Book Review: Pioneer Species

By: Ross Thurber

“Let winter sink into a soft spring night.
May valley fog rise to the foothills
and the foothills be buried in a purple cloak.”
-Excerpt from the poem, “Bell Foundry “

A book of poetry isn’t my typical book recommendation on leadership, but with the theme of nature, mud season, and Vermont, I wanted to offer this book as an opportunity to access a different way of learning through the beauty of words, slowly sipped. Ross is a dairy farmer and dear friend of mine, and this collection of his poetry takes you through the seasons as he lives them on his farm in southern Vermont. I don’t read a lot of poetry, but I find his poems to be thought-provoking but not too obscure. Just like mud season, there are jewels and lessons to be learned through poetry if we can take the time to let the words unfold in their time.

Moving From Theory To Action

While it may not sound serious enough for a leadership topic, everyone has opinions about the weather (think about how much time at work is spent talking about it!). To support you in cultivating acceptance and patience for whatever weather you may get, here are some reflection questions:

To what extent do I notice myself complaining about whatever weather there may be (if it’s winter it’s too cold, if it’s summer, it’s too hot). What would it be like if I didn’t judge the weather?

— What is uniquely possible only in this weather that I can be grateful for? (I love the feeling of hiking in early spring when the air is warm on my face, but there is cool air coming from the snow beneath my feet).

— In which season do I have the hardest time being present and accepting? What is a mindset shift I can offer that might support me? What are some actions I can take to learn to appreciate this season more? (For example, I think about the farmers in early spring, and I wear a light green fleece hat in March to symbolize spring!).

What Mud Season Can Teach Us

It’s mud season here in Vermont, and it can be a tough time for me. As some of you know, I lived in Washington, D.C. for ten years. I have fond memories of March, when I’d had enough of winter, and spring swiftly came in with a warm breeze, bursting with beautiful tulips everywhere. It’s magical. Not so in northern New England- we just got slammed with two snowstorms this month, mixed in with raw rainy days and muddy roads with gravel-covered snow piles lasting into May. It was the hardest aspect of moving to Vermont for me. I realized I had to shift my thinking.

It is said that comparison is the root of all suffering, so if I keep comparing Vermont spring to that of Washington, it’s going to be painful. So I took a deep dive into the lessons that mud season has to offer, and I am cultivating the patience to enjoy the season without rushing it. For example, one of the greatest benefits of those forty-degree temperatures that drop down below freezing is that this is the necessary recipe for a great sugaring season. It’s the time of year we visit our friend’s sugar house and can taste still-warm maple syrup after it’s been boiled down from sap. I now think of our extended early spring as good for the farmers, and can appreciate and take comfort knowing that there is life flowing through the trees just underneath the bark that we can’t see. Spring has come in its subtle ways. Am I present to see the signs?

I recently gave a keynote address to a statewide organization titled “What Mud Season Can Teach Us About Living in Community and Organizations.” I’ve created a short promotional video from it and offer it here. In this clip you’ll see two lessons I’ve learned from mud season. It’s a bit of a risk to share it so widely, and I feel a bit vulnerable, but it’s also a way to share my thoughts. If you know of any organizations, companies, or events that might be looking for a keynote speaker to share some hopefully insightful and entertaining thoughts about Vermont mud as it relates to life, I’d welcome the introduction. Thank you! And cheers to mud season!

Book Review: The Coaching Habit: Say Less, Ask More & Change the Way You Lead Forever

By: Michael Bungay Stanier

 A client raved about the impact this book is having and I want to share it with you. It’s a highly pragmatic book that offers a clear structure on how to have coaching conversations with your subordinates that will have impact. It is based on seven basic questions:

 Question 1: “What’s on your mind?”

Question 2: “And what else?”

Question 3: “What’s the real challenge here for you?”

Question 4: “What do you want?”

Question 5: “How can I help?”

Question 6: “If you’re saying yes to this, what are you saying no to?”

Question 7: “What was most useful for you?”

This is one of those cases of simple doesn’t equal easy, otherwise we could just end here. In the book the author helps you understand why these question are so powerful, how to use them in a work context, and put them into practice (this is the hard part). A great read and reference to have on your management shelf. And when I think about it, my sense is that these questions would really work at home, too!

Moving From Theory To Action: Rethinking Critical Feedback

To support you in preparing for giving critical feedback, here are some reflection questions:

 –What is my mindset going into this conversation-how do I remind myself that feedback is my interpretation and not necessarily a fact? Where can I be curious? Can I hold that I might not have all the information?

