Chucky and my Vision Board

I was in my late 30s at the end of 2012 when I decided to leave the company I had co-founded. I was predictably existential, both about my work and my life. I was also completely burned out, and I was more than happy to set aside any anxiety I might have about the future, and simply take a break.

After the weariness went away, I had a brief surge of energy and excitement, which slowly gave way to anxiety. I was scared of starting over. I believed in myself, but I was afraid that others didn’t. On top of all that, I had brazenly decided to put myself through an intellectually rigorous process of challenging every assumption I had about how to do my work well, not realizing that this would slowly, but surely chip away at all that hard-earned self-belief.

One of my coping mechanisms was to collect articles about people whose stories resonated and inspired me. I placed these articles in a folder entitled, “Vision Board.”

One of the articles I clipped was about Jon Gruden (also known as Chucky, because his intense grimace resembled the murderous doll’s expression). I briefly mentioned why I did this in a blog post later that year, but the longer explanation is:

  • The Raiders hired him as their head coach when he was 34
  • After leading the Raiders back to contention, owner Al Davis famously “traded” him to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. That year, at 39, Chucky and the Buccaneers beat the Raiders in the Super Bowl.
  • He was fired from the Buccaneers in 2009 at 45

Everyone expected him to get right back into coaching, but he didn’t. Instead, he rented an office in Tampa Bay and proclaimed it headquarters for FFCA (Fired Football Coaches of America). It was a place where he could continue to study the game, and where people who loved football as much as he did could hang out and pick his brain. The space was pure, devoid of selfish interests tarnishing his viewpoints. And coaches and quarterbacks at all levels came in droves to hang out with Gruden.

(Another frequent guest, as it turns out, was Mark Davis, son of Al, who took over the Raiders when the elder Davis passed away.)

Over the years, his role evolved to include chief analyst of Monday Night Football and host of Gruden’s QB Camp, which quickly became legendary. Every year, people expected him to jump back into coaching, but year after year, he turned down all comers. He was happy doing his thing, which included both football and spending time with his family, something that wouldn’t be possible as a coach.

Gruden’s story resonated with me — his intense passion, his devotion to the game, his age when he stopped coaching, and his creativity in balancing his passion with his other interests while resisting the pull to coach purely out of habit.

Today, the prodigal son came home. Gruden decided it was time to coach again, and in a twist of all twists, he’ll be coaching the Raiders. Mark Davis apparently had been trying to re-hire Gruden for the past six years, and it finally happened.

I’m happy for Gruden and for Raiders fans. I “came out of retirement” myself a little over two years ago, so his ongoing story and the different parallels continue to inspire me.

Photo by Photographer’s Mate 3rd Class John E. Woods. Public domain and found in Wikimedia Commons.

My Self-Care Dashboard

When Kristin Cobble and I were starting Groupaya, we spent a lot of time discussing the kind of culture we wanted as an organization. In particular, we both felt strongly about the importance of integrating personal development into our daily work lives.

In order to meet this goal, Kristin designed a collective process for us based on Daniel Ofman’s Core Quality Framework. The premise of the framework is that our biggest pitfalls are our greatest strengths (our “core qualities”) taken to an extreme. We all reflected about ourselves and about each other using the framework as a guide. It was enlightening to compare the differences in perception.

For example, I identified my drive to learn as my core quality. Too much of that led to dabbling and lack of focus — my pitfall. Kristin and Rebecca Petzel, on the other hand, both chose to focus on my high standards as my core quality. My corresponding pitfall was my tendency to drive myself and my team mercilessly when my standards weren’t being met. They wanted me to be more accepting when people made mistakes and more patient with people’s learning curves.

As we explored this further, we agreed that I actually wasn’t bad at these things. I had evolved these skills through lots of practice over the years. The problem was that these were not natural qualities for me, and when I was stressed or tired (which was often during my stint at Groupaya), Grumpy Eugene would come out of his cave.

Each of us had to commit to a practice to help counteract our pitfalls. Because I was generally good at being patient when I was taking care of myself, I committed to self-care. And the way I would do that was to commit to playing basketball once a week.

I had asked my friend, Lisa Heft, to work with me as a coach the previous year. One of the things I realized from that work was that when I’m playing basketball regularly, I’m generally happy and centered. Needless to say, I was not playing regularly at the time, much less exercising at all. I figured that committing to basketball once-a-week was more than reasonable, easily trackable, and would pay off big.

Despite all that, I got off to a bad start in 2012. We were swamped with the usual challenges of running a business and dealing with client work, and as usual, I neglected my self-care practices. What was different this time was that I felt bad about my neglect, because I had made a commitment to my team, and I wasn’t living up to it.

In order to turn this around, I decided to track my progress in a simple Google Spreadsheet, and to share this with my colleagues, so that they could check up on my progress anytime. I had a row for each week of 2012, and a column for the number of times I had played basketball that week.

The simple act of tracking in the open had a transformative effect on my practice. It forced me to think about the practice regularly, and it allowed me to see in very concrete ways how I was doing.

