Keeping it front and center

As some of you know I started back to the gym this year after a long absence with some legitimate excuses, I had a hernia that made exercise excruciating and that took a long time to fix while I waited for insurance to kick in and even longer to recover from, and some lame one’s, any other excuse I came up with for the past few years. In order to track progress I keep a calendar up front and center on my computer. It shows how much I weigh everyday and what amount of exercise I have done. I have a few set routines that work on cardio and strength development I picked up from my personal trainer I had in Shanghai and track how much I do each time go . Most importantly the calendar shows that I go. Showing up is really the key here, if I show up the exercise is easy.

So let’s just say the calendar is there de-bunk my own bullshit. I realized today that I hadn’t been to the gym in ten days. I was out of town for a few days, but the doesn’t justify missing ten days strung together. Sooo… either I go today or it adds up to eleven days. The calendar doesn’t lie. It’s incapable of lying it records data, so I will be going to the gym to fix the situation. Forget the excuses and just get the calendar back on track.

The other side to that is to examine my schedule and look where I can find time to squeeze in my gym time when things get busy. At some point I have to make those ten lost days come into focus as a chance to break what ever habits I let get between me and the gym. To me the whole reason of keeping track isn’t about seeing where I am going. I have a scale and a mirror for that. The calendar is for catching my own bs. It is for letting me know when I have used my normally best friend, my “bad-ass rational thinking,” and used it to substitute a reason to move off track. The thing is failing to hit the target or listen to my inner bs doesn’t make me “bad.” It shows me that I have the luxury to miss my target. I know have the luxury to figure out how to get on track. That’s worth celebrating.

Since I write this Blog about doing business in China unsurprisingly I can find a way link my own gym experience back to my work experience. The thing I find here coaching young leaders is that as their companies are find ways to better measure their out put and how they benchmark their KPI it is getting clearer. As a direct result it is getting harder for them to substitute BS and lay blame in other places for missing targets. As companies here learn how to keep it front and center it means that the young managers and leaders here have a tough evolutionary jump to make. At the same time older leaders are failing to make the jump to work in a results driven system.

This leads to a couple of serious issues for leaders both young, let’s say 35 and under, and old, let’s just say the folks managing the younger leaders since many of them are also under 35. Let’s start with the first common problem I see, demanding to just see the results. Strict adherence to results is great if you are landing on the Moon, for example, when you have no error for margin. You also have no way to exceed results either you land on the Moon perfectly or you fail and something goes wrong which can in fact be disastrous.

What happens when you miss the Moon and hit the stars...

One can in most business cases not only both fail to hit your targets but also exceed them. In my gym experience this would equate to going five time a week instead three or four. Yes, you sometimes hit your targets as well. By strictly demanding results you find a few things happen. The first is you make excuses impossible and by keeping metrics up front and center keep the pressure on to perform according to those metrics. In essence there is nothing wrong there since it eliminates passing blame and excuse making both of which are fairly common no matter where you are and create no useful results for anyone. The second is you stop serious recognition of what worked or what turned out to be a lucky break when you hit or exceed your target. Most seriously you turn off the ability to reflect on success or failure and learn from what works and what doesn’t. If your goal is to become results driven this means in the long run your drive to focus on results starts to kill excellence rather than drive it forward because you don’t learn how to replicate success or reduce factors that lead to failure.

On a more serious note I find more and more young leaders and specialists internalizing failed results as a sign that they are failures. From a measurable psychometric point of view we see this in increased emotional volatility, higher stress levels, and lower mental health. In other words when you turn results into a pure metric evaluation you not only turn off learning you injure the psychic fabric of the people you are responsible to develop and lead to greatness. Now that clear metric evaluation is starting to take hold here in China the next big challenge that those of us in the field of people development face is turning how we interpret those results into a meaningful action that both drives business but also keeps the younger and more emotionally vulnerable leaders moving forward rather than breaking down and burning out.

Since we can actually measure the damage done (and positive emotional support as well) to young leaders I suggest we turn this into part of the leadership metrics in China. I also suggest that we actually create dialogue among our people leaders as to what they are doing to damage their successors and high potentials or conversely what they are doing to foster greatness. Keeping this sort of discussion front and center with business results makes for a more empathic and healthier work experience.

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What do you mean you don’t like Ketchup?

I recently read that children go through their “terrible two’s” in part because they are experiencing the world through a huge cognitive mile stone, they understand that what happens in their mind does not necessarily happen in other people’s minds, which they do up until that point. This of course reminded me of my own son who went through a period of loving ketchup. At some point between the age of 18 months and two years ketchup wound up on his plate and he began to eat ketchup on anything, in large quantities, and by the handful. If that sounds off putting remember this simple fact children at that age assume everything in their mind to be true for what’s happening in our mind. Ergo “if I love ketchup Mom and Dad will gladly eat the ketchup off my hands that I offer to them because they too will love by the tiny fistful.” It is much more off putting to have an infant fist covered in ketchup shoved in your face with the words, “delicious Daddy eat some.”

Tastes good...

From the terrible two’s onward there is nothing as exciting or frustrating as learning that what happens in our mind doesn’t always happen in other people’s minds. As Augustus is now three and a half it is exciting for him to see what we do differently or know differently from him ranging from “do you know that guy?” to “what do cars eat?” there is a lot he wants to know. Unsurprisingly it is when we don’t match up our thoughts or we as parents are inscrutable to him that we have conflict. Whether it be because we expect him in bed at a certain time, we don’t understand what he wants to watch on TV, or we expect him to wash his hand after going to the bathroom all of these incidents are rich with potential for an argument. Throw in the inability to really communicate well with an agreed upon language (or three in his case) and things can get rocky really fast.