 –What does this person care about that would make the feedback important for him/her to want to know? How can I frame this conversation from that perspective?

-Who am I in relation to this person? What is my level of power? How can I be responsible for my social context such as race, gender, age, etc. in offering this feedback?

-What is my mood right now and how can I put myself into a frame of mind that will be helpful? Is the other person in a mood to be able to listen? What is the mood I want to create in through this conversation (shame, blame, accountability, possibility, empowerment)?

-What is my first sentence to “enter” into the conversation in an honest, straightforward way?

Taking Apart the Feedback Sandwich

I have been working with several individual coaching clients recently on improving their coaching skills with staff. One aspect that always comes up is how to give critical feedback. One of them told me recently that she is known for her sandwich feedback with one of her subordinates in particular. (He’s the one who struggles the most). The standard format of the feedback sandwich is praise-criticism-praise. She said that whenever she gives him a compliment he now jokes and asks what it is she really wants to say to him. The sandwich isn’t really having the impact it is supposed to. He doesn’t really hear or believe the positive acknowledgement because he knows that the meat of the conversation is coming, and then doesn’t really hear the compliment on the other side because he’s thinking about the critical feedback and knows that the praise is just designed to soften things anyway.

That said, the sandwich approach to feedback, “praise-criticism-praise”, is a well-known strategy in management training. For those who are giving feedback, many believe it feels a bit easier to “soften” the negative feedback by adding in some positives. Some people think it will give balance to the feedback, and others think it’s easier for the recipient to hear it when presented this way.

Roger Schwarz in his Harvard Business Review blog, “The ‘Sandwich Approach’ Undermines your Feedback” offers an alternative view. To summarize:

  • “Easing in” to sharing negative feedback can actually increase discomfort and anxiety for the person giving the feedback as the longer one talks without giving the negative feedback the harder it can become. This may also result in the recipient sensing the discomfort and becoming more anxious themselves.
  • In his work with teams interviewing direct reports, it turns out that almost all say they want just the meat-not the bread on each end. It undermines trust.
  • People learn better when receiving feedback, positive or negative, in a timely manner, so rather than holding positive feedback for a time when you need it as a part of a “sandwich”, offer it when it happens. Employees report not believing the positive feedback anyway if it’s presented as a part of a feedback sandwich, so to increase one’4ts trust, authenticity and transparency, offer the positive separately from the negative feedback.

So what’s a better way to approach giving negative feedback than serving a lukewarm, stale, overdone sandwich? Try two things. First, don’t assume that you necessarily have all the facts. Sometimes you can start with an open-ended question—“Bill, I heard that the client was unhappy that you didn’t get that to her by the deadline. Is that right?” Maybe you don’t have all the information.

Furthermore, a mind shift may be helpful for you in giving negative feedback. We try to soften it with a sandwich, and sometimes dread giving it, because we worry that it will hurt them and our relationship with them. But if you can identify what they care about and anchor your feedback in that, then you’re not hurting, you’re helping them with their goals and helping them to improve.

Not easy, but certainly worth trying if it might have a deeper impact. Let me know what you learn!

Book Review: Change Anything

By: Kerry Patterson, Joseph Grenny, David Maxfield, Ron McMillan, and Al Switzler

 This award-winning team of writers does it again. What I like about Change Anything is that it breaks down how we make change happen from six main sources: 1. Love what you hate- learn to like the changes you make; 2. Do what you can’t- learn the skills through deliberate practice in order to make the changes you want; 3&4. Turn accomplices into friends- we all have people in our lives who sabatoge our best efforts- turn them into supporters. 5. Invert the economy- by bribing yourself and raising the cost of bad behavior you can actually get yourself to act in ways you want 6. Control your space- use the environment to become an ally for the change you want rather than a barrier. It’s an engaging book, with good examples and really breaks down the change process which will increase your likelihood of success! (Their book Influencer does the same thing in an organizational context).

Moving From Theory To Action: On Planning

To support you in moving toward action, here are some reflection questions based on the recommendations by Richard Wiseman:

1. What are the benefits to me of taking on this goal? How will my life be better?

2. How can I break down this goal into manageable steps? What are some realistic dates for completing these dates? What is one action, no matter how small, that I can take today?

3. After looking at this concrete timeline, what are small rewards I can give myself to celebrate milestones along the way?

4. How will I track my progress? Visual calendar? Phone app? Handwritten journal? (set this up now)

5. Who do I want to tell about my goal, and what are the specific ways people can support me in reaching it? (accountability partners can be very helpful).

