Albert Einstein was perhaps the greatest thinker of the last century. Although he was very intelligent, he credited his successful theories not to his intelligence, but to “curiosity, concentration, perseverance, and self-criticism.” It is this last characteristic which, in my opinion, separated him from other great thinkers. It is also the attribute of self-criticism which separates great managers from the not-so-great. Read the rest of this entry
Last week California celebrated school bus driver day. I have worked with and around school bus drivers for almost my entire career. There is not a day where I don’t pause and appreciate the essential and often thankless job that drivers perform. In fact, during the year I make it a point to meet with each of our drivers. In these meetings I answer questions, solicit ideas, encourage feedback, and make sure the driver knows how I feel about their jobs.
In honor of School Bus Driver Day I share the following story obtained from one of my drivers in one of these meetings. It is not by any means unique. Rather, it is one of dozens (or thousands) of stories which demonstrate the caring, attentive, and supportive role that many, many bus drivers serve.
I too read/heard/watched the media “uproar” about the deplorable behavior of Rutgers’ basketball coach Mike Rice. I also watched and noticed the relatively little bad press the university received about the issue. In a set of circumstances reminiscent of the recent Penn State child abuse scandal, the university appears to have been well aware of the circumstances. However, like Penn State, for a myriad of reasons – not all of which we have heard yet – the university took no appreciable action until the viral video displaying Rice’s truly abusive behavior left them with no choice.
Organizational tendencies like this one are not just prevalent in universities or giant corporations. They permeate the very establishments we work in or do business with every day. In our own organizations how frequently do we deny, ignore, rationalize, or even cover up inappropriate behavior rather than confronting it and addressing it? If you’re in the student transportation business you know that school site or department that is definitely not doing things right. It’s not your job to fix it, but you’re certain that if it were, you’d address the pattern of not taking action on problems. Read the rest of this entry
I’m a recovering pessimist. I admit it. In fact, there are times I’m kind of proud of it. Being a cup-half-empty guy doesn’t mean that life is miserable. Quite the contrary; for me it means that I’m never extremely disappointed when something bad not-so-surprisingly occurs. I’m also frequently pleasantly surprised by that positive thing I was pretty sure wouldn’t happen. In fact, I would argue that being a realistic pessimist (some would call us healthy skeptics or even pragmatists) allows a certain freedom. Because I’m pessimistic I take the extra time to help prevent that horrible event that just might happen. This allows me the comfort of knowing that, when I celebrate a success, the celebration probably isn’t going to be interrupted by something awful. Healthy skepticism or pessimism encourages us to prepare for the worst. It frequently keeps us from being surprised and, in many ways, it makes us better managers.
The challenge, as a pessimist, is to not let your expectations bias other people’s actions. For example, whether or not I believe that the Zags (Gonzaga) will go out in the second round of the NCAA championships, despite being ranked #1 in the nation, shouldn’t impact how the team will play. If I were the coach however, it would be best if I kept my doubts to myself. As a leader, it is important to project confidence and a “can do” attitude. If you let your pessimism (or skepticism) rule then you are far less likely to succeed.
To lighten things up on our blog I’ve created the following quiz to help you determine if you’re a secret or out-of-the-closet pessimist too. Count the number of statements you agree with.
- When I don’t hear anything on the dispatch radio, instead of believing everything is functioning smoothly, I’m more likely to believe the radio isn’t working.
- When no one raises any questions after a complex training, I’m as likely to assume they didn’t “get it” rather than assuming we did such a good job teaching and they did such a good job learning.
- When the kids were young and they were “playing quietly” I just knew something was wrong.
- When the host or hostess tells you it will be a ten minute wait for your table, you know it’ll be longer (but they don’t want to lose you as a customer.)
- “No news” probably doesn’t mean “good news.”
- When you see a pint glass that has only 8 ounces of water in it you think either a) half empty or b) someone’s inefficiently assigned the wrong size glass for that water.
- When the weather forecaster says it will be clear with light breezes this weekend he is just as likely to be describing what’s going on in his head as the actual weather forecast.
- When the service company says they’ll be there between 8 and 12, they really mean they have no clue when they’ll be there and they’ll probably be there at 12:15 just after you’ve left home.
- The bus inspector will almost always choose to inspect the one bus that we were too nauseous to finish cleaning last night when returning from a nausea-inducing ride down the mountain.
- I’ve always had a fondness for the saying “The best predictor of future behavior is past behavior.”
- Rush hour seems to change based upon the time I get on the freeway.
If you agreed with 6 or more of the above statements, welcome to the club, fellow pessimist. Hold your head high (but watch out for low hanging objects.)
People sell thousands of management books with the promise of showing you how to create great ideas. Some companies or departments seem to churn out great ideas at an amazing rate, while others wouldn’t know a great idea if it was naked standing in front of them. No book can tell you how to create ideas but there’s an easy tip to creating environments where great ideas flourish. In fact, we can learn a lot from a simple children’s fairytale written by the great Danish author Hans Christian Andersen.
