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How to be an ally for your Black colleagues (review)

I used to think I was one of the good guys.

I’ve never said anything racist about a coworker. Never accused anyone of playing the race card or dismissed someone for being a token minority hire.

But I’ve stayed silent and never asked how or why.

How was it possible that I never had a Black professor or teaching assistant for any of the 32 courses that made up my undergraduate degree in political science? And why did our journalism school have just one part-time instructor who was Black?

And then looking back on my 27-year career in public relations with some of the region’s largest employers, how is it possible that:

  • I’ve yet to sit across from a hiring committee that’s had a Black member.
  • I’ve yet to report to a Black supervisor or serve under a Black CEO, president or executive director.
  • I’ve worked with only one Black PR colleague.
  • I’ve had less than a day’s worth of mandatory diversity and inclusion training and I once spent an entire workshop ridiculously stewing in White fragility.
  • I’ve yet to do a local media interview with a Black journalist.
  • I’ve been to events, summits, award galas, conferences and workshops where there have been no Black people in the audience, much less on the stage.
  • Of the 500 plus business books I’ve reviewed over the past 21 years, I could carry under one arm the books written by Black authors.

I believe diversity and inclusion make our workplaces better. I believe everyone deserves to be treated with dignity and respect and has the right to belong. I believe in following the platinum rule. I believe bigots, racists and white supremacists are idiots. And I believe I’ve worked with, and for, good people who’ve shared all of these same beliefs.

But here’s the uncomfortable truth. I’ve cared but just not enough when the racism has been systemic. I’ve never asked why there were no Black profs or TAs or why no one on the hiring committees, in our PR teams and out in the audience was Black.

Is someone said “our organization’s colour blind, we don’t see race and we only hire the most qualified candidate”, I wouldn’t push back. I wouldn’t point out the less-than-stellar White colleagues who prove the best candidates aren’t filling every position. And I didn’t suggest that maybe the best people for the job weren’t stepping forward as candidates because they saw a glaring lack of diversity and a superficial commitment to inclusion.

And here’s one other hard truth. I’ve never wondered how I would’ve fared at school or in my career had I not been handed a whole lot of unearned white male privilege right from the start.

Silence is no longer an option. We’re all seeing what’s fundamentally wrong and it’s time each of us start doing what’s right.

We can get started at work by becoming allies for our colleagues from underrepresented groups.

Karen Catlin's Better Allies - Everyday Actions to Create Inclusive, Engaging Workplaces.

“There are many opportunities in every workplace to listen, learn and take action as allies,” says Karen Catlin, author of Better Allies: Everyday Actions to Create Inclusive, Engaging Workplaces.

“Your first tip for being an ally is to be open to learning, improving and changing your opinion.”

Catlin says there are seven kinds of allies.

  • Sponsors vocally support the work of coworkers and help boost their standing and reputations.
  • Champions defer to colleagues in meetings, events and conferences to send a public and meaningful message.
  • Amplifiers make sure marginalized voices are heard and respected.
  • Advocates use their power and influence to bring peers from underrepresented groups into exclusive circles.
  • Scholars listen and learn as much as possible about the issues facing their colleagues, do their own research and seek out relevant information. Don’t dump this work on your Black colleagues – they’re tired of educating.
  • Upstanders are the opposite of bystanders. When they see racism and injustice, they make it their mission to eradicate it.
  • Confidants create safe spaces where colleagues can talk about their fears, frustrations and needs.

Catlin draws a distinction between allies and knights. If you opt for a quick, easy and simple one-off fix for a colleague, you’re being the knight in shining armour. Your colleagues don’t need a virtue-signalling White savior.

What they need are allies who’ll do what’s right rather than what’s easy. Ending systemic racism and building an inclusive workplace is hard work and demands a long-term commitment.

“Being an ally is a journey,” says Catlin. “This may seem frustrating at first because it’s tempting to want to earn an ally badge and consider oneself to be a lifetime member of the Genuinely Good Human Beings Club.

“Instead of feeling frustrated that you’ll never reach some mythical, fully fledged ally status, remember that we’re learning together. The ally journey is an enlightening and worthwhile one, even though it’s a perpetually ongoing one.”

