced or new team members. They often lack the training and experience to be highly competent, but they make up for it in enthusiasm and commitment to the job at hand.

2. Low to moderate competence, low commitment. This bucket contains poor performers as well as good performers who are temporarily frustrated. Frustration is usually caused by someone who wants to do a good job but doesn’t yet have the expertise to perform to their expectations. Here are some statements I’ve heard that indicate a person is in this bucket:

  • The task is harder than I thought
  • No one appreciates what I do
  • I’m not getting the help I need
  • The more I learn the more I realize how much more I need to know
  • The task is boring
  • I don’t like my job

The big difference between poor performers and good performers is the time they spend in this bucket. I always assume an individual wants to do well and will transition out of this bucket as quickly as they can. The longer they stay, the less optimistic I am that they will ever leave.

3. Moderate to high competence, moderate commitment. This bucket contains solid performers who are consistent contributors of high value. These are people who have good skills, but are held back by variable confidence or motivation. This bucket may contain potential superstars, but only a few are able to put it all together to make it to the next level. Most good contributors peak in this bucket and never leave.

4. High competence, high commitment. These are the superstars on any team. They are masters at what they do, they are confident, and they are highly motivated.

Keep in mind that someone can be a level 4 while working on one task and then move to a level 1 when working on something different that requires different skills. For instance, imagine a brilliant software engineer who decides he wants to become a lawyer. He may have the potential and the commitment, but he doesn’t yet have the skills. It’s also useful to recognize that people can bounce between levels from day to day based on personal circumstance and other events that impact motivation and confidence.

Once I identify the level of development, I match my style of management to it. Bucket 1 matches to style 1, bucket 2 to style 2, etc.:

1. Directing. This style requires a lot of hands on work. I spend time explaining the task, sometimes step-by-step. I show examples of success and failure. I identify clear goals, timelines and outcomes. I make the decisions. I provide a large amount of feedback both positive and constructive in order to accelerate their personal development.

2. Coaching. This style is more interactive than the directing style. I spend more time explaining my reasoning and the decision making processes. I give more access to behind-the-scenes thinking and start training the individual to make good decisions on their own. Although I involve the person in the decision making process, I still make the decisions. Goal setting in particular is more interactive as the individual is able to start taking ownership of their career and future success.

3. Supporting. In this style I give increasing amounts of responsibility to the individual. I’ll often ask them to take the lead tasks, planning or goal setting. I become more of a sounding board and resource rather than a force driving actions and success. Rather than telling the individual what to do, I’ll take the time to explain how to make the decision themselves. I spend more time asking questions, even if I know the answer. The thought process and learning experience is as important as the end decision. At this point, my focus is to remove road blocks, answer questions, provide support and encouragement, and help them continue to develop their skills and confidence.

4. Delegating. In this style I am primarily focused on empowerment. I help define the problem and then work with the individual to set goals and outcomes. I give encouragement and support so that the individual can take the lead in problem solving and decision making. A large portion of time goes toward recognizing and rewarding the individual’s contributions to the team. I am outspoken about the value they bring to the team, my high degree of trust, and then I challenge them to reach higher levels of contribution.

I’ve realized that some of these styles are more challenging for me than others. I’ve found that delegating and supporting come pretty natural to me, I tend to trust people until proven otherwise and these styles are primarily about trust and encouragement. Coaching is the most difficult for me. I sometimes find myself feeling that I am spending so much time explaining rationale and reasoning that it would be easier to do the job myself. However, coaching is an important style, everyone needs it at some point and if not given the proper guidance and management they can stagnate. I have found that the more time I spend on coaching the more competent I am in its use. I regularly challenge myself to become a better coach!

There are many ways I measure myself as a people manager, but these are the two that I think are most important:

  • Am I able to consistently move members of my team from low levels of development to high? Ideally everyone would move from bucket 1 to bucket 4 over time. I realize not everyone can make it to level 4, but I don’t want to be the one holding them back.
  • How effective is my team when I am gone? This is really a measure of the overall development level of my team. The more directing they require, the more impact my absence will make. If I return from a vacation and things have proceeded as if I had never left – I know I’ve been successful!

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Thursday, April 19, 2007

Mind Control and the Friendly Mouse Part 2

Mind Control and the Friendly Mouse has been one of my most popular posts. I've gotten lots of comments and questions on this, one reader even going so far as to add a comment with a link to pictures of a mouse getting friendly with a cat!

It seems there is pent up curiosity regarding the incident. If you are interested to see what it looked like, check out the following pictures.

1. Mario, the cat, inspecting the friendly mouse. Notice the mouse showing no fear in his beady little eyes.

2. Mario sniffs the mouse to make sure it is what he thinks it is.
3. Mario is confused, this isn't how mice normally behave!