In 1839 H.C. Andersen published The Emperor’s New Clothes. It was originally going to be a simple morality story which taught a lesson about vanity. If you’re not familiar with it, do a quick internet search. (I’ll wait.) At the last minute the author decided to change the ending. Instead of everyone just seeing the king naked and admiring the invisible clothes, Andersen added a small child who reveals the emperor’s nakedness. This changed the moral of the story significantly. There was still a lesson about vanity but now we all have an invaluable lesson about “speaking truth to power.” That little boy also holds the secret to a truly creative workplace.
Many of us identify with that little boy. When we see things that are wrong, we feel compelled to speak up. However, most organizations don’t encourage or even tolerate that Andersen’s child in us. They don’t want us to expose their weaknesses or they don’t want to be challenged. Maybe they know things are wrong but they really don’t want employees or customers throwing it in their faces. Since these organizations don’t welcome feedback they are often exposed (both liability-wise and otherwise.) They don’t correct problems that are obvious to others.
Another, less obvious problem caused by squelching or ignoring feedback is that it also hinders creativity. Great organizations encourage the free flow of ideas. In this environment anyone can raise an idea to improve things. Those ideas don’t always see the light of day because everyone in the organization is able to (and even required to) check the idea against reality. If the idea’s not going to work, every person in the organization must shout it out. Every member of the best organizations is obligated to be Andersen’s little boy. Because of that, everyone is encouraged to come up with great ideas without worrying about going out into the world with no clothes.
Try it in your organization. Next time someone points out a reason why an idea won’t work, instead of being frustrated with their negativity, try thanking him/her but keep thinking up ideas. Some of them will be great.
I recently had the opportunity to see the movie Argo. The lead character, Tony Mendez – played by Ben Affleck, is a CIA extraction expert. That means it is his job to help people the U.S. government considers “important” out of countries where they are in danger. This particular story involves trying to extract six U.S. diplomats from post-revolution Iran. (For those of you that haven’t read about it or seen the movie, I won’t spoil it for you.) Needless to say, if your job is so important that people’s lives depend on your performance, it is essential that you are thoroughly trained and ready for the mission. We’d like to believe that Mendez spent much of his career learning and practicing the essential skills for his job. He had to have studied and practiced foreign languages, foreign cultures, weapons, strategies, and tactics. Although we don’t see this in the movie, we know it to be the case. Mendez’ bosses would not have entrusted him with such an important mission if they weren’t certain he was the best person for the job.
As someone who has performed trainings both here and abroad, of course I feel training is important. Otherwise, why do it? In these tight budget times, some organizations are unwisely trimming and cutting their training budgets. We all know of the operation that barely complies with mandated training hours but really is just going “through the motions.” They might look the other way when a portion of the pre-trip is skipped. They might overlook a student’s serious medical issue. They might even ignore or minimize a parent’s complaint. When what they see or hear doesn’t match what they trained, instead of revising or increasing training, these managers often point to compliance with the mandated minimums. Unfortunately, when something goes wrong they use the same reasoning to assuage their guilt.
For those transporting students or educating students with special needs, many more than the six lives with which Mendez was concerned are actually on the line every day. Our customers expect and deserve a level of performance which is exemplary. Modifying a famous quote from Seneca: “Heroism results when training and opportunity meet.” It’s our job to ensure that the expertise really is there and ready for our critical mission. I know I take the responsibility of training very seriously. Those I respect in our profession do as well. We don’t have Ben Affleck making movies about what we do. Our heroic efforts get less publicity. However, make no mistake about it, they are no less important.
I recently reviewed a few newspaper articles that I’d saved for later consideration. One item that caught my eye was written before the November election. It created a “word cloud” of one of the presidential debates. A quote from a political consultant interested me – since, being a dinosaur – I hadn’t heard of a word cloud. The consultant said, “Word clouds display the narrative and trajectory of a campaign’s emphasis and direction. They are extremely helpful in cutting through the clutter to visualize the strategy of a campaign.”
Here’s what I’m wondering: What would a word cloud created from your presentation at a safety meeting tell about what’s important to you? What would such a cloud created from your enthusiastic “back –to-school” orientation reveal about your “emphasis and direction” for the year? How often does the word “safety” actually come up? Do words of caring and compassion for children play a big role? Are their words that are significant because of their absence, and words that demonstrate your strategies when depicted visually that you really hadn’t intended to be prominent?
My web search of “word cloud” tells me there are a lot of tools available for generating a word cloud of written text. Most of them come across as neat ways to create an art form: “You can tweak your clouds with different fonts, layouts, and color schemes”; create something which is “visually stunning.” Others, however, focus on a word cloud as a means of analyzing a speech.
Political campaigns use word clouds to gauge the message they’re sending. Similarly, it could be interesting for each of us who communicates by written or spoken word to occasionally use one of the word cloud generators to see if we are saying what we mean, and are getting across points that are consistent with where we really want our emphases to be.
I think I’ll try it as I prepare for upcoming conferences. Perhaps you’ll consider doing the same for your own presentations. Let me know how/ if it works for you. — Peggy