Racism – whether it’s overt, subtle or silent – needs to end. Our colleagues and communities deserve better. We need to listen, learn and then act and advocate as true and trusted allies. Catlin shows us how to start the journey.

This review first ran in the June 13 edition of The Hamilton Spectator. Jay Robb serves as communications manager with McMaster University’s Faculty of Science, lives in Hamilton and has reviewed business books since 1999. Reviews are archived at jayrobb.me.

 

Master the mute button and other survival strategies for meeting virtually & working remotely (review)

scrabble-4958237_1920It took nearly 30 years but I finally got to work remotely from an island.

It wasn’t quite how I imagined it.

The island wasn’t Aruba or in the heart of cottage country.

Our kitchen island became my makeshift office when the pandemic hit and we were all sent home to work.

The novelty of making breakfast and lunch while watching dad zoom through meetings quickly wore thin with our kids.

So I ditched the island life after a few weeks for a slightly longer commute to the spare bedroom in our basement.

nonobvious guideHaving a dedicated workspace that you can close the door on at the end of the day is one of the survival strategies in Rohit Bhargava’s The Non-Obvious Guide to Virtual Meetings & Remote Work.

Bhargava says working remotely comes with a host of challenges, including constant distractions and temptations like the fridge, Netflix bingeing, bored and restless kids, family pets and Amazon deliveries. Remote work can also leave us feeling isolated and lonely, struggling with blurred work-life boundaries, dealing with technology breakdowns and wrestling with the fear of being out of sight and out of mind with the people who cut our paycheques “When you aren’t there in person, you’ll need to work doubly hard to make sure you aren’t neglected, dismissed or forgotten.”

If your days are spent zooming in and out of meetings, Bhargava recommends being on time, learning how to master the mute button and keeping windows and lights behind your camera rather than behind your back. Dressing appropriately is also a winning idea. “Working remotely is no excuse to look like you just rolled out of bed.”

If you’re making a virtual presentation, keep it short. No one has the attention span for a 45-minute PowerPoint. Share and repeat only your most powerful points.  Look into the camera rather than at the Brady Brunch squares of people on your screen. And double your energy. “When you feel like you’re overdoing it with your energy level, you probably have it just right.”

Know that no one likes a colleague who takes pride in staying technologically illiterate months into the pandemic. “If the rest of us can figure it out, you can too. Or at least you can try harder and stress about it like a normal human.”

Also drop the lame excuses for why you were running late or missed a meeting altogether. Life happens and we’re all muddling our way through the new normal. “Just be honest,” says Bhargava. “It humanizes you and may end up making you more likeable as a result.”

There’s added pressure on leaders to keep their remote teams engaged and productive.

It’s easier to build and sustain workplace culture when everyone’s under the same roof for eight or more hours a day.  Yet leaders can still build culture and foster trust with a team that’s working from home.

Start with empathy, says Bhargava. If a colleague’s running late, underperforming and blowing deadlines, ask if they’re okay. Know that employees with young kids at home and elderly at-risk parents have a lot on their plates. “Focus on people first.”

Stand up for each other.  “It’s too easy to assign blame or speak negatively about someone when you don’t have to do it face to face.”

And make time in your meetings for small talk, non-work conversations and celebrations. “Show interest in people first and then get down to business. Virtual meetings may be the only opportunities for engagement a remote team member has with colleagues.”

Bhargava’s free e-book is a field guide for working remotely in our disrupted world.  “The rapid changes in the world are dictating that we each become more adaptable and willing to reinvent how we work. It’s not an easy challenge to face.

“You can manage this disruption,” says Bhargava. “We all can. As long as we continue to be generous with each other.”

Jay Robb serves as communications manager with McMaster University’s Faculty of Science, lives in Hamilton and has reviewed business books for the Hamilton Spectator since 1999.

Build your brand with a helping hand during the pandemic (review)

empathyThe COVID fog rolled in thick and fast at the grocery store and an act of kindness got me home.

I was at my car with a week’s worth of groceries but no keys. I rifled through every bag and made sure the keys weren’t locked in my car.

I went back inside the grocery store to the check-out line, swung by customer service and retraced my route up and down the aisles.

The store was closing in 40 minutes.

The manager took pity, stopped restocking shelves and joined the search. He offered to watch the cart and recheck the grocery bags while I scoured the store for a third time. The manager found the keys buried in a bunch of grapes. I couldn’t remember when or why I’d put the keys there.

Buyology-Coronavirus_3DI thanked the manager. No worries, he said. Lots of customers are distracted and losing things these days. He was possibly being more kind than truthful.

Either way, empathy is exactly what you should be showing your customers and employees, says Martin Lindstrom in Buyology for a Coronavirus World. We need kindness now more than ever and smart businesses are offering it.

“Right now there are a lot of people in need,” says Martin. “Old people struggle to shop without having to leave their home and expose themselves to the virus. Waiters, bartenders, and airline crews have lost their jobs, with no new jobs in sight. Kids’ schools have closed, though mom and dad are still expected at the office. Nurses are working day and night. The list goes on and on, adding up to hundreds of millions of people affected by the crisis. All are in need.”

While offering extra help to your existing customers will cost you money, it’ll be less than what you’ll spend trying to find new customers at a time when most of us are dialing back our overspending.

“In times of need, you can really make a difference — and your customers will notice. In difficult times, you can cement a lifelong relationship. You can build your brand.”

During the financial crisis of 2008, car buyers were offered the Hyundai Assurance. The company promised drivers they could return their new vehicles if they lost their jobs within a year. Sales went up by double digits while only five cars were returned.

Your acts of kindness don’t need to be budget-busting grand gestures. Hilton’s DoubleTree Hotels recently published the recipe for the cookies they give to guests as they check-in. The hotel chain gave out more than 30 million cookies each year at its 500-plus properties during our pre-pandemic days.

cookies“We know this is an anxious time for everyone,” said a DoubleTree senior executive. “A warm chocolate chip cookie can’t solve everything but it can bring a moment of comfort and happiness. We hope families enjoy the fun of baking together during their time at home and we look forward to welcoming our guests with a warm DoubleTree cookie when travel resumes.”

My kids were definitely comforted and happy and ate the entire batch of DoubleTree cookies in two days. 

Compare Hyundai and DoubleTree to companies that are ignoring or taking advantage of customers. Martin calls out an airline that hung up on him and another that’s charging $50 upfront for every call you make, regardless of why you’re calling.

“What strikes me is that most airlines, car rental companies, hotels, supermarkets, insurance companies – you name it – behave like they never plan to interact with customers again. It’s as if this is the end of the world. They may know something I don’t, but I hold another opinion.”

Martin also says now’s the time to rethink and reinvent your business.  The prospect of another shutdown, an economy that’s slow to restart and customers who’ve broken their addiction to overspending should give you the sense of added urgency required to bust out of your comfort zone.

“This crisis is written on every wall, door and panel. I don’t think a single soul will deny it so use it to your advantage. Give everyone in your organization, from the receptionist to top management, a simple but profound task: rethink your business model. Ask the profound questions. If we need to change everything from the ground up, what industry are we really in.”

Legacies will be defined during the pandemic. We’ll remember how you made us feel long after COVID-19’s defeated. So be kind, do good, rethink and reinvent.

“What’s happening right now is a lot more than a story for our grandchildren and the next generation to come. This is the moment when you define your legacy as a leader. You won’t be remembered for wins or losses, but for how you were there for your employees and customers.”

Martin is doing good by making his pocketbook available for free as a digital download.

This review ran in the June 27th edition of The Hamilton Spectator. Jay Robb serves as communications manager with McMaster University’s Faculty of Science, lives in Hamilton and has reviewed business books for the Hamilton Spectator since 1999.

COVID-19’s stripping workplace culture back to its essence: strong leadership

cultureI used to think it was about the Canada Day celebration, family Christmas party, team-building retreat in cottage country and the millions of dollars donated each year to local groups and causes

But I now believe the secret sauce for this company’s standout culture was the senior executive team. Over the course of my career with five organizations, I’ve yet to see a more cohesive senior team in action.

There were no cliques, secret alliances or team of rivals. There was no backstabbing, grandstanding or gamesmanship. Not once in any one-on-one conversation did a senior executive ever gripe to me about a colleague.

Cohesion inspired confidence. Employees were confident in where the company was headed because we knew there were adults in the boardroom who weren’t acting like frat house bros or middle school tweens. The executive team took the company’s core value of respect and turned it into a personal virtue. How they treated one another set the standard for all the rest of us.

What you do and value most as a leader drives your organization’s culture, says Ben Horowitz, cofounder of a venture capital firm and tech start-up and author of What You Do is Who You Are: How To Create Your Business Culture.

“Who you are is not the values you list on the wall. It’s not what you say at an all-hands. It’s not your marketing campaign. It’s not even what you believe. It’s what you do. What you do is who you are.”

Leaders doing stupid, selfish and short-sighted things will turn your culture toxic.  Horowitz says there are a few telltale signs that your culture’s broken. The wrong people are quitting too often. You’re consistently failing at your top priorities. And an employee does something that’s truly shocking. “If someone behaves in a way you can’t believe, remember that your culture somehow made that acceptable.”

Horowitz also warns against tolerating four culture breakers: fault-finding heretics who are forever building and making the case that your organization’s run by morons; totally unreliable flakes; self-righteous prophets of rage and smart-bad jerks. “Consistently asinine behavior from an executive can cripple a company,” says Horowitz. “If one of your big dogs destroys communication on your staff, you need to send him to the pound.”

It’s tempting to tolerate culture breakers for their moments of brilliance and outsized contributions.  But again, what you do is who you are as an organization. Ignore misbehaviour and disloyalty at the top and it’ll run through your organization like a virus.

A great culture won’t automatically make your organization great. Culture won’t save a lousy or unwanted product or service. Horowitz says culture is like nutrition and training that gives an edge to already talented athletes.

“In the end, people who work for you won’t remember the press releases or the awards. They’ll lose track of the quarterly ups and downs. They may even grow hazy about the products. But they will never forget how it felt to work there, or he kind of people they became as a result.

“The company’s character and ethos will be the one thing they carry with them. It will be the glue that holds them together when things go wrong. It will be their guide to the tiny, daily decisions they make that add up to a sense of genuine purpose.”

The pandemic’s stripping workplace culture down to its essence, especially for organizations with remote teams. We’re reminded that it was never actually about dress down days, ice cream socials, barbecue lunches, pancake breakfasts and branded swag. It’s all about what your leaders do in public and behind closed doors.

This review first ran in the May 30 edition of The Hamilton Spectator. Jay Robb serves as communications manager in McMaster University’s Faculty of Science, lives in Hamilton and has reviewed business books for the Hamilton Spectator since 1999.

The secret to being a great leader? Start by being an ambassador of other people’s awesomeness (review of Unleashed)

awesome 2This isn’t my first time being considered a non-essential employee.

I’ve worked with some great leaders during my tours of duty at a provincial association, hospital, steelmaker, college and university.

These all-star leaders didn’t want or honestly need much public relations help. It was the less-than-stellar leaders who kept us PR pros busy as an essential service.

The best leaders had zero interest in being the star of the show. If somehow pushed and cajoled into the spotlight, they’d sing the praises of the people they served. It was never about them and always about the mission.

There was also little point in telling employees they had a mission-driven leader at the helm. They already knew this to be true. Many had been on the receiving end of the leader’s passion for unlocking potential and bringing out the best in people.

Unleashed“Leadership, at its core, isn’t about you,” say Harvard Business professor Frances Frei and Leadership Consortium executive founder Anne Morriss.  “It’s about how effective you are at unleashing other people. Full stop. That’s it. That’s the secret.”