4. The mouse just before I threw him out into the field. He is so relaxed that he's nearly asleep.
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Wednesday, April 18, 2007

How to Get Things Done

A couple of years ago I tried the following excercise - In 30 minutes, write down as many things as I could about how to get things done.

This is far from a complete list, just what I could complete during my self imposed time limit, but I think it is pretty useful. I won't go into details in this post, but will probably follow up with additional posts in areas I think warrant it. In fact, one of my previous posts is an expansion on one of the items in this list - Priorities for Tough Decisions.

How to Get Things Done
  • Know your values, be consistent
      • Do you want to manage or do you want to do?
      • How much influence and responsibility do you want?
      • How much time are you willing to devote to work?
      • What makes you excited to come to work in the morning?
      • What do you expect from the people around you?
  • Know your strengths and play to them
  • Know your weaknesses and pick what needs to be improved and leverage the strengths of people around you
  • Know how you react when under pressure – what does ‘unbalanced’ feel like?
      • Recognize when it is happening so you can adjust your thinking and become effective again
  • Don’t build technology for the sake of technology
      • Solve real problems, don’t treat work like a hobby
  • When making tradeoffs use the following priority stack
      • Company
      • Customer
      • Product
      • Team
      • You
  • Don’t take it personally – focus on getting the job done, not bruises to your ego
  • Set up for success
      • Yourself
      • Those working for you
      • If you know a task is going to fail, change the conditions or abort
      • Don’t just hope for success, have a plan that you know will get you there
  • If you are in trouble, ask for help
  • Don’t be afraid to ask questions
      • Even very smart people don’t know everything, those who don’t ask questions are usually scared, not all-knowing
  • Beware of experts
      • Don’t rely on experts to give you all the answers, do your own searching
  • Don’t be a bottleneck
      • This is done out of fear of losing control – allow yourself to trust
  • Before delegating a task, know the task.
      • Do you know how it can be done?
      • Do you know what success looks like?
      • Do you know level of effort and level of skill required?
  • Trailblaze (related to previous)
      • Push the limits, learn how to do something, then let others follow behind
  • Take risks, don’t be afraid to fail
  • Sharpen the axe
      • Don’t spend so much time getting things done that you never have time to improve process, tools, methodology, education, etc.
  • Postmortem
      • At the end of a project/milestone step back and ask how you did, what could go better, what should continue
  • Give feedback in real-time
      • People respond best to quick feedback – otherwise the connection is lost
  • Ask for feedback
      • If you aren’t getting feedback ask and ask and ask
      • Appreciate praise but seek out criticism
  • Be careful of friendships at work
      • Do you value the friend or the goal more highly?
  • Be honest about your limitations
      • If asked to do something you are ill-suited for, explain to your team why you may not be the best choice
      • But, don’t be afraid to jump in and do it anyway
  • Set expectations
      • Describe to your manager what you'll be able to accomplish
      • Describe to those working for you, what you expect from them
          • Be explicit about what makes you satisfied, happy, upset, etc. so they know what to expect
  • Hire for a role not for a personality
      • Don’t hire someone and then try to fit that person in to your organization.
      • Instead perform a gap analysis – know what you need, define a position, then look for the individual who represents the best fit.
  • Know how others see you
      • Are you a leader?
      • Are you effective?
      • Are you valued on the team?
  • Know your manager's priorities and how he is being evaluated for success
      • If your priorities misalign with management then:
          • Change your priorities
          • Or influence your manager to change their priorities
          • Or leave for a position that aligns better
  • Bring something to the table
      • In any relationship – team, coworker, company – know what value you bring
  • Dig into cracks
      • Look for signs of a problem in results or assumptions
      • Dig into the problem until you fully understand it
  • Know your long-term goals
      • Know where you want to be in 5 years so your current decisions have a long-term purpose.
  • Keep your options open
      • When making a decision that balances short term gain for long term flexibility lean toward long term flexibility
  • Know who your friends and enemies are
      • Who can you trust, who is competing with you, who wants you dead
  • Understand the root cause of objections raised by others
      • Are they based in reality?
      • Are they based on perceived threat?
      • Are they based on misinformation?
  • Reality vs. perception
      • Know what is real
      • Know what is the common perception
      • Know that perception will win over reality in group opinion
  • Be pragmatic
      • Do what it takes to achieve your goals without conflicting with your values.
      • Don’t be too idealistic or rigid in your approach
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Tuesday, April 17, 2007

How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Red Meat

Mad Cow Disease may not be as bad as you think.