That said it isn’t too hard to draw parallels from my son to anyone living and working in a “foreign” culture and environment. On one hand we really want to understand (or in many cases be understood) as we as people want to know what it feels like to be other people. We want to be able to see or feel what it’s like to be any another person’s shoes in part to look for similarities and in many cases to see the differences. Consider this parallel it’s like meeting someone with a very exciting day job like fire-fighter, when we ask about that person’s job it’s in part because we want to know what it feels like to rescue someone from a burning building because let’s face it as much as we might love our own jobs in most cases we are stuck at desks and not out saving the day. We want to experience the differences in our lives to enrich our own day to day experience, I can only imagine my disappointment if I met a fire-fighter and discovered he/she spent several hours a day making power point slides and designing workbooks.

On the other hand once we have a degree of familiarity in our day to day lives and we are in a context where those differences are no longer greeted with wonder we have a potential for a true failure to connect. As people we are conditioned to sort for similarity and difference we either expect things to be the same and therefore see similarities or expect differences and therefore only see those differences. In NLP this is one of many “Meta-Models” that describes how are brains work.

Now imagine you work regularly with someone who comes from a different cultural or national background. The odds are about 50-50 that every time they have a conversation with you (and you with them) that the conversation is already being drafted from the point of view that a. you both already will look at it from the same perspective and should expect a harmonious chat or b. you two are inherently different and things could go bad very quickly if that one thing you/ or they do happens again and people can’t seem to understand each other.

I know this isn’t only relegated to cross cultural circumstances, you can think about interacting with anyone close to you and see where the first example either went over well or ended in shock or in the second example where things were set to fail from the beginning. So what does this all mean? It means to make the way we communicate across cultures we almost need to come up with a “C” model that blends both. Like saying, “This is ketchup I like it a lot. How do you feel about ketchup? I somewhat expect you won’t like it but I think it would be great if you do because I like pleasant surprises. Also it’s no big deal if you don’t like Ketchup.” Of course on larger issues politics, religion, personal hygiene it can sometime be hard to accept the last line, “it’s no big deal” but really if everything is a big deal aren’t we really setting ourselves up for a failure to communicate to begin with?

I’ll leave today’s somewhat random post with a story of how I made someone uncomfortable based on his cultural projections and then seemed to redeem the day. Let’s rewind to April 2008, I was in Beijing for a workshop and enjoying one of the nicest month’s to visit China’s capital. It was the first time I had visited the city in nearly four years and I was struck by the changes as the city ramped up for the Olympics. This was also about the same time as riots were going off in Tibet and there was a government crack down that was very un-mediapathic happening on the international news and Beijing was getting flack for having forced many citizens out of old neighborhoods during the city clean up. As I rode in a taxi to my hotel I leaned forward to the driver who had been chatting with me and I said, “Hey Cabbie there is something I have to say about the Chinese Government.” He tensed visibly (in retrospect I think he was expecting the worse as Beijing often has highly opinionated foreigners who speak Mandarin unlike Canton) and said, “oh what’s that?” Picking my Chinese as best I could I said, “I really think they have done a good job with cleaning up Beijing I can’t remember ever seeing such a blue sky or so many green trees here.” He breathed a sigh of relief, “oh yes it’s true the city is much cleaner than in years before” he replied.

In this one chat we see a microcosm of what was going on. I had assumed that the driver was pro-urban clean up and was also attuned to this aspect of government. In other words I was in the mode of assuming the driver was in the same mind-set as I was. He actually might have been but, as it seems to me, he was sorting for difference and expected a conflict based on possible prior experience and what the news was emphasizing about the foreign perspective on China at the time. At that time local news had been covering how foreigners had interrupted the torch run in protest and there was an outbreak of patriotism/nationalist sentiment at the time. Instead we were both pleasantly surprised that the conversation went well. On my part because the driver understood what I was saying and on his part because I wasn’t there to point out to him the “failures of his country…”

To me the lesson here was approach each interaction with someone else with the patience this cab driver showed. Expect what ever you want, but let yourself be pleasantly surprised. Try to understand that no matter how good their language skills are if they are not a native speaker there is always a chance that things came out wrong. And finally be able to laugh at your discomfort and expectations because they are probably what is making communication so hard to begin with.

“Roads? Where we’re going we don’t need roads…”

I have been thinking a bit about how we measure success. I’ll write more about that in a later post, but the train of thought got me started thinking about why I chose to work and live in China instead of back home. After all it isn’t what a lot of people chose to do, it is taking the path less traveled. Actually though I realize I know a lot of people who fall under the entrepreneur label here in China and the reality is that we left the roads most people take a long time ago.

Doc Brown was a lone nut, but a lone nut with a flux capacitator...

I think about what if I had done something simpler and “stayed home” at times like these, times that are punctuated with a lot more of the grunt work. Recently my key client had their funds reduced and a number of clients have pushed their projects back to the second half of the year and I am suddenly filling my days trying to refill my calendar. It is times like these that I wonder, “what if I had stayed home to do something like this?”

That’s when I check what a “principal consultant” in the US at a firm that does the organizational cultural work and leadership development should have on their résumé. One firm in California had their JD showing I would need at least two to four years more of school and preferably another couple years of work experience before they would even look at my résumé much less put me on the short list of hires.

So stand back folks I am going to be working hard at stringing together some base hits and grinding out a couple of tough months of hard work to get to the “second half of the year” that shines on the horizon. In light of the recent Labor Day holiday the hard work seems acceptable and I think I’ll stick with Doc Brown’s famous line about roads while I continue to do things on my own terms.