The Power of Planning vs. Dreaming

This summer I decided to begin my goal of hiking the entire Long Trail. It’s a 272-mile trail that runs north to south in Vermont, and I’ve been thinking about it for years. The problem was that my mindset around it was getting in the way. I had dreams of hiking it with my two daughters and a friend of mine who also had a daughter or two. One minor flaw to this plan was that this ideal person didn’t exist, my daughters have stated in no uncertain terms that they “Hate” hiking (and walking for that matter these days), and other family trips took priority over planning a week in the woods for the next three summers.

And then I paused, broke it down and started thinking concretely about this goal. First, I decided it was my goal to hike the Long Trail, no one else’s, and so I would let go of finding a partner to hike the whole thing with, and instead would section-hike it, breaking it down into small chunks. One weekend I could go with my husband and do a part of the trail, another weekend with a girlfriend, a weekend alone, and if the stars align, perhaps in a few years, I might even get my daughters to do a section with me. I moved the timing on my goal out- no need do complete it by the time my elder daughter completed high school. What if it took me ten years or more? After all, to repeat the often-said quote, it’s about the journey, not the destination, right?

And so I have begun, first with my husband in August, then with a girlfriend a week later. I thought that was it for this summer, but unexpectedly a bike trip with friends turned into doing another section of the LT when I injured my shoulder and couldn’t bike for a while. With this long-term goal clarified, I am now seeing ways to make progress even though the completion date isn’t in sight. It’s a good reminder about the power of breaking goals down.

Don’t get me wrong, there’s nothing bad about dreaming. It can provide us with hope and inspiration. In my case it motivated me to buy new gear so that I could travel lighter on the trail. That said, just as buying the gym membership doesn’t improve your health, a new backpack didn’t get me on the trail.

Here is an excerpt from researcher and best-selling author, Richard Wiseman, from his book: 59 Seconds: Think a Little Change A Lot. See below for his top five list of what works in achieving one’s goals:

  1. Break your goal into a series of steps, focusing on creating sub-goals that are concrete, measurable, and time-based.
  2. Tell your friends and family about your goals, thus increasing the fear of failure and eliciting support.
  3. Regularly remind yourself of the benefits associated with achieving your goals by creating a checklist of how life would be better once you obtain your aim.
  4. Give yourself a small reward whenever you achieve a sub-goal, thus maintaining motivation and a sense of progress.
  5. Make your plans and progress concrete by keeping a hand-written journal, completing a computer spreadsheet or covering a notice board with graphs or pictures.

OK, so I didn’t pull out this list before I started thinking about my Long Trail adventure, and in fact, I didn’t know about it until I started researching for this newsletter. But what is interesting is how many of these I had done in my own way:

  1. As I shared, I decided to section hike it in smaller pieces, extended the timeframe, and shoot for 2-3 weekends a year (that puts me at under 10 years if I do 27 miles a year- clearly doable).
  2. I put my goal on Facebook- and was surprised and grateful for the number of encouraging comments. Several people said they would love to join me for a weekend.
  3. Benefits are clear, as I love being in the woods, hiking and sleeping out. I miss my big international backpacking trips of my 20s, and this connects me to an important aspect of myself.
  4. From my backpacking friends in Lithuania, I learned a lovely tradition to bring a “surprise” on each trip. I love pulling out an unexpected surprise and to receive one. My girlfriend carried in fresh orange juice for our morning after our first sleep out-awesome!
  5. The Long Trail requires a journal to get credit so I created a spreadsheet with who, where, miles covered, and fun notes to remember about the trip. I also started taking one video on each section to remind me of the experience. Maybe I’ll put it into a montage at the end.

What about you? Any big goals that you haven’t figured out how to make happen yet?

Book Review: The Upside of Stress-Why Stress Is Good for You, and How to Get Good at It

By: Kelly McGonigal

If you’re curiosity is piqued and you think you’d like to really pause and dig into this really important concept- please read this book! It’s a way to walk yourself through a process of creating a new, more positive relationship with stress. Part One engages you with rethinking the narratives and stories you have about stress and countering it with some useful research that shows stress actually has some upsides. Part Two explains how to transform stress, including rethinking anxiety and building deeper connections with others in stressful times as a way to build resilience against stress. Throughout the book there are personal reflections to prompt your thinking and great stories that cause you to nod your head and say “Me, too!” Two thumbs up!

P.S. If you’re feeling too stressed to read another book, here’s Kelly’s  TED talk on the topic:

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