I feel confident that no one would relish the idea of a damaged brain; but I expect I harbor even more protective feelings toward my mind than most people. My livelihood is based on the capabilities and agilities of my brain. I think it is natural to want to protect that which you rely upon for your living. I imagine that surgeons must be similarly protective about their fine-motor skills and the health of their hands. I never ride my bike or go skiing without a helmet, I always wear a seatbelt, I sleep well and eat well – all in service to my grey-matter. Even the slightest loss of mental acuity leaves me worried that my career could be in jeopardy.

When I first heard of Mad Cow Disease it terrified me, it was my worst fear materialized. Here was a disease that would riddle my brain full of holes, progressively impairing my ability to think and reason. I wouldn’t know the cause of the fog that slowly enfolded me and would fight in futility hoping to somehow regain the sharpness that I had once enjoyed. Eventually it would overcome me, a complete loss of mental function leading to coma and death. This mental picture was made worse by my realization that the disease wasn’t caused by a living virus or bacteria, but rather a prion – a complex protein that is able to reproduce without the need for DNA or any other structure that we normally associate with organisms. This fact makes the disease impersonal, unlikely to be treatable at any point in the future, and hopelessly irreversible. I immediately stopped eating cow meat; I stopped eating burgers, steaks, sausage, beef chili, or anything else that contained cow parts. When I learned that gelatin was made of cow bones and skin I tried to avoid that too, but without much success – gelatin is in almost everything! I felt I was doing well to reduce my exposure and had limited my risk to a reasonable degree, whenever I heard about an infected cow in the US or Canada I felt justified in the steps I was taking. As far as I could tell Mad Cow Disease was highly contagious, and any exposure to the prions could result in my infection.

I suppose that giving up cow had put me on the moral high-ground, as described in a commentary I read in Newsweek. The article portrays the struggles of a Rabbi coming to terms with the implications of his carnivorous ways. If you value life, how can you wish death upon an animal in order to sustain yourself?

“Once animals talked just like people. Once every living creature ate only grass and nuts and a few berries when they could find them. No living thing ever thought about killing another living thing to eat it, until the day Noah wanted a hamburger.

One night Noah dreamed of a hamburger, and when he woke up, he wanted one really badly. But Noah wasn't exactly sure how to get a hamburger, so he asked his friend the cow, “I dreamed about a hamburger last night. Do you know where I can get one?”

The cow gave Noah a puzzled look and asked, “What's a hamburger?”

“I don't know exactly,” Noah replied. “All I know is that in my dream the hamburger was something delicious between two buns with lettuce, onions, pickles and some special sauce.”

“Have some more grass and forget about it,” said the cow.

Noah asked the snake, who was the smartest of all the animals, “What's a hamburger and how can I get one?”

The snake whispered in Noah's ear, “To get one you have to make one.”

“I don't know how to make one.” Noah sputtered.

The snake laughed, pointed at the cow who was peacefully munching some grass, and said to Noah, “To make a hamburger, you have to kill that cow, chop up her meat, and fry it in a pan--or flame broil it!”

Noah's mouth opened wide, “But...but...the cow is my friend! She is a living thing just like me! I can't kill her, chop up her meat and fry it in a pan! And what is flame broiling anyway?”

By now the snake was rolling around on the ground laughing, “Kid, if you want a hamburger, that's what you gotta do.”

Well...Noah really wanted a hamburger and so that's what he really did! The first hamburger tasted delicious. But when Noah came again to the fields everything was different. When he walked towards the birds, they flew away. When Noah went over to say hello to the cows and the sheep and the buffalo, they ran away from him. Even the fish swam away when they heard Noah coming.

Noah could not understand what had happened to his friends the animals, and he could not find one single animal that would explain it to him. In fact, since the day Noah ate the first hamburger, no animal has ever talked to a person. They are still too angry.

I’ve since learned that Mad Cow Disease may not be as bad as I had thought. It is likely that most people are resistant to the prions that cause the disease. This theory is borne out by the fact that exposure to infected meat has numbered in the millions yet the death toll in Europe is less than 200. Prion-based diseases, whether Mad Cow or some other variant, all have the same root cause – Cannibalism. Cows get Mad Cow by eating feed that contains cow brains and other parts. People, in the distant (and not so distant) past, have gotten brain wasting diseases by eating people brains and other parts. According to ScienceDaily, cannibalism over the eons produced evolutionary pressure that has resulted in human resistance to prions. If your ancestors practiced cannibalism then you are likely to have a resistance. The more cannibalism, the more resistance!

I choose to believe that my ancestors must have been highly cannibalistic, therefore I must have a very high resistance to Mad Cow Disease. So high, that I can eat cows at will and indulge in steaks, burgers and sausage to my heart’s delight. I’ve learned to stop worrying and once again love red meat.

