Raising the tone

Lowering the tone is easy, often funny, and sometimes desirable: lofty conversations gain traction (or evaporate) when touched to earth. Laughter liberates.

It’s much harder to raise the tone, and harder still to do it with humour and grace… but it’s almost always desirable. It’s a way to lead.

I propose that we aim for a 2-to-1 ratio of raising the tone to lowering it. And that we hold some fart jokes in reserve in case things get too serious.

Move it on

We eat elephants of different shapes and sizes. But most of the time, doing most of the things that matter, we’re eating elephants:

  • learning a new skill
  • growing a friendship
  • running a household
  • recovering
  • building an organisation
  • bringing up children
  • staying married
  • serving a country
  • paying off a mortgage
  • writing a novel
  • being a neighbour

It’s easy to feel stuck with things like these, because they’re never done. But in all of them, we can go backward (this includes stasis) or move forward (which is a prerequisite for stability).

I’ll post another day about the meaningful goals that help with forward motion. For today – and there’s less than an hour left of it – suffice to say that sometimes the thing to do with elephants is just to show up regularly and take a bite or two.

Just in time (2): “I’ll just…”

There’s another kind of just in time. This is the kind when you lie to yourself: “I’ll just squeeze this extra thing in, and I’ll get there just in time.”

Pro tip: things that start with “I’ll just…” cost more than you think.

“I’ll just…” jobs usually end up taking longer, or they leave you dissatisfied because you didn’t do them well, or mean that you have to rush the next thing (like getting out the door), that you forget something, that you arrive late or flustered and on the back foot, that your thoughts and emotions are busy with something else. That you miss possibilities.

Next time you find yourself with ten minutes before you have to go and think “I’ll just write one more email” or “I’ll just check my messages”, count first what it’s actually going to cost in terms of time and emotional energy:

  • Is this a job that you can finish well and feel good about in two minutes (which probably means five to ten)?
  • Is it a job that you can leave – and feel happy about leaving – half done?
  • Is it worth the cost of energy and concentration and the likely rush later to squeeze it in?
  • Who is it going to cost? It will always cost you, and will usually also cost whoever you’re showing up for next.

Try this instead, for yourself and for them:

“I’ll just… leave ten minutes early, and enjoy the walk.”

Debt to society

If you want to talk about our debt to society – the question of what we owe the other people who share our culture, and share the planet with us – it’s helpful to start with this: without other people, you’d be dead. Even if you’d somehow managed to be born on your own, without other people you’d never have made it.

But ‘debt to society’ is the wrong way to frame it. It helps to think less about giving-up-what-is-rightfully-ours because of what we owe (though we do), or because we feel guilty or obliged (though perhaps we should), or because we’re afraid of what will happen if we don’t (though there might be good reason for this).

What do we want?

Let’s talk instead about contributing towards what we want, and the benefits we might expect to enjoy if we lived in a kinder, more generous society. A society – just for example – in which as many people as possible get a leg-up when they’re just starting out (by being born, or starting school, or starting their careers), and the hand-up that makes all the difference when they’re down. We know that these things don’t just make it better for other people’s kids, but for our kids.* A better society is better for all of us: no-one wants unhealthy, poorly educated, tormented neighbours. (And no-one wants selfish neighbours either).

We all do want human flourishing, and most of us want it for everyone. We don’t even disagree that much about what it looks like, just about how to achieve it** and sustain it. And most people want to contribute towards achieving it.

Better

If we focus on “better”, if we say the words and describe it, it becomes much easier for people who usually disagree with us to say, “Actually, I want that too – but I think we’ll get it by doing this...” And it becomes easier for us to agree to try one way, then the other – or to find a different, better way.

And focusing on contribution towards building something better is a great story. We can feel good about what we’re giving, a part of what we’re building, and hopeful about what we’re moving towards.

*And at the end of the day, they’re all our kids.
**Perhaps particularly about whether a
flourishing life is something that can be given.

Attitude: something to share

Anyone who has been stealing must steal no longer, but must work, doing something useful with their own hands,that they may have something to share with those in need.

Paul of Tarsus – Letter to the Ephesians

Two thoughts:

  1. Integrity in our work is a baseline and an enabler – a starting point. The end of work is not merely to meet your own needs or to feed your family (this is necessary, but not sufficient). It’s not to make your boss happy (although this is helpful), nor to accumulate riches (fine if it happens). Here, the end of work is generosity: that you might have something to share with someone who needs it. Quite often, the work itself is something that we share too.
  2. This isn’t about helping everyone, all the time. It’s not “Work, that you might meet all the needs of all people all the time.” That’s not your job. Your job is simply to show up with something, and share it cheerfully.

Their thing

It’s great that you have a thing – that you’re clear about it what it is and how important it is, and that you’re talking about it and taking action and enjoying it to boot. It’s great that it’s yours.

The temptation to avoid is to try to make it everybody else’s thing as well.

Trying to get people who aren’t really into your thing to play a significant role in it – as employees, implementers, sales people or evangelists – will only lead to disappointment all round.

Trying to give or sell your thing to someone who has different priorities will end in frustration and exhaustion.

Here are some ways forward:

  1. Find the people for whom this is their thing too: people who already share your vision, or one that significantly overlaps with it. Lead: say the words, ravel the network, build a tribe.
  2. Find people who have their own thing but will willingly put it in service of yours. There are passionate accountants, dedicated administrators, superb policy people, committed teachers, and fantastic IT technicians who will be delighted to do what they love in service of a good cause.
  3. Find partners for whom your thing is an integral part of theirs. At the charity I work at, our thing is teaching children to read and love reading. We do it by serving schools, charities or parents with a bigger vision – education as a whole, or community development, or raising flourishing kids – of which we provide a crucial piece of the puzzle.

The first group are rare gems. Finding them often takes consistent generative work, but it’s worth it. The right partners will bring far more energy than you spend on finding them, starting a chain reaction of possibilities and results.

You can’t live without the second group – they hold key pieces of the puzzle to making your thing a reality. Your job is to help them thrive and flourish doing their thing, as a subset of yours. They’re also the people who will get the most exposure to your vision, values and culture – by playing to their strengths, putting them to work with their thing, you make it much more likely that they’ll start to own yours.

The third group are your clients or donors or customers. