Play Ball!

Play Ball

My senior in high school I made a deal with my friend Diane: she would give volleyball a try and I would give basketball a try. Anyone with a bit more wisdom than the two of us would have seen immediately how this was going to work out. My friend was short and very close to the floor – actually the perfect build for a point guard. I was tall and gangly – a perfect ball striker. Or center.

She hated volleyball. I LOVED basketball. Under the tutelage of the coolest teach in school (a young handsome male teacher) we ended up finishing in the championship games, and I ended up with a basketball emblem for my letter sweater.

We both chose Seattle University for college. I went there because they gave me a scholarship – I’m not sure what Diane’s reasons were but the school is forever changed because of her. Her passion for basketball was much deeper rooted than mine, so when she found out that the university only offered an intramural basketball team for women she was outraged.   They used pennies for uniforms and dribbled the lopsided balls rejected by the men’s program. Completely unacceptable in her estimation.

Now, as luck would have it, the honors program I was in was headed by Sister Rosalie Trainer. It seems Sister Trainer was also the Head of women’s athletics. Given her advanced age of at least fifty at the time, the thought of progress seemed a bit hopeless to us. But I used my academic “connection” with her to gain an audience for Diane and I, wherein we presented our absolutely PERFECT pitch on why SU should have a varsity women’s basketball team.

Sister Trainer was a total buzz kill. She completely disagreed. First she pronounced that there weren’t enough women interested. And besides, even if there were, there was no one to coach and no money to pay for one should we dig up someone interested.

This all happened in 1975. What also happened in 1975 was the first failure of a Seattle School District levy in ages. Schools were forced to cut programs and lay off teachers. The young ones without seniority were first to go. Which left our handsome basketball coach from Ballard High School magically unemployed. Diane and I took our pitch on the road. When I imagine us making our case of how great it would be for him if he threw in with us, I’m not sure how he could have said no. He agreed to coach the SU Varsity Women’s Basketball Team. For Free.

Sister Trainer didn’t have much left to protest about, with the exception of her belief that there was no interest. We made her a deal – we would have a meeting and see if enough people showed up to make the scheme viable. If not, we would go away.

More than 60 women came. She was surprised, but kept her part of the bargain. And that’s how the Seattle University Women’s Basketball Team came into existence.




Get Outta Here!

I have identified a particular goal that every successful leader embraces: Cultivate an environment that allows your employees and managers to SAFELY send you back to your office when you stick your nose into their business. And when they do, know they are right.

If this sounds “soft” and simplistic, it isn’t. It is a very systematic approach to creating success in your organization. The commitment isn’t insignificant – it is about building a culture. It must hold the forefront so the goal informs decision-making at every level of the company. Here are some considerations to getting there:

Consider first your people. Not only do they have to be the right people, they have to be trained to perform, communicate, and look around corners. Teaching them the technicalities of a job is the easy part. Mentoring them on how to think and make decisions is an ongoing journey that you all take together. Their training is based in the reality of your day-to-day issues, and the time you spend guiding them transfers your finesse to them.

Consider next your management reporting systems. Stepping up and aside does not mean you should adopt a “trust me” culture.  Your systems have to be structured to provide you with information that clearly shows the intersection of all the moving parts in your organization. Budgets, KPI’s, feedback processes, and third-party input are just a few examples of the things you need to monitor in order to remain above the fray.

Last but not least, consider yourself. Are you comfortable having others be better at their jobs than you are? Can you let their decisions drive actions even if they are different than the way you might proceed? This system thrives on trust; ego and fear have no place. Your comfort level will grow over time; it is the logical result of the right people combined with the right systems.

I think I’ll go back and rewrite this post. Consider yourself and your role first.



Name It to Change It

I was listening to the CEO of a manufacturing company wax on about his disappointment with his general manager. “I want him to create a plan for growth and profitability that includes how we manage x, y, and z and that produces results 1, 2, and 3” he said to me. “And he just hasn’t done it.”

Before I assumed we had a performance issue to deal with, I asked the million-dollar question. “Have you told him that’s what you want”

I’m sure you can guess the answer.

It is not uncommon to meet an executive who seems to prefer harboring disappointment over talking to an “Offender”  regarding performance.  Sometimes Execs tell me they don’t want to be a micro-manager or a heavy hand. Sometimes the cone of silence has been in place for so long that  the Exec fears changing the rules in the middle of the game. We all  know how unsporting that would appear! In exploring the facts, the Exec and I always reach agreement that the employee needs to change in order to positively impact the company; we also always agree that nothing will change without a chat. And at this point in our conversation it is typical for the Exec to be a little embarrassed and mutter a sheepish “I know, I know”.

I asked this particular President what was most important – the success of his company’s or maintaining his  strategy of silent anger.  The answer to that question was obvious as well. Yet he had been paralyzed for more than eight months.