Lessons learned:

  • Mad Cow Disease is bad
  • Cannibalism protects from Mad Cow Disease
  • Most of our ancestors were happily eating each other before there were laws stating otherwise
  • Cannibalistic ancestors are good!

Related Articles:

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Wednesday, April 11, 2007

Are Good Decisions Based on Luck?

I've noticed that some people consistently make good decisions while others make terrible choices that leave them miserable. Is the difference based on luck, skill, or some mix of the two? My colleague Prashant posted his thoughts last night on the subject. He believes that skill is the most important factor and luck is something you create. He also shares his thoughts on how to become a better decision maker.

You can see his post here: Are you lucky?

If you are interested in seeing the project Prashant and I are working on for Microsoft, you can see it here: Visual Studio 2005 Team System Guidance

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Tuesday, April 10, 2007

Priorities for Tough Decisions

Tough decisions, by their nature, involve difficult tradeoffs. I’ve found that defining a framework of priorities up front, before being confronted with a tough decision, can make the decision-making task much easier. Brian Valentine, then a Senior Vice President at Microsoft and now at Amazon, taught me a priorities framework that has worked very well for me in the corporate world.

First priority is the Business. In the end, every decision needs to map to the success of the business.

Next priority is your Customers. All of your decisions should be in the best interest of your customers, unless it is in direct conflict with the success of your business. For instance, you probably wouldn’t sell a product at a loss – it may make your customer happy, but it’s not good for the business.

Next priority is the Product or Service you are selling. Your decision should ensure the success of what you are selling, but not at the expense of the customer or the business. For instance you may be selling a service that you want to be successful. However, if the service is a distraction from the success of your business or isn’t in the best interest of your customers, it shouldn’t be pursued.

Next priority is your Team. Your decision should keep your team happy, motivated and productive, unless it is damaging to your product, customers or business. For instance, you may need your team to work long hours to develop a product. It may not be what the team would like to be doing with their spare time, but it’s the right thing for your customers and business.

Final priority is your Self. If you focus on the other priorities first, success will come naturally. If you focus first on yourself, you are likely to hurt your team, your customers and your business – depriving yourself of the success you wanted.

Tip: Be careful not to do overdue it, keep long term consequences in mind when you make your decision. For instance, a few weeks of long hours may be a good tradeoff for a successful product launch, but a year of long hours may hurt your team badly enough that it will impact your customers and your business in the long run.

I think it’s beneficial to build a set of priorities for your personal, financial, emotional and spiritual life as well. As soon as I acknowledged that tough decisions require tradeoffs between various areas of my life that I care about, it was clear to me that I should build a priorities framework that mapped to my values and life circumstances. Once I had this framework in place I’ve found that I can make more consistent decisions that align with what I care about most.

How would you list your priorities?

What’s more important:

  • Career or family?
  • Emotional comfort or thrilling risks?
  • Material success or physical well being?
  • Connection with others or time alone?

Do the decisions you make support these priorities?

Monday, April 9, 2007

How to Recover From Repetitive Stress Injuries

Most people who work on a computer for a living will end up with some sort of repetitive stress injury such as Carpal Tunnel Syndrome or Wrist Tendonitis. This year I’ve had the uncommon experience of experiencing Ulnar Tunnel Syndrome, Golfer’s Elbow, Tennis Elbow and Wrist Tendonitis simultaneously. It takes a lot of work, and a measure of luck, to acquire all of these injuries at once. The recipe is as follows:

  • Work on a computer for years with constant use of keyboard and mouse. Slouching and other poor body positioning helps. Place your forearms on the edge of the table so there is a constant sharp pressure along the bottom of your arms.
  • Find a vertically overhanging roof and suspend yourself by hands and feet underneath it. Put all of your weight on one shoulder and twist till you feel grinding popping noises.Repeat three or four times because you really want to finish the climbing route! You’ll know when you have it right when your shoulder is hurting badly and it is hard to lift your arm.
  • Continue climbing but favor your hurt shoulder and place extra stress on your elbows. Over a couple of weeks you’ll develop a burning pain on the inside of both elbows that sticks with you day and night.
  • Go skiing with a 5 year old child (borrow one if you don’t have one). Place the child on a steep slope and watch them accelerate toward certain death. Ski toward the child at a very high rate of speed and Superman-tackle them so that you can save them from certain death. You are likely to lose at least one ski on impact and begin spinning wildly out of control. As you approach an obstacle (sign, tree, pole, etc) hit it with your elbow and back in order to spare the child from imminent injury. Extra points if your wife catches the whole thing on video.
  • Go skiing again with the 5 year old child. Since you’ve learned from the last experience, place the child on an easier slope and talk encouragingly. Ski sideways alongside the child so you can monitor their progress carefully and avoid another Superman incident. Catch an edge and instantly reduce speed from 20 mph to 0 mph via body flop and face/snow friction. Extra points if you hit with enough force to break your goggles.
  • Repeatedly hit the back of your elbow on walls, chairlifts, car doors, tables and countertops.

