Losing my Voice

Yesterday, I started losing my voice, and it stayed gone all day today. Of course, I had meetings scheduled all day today, and I needed to speak at all of them. So I got to try on a new persona today — that of a person who speaks softly, calmly, and slowly.

Normally, my voice is clear and strong. Projecting is not a problem, and although I have learned to speak softly on occasion, when I get excited or agitated, I naturally start speaking faster and louder.

So today was interesting. I liked that my inability to speak up without straining my vocal cords forced me to slow down and speak softly and gently. I was able to stay calm and deliberate as I spoke, even when I was excited about something. It felt better — getting excited eventually drains me — and I’m sure it made it easier and perhaps more enjoyable for others to follow. I’d love to keep practicing this.

However, there were also times when I wanted to project simply so that others could hear me. Not being able to do that felt frustrating and disempowering. It would be interesting to experiment with this long-term to see how much of a role my natural voice plays in me being seen by others, and how I might compensate in other ways.

Lessons from the NBA on Life, Learning, and Navigating Power

Ten months ago, as I was in the midst of figuring out my next chapter, I wrote a blog post about legendary basketball coach, Phil Jackson. I expressed chagrin at how a man like Phil Jackson was essentially being put out to pasture. He was getting coaching offers, but he had made it clear that he didn’t want to coach, and it seemed like teams were missing out on the opportunity to benefit from his wisdom due to their lack of imagination.

Last week, Jackson was named president of the New York Knicks. If you know basketball, you know that this was an eyebrow-raising development for two reasons. First, James Dolan — the owner of the Knicks — is widely acknowledged as one of the worst owners in the NBA, largely due to his meddling ways. It’s hard to imagine that match working, although Dolan has repeatedly been on record since last week that Jackson will have full control over basketball-related decisions.

Second, it was somewhat surprising that the Los Angeles Lakers never found a way to make it work with Jackson, given that he led them to five championships and is engaged to one of the owners of the team. It’s complicated. The Lakers are a family-owned team whose beloved, larger-than-life patriarch — widely considered the best-ever owner in the history of the NBA — recently passed away. His children — including Jackson’s fiancee — have been groomed to take over for years, and Jackson has always had a complicated relationship with his soon-to-be brother-in-law, who is now in charge of basketball decisions.

Still, why weren’t other teams jumping to employ Jackson? Ramona Shelburne wrote a great column for ESPN.com on this very topic:

For all the self-reflection Jackson has done in his 68 years, there was one image he was never going to be able to see clearly. His own. The way he’s seen by others, that is. Not what stares back at him in the mirror, or what’s inside his heart and head. On some level, Jackson understands that he is an intimidating man. His 6-foot-8 frame casts a towering shadow. His 11 NBA titles, Hall of Fame résumé and status as the coach who got the best out of Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant walk into any room five minutes before he does.

It’s more than that, though.

The job he wanted for himself, the role he envisioned for the autumn of his basketball life — as a team president with final say over basketball decisions and the authority to create and shape the culture of a franchise — is a large one.

Pat Riley holds a role like that in Miami. So does Larry Bird in Indiana. Jackson certainly has the credentials for a role like that, too. But it’s a big ask of any owner. That kind of power is why an owner spends hundreds of millions of dollars to buy a professional sports franchise. So he can have the power. It is inherently threatening when an employee has even a little bit of it. It is kind of terrifying when that employee is a legend like Phil Jackson.

If you are in a Phil Jackson-like position, and if you’re wanting a certain role, you have to make it safe for others to embrace you. It’s not enough to sit back and wonder. You have to understand how you’re perceived, even if it’s the furthest thing from your own perception of yourself.

As I wrote last May, I see myself in Jackson’s situation (not that I’m even in the same ballpark of his accomplishments). I sometimes find myself wondering why people in certain situations don’t reach out to me more. I’ve made it abundantly clear that I’m wanting to share everything I’ve learned over the years and that I have much, much more to learn. Folks who know me know that I’m all about learning and doing great work, that I’m secure about my reputation, that I give credit more than I take it, and that I have no need to be the boss if I’m surrounded by great people and a healthy culture. If you care about similar things, why wouldn’t you try to take advantage of that?

At the same time, I understand both the perception and the reality of my situation. Organizational development professionals in particular tend to come from academia and management consulting, fields that are rife with scarcity mindset and do not believe in or understand the benefits of openness. It’s hard for folks in these fields to understand where I’m coming from and to not perceive me as a threat. I have little patience for people who are more concerned with protecting their reputation than they are about learning, and I’m not shy about expressing my feelings. If it were truly important for me to find ways to work with and mentor others who feel this way, it’s my prerogative to make these folks feel safe. Frankly, I’m mixed about this.

There’s also a flip side. What am I doing to reach out to and learn from others? Could I be doing more?

In 2011, Joe Lacob, who had recently purchased the Golden State Warriors, hired Jerry West as an advisor. On the one hand, this was a Phil Jackson-like no-brainer, maybe times ten. Jerry West is probably the greatest general manager ever. He won six rings as an executive for the Lakers, left in a bit of a power play (involving Phil Jackson), and turned around the Memphis Grizzlies, a historically moribund franchise. That’s not even accounting for his career as a player. West’s impact on the NBA is so great, they literally made him its logo.