So how can leaders know if the secret’s still a mystery and they’re still labouring on the false assumption that it’s all about them? Frei and Morriss list 10 warning signs in their book Unleashed: The Unapologetic Leader’s Guide to Empowering Everyone Around You:

  1. What other people experience rarely occurs to you. “If you find yourself focused primarily on your own experience, then you’re still a healthy distance from the emotional Launchpad of leadership.”
  2. You don’t ask very many questions.
  3. The most interesting thing about other people is what they think of you. “If you can’t sustain genuine interest in the ideas of other people, including those ideas that have nothing to do with you, then you haven’t yet earned the right to lead.”
  4. You’re constantly updating a catalogue of your own weaknesses, limitations and imperfections. “A loud inner critic can be a major distraction from the practice of leadership.”
  5. Other people’s abilities bum you out. “When you’re in an effective leadership state, the strengths and potential of the people around you become your greatest assets.”
  6. You’re constantly in crisis.
  7. You’re pessimistic about the future. “Leadership is built on the assumption that tomorrow can be better than today.”
  8. Reality has become tedious. “It’s a red flag if it’s been awhile since you’ve felt a sense of wonder at the unlimited possibilities around you.
  9. Apathy and powerlessness are dominant emotions.
  10. You’re the star of your own show. “Those of us hungry for leadership will eventually change the channel.”

Frie and Morriss showcase strategies for chipping away at this list and making the pivot to becoming a more empowering and effective leader. You can start by becoming an OPA, or ambassador of other people’s awesomeness.

“Choose someone in whom you see some kind of talent, however big or small, and find a genuine way to let them know that you’ve noticed,” say Frie and Morriss. “You see what they’re capable of today and – this is for leadership bonus points – you see where this gift might take them tomorrow if they decide to share it more often. Start with a person close to you and work outward from there.”

Serving as an ambassador of other people’s awesomeness accomplishes two things. You’ll start to adopt a much-needed external leadership orientation and you’ll spread some unexpected joy at a time when we could all use an extra-strength dose.

Adopt this daily habit during the pandemic and you’ll start making yourself essential as a leader.

Jay Robb serves as communications manager for McMaster University’s Faculty of Science, lives in Hamilton and has reviewed business books for the Hamilton Spectator since 1999.

 

What are you doing for others? Answering life’s great question (review)

kid signKids in our neighbourhood know who’s answering life’s great question.

Grown-ups working in hospitals and grocery stores, delivering mail and driving garbage trucks are getting shout-outs on homemade signs that kids are taping in windows and staking on front lawns.

They’re giving thanks to all the essential workers who are putting their lives on the line to get us through the pandemic. As these workers make meaningful contributions, the rest of us may want to make time for some self-reflection while we self-isolate and ride out the storm.

We can start with what Martin Luther King Jr. called life’s most persistent and urgent question – what are we doing for others?

Tom Rath says our answer is how we’ll create a life of contribution and find a deeper purpose beyond earning a paycheque.

life's great question“Life is not what you get out of it,” says Rath, researcher and author of Life’s Great Question. “It’s what you put back in.  All the talent, motivation and hard work in the world will not be valued or remembered if it does not help another human being.”

Daily demands and constant distractions make it easy to avoid thinking about how we could do more to serve our teams, families and communities.

“This is a consequential mistake,” says Rath. “Tomorrow is gone in an instant, another month rolls by, and eventually you have missed years, and then decades, of opportunity to make meaningful and substantive contributions.”

There’s a growing body of research that shows how selflessly serving others is in our best self-interest. Knowing that we’re making meaningful contributions improves our performance at work and boosts our physical health and mental wellbeing.

“I believe we all inherently know this – which makes the gap between what we’re currently contributing and what we have the ability to contribute all the more frustrating.”

Rather than following our passions and pursuing our own joy, Rath says we should instead focus on putting our skills and strengths to work in making the greatest possible contribution to others.

To figure out how best to invest our strengths, he’s identified 12 contributions grouped under themes of creating, relating and operating. A free online assessment will identify the top three contributions that best fit your strengths and meet the needs of others (you get the access code when you buy the book).

“You create meaning when your motivators, abilities and purpose meet to serve the world,” says Rath. “Knowing the first two things about yourself is important yet that is only half of the essential supply-and-demand equation. And all the self-awareness in the world can quickly go to waste if you fail to keep learning what the world needs from you and how you can best serve others.”

If there’s any upside to the pandemic, it may come from the sign-making kids who’ve learned from essential workers that putting purpose ahead of paycheques and leading lives of contribution is how we find the answer to life’s great question.

This review first ran in the April 17 edition of The Hamilton Spectator. Jay Robb serves as communications manager with McMaster University’s Faculty of Science, lives in Hamilton and has reviewed business books for the Hamilton Spectator since 1999.