That should pretty much do it! You’ll know you have the injuries if you have constant pain on the insides and outsides of both elbows, numbness in your fingers and palms, pain in your wrist when bending it and so little strength that it hurts to wash your face.

Now that you have the same set of injuries I do, I can give you advice on how to recover. I spoke with multiple doctors, a physical therapist, and even visited an acupuncturist in a quest to bring you the most accurate and up to date information possible. I am not yet fully cured, the recovery process is more time consuming than the injury process, but I’ll pass along what I’ve learned in hopes that it will speed your recovery:

  • Make sure your workstation is ergonomic. Ergonomics information is widely available on the web so I’ll just give you the basics. Use plenty of padding to reduce pressure spots, focus on good posture in your seat, orient your monitor so that it is just above eye-level, and set your desk/chair height so that your arms fall naturally to the keyboard and mouse without unnatural reaching or shoulder hunching.
  • Buy a pair of IMAK Smart Gloves and wear them religiously. Ok, you’ll look really dorky if you wear them in public, so don’t do that. But wear them whenever you are at your computer and when you are sleeping. When you are working wear them padded side down so that you stay comfy and your wrists have no strain on them. When you are sleeping wear them splint side down so you are not able to curl your hands in and further inflame your tendons and nerves.
  • While you are on the IMAK site also buy wrist supports for mouse and keyboard. These will keep you from putting pressure on your arm’s nerve branches and allow your Ulnar or Carpal tunnel to start healing.
  • Buy Dragon NaturallySpeaking 9 speech recognition software. You’ll spend 30 minutes setting it up and then will be able to dictate most of what you write and save your arms from the repetitive stress pummeling that helped get you in this predicament to start with.
  • In order to improve speech recognition accuracy, buy a high quality microphone such as the Sennheiser ME3. You may feel like Britney Spears when you wear it, but your dictation accuracy will become markedly better.
  • Stretch 3 or 4 times per day. Put your hand up against a wall and bend your wrist outward, stretching so that you feel it your inner forearm and elbow. Next use one hand to bend the other hand in and stretch your outer forearm and elbow. Finally put your hands together as if you were in a praying position and extend the stretch downward until you feel it in your forearms. Hold each stretch for 20 seconds and repeat 2 times per arm. Stretch so it is mildly uncomfortable but no further, it’s possible to overstretch your tendons and nerves causing additional damage.
  • After you stretch, give yourself a friction massage on the affected tendons. Rub crosswise against the tendons, not lengthwise. Press firmly enough that the tendons move around but not so hard that there is pain. Massage for approximately 30 seconds around the bony knobs on the inside and outside of each elbow. If you have injuries to both elbows, the arm giving the massage may hurt more than the arm receiving it. If that’s the case, use a massage helper such as the TheraCane massager.
  • Heat or ice depending upon your level of inflammation. Press the bony knobs on either side of your elbows. If they are painful to the touch use ice, if they are not painful use heat. Ice or heat for 15-20 minutes per elbow.
  • Once you are on the road to recovery start arm exercises to strengthen the tendons and muscles. Wrist flexions, bicep curls and pushups all work well. Use low weights and high reps to protect the tendons. Exercising 3 times per week using 3 sets of 20 per exercise works well.


  • Inflammation in tendons takes a long time to reduce and is very easy to re-inflame. At the slightest sign of aggravation, stop what you are doing and rest for a while.
  • Take anti-inflammatory drugs such as ibuprofen for 3 or 4 weeks to get a head start on the inflammation.
  • During the weeks you are taking ibuprofen go easy on your arms, don’t exercise and work as little on a mouse and keyboard as possible.
  • Be careful about going to an acupuncturist. My experience was like being mercilessly stung by a dozen bees. I’ve heard it works well for some people. If repeatedly inserting cold steel into your body seems like a counterintuitive method of healing, skip acupuncture.
  • Be patient, it took a long time to gather the injuries, it’ll take at least as long to heal from them.

If you follow these tips for several months you should be well on your way to health and ready to get out there and acquire a whole new set of interesting injuries!

Friday, April 6, 2007

Good Australian Wine

A good friend of mine, whom I've known since high school, posted a set of Australian wine recommendations. My experience with Australian wines is pretty limited, but Tyler spent nearly a year in Australia and while he was there he was able to get a wide sampling. He's come back with some good recommendations, take a look at his post and let him know if you enjoy his picks.