Over the next several months, I evolved my spreadsheet to incorporate new practices and learning. For example, I wouldn’t always play basketball, but I would sometimes go on runs or long walks, and while that wasn’t as good as basketball, it was definitely good for me (and my colleagues) overall. So I started tracking that too.

I eventually added two more practices to my spreadsheet: turning off work email in the evenings and on weekends, and taking play days in the middle of the week. Every time I did one of my practices, I gave myself a point. Using a line graph, I charted the total number of points per week as well as the four-week running average.

I also added a notes section for context. There were weeks that were restorative despite not doing any of my practices, and I wanted to be sure I noted that. There were weeks when I was traveling or sick.

The chart essentially became my personal dashboard, and my practices became almost a game — keep the line above 1 (my commitment to my team). It was very challenging for me to maintain that on my own, so I started incorporating other tricks such as signing up for a fitness bootcamp.

Moreover, the chart helped my interactions with my team tremendously. Whenever I would get frustrated at somebody, before I unloaded those frustrations, I would first check my dashboard to see if I had been taking care of myself. I often found in those situations that I hadn’t, and it was a signal to me that I should go for a run before I said anything to anybody.

I have found the dashboard so valuable, I have continued the practice. Here’s what this year’s spreadsheet looks like:

Self-Care Spreadsheet

Notice the different colors indicating whether or not I did a practice that week. Here’s what the corresponding line chart looks like:

Self-Care Dashboard

As you can see, the four-week running average is a better indicator of my state of self-care at any point in time than my number for that week or of the overall average. You can also see that I’ve been doing very well with my practices over the past few months. If I were to compare this chart to last year’s numbers, you would see that I’m taking much better care of myself this year than last.

I’ve made the Google Spreadsheet template available for anyone to copy and adapt as he or she sees fit. I’ve also put together a screencast that quickly walks through how to use and customize the dashboard. Post your questions or thoughts below, and if you decide to use or adapt it, please let me know, as I’d love to hear how it’s working for you!

Five Tips for Facilitating Power Dynamics

My last remaining client is a small organization having a collective conversation about the culture it wants to have moving forward. One question that has come up repeatedly is: How can you have open, authentic, courageous conversations with your boss (or your boss’s boss) in the room?

As is often the case with my work, this is both a long-term question for the organization and an immediate process challenge, because we want the staff to be able to have an open, authentic, courageous conversation about this very topic with their bosses (and their bosses’s bosses) in the room. Not surprisingly, this has been a difficult challenge right from the start.

We’ve divided the entire organization into working groups of eight people, each representing different functions and levels across the organization. Each group has one member of the top-level leadership team participating. In other words, there are groups with young, administrative assistants in the room with C-level leadership and every position in-between, and we’re asking them to have open, sometimes difficult conversations in their groups around culture. Crazy, right?! How is it possible to have a safe conversation this way?

Furthermore, we’re not facilitating these conversations ourselves. Each group has a staff facilitator, someone who has demonstrated a proclivity for this role, but is not necessarily experienced at it. Rebecca Petzel and I are coaching the facilitators along the way, but we’re not actually in the room for these conversations.

These facilitators have been doing a great job so far, but some of them have found it challenging to deal with this power dynamic in the room. Several people have suggested removing the top-level leadership team from these conversations, something we considered from the start and something that we may still do.

Regardless of what we choose to do, the bottom line is that managing power dynamics is a fundamental, pervasive challenge, and that the only way to deal with it is to practice.

It’s not always about structural power — having your boss or a funder or a parent in the room, for example. Power comes in many forms. There’s relational power, for example. “Jane isn’t C-level, but she’s tight with the CEO, and I might as well be talking directly to the CEO when she’s in the room.”

Or there’s hierarchy that emerges from expertise. For example, I’ve seen many groups and even whole organizations held hostage by the one geek in the room, because everyone else is intimidated by that person’s knowledge about technology.

In many of these cases, the power structures are actually appropriate. If I have to get my car fixed, I’d better be listening and — to some extent — deferring to people who know about and understand cars better than me. I may not be paid to think broadly or deeply about strategy, but the CEO is, and so it makes sense for me to defer to the CEO to some extent. Then again, there are also studies that show that we defer authority to the people who simply talk more than anyone else, regardless of the substance of what they are actually saying.

The key question in all of these cases is, how much is the right amount? How do I engage with the power in the room while keeping my own power intact?

I decided to consult with Kristin Cobble to help me think through some of the specific challenges my client is facing. We had a fantastic tactical conversation, but we also talked a lot about the issues at a higher level, drawing from our previous experiences. There were so many great nuggets from our conversation, I asked her if she would have the conversation a second time with me and let me video it. Here it is:

Here are five key takeaways:

  1. We discussed a lot of tools and techniques, but at their core are the following principles: Name the dynamic, and encourage the group to reflect on it. Sometimes, naming the dynamic is enough. Other times, you need to find ways to break the dynamic in order to enable people to have this conversation.
  2. In our conversation, we used the words “facilitator,” “dominator,” and “dominated” to describe the different roles that emerge. I wish we had use David Kantor’s language instead: “observer,” “mover,” and “follower.” What you can do depends very much on the role you are playing.
  3. So much of your ability to practice naming and breaking these dynamics effectively, regardless of role, depends on your own self-awareness. This is where the type of coaching that Kristin practices is extremely helpful. Ed Batista, an executive and leadership coach, has a nice blog about this kind of work.
  4. The fallback solution for situations like this is to remove the power from the room. That can be a short-term bandage, but it won’t lead to success in the long-term. There are lots of great practices for breaking up the dynamic while still keeping everyone in the room.
  5. That said, there are no magic solutions. This stuff is hard, and it’s fundamental. It requires constant intention, attention, and practice. It’s inherently  awkward, uncomfortable, and messy. Trying to circumvent the mess will lead to failure. You have to dive right in, and you can’t be hard on yourself when it’s painful. If it’s not painful, you’re not doing it right.

Leadership Lessons from Notre Dame’s Brian Kelly

Notre Dame has a proud football tradition, but for the past two decades, it’s been a tradition of futility. It last won a national championship in 1988, and it hasn’t been in the running for one since Lou Holtz retired. That finally changed this year under coach Brian Kelly, as Notre Dame will be duking it out against Alabama next week for the title.

Kelly had two mediocre years before turning things around this year. had a nice article about what led to the turnaround. One of his problems was that he was not spending enough time communicating with his players, building trust. After a bad loss to USC late last year, he challenged his players, but they did not react well. He took responsibility for that.

“They didn’t know me well enough,” Kelly said. “Not their fault. My fault. You’d want a response to my comments [like], ‘That’s Coach. He has high expectations. He’s demanding this.’ No, it was the other way. ‘Coach doesn’t trust us. He didn’t recruit us.’ That made it clear to me I was not doing a very good job with our players.”

He decided he needed to spend more time with his players, so he made a number of changes this past year to create that time.

Last winter, when he might have been driving to Chicago or Detroit for an alumni meeting, he held Monday meetings with his team. No assistant coaches, no support staff, just a head coach and his players.

“It kind of gave us a chance to get to know him a little better, and for him to get to know us,” offensive tackle Zack Martin said. “[Before the meetings,] I don’t think it was something that I thought, ‘Oh, I wish I had this.’ After he started it, people realized: Oh yeah, it’s nice to get to know your head coach on a more personal level, not just on the football field.”

Kelly no longer works his quarterbacks the way a position coach would. His assistants sing from the hymnal he wrote. It is a slight exaggeration to say that this is the first season in which Kelly didn’t need name tags for the guys on defense.

“He’s there as a more familiar face,” safety Zeke Motta said. “It’s great for the team because you not only have one focus but you have a focus on the entire team itself. That lends itself to a team that plays together and plays for each other.”

Kelly hops from meeting to meeting, drill to drill, watching, listening, reinforcing.

“I could be the guy who wasn’t jumping on them because they didn’t run the route the right way,” Kelly said. “I could be the guy who said, ‘Hey, look, if you step with your outside foot on that. That’s what Coach is trying to tell you.'”

It’s a new way of coaching for Kelly.

Creating Space and Setting Boundaries

The past year has been mentally and emotionally exhausting, both in my professional and personal life. I’m pretty self-aware, and I’m good at making adjustments on the fly, but this past year really pushed me to the edge, and the space and people around me were exacerbating the situation.

So I started making some structural changes. In February, I hired a coach, the fabulous Lisa Heft. She was a great peer sounding board, and she created a safe space for me to think through the things I needed to figure out. That process gave me a clear vision for what I needed in my life to be happy and productive, and it helped me create a staged strategy for coping with the challenges that I couldn’t immediately do away with and for pro-actively preventing those things from becoming problems again.

I’ve implemented many of those changes over the past few months, and the results have been amazing. I feel more rested and creative. I’m working less, but I’m more productive. Life has slowed down, and good things are happening.

Godzilla Impression

I also have a lot more work I still need to do on myself. By slowing down, I let new things into my life, which have caused things to pick up again. This is where it gets tricky. I’m determined not to repeat old, destructive patterns. It means I have to be disciplined about my space and mindful about my wellness.

I’m getting really excited about the things that are happening right now. Lots of changes are afoot, and I’m feeling my friend, Mr. Adrenaline, start to reassert himself. But that rush is still tempered by remnants of exhaustion. I know I’m not totally whole yet, and I’m not going to get there if I don’t continue to assert my boundaries.

My biggest need right now is rest. Real, prolonged rest. And for the first time in eight years, I’ve created that space for myself — two weeks next month in Korea, sans laptop. I’ve had to fight off the urge to cancel the trip a number of times over the past few months in order to accommodate various work engagements. As hard as that’s been, I know it’s going to pay off in spades. (I have also found my professional colleagues exceptionally supportive in this regard, in some cases, forcefully so, further proof that I work with and for people who are much smarter than me.)

I’m excited to be going back to Korea, to eat my way through the country, to explore my roots, and to be totally present while doing so. And I know I’ll be chomping at the bit when I return.

In the meantime, I’m going to continue to hold my space, do my thing, and see where my energy takes me. I feel great about where I’m headed.