 

Digital marketing survival guide for small businesses (review of See You on the Internet)

The internet is the only place we’ll be seeing your small business while we self-isolate and do our part to help flatten the COVID-19 curve.

Online is where we’ll get to know you, stay connected and decide whether to spend money with you during the weeks ahead.

Yet with every small business ramping up their online presence in a scramble to survive, how can you stand out and weather the storm?

Now more than ever, you need a digital marketing strategy. Just as you can’t afford not to market online, you can’t afford to get it wrong.

Avery Swartz, founder and CEO of Camp Tech, has a strategy-building framework that she uses with her small business and non-profit clients.

see you“Every small business owner I’ve ever worked with feels the pressure of limited time and resources,” says Swartz, author of See You on the Internet: Building Your Small Business with Digital Marketing.

“You’re constantly trying to weigh the effort of any marketing initiative in your business against the potential reward it will bring. And if you’re not sure it is going to bring you a reward, it can be so tempting to skip it. When the going gets tough, you have to be able to measure (and confidentially know) if the juice is worth the squeeze. And if it’s not, then it’s totally okay to move on to something else.”

Here’s Swartz’s six-step digital marketing framework:

  1. Set a specific, measurable and actionable business goal.
  2. Choose one key performance indicator (KPI) tied to your goal. “There are all kinds of metrics and values you can use to measure your success. It can be totally overwhelming and paralyzing. That’s why it’s essential to focus on just one metric – the one that tells you whether you’re getting any closer to your goal.”
  3. Measure where you currently stand, using your KPI as the measuring stick.
  4. Take a calculated leap into the unknown with digital marketing. Avoid a giant leap. “Don’t spend a lot of money or time at this stage; you’re trying something out to see if it works. Start small and get the results. If your measurement shows some success, great! Double down.” If you don’t hit it out of the park, adjust your strategy and take a different approach online.
  5. Measure what actually happened. “This is the step that requires the most discipline and honesty,” says Swartz. “The only purpose of looking at metrics is to learn, so you can improve. It’s not to make yourself feel good.”
  6. Learn from what you’ve done. What would you do again? Do more of or do it differently? “Look for the signal in the noise to determine what’s working and then double down on those efforts.”

Once you’ve worked through the framework’s six steps, you move into an iterative cycle of planning, executing, measuring and learning.

Along with her framework, Swartz gives a primer on domain names, websites, search engine optimization, social media, email marketing, online advertising and digital metrics. You’ll learn enough to have an intelligent conversation when negotiating with a consultant or marketing firm.

“Digital marketing is hard,” says Swartz. “At some point, I promise you, it will feel like a slog. If you start using a digital tool before you know what you want to achieve with it, and before you make a plan for getting you closer to that goal, you’ll waste your time,” says Swartz.

And in these unprecedented times, no small business owner has any time to waste and no room to wing it. Use Swartz’s digital marketing strategy to know exactly what’s working, what’s not and where to go next.

This review ran in the April 4 edition of the Hamilton Spectator.

Jay Robb serves as communications manager for McMaster University’s Faculty of Science, lives in Hamilton and has reviewed business books for the Hamilton Spectator since 1999.

A better way to solve tough problems (review of What’s Your Problem?)

How would you solve the problem of too many dogs waiting to get adopted from your local animal shelter?

You could run pop-up adoption shops. Roll out a dog-of-the-week promo with your local newspaper and TV station. Revamp the shelter’s website, give the dogs their own Instagram account and launch a matchmaking mobile app that’s like Tinder for dogs.

problemOr you could reframe the problem from getting more dogs adopted to having fewer dogs put up for adoption. Downtown Dog Rescue did exactly that and gets a shout-out from innovation and problem-solving expert Thomas Wedell-Wedellsborg in his new book What’s Your Problem? To Solve Your Toughest Problems, Change the Problems You Solve.

The Los Angeles non-profit looked at the dogs in its shelter and realized it had a poverty problem.  Around a third of the dogs were being surrendered by owners. These owners weren’t irresponsible; they were caught in desperate financial straits and forced to make a hard decision. So the shelter created an intervention program that financially helps owners keep their dogs. The program saves owners from heartbreak and saves the shelter money, proving to be less costly than taking in dogs and putting them up for adoption.