How To Be an Effective Leader

I’ve spent the last 10 years leading teams of software developers, testers, and ethical hackers on a wide variety of highly technical projects in challenging conditions. I don’t think of myself as a natural leader. However, I have learned over the years how to be an effective leader, able to guide teams toward consistent success and the occasional heroic achievement. What makes for good leadership? What is it that allows some people to motivate teams and influence people while others spend just as much effort and are not able to accomplish these goals? I don’t believe there are many natural leaders; I think most effective leaders have to work hard at it. Leadership is a science as much as it is an art and there are principles that anyone can apply to become a more effective leader of people.

I think you could measure two things and accurately predict an individual’s ability to lead:

  • Differentiation. The ability to separate the emotional process from the intellectual process.
  • Clarity of Vision. An awareness of internal values as well as consistency and clarity in communicating those values as a compelling vision for change.

I first learned of these concepts through the research of Joan Fiore, Murray Bowen and Daniel Goleman. Fiore is an organizational consultant and leadership coach I met while at Microsoft. Goleman you’ve probably heard of, he wrote the book on Emotional Intelligence. Bowen may be a new name to you, he was a Psychotherapist with a focus on family therapy. Unsurprisingly, the principle of differentiation is as useful when looking for dysfunction in a family as it is when looking for dysfunction in any other type of organization. Differentiation, once I learned how to look for it, is a trait I’ve seen in every exceptional leader I’ve met. Being differentiated doesn’t mean ignoring your emotions; it means you are capable of taking your emotions as a source of input rather than as an always-accurate reflection of reality. Differentiation, at its core, is a measure of how well you are able to maintain your own individuality while simultaneously maintaining connection with others. Bowen developed a scale to measure differentiation:

  • 75 – 100: This person is principle oriented and goal driven. He is capable of evaluating other people’s viewpoints and is flexible in his thinking. He is able to take responsibility for himself and understands his responsibilities to others. He is able to tolerate intense emotions.
  • 50 – 75: This person’s intellectual and emotional processes are able to form a cooperative team. His intellect may overrule his emotions when it is in his best interest. He has a solid sense of self and is able to follow independent life goals. This person does not blame others for his failures nor does he feel that he has to give credit to others for his own successes.
  • 25 – 50: This person’s life is driven primarily by emotional responses, though there may be some flexibility. When he has low anxiety he can function as if he were more differentiated. As anxiety levels increase the emotional processes quickly overrun the intellectual processes. He spends a lot of energy on what other people think of him and toward winning the approval of others. His self esteem is dependent upon others, and his point of view may vary depending on the people he is in connection with.
  • 0 – 25: This person lives in a world dominated by feeling, in which they find it difficult to distinguish feeling from fact. He spends so much energy seeking approval and keeping harmony in his relationships that there is little energy left for productivity. Important decisions are based upon what feels right. Specific long term goals are very difficult to make.

The more differentiated an individual is, the more effective he will be when leading others.

Clarity of vision is an interesting concept. It turns out that the moral substance of the values behind the vision is less important than the ability to communicate the vision consistently and clearly. This is the reason leadership has no moral bounds – Martin Luther King Jr., Gandhi, and Hitler were all effective leaders though their moral systems varied widely. Individuals who know their values, can communicate them, and are consistent in acting on them are effective leaders.

Based on these principles I've discovered that the following traits result in the type of leadership that I am most interested in following and emulating:

  • Self Awareness. You are aware of your impact on others. You are aware of your own weaknesses and work toward mitigating them.
  • Self Regulation. You think before you act. You consistently act out of your value system. The people around you know what to expect from you.
  • Empathy. You are willing to trust and eager to empower. You are interested in listening and understanding other’s experiences.
  • Social Skills. You are able to connect with others and communicate well.
  • Motivation. You have a passion to lead, you desire to excel, and you actively want the best for your team and yourself.

It’s interesting to note that each of these is an internal trait. You don’t need to be in a leadership position to start improving them.

I've Joined Technorati

I joined Technorati today so I could more easily track site traffic, links to my blog, etc. Check it out here - My Technorati Profile.

Thursday, April 5, 2007

Good French Wine

There are few things that improve life more than a glass of good French wine. My favorites have an earthy, old world character that is hard to find anywhere else. I'm not a wine expert but I've spent the last few years exploring the world of wine looking for bottles that truly feel like drinking bottled sunshine. Here are a couple that I highly recommend trying. If you like them, let me know and I'll make a habit of posting more that you'll probably like just as much!

