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Book review: Try, trust and tell courage at work

Courage Goes to Work: How to Build Backbones, Boost Performance and Get 
Results
By Bill Treasurer
Berrett-Koehler Publishers, Inc.
$30.95

An editorial board bus tour of a community health centre. A grant to 
bankroll service learning projects. A media relations summer camp for 
non-profits. And a fundraising dinner for a community leader and her 
husband.

That’s what I’d put on my personal highlight reel for 2008. The 
projects called for a little leadership, a whole lot of collaboration 
and a willingness to take more than a few leaps of faith. With all four 
initiatives, there was a problem to solve, a need to meet, an 
opportunity to seize and I was lucky enough to be in the right place to 
help make something happen. 

I’m ending the year with more of what author and Giant Leap Consulting 
founder Bill Treasurer calls try and trust courage. Try courage comes 
from taking initiative and attempting something for the very first 
time. 

Trust courage is about relinquishing control, relying on others and 
taking risks on other people stepping up tothe plate. “The act of 
trusting often requires letting go of our need to control outcomes or 
people, our defence mechanisms and our preconceptions about what is 
right,” says Treasurer.

Along with my highlight reel, I have some lowlights from the year that 
was. To avoid making a career-limiting move, I won’t go into the 
details. But I can confess that in every instance I pulled up short on 
what Treasurer calls tell courage. I didn’t speak with candor or 
conviction or voice the minority opinion, even when it was what 
everyone else was thinking.  Instead, I bit my tongue and went along to 
get along.

“You see tell courage at work when employees tactfully but truthfully 
provide tough feedback. You also see it when workers raise their hands 
to ask for help , or when they tell you about mistakes they’ve made 
before you ask.”

Treasurer says the triple combo of try, trust and tell courage is the 
key to employee engagement, passion, motivation and commitment.  
“Courage is the lifeblood of leadership, entrepreneurship and 
innovation. In fact, courage is so critical to these things that they 
can’t exist without it.” 

While Treasurer calls courage the premier business virtue, he claims 
it’s in short supply. Too many organizations have too many comfortable 
or fearful workers.  Just enough is good enough. Staff play it safe and 
spend all their time preserving what is rather than pursuing what could 
be. 

Treasurer’s coined the term comfeartable for underperforming workers 
who adhere to the law of staying safe at all costs. No initiative. No 
risk-taking. No candor. No making waves. And, as result, no 
game-changing innovation. 

Anyone in a leadership role has two choices. Inspire and transform 
comfeartable workers or breed more workers lacking in try, trust and 
tell courage. What you do and say goes a long way in filling or 
spilling their trust buckets.

“Managers who fill people with fear in order to motivate them often do 
so for reasons of efficiency or immaturity,” says Treasurer. “It simply 
takes less time, thought and technique to bark an order than it does to 
motivate people according to their interests, passion and 
capabilities.” Yet fear kills morale, erodes trust and builds 
resentment. Not exactly ideal conditions for the fostering and 
flourishing of innovation, quality or exceptional customer service.  

So how can you can build a more courageous workforce? Jump first and be 
a role model. There are two ways to get folks to do something they 
don’t want to do or don't think they can pull off. You can push from behind 
or attract from the front. According to Treasurer, management by 
jumping first and gaining first-hand experience on the frontlines is 
the most powerful and effective way of convincing comfeartable 
workers to do uncomfortable and courageous things.

Make it safe for employees to take smart risks. Asking them to be 
innovative and then telling them not to screw up and acting like the 
sky is falling when mistakes happen is not all that helpful.  Instead, 
value forward-failing and non-habitual mistakes.  Anyone who’s 
mistake-free isn’t trying hard enough to take the risks that lead to 
innovation.

You also need to provide air cover so your staff have the time and 
space to be courageous.   

“While workers recognize the legitimate need for you to be responsive 
to your boss’s demands, they lose confidence in you if you respond 
impulsively to executive requests without considering the impact that 
those requests may have on them.”

Along with building safety nets and standing up for your staff, you can 
turn fear into the fuel that drives folks to do courageous things. 
Constantly modulating comfort will also spur workers to try new things 
and gain confidence in using their newfound skills. 

“I want you to live a long, healthy and courageous life,” says 
Treasurer. “And I want you to have a long, prosperous and courageous 
career. What I don’t want is for you to have career and life longevity 
only to end up sitting on a barstool someday, complaining about all the 
things you wish you had done. 

“Regrets, especially over things we should have done but didn’t because 
we were too comfortable or afraid when we faced them, burn hot in our 
souls. The risks we regret the most are always the ones we didn’t take.”
So if you’re still searching for a New Year’s resolution, commit to 
ending 2009 with a blockbuster highlight reel loaded with try, trust 
and tell courage at work and in the community.

Book review: Outliers and the keys to success

Great story here by Malcolm Gladwell in the latest issue of The New Yorker ("Most Likely to Succeed").

Outliers: The Story of Success

By Malcolm Gladwell

Little, Brown and Company

$30.99

Imagine it's 1968 and you're in Grade 8. The parents at your school buy the best computer on the market. The computer's better than anything you'd find at most colleges and universities. And best of all, you get to spend all your free time doing computer programming in the school basement.

Another parent at the school starts a business that leases computer time to local companies. The parent recruits you and your classmates to test software programs in exchange for free programming time. And when that business goes under, another company comes along and offers the same deal.