“Sometimes, to solve a hard problem, you have to stop looking for solutions to it,” says Wedell-Wedellsborg. “The way you frame a problem determines which solutions you come up with. By shifting the way you see the problem, you can sometimes find radically better solutions.”

problem 5

To reframe a problem, test your initial understanding and underlying assumptions. What are you missing in looking at this problem? Is there a better goal or objective to pursue? What’s your role in creating the mess you’re in? How do other people perceive this problem? When and where is this not a problem and who’s already solved it? “Paying attention to positive exceptions can give you a new perspective on the problem and may even point you directly to a viable solution.”

Wedell-Wedellsborg calls reframing a fundamental skill we all need to learn. “Frankly, this is stuff that everyone should have been taught a long time ago. And it frightens me to consider how many mistakes are made every day because smart, talented people keep solving the wrong problems.”

So why aren’t we masters of reframing? We have a bias for action and an aversion to thinking before acting, even though reframing when done well is a quick detour that saves time, money and aggravation.

problem 4

We prefer to focus on problems that we’re already experts at solving. “Most people have a tendency to frame problems to match their own ‘hammer’, hewing to the tools or analytical perspectives they favour.”

We’re also guilty of falling in love with solutions that are in search of a problem.  “Sometimes, people have fallen in love with an idea – let’s do X! – with zero evidence that the solution they are dreaming of solves a real-world problem.”

PROBLEM 3

Reputations can be built and fortunes made off tackling wicked problems and seemingly intractable global challenges. Yet our best way forward may come from learning how to reframe hard problems into far easier challenges to solve.

“What difference might it make to your life – to the people and the causes you care about – if everyone got just a little bit better at barking up the right trees? People who master reframing make better decisions, get more original ideas and tend to lead more remarkable lives.”

This review first ran in the March 14 edition of the Hamilton Spectator.

Jay Robb serves as communications manager with McMaster University’s Faculty of Science, lives in Hamilton and has reviewed business books for the Hamilton Spectator since 1999.

How to ask for help at work (review of All You Have to Do is Ask)

I still don’t have an answer to the one question my boss always asks at the end of our one-on-one meetings.

What can I do to help make it easier for you to do your job?

I keep drawing a blank because this has never been a frequently asked question throughout my career. And I’ve brought that on myself, having spent too many years being the go-it-alone, stubbornly self-reliant lone wolf.

Not asking for directions can make lone wolves lousy travelling companions. Not asking for direction, guidance or help at work can be a career-limiting, or even a job-ending, move.

AllYouHaveToDoIsAsk_ByWayneBaker_BookCoverImage“Not asking for help is one of the most self-limiting, self-constraining, even self-destructive decisions we can make,” says Wayne Baker, University of Michigan business professor and author of All You Have to Do is Ask. “Without the help and assistance of others, we don’t receive the resources that we need to get our work done, to solve problems, and to fulfill our missions in the world.”

We have our reasons for not asking for help. We underestimate just how ready, willing and able people are to lend a hand. We believe that asking for help makes us look weak, incapable, incompetent, lazy or dependent. We fool ourselves into thinking we can somehow do it all on our own. We feel we haven’t earned the privilege to ask for help, we don’t know how to make a request or we work for organizations where asking for help just isn’t done and getting help is near impossible.

While we tell ourselves it’s better to give than to receive, Baker believes it’s best if we regularly do both. “The two acts are two sides of the same coin. There is no giving without receiving and there is now receiving without giving. And it’s the request that starts the wheel turning.”

To ask for and then get what we need, Baker recommends making requests that are specific, personally meaningful, action-oriented, realistic and time-based. “When others know why you are making the request, they are more motivated to respond,” says Baker. “They empathize with you.”

Leaders need to lead by example, stringing together a psychological safety net and creating a “thanks for asking” culture that recognizes and rewards people who request a helping hand.

One way to achieve this is by setting up reciprocity rings. Up to 24 people get together and take turns making both a personal and work-related request. Asking for help is the price of admission to a reciprocity ring. People in the ring can ask for information, advice, recommendations, referrals and extra resources. Anyone who can help in any way steps forward.