Unlike Jackson, West was on record as saying that he didn’t want to become a decision-making part of any organization. On the one hand, if you were trying to turn a franchise around, why wouldn’t you want someone like West? On the other hand, even if West was being authentic about his desired role, you would need people who were tremendously secure to be able to work with him as an advisor.

Here’s what Lacob had to say in 2011 about the concern that there were “too many chefs in the kitchen”:

Everyone who says that is completely clueless. It’s a stupid thing to bring up. This is a 100-plus-million-dollar business. You have to have management. Most NBA teams are incredibly poorly architected on the basketball side. They have people who are ex-players, and Jerry West is an exception to this — but most of them are ex-players or scouts or whatever. They don’t know how to negotiate against incredibly trained killers like Arn Tellem or other agents. That’s what they do for a living. I’m not a genius. There’s a different way to do things and be successful, clearly. But it’s a very successful, thought-out map.

He certainly will feel the itch [to get more involved]. I’m sure he would love to be running something again and pulling the trigger again. That’s the excitement of it, right? But he also knows, and we’ve had these discussions at great lengths, he’s 73 and he’s in L.A. He can’t do it that way. It’s a young man’s game. There’s a lot of day-to-day scouting, a lot of day-to-day video analysis. He’s not prepared to do that right now and doesn’t want to. He has other interests right now.

Three years later, the relationship seems to have paid off. The Warriors are one of the best teams in the NBA, and Lacob credits West for coming in and changing the mentality of the organization.

I think that Joe Lacob is a wonderful model, and it’s got me thinking: Who are the Jerry West’s in my field whom I could be reaching out to and learning from?

Amy Poehler on Creating and Collaborating

Here’s some delicious wisdom on creating and collaborating from an interview with the great Amy Poehler. (Hat tip to Michael Swaine for sharing!)

On power:

Power sometimes comes down to knowing the vocabulary, figuring out how the system works and how to work within it. You need to believe that you deserve to be in the room once you get there.

On functional collaboration:

I met a lot of the people I collaborate with now doing improv, and I’ve had the experience of being in functional creative environments. I don’t think creativity has to come from a place of dysfunction. It can come from nice people with good parents.

On caring and risk-taking:

To some people, not caring is supposed to be cool, commenting is more interesting than doing, and everything is judged and then disposed of in, like, five minutes. I’m not interested in those kinds of people. I like the person who commits and goes all in and takes big swings and then maybe fails or looks stupid; who jumps and falls down, rather than the person who points at the person who fell, and laughs. But I do sometimes laugh when people fall down.

Photo by Renee Barrera. CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.

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.

Joe Nye and Adam Kahane on the Future of Power

Harvard professor Joseph Nye wrote a nice brief piece in the Chronicle for Higher Education that talks about the U.S.’s evolving role as a world power and that articulates his distinction between hard and soft power. He writes:

In the United States, we tend to focus on the hard power of coercion and payment. This is partly a reflection of American political culture and institutions. No politician wants to appear “soft,” and Congress finds it easier to increase the budget of the Pentagon than of the State Department. This bias has been reinforced by prevailing scholarship.

Realism adequately represents some aspects of international relations. But states are no longer the only important actors in global affairs; military security is not the only major outcome that they seek; and force is not the only or always the best instrument available to achieve desired outcomes. Indeed, the relationship among advanced postindustrial countries is one of complex interdependence. This deep network of transnational ties among democratic societies means that the absence of any overarching government has very different effects in such contexts than realism predicts.

It is not solely in relations among advanced countries that soft power plays an important role. In an information age, communications become more important, and outcomes are shaped not merely by whose army wins but also by whose story wins.

In the 21st century, a smart foreign policy will combine the hard power of coercion and payment with the soft power of attraction and persuasion.

I think Nye is mostly right, but while he’s advocating different approaches, his frame is still oriented around one party imposing its will on another. It’s what Adam Kahane describes in his book, Power and Love, as power-over. Kahane (strongly influenced by the philosopher, Paul Tillich) contrasts this with power-to:

Power has two sides. The generative side of power is the power-to that Paul Tillich refers to as the drive to self-realization. The degenerative, shadow side is power-over — the stealing or suppression of the self-realization of another. Tillich recognizes both sides: “Power actualizes itself through force and compulsion. But power is neither the one nor the other. It is being, actualizing itself over nonbeing. It uses and abuses compulsion in order to overcome this threat. It uses and abuses force in order to actualize itself. But it is neither one nor another.”

Degenerative power-over arises out of generative power-to. When I am exercising my power-to and I feel myself bumping up against yours, and if in this conflict I have the capacity to prevail over you, then I can easily turn to exercising power over you. My drive to realize myself slips easily into valuing my self-realization above yours, and then into believing arrogantly that I am more deserving of self-realization, and then advancing into my self-realization even if it impedes yours.

Our opportunity is to create a world where it’s not about imposing one’s agenda on others, whether by coercion or persuasion. Instead, it’s about converging on a set of shared goals and about co-creating our path toward achieving those goals. It’s about activation and empowerment, power-to instead of power-over. It’s about seeing the world as “we” rather than “us” versus “them.”

In doing so, we need to have faith that we will not lose ourselves to the whole, but that the whole will become a manifestation of us as individuals.