In one seven-month stretch, you and your friends clock 1,575 hours of computer time, which works out to eight hours a day, seven days a week.

By your senior year of high school, you're doing programming full-time and getting mentored by one of the smartest programmers in the field.

So what do you do when you grow up? You found a company called Microsoft and become one of the world's richest men.

Now imagine it's the early 1960s. You're in a high school rock band. You're not very good. But then out of the blue you get an offer to play at strip clubs in Germany. The audience doesn't pay attention and the acoustics are brutal. You play eight-hour gigs, seven days a week. You perform 270 times within a year and a half.

By the time you launch your British Invasion in 1964 and become the world's most famous rock band, you've already performed together 1,200 times.

Bill Gates and The Beatles are outliers. They're part of that select group who make the extraordinary seem ordinary. They're phenomenally successful and we aspire to be just like them. We buy magazines, read books and take courses, seminars and workshops that promise to unlock the secrets to their success.

We've bought into the myth that outliers are just smarter and more talented than the rest of us mere mortals. They have more pluck and initiative. More grit. More drive and determination.

But author Malcolm Gladwell argues that maybe outliers are just luckier.

"What truly distinguishes their histories is not their extraordinary talent, but their extraordinary opportunities," says Gladwell. "The lesson here is very simple. But it is striking how often it is overlooked. We are so caught in the myths of the best and brightest and the self-made that we think outliers spring naturally from the earth."

According to Gladwell, outliers aren't self-made. They don't rise from nothing. "They are invariably the beneficiaries of hidden advantages and extraordinary opportunities and cultural legacies that allow them to learn and work hard and make sense of the world in ways others cannot. It's not enough to ask what successful people are like. It is only by asking where they are from that we can unravel the logic behind who succeeds and who doesn't."

One of the keys to success is reaching the magic number of 10,000 hours. According to researchers, that's how long you have to practice to be perfect. "The emerging picture is that 10,000 hours of practice is required to achieve the level of mastery associated with being a world-class expert – in anything," says neurologist Daniel Levitin.

"No one has yet found a case in which true world-class expertise was accomplished in less time. It seems it takes the brain this long to assimilate all that it needs to know to achieve true mastery."

The 10,000-hour rule has some profound implications. Few, if any, young adults can put in the hours on their own. They need a family and a community that's encouraging and supportive. They can't afford to be poor. If they're working part-time to make ends meet, there aren't enough hours left in the day for practising. And they somehow need to get into a special program or have an extraordinary, once-in-a-lifetime opportunity sent their way, like unlimited access to a state-of-the-art computer in their school basement or a year-and-a-half long gig at German strip clubs where no one cares that they can't play all that well.

"It is not the brightest who succeed. Nor is success simply the sum of the decisions and efforts we make on our own behalf. It is, rather, a gift. Outliers are those who have been given opportunities — and who have had the strength and presence of mind to seize them," says Gladwell.

"To build a better world we need to replace the patchwork of lucky breaks and arbitrary advantages that today determine success — the fortunate birth dates and the happy accidents of history — with a society that provides opportunities for all."

So what does that world look like? It looks like the KIPP Academy in the South Bronx. It's a middle school where students are chosen by lottery. Three-quarters of the kids come from single parent families and 90 per cent qualify for free or reduced lunches.

They're poor, but they're smart. Math scores are far above what kids are achieving at other schools in the Bronx. Ninety per cent get scholarships to private or parochial high schools. Eighty per cent graduate from high school and go on to college.

Why are KIPP kids so successful? Because they're getting that gift of time and opportunity that's so integral to success. School starts at 7:30 a.m., ends at 5 p.m. and carries over into July. KIPP Academy students get 50 to 60 per cent more time to learn than traditional public school students. And that's a huge benefit because research by Johns Hopkins University sociologist Karl Alexander shows that poor kids learn nothing when they're not in school, yet outperform rich kids while they're in class. If school is in session the entire year the achievement gap between rich and poor disappears.

"Schools work," says Gladwell. "The only problem with school, for kids who aren't achieving, is that there isn't enough of it."

So if we're serious about making Hamilton the best place to raise a child and if we want every kid to have the same shot at becoming the next Bill Gates, or Beatles, then you, me and everyone else in our community has to ask the same question. How do we give them the gift of 10,000 hours?

Finding and grooming breakthrough innovators

Great article in the December edition of the Harvard Business Review by Jeffrey Cohn, Jon Katzenback and Gus Vlak (Finding and Grooming Breakthrough Innovators).

Key points:

  • Truly innovative people are rare – at best 5 to 10% of high potential managers in any organization. 

  • Most organizations develop leaders to replicate rather than innovate. 

  • Innovators propose new ideas. Resident experts within the organization weigh in. And then the innovators hone in on the most critical components, see connections and figure out how to bridge difficult parts, work hard and efficiently and cultivate internal buy-in.

So what's an innovator look like?

  • They have strong cognitive abilities and excellent analytic skills.

  • They don't rest on their laurels.

  • They're "ridiculously socially aware of their surroundings at all times". An independent mind + social involvement and the ability to shift between isolation and a larger group gets great ideas implemented.

  • They're persuasive and charming.

  • And they're extremely curious and always shopping for new ideas.

When you find your innovators, let them work with live ammunition, provide multiple mentors, foster peer networks and replant innovators into the middle of your organization.