Leading from the Balcony
Most of us find ourselves dancing to a technical beat: incoming and outgoing text messages, emails, tweets, Facebook and LinkedIn updates. The beat is relentless, indifferent to people at our door, events and trainings to attend, or reports to write. We sit in meetings with an eye to the smart phone and one ear to the conversation. On the one hand, we long for a rest—an interval of silence. On the other, we’re as addicted to the accelerando of technology as we are to our morning caffeine.
But it’s hard to lead from the dance floor. A number of thinkers and writers, among them renowned negotiator William Ury, talk about the importance of going to the balcony. From the balcony, we can see the big picture, the patterns, and the players. From the balcony, we can ask:
  • Is this boogie or ballet? (What are we doing? What is our culture?)
  • Are we dancing to same music? (Are we aligned?)
  • Who are these dancers? (Who are my stakeholders? What’s important to them?)
  • Could we design a new dance? (What opportunities do we have?)
  • Is this the dance for me? (Is this work consistent with my values, needs, and interests?)
In six weekly small group sessions, participants in THINC’s Leading for a Change are learning ways to go to the balcony. They are exploring a current challenge and designing a thoughtful plan that takes into consideration their leadership, assumptions, organizational culture, and stakeholders. They are discovering and practicing new tools. They leave each session with a broader perspective and renewed energy. They are becoming leaders who engage their employees, not just manage them.
Could you benefit from a balcony experience as the next step in your leadership development? Call us!
RUTH / LEADERSHIP / CULTURE / Oct 12, 2011, 4:56pm / Comments (0)
Winnowing the Harvest
It's the sweetest little graveyard on earth, a quiet spot off a side road surrounded by trees, casually maintained, with mowed crabgrass as a tough groundcover alternative to the pampered lawns of city cemeteries.
I come today to Overisel Cemetery to bury my father and will come again someday to be buried here myself. The modestly-sized gravestones bear familiar names—Immink, Folkert, Koopman, Wolters—my Sunday school and catechism teachers, uncles and aunts, neighbors who applied discipline liberally and fed me sugar cookies warm from the oven, who offered their barns, fields, and creeks for exploring, and who, with their calloused and tender hands, shaped me and sent me into the world.
As I stroll past these stones, I wonder, who are we, really? To what extent does our genetic makeup define us? How do grace and opportunity determine our path? How much do our family and community of birth influence who we become? Is it possible to pull up our roots and move on? How far can we go without losing some core part of what grounds us?
Overisel's soil is rich for farming—for the oats, wheat, and corn my father sowed, tilled, and harvested. This rural village is also a fertile place for cultivating a powerful work ethic, fervent and often unquestioned faith, and a commitment to careful stewardship of one’s gifts and resources. It’s a stronghold of conservative politics. Generosity and caring for one’s neighbor and community are central values. It’s a place that invests in education, seeding doctors, teachers, scientists, musicians, missionaries, and ministers and transplanting them in distant soil.
Sifting through and winnowing this cultural harvest is an ongoing and dynamic process in my adult life. I tenderly honor and celebrate treasured traditions, beliefs, and values while discarding others as useless and irrelevant chaff. Time and again, I spin new threads of knowledge and understanding that, woven with the old, create an ever-stronger fabric, rich in texture, color, and design.
Certain questions haunt us when we lose someone we love: What from our past is essential to keep and savor? What do we cast off? What do we create anew?
These are questions to ponder in our lives, in our work, and in our leadership. These are questions that matter.
RUTH / LEADERSHIP / CULTURE / Aug 15, 2011, 7:57pm / Comments (0)
Dumbledore's Source of Magic
“Words are our most inexhaustible source of magic,” says Dumbledore from the grave in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part II, released at midnight last night.
Dumbledore joins the tradition of great leaders whose words resonate beyond death to influence our thinking and behavior. “Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country,” said JFK. “I have a dream that one day my children will be judged not by the color of their skin but by the content of their character,” Martin Luther King preached. Gandhi told us, “We must become the change we want to see in the world.” These words are part of us, written first on our doorposts and then on our hearts.
Effective leaders craft words that work magic. Their words point to a preferred future, create a desired culture, or build a brand so palpable that people live it every day, in every action. These chosen few words carry deep meaning internally, and they have power to align and focus people on what to do next, how to do it, and why. These are the words leaders repeat often, highlight in stories and well-designed feedback, and even use to decide who will stay and who must go.
Leaders I spoke with this week were searching for language that would cast the right spell on their organizations—compelling, powerful words imbued with deep values and rich connotations. In these conversations, I heard phrases like “unpretentious leadership,” “covenantal partnerships,” and “transformational engagement.” These leaders, committed to the not-urgent-but-essential task of finding the right words, are using an iterative process that includes both private reflection and the perspectives of others.
Have you employed Dumbledore’s powerful and inexhaustible leadership tool? What words are shaping your organization?  
RUTH / LEADERSHIP / CULTURE / Jul 15, 2011, 5:48pm / Comments (0)
Construct Culture for Results
What makes it so difficult for paying customers to get a response? At our house, we have been waiting two weeks for a quote on sealing our exterior brickwork. It’s been three months since we asked our builder for a kitchen update plan. A friend seeking a repair to his boat can't get a return phone call from the marina.
What makes these behaviors acceptable?
Every workplace has cultural issues that diminish the company’s results, such as poor customer service, wasted time at meetings, delinquent reports, workplace drama, finger pointing, and lack of personal accountability.
Employees have two versions of culture: “company handbook” culture and “here’s how things really work around here” culture. Bob, the brick repair guy, may have been instructed to submit bids to the customer within two working days. However, company practice is to give the biggest clients preference, so he figures this little job on Lawrence Avenue doesn’t matter much. Also, the boss regularly rants about annoying and ignorant clientele, devaluing the importance of the customer in Bob’s mind. Finally, his peers talk incessantly about how far behind they are in their work, legitimizing poor customer service.
What might convince Bob to change his behavior?
Culture has a layered construction: at the base, employees have experiences at work—what they see and hear. From these experiences, they select certain data, often based on past experiences. Next, they build assumptions and draw conclusions about "how things work around here." Finally, they act on their conclusions in ways that either enhance or diminish the company’s ability to achieve its objectives.
It’s a leader’s role to define the culture that will get results and then develop employees’ beliefs about what’s important through language, stories, behaviors, and practices. This process requires careful thought and reflection, considerable input from others, a clear plan, and the discipline to implement the plan consistently over time.
Once Bob internalizes the belief that customer service is important, I’m sure I’ll receive his bid. Meanwhile, I’m calling the next guy on the list.
RUTH / LEADERSHIP / CULTURE / Jun 13, 2011, 12:26am / Comments (0)
Ideas worth sharing.


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