  • 2003 Roger Sabon Chateaneuf Du Pape Prestige - ~$70. Tastes like France! One of my favorites and worth the splurge for a special occasion.
  • 1995 Chateau Simard St. Emmilion - ~$30. Good way to get a 12 year old bottle of Bordeaux for a reasonable price. Smooth and muted.
  • 2005 George Dubeuf Domain Des Quatres Vents Fleurie - ~$10. Very good Beaujolais, mellow and not too fruity.

Mind Control and the Friendly Mouse

Half of the human population is infected with a mind altering parasite.

Last summer a curious incident occurred on my front porch between my cats and a friendly, portly mouse. It was strange enough that I spent some time puzzled by what I had seen. I was delighted to discover recently that what I had witnessed was nothing less than mind control exerted by a small parasite in the mouse’s brain that was trying to make passage from the mouse to my cats and ultimately into my own brain.

It was one of those summer days in which there were enough thunderstorm cells moving through our valley that the sky had been an unearthly purple color for hours. Between admiring the wind, the driving rain, and the exceptional shades of light and shadow I realize both of my cats were outside in the storm. My front porch is protected from the elements, and so that’s where I went to find them. Once outside I was surprised to see not two, but three pairs of eyes staring up at me. My cats had a visitor, a friend it seemed. He was a healthy looking field mouse with thick brown fur and a calm, almost sedate demeanor. If you’ve ever seen a mouse in the wild, or even in a pet store, you probably saw a lot of scurrying and nervous hiding. This mouse just sat next to my cats as if that was the most natural place in the world for him to be. Truth be told, I was a little disappointed and bit a put out. One of the primary reasons I’d bought the cats in the first place was to hunt mice and voles – they’d made a mess of my yard the year before. And yet, here were the cats with prey close at hand, docile prey at that, and there was no action. I asked my tomcat “Mario” to attack the mouse a couple of times but he showed no interest, not even when I picked him up and put him nose to nose with his adversary. The mouse didn’t even flinch, and Mario showed as much interest as if I’d been pointing him at a rock. In the end I picked up the mouse, wrapped in a rag to protect my fingers from sharp teeth, and I threw him out into the open field behind my house. I didn’t have the heart to do anything worse by him and I was starting to admire his pluck. The last memory I have of him is his stout little body, shaped like a brown, furry racquetball with legs sticking out, flying through the air.

I eventually chalked up the strange behavior to the storm, figuring that even predator and prey will make temporary peace in the face of a larger danger. It turns out that the answer may have been much more interesting. I recently read an article on about a parasite called Toxoplasma that can control the behavior of rats in order to gain entry into a cat host. A rat infected with Taxoplasma will lose its natural fear of cats and is instead attracted to them. Like the mouse I saw, the infected rat will purposefully place its life in danger in ways that make it more likely to be eaten by a cat. The Taxoplasma parasite is surprisingly precise in its manipulation of the rodent mind. The only attribute it modifies is the fear of cats, in all other ways the rat appears normal.

Half the human population is infected with Toxoplasma. Anyone who has been in close proximity to a cat, especially if you’ve cleaned a litter box, is in danger of infection. The parasite will move to your brain and slowly change your personality. You will feel more anxiety, self doubt, and guilt. Worst case, you will develop schizophrenia – this is especially dangerous if your mother had Toxoplasma while she was pregnant. Beyond that, the impact on men and women diverge. Men are more likely to become anti-social, fight and get in car accidents. Reaction times slow, concern with personal appearances decrease and people will find you less attractive. Conversely, and quite unfairly I think, women get a more positive effect. They become more warm-hearted, keep up their appearances, connect with friends, and are found more attractive by others. Once infected, you cannot be cured and the parasite population grows inside your body over the years. The infection rates are not consistent from country to country. For instance, France and Germany have a nearly 90% infection rate while other countries have 20% or lower. This variation in infection rates has the surprising side effect of impacting national character and improving diversity!

Reflecting back on the mouse, who I imagine has a whole neighborhood full of cat friends at this point, has made me realize how fragile my ideas of personality are. My sense of me is a collection of memories and personality. I’ve long realized that memories can be destroyed by time, accident, or disease. However, I’ve always felt that my personality was what truly gave me my sense of self. It turns out personality is just as fragile as memory and can also be altered by time, accident, or disease.

Lessons Learned:

  1. Don't trust mice
  2. Don't trust cats - I've always suspected they secretly want to eat me for dinner
  3. Men should never scoop the litter box!

You can find the article here:

To learn more about Toxoplasma's effect on personality and national character, see the UK Times article "Dangerrrr: cats could alter your personality":

Wednesday, April 4, 2007

Yellowstone Doomsday

I have an unhealthy tendency to worry about doomsday scenarios. I don’t think I’m alone in this regard. When I used to live in Seattle I actually did research on volcanoes in the Cascade Range and picked a house that would be outside the path of danger if Mount Rainier decided to do its worst.