You can also introduce five-minute favours. Commandeer a room and tape sheets of flip chart paper to the walls. Have employees write requests on the top half of the sheets and add their names to the bottom of sheets where they can offer assistance.

Yet another suggestion is to write one problem or question a week on a whiteboard and invite employees to weigh in with solutions and answers.  Review all the ideas on Friday afternoons.

And as a leader, you too can ask for help. Baker highlights a CEO and chairman of the board who, at an employee town hall, asked for everyone’s help in meeting his three personal goals – “stay happily married to my wife of some 30 years, don’t miss any important dates / events for my two daughters back home, lose 20 pounds and eat better.” One employee offered to be the CEO’s running partner while others made sure he skipped desserts and ate salads.

“Most people are in fact willing to help – if they are asked,” says Baker. “But most people don’t ask and as a result, all those answers, solutions and resources are being left untouched, unused and wasted – for no good reason.”

Lone wolves take note. It’s time we ditch the stubborn independence and start asking for help.

Jay Robb serves as communications manager with McMaster University’s Faculty of Science, lives in Hamilton and has reviewed business books for the Hamilton Spectator since 1999.

Wondering if there’s more than this? You’re ready to climb the second mountain (review)

mountain climbYou went to a good school, graduated into a great job and built yourself a rewarding career.

You’ve earned serious money, status and power.

You’re living the dream and life is good.

But what if it could be exponentially better?

“Most of the time we aim too low,” says David Brooks, New York Times columnist and author of The Second Mountain. “We walk in shoes too small for us. We spend our days shooting for a little burst of approval or some small career victory.

“But there’s a joyful way of being that’s not just a little bit better than the way we are currently living; it’s a quantum leap better. It’s as if we’re all competing to get a little closer to a sunlamp. If we get up and live a different way, we can bathe in real sunshine.”

second mountainBrooks says there are two metaphorical mountains for us to climb.

Most of us are in a mad scramble up the first mountain. We’re decked out in “I’m free to be me” athleisure as we pursue happiness and self-love, build our personal brands, manage our reputations, curate our best lives on social media, keep score and take stock of how we measure up.

“The goals on the first mountain are the normal goals that our culture endorses – to be a success, to be well thought of, to get invited to the right social circles, and to experience personal happiness,” says Brooks. “It’s all the normal stuff: nice home, nice family, nice vacations, good food, good friends, and so on.”

Maybe we’ll reach the peak and love the view. But we may suffer existential dread as we wonder if there’s more than this. Or we could get tossed off the mountain after losing our job, good health or reputation.

Fortunately, there’s a second mountain for us to climb. On this mountain, we trade independence for interdependence and swap happiness for joy. Instead of living our best life, we’re dedicated to making life better for others. Choosing one or more commitments to a vocation, spouse or family, a philosophy or faith, and a community is our price of admission to the second mountain.

“A commitment is making a promise to something without expecting a reward,” says Brooks. “Adult life is about making promises to others, being faithful to those promises. The beautiful life is found in the mutual giving of unconditional gifts. When I meet people leading lives of deep commitment, this fact hits me: joy is real.”

On the first mountain, we have careers. On the second mountain, we dedicate ourselves to vocations.

A career is based on what we’re good at while a vocation is built on what we’ve been obsessively interested in for many years.

“In choosing a vocation, it’s precisely wrong to say that talent should trump interest,” says Brooks. “Interest multiples talent and is in most cases more important than talent.  The crucial terrain to be explored in any vocation search is the terrain of your heart and soul, your long-term motivation. Knowledge is plentiful; motivation is scarce.”

Still searching for your vocation? Say yes to everything. “Say yes to every opportunity that comes along, because you never know what will lead to what,” says Brooks. “Have a bias toward action. Think of yourself as a fish that is hoping to get caught. Go out there among the fishhooks.”

If you’ve been blown off the first mountain or find yourself underwhelmed by the view, Brooks will help you find the fishhooks and the courage to climb your second mountain.

This review first ran in the Feb. 15 edition of The Hamilton Spectator. I serve as communications manager for McMaster’s Faculty of Science, live in Hamilton and have reviewed business books for the Hamilton Spectator since 1999.