It is my personal belief that leaders who put their own emotions before the performance of their organization  aren’t doing their job. Not only that, I judge their behavior as abdicating and perhaps even self-indulgent. And when I “suggest” my judgment to them, I ALWAYS see a shift of perception. Obviously there is no President who doesn’t have a deep caring about his company; he has just been stuck behind a lens of judgment that is inward facing. When we give that behavior a name, we aim the lens right back at the bottom line. I watch executives  visibly rise up before my eyes, and say “Thank You – I know exactly what I have to do.”

Naming behavior  is one of the most powerful ways to help people shift their focus from themselves to their company’s great good.  You can name your own behaviors simply by looking at the conversations you AREN’T having. It is always a self-centered motivation that keeps those words inside of you. Find the fear and you can slay your own dragons.

The Olive Bar

The other day I decided to indulge myself in one of my favorite vices – blue cheese stuffed green olives. So I wandered up to the olive bar at my local grocery store and reached for one of the little plastic containers. Lo and behold there were none, which isn’t all that uncommon. Most times I would interpret this as a sign from the universe that I don’t really need this delicious little snack. This day I decided to ignore the sign, if indeed it was one, and head to the counter to procure a container.

The nice lady behind the counter was more than willing to help. When I told her of my need, she grabbed a whole stack of containers and handed them to me en-masse.

I was a little confused as to what I should do. It seemed I had two choices: I could be a jerk and tell her I only wanted one, or I could take the whole stack and set them on the olive bar. I chose the latter, but left scratching my head wondering how to judge the customer service component of what I had just played a part in. I certainly know how I would have reacted if she had done that in my shop.

How about you?

Coaching and Leadership in the Boxing Gym

I haven’t punched anyone or anything since I was nine years old. And I apologized to my brother, as the full extension of my first into his nose truly was an accident. So imagine my surprise when I discovered just recently that I love boxing.

Not the kind where you hit and get hit; that scares me. No – I love the boxing you do in a one hour circuit training workout that involves various kinds of cardio torture followed by three minute rounds with the bags. Speed bags, uppercut bags, heavy bags, big brown bags – I love them all.

The first time I walked in the boxing gym my fear was twofold. I was out of shape and I didn’t know jack about boxing. Last week my coach told me that my skills were really improving and that I should consider sparring in the ring. Wow! I declined citing my lack of passion for getting hit in the face, yet I couldn’t help but notice that the rest of my workout was way more focused. I kinda felt like a boxer!

As I evaluated my progression from klutz to Championship Belt (ok – a little over the top) I recognized the brilliance of my trainer. Her methodology is a terrific lesson in coaching. She explained the reason for a technique, demonstrated the technique, waited until I got that one down before introducing another, and encouraged me from class to class.

But what was really impressive to me was her lesson in leadership. When she suggested that I spar, she made the next step accessible to me by making it possible in my imagination. When she stepped forward and asked me to follow, she led me to the confidence I needed to elevate my game. Because of her encouragement and skillful guidance, I now work a lot harder every time I am in the gym.

In a nutshell, the coaching steps were explain, demonstrate, correct, add more, and encourage. The leadership was an invitation.






Do The !*& Math

I just finished judging three business plans submitted to a local university contest. It was great fun to read how these young folks want to make money, create a happy world, and save the environment all at the same time. It was discouraging to evaluate the financial analysis.
Each team of three “founders” had at least one graduate with a BS in finance, business, management, or the like. The other two founders were typically experienced in the craft of the business. Not a one of these contestants produced a financial statement indicating an understanding of cash flow, equity, and (gasp) profitability. In one case, the math was even incorrect.
I know we quit creating winners and losers in our kids’ sporting events in order to be able to teach that everyone is a winner. And I know that winning and losing as an adult often times (rightly or wrongly) is based on the accumulation of money. Did we take the “Everyone is a winner” attitude too far and forget to teach them how to count, hoping perhaps that if we de-emphasize money we can all feel like winners in the real world? Are we too focused on sustainability and community to figure out how to make a living in our businesses? Or have we just quit demanding the basics in our college programs?
Small business is the backbone of the American economy. I have spent over thirty years supporting business owners in their quest to create profits and consequently jobs. They are my heroes, and their contribution to our collective well-being is grand in both scale and social value. Somehow the thought of a business actually making money has become a bad thing, with social considerations touted as more important. But society can’t benefit without a strong economy, and a strong economy comes from thriving, profitable business.
Maybe I am unreasonable to expect that a BS in business would confer an understanding of basic business economics. Maybe I should be more supportive of the young entrepreneur’s dream to make the world a better place by offering their talents despite an inevitable failure. It just becomes confusing to me as to where in that process these young dreamers get their “I’m a winner” trophy.
Let’s do all of our kids a favor and teach them how to do the math. In and of itself, the numbers carry no judgment.