And by worst I do mean worst. Rainier is not a simple volcano that would blow its top like Mount St. Helens. It is an unstable mash of rotten rock, ice and magma barely holding itself together. Without enough structural rigidity to support a proper explosion it would instead send tons upon tons of mud, and debris down slope as it sloughed off its outer skin. In a worst case the flow would cover most of the lower Puget sound, perhaps even pushing into the sound itself, altering the coast line dramatically.

Bracketing my chosen home location on the other side is Glacier Peak, another volcano with the potential for eruption – in fact it is the second most active volcano in Washington right after Mount St. Helens. The point being, I chose my neighborhood not just for the normal reasons like the fact it was close to a pond, was an easy commute to work, and had nice walking paths but also because it was just outside the zones of potential destruction posed by these two scary mountains. Oh yeah and it was also far enough from the city center that a small nuke wouldn’t take out my home… but maybe that’s getting too paranoid!

When I moved to Montana I thought I could put aside my earlier concerns about a geological disaster, but it turns out I was quite mistaken. Right in my backyard, a mere 90 miles away, sits the Yellowstone caldera. That’s probably why I didn’t figure the danger potential out right away, I’m pretty savvy to volcanoes now, but calderas? It turns out a caldera is a fancy name for a really, really big volcano. A Super Volcano! I’d moved from the frying pan to the fire. This puppy, if it exploded would take out everything for 600 miles – or as one of my favorite authors once said, “We’d all turn into bright smudges of color”. When I look at the circle representing the extent of destruction I noticed something funny… Seattle is just outside the zone that would be completely destroyed by a massive Yellowstone eruption – I’d been looking at the wrong maps!

Well it turns out I needn’t have been so worried. The scientists at the Yellowstone Volcano Observatory (the same ones that put out a daily Volcanic-Alert Level for my area) have just released a study on the likelihood of a Yellowstone induced Armageddon. They’ve concluded that Yellowstone is not due for a large eruption anytime soon, and may not have enough power left in the ground for another large eruption ever. That’s a relief, because the last two major eruptions, if they happened now, would be civilization ending events.

If you are interested, you can read the report here -

I learned two other important pieces of information along the way:

  1. My home insurance does cover volcanic eruptions
  2. The “woodpecker signal” is not a secret Russian plot to prod Yellowstone into blowing its top. If you want to know more about this wacky fact, Google it yourself.

Don't Focus on the Rocks

Have you ever noticed that the things you spend the most time and energy on avoiding are the very things that trip you up the hardest? I think it’s a common trap that is excruciatingly difficult to see when you are inside it. The fear feeds on itself and you can be caught in a vicious cycle of making your problems real through the very act of fearing and avoiding them.

I learned this pattern of behavior when I learned how to whitewater kayak. As a beginner kayaker I was presented with a large assortment of obstacles in the form of rocks, currents, and eddies. I didn’t have enough experience to turn these individual pieces into a pattern that I could paddled through unscathed. There was no flow. Instead I had to deal with each obstacle only to be quickly presented with the next one in turn. I kept running into rocks, hitting currents wrong and, in general, doing exactly the opposite of what I should be doing if I wanted to stay in my boat, dry, and uninjured. The harder I tried the worse it got. After a lot of hard knocks, and some good advice from more experienced boaters, I learned a secret to success. Instead of focusing on the obstacles, focus on the space between. The river is more powerful than you are, go with the flow, focus on the areas that will provide safe passage, and stop focusing on the rocks! Amazingly, all it took to become a decent kayaker was a willingness to relax, trust the water, and stop focusing so hard on all the parts of the river I didn’t want to go.

Wow, talk about a revelation. Once I recognized the pattern I started seeing it everywhere. First in mountain biking and skiing – don’t focus on the trees! Then in life in general: relationships, career, family, flying, public speaking. Almost every area of my life was affected. I stopped worrying so much about risks and problems and instead I focused on positive outcomes.

I’ve started to build an innate feel for when I’m in the flow. Sometimes life feels easy and I can tell I’m in the flow. Other times life is hard and it feels like my struggles are just making it worse – I’m out of the flow. Just like on a river, the difference between easy sailing and a rocky struggle can be a couple of small decisions that place you in the right current. In life, just as in kayaking, it is critical to see the larger patterns and know what small moves will have a large positive impact. When I can’t figure that out I am consigned to struggling with each crisis one at a time, only to have the next one rear its ugly head.

I have some thoughts about what it takes to recognize and stay in the flow but I’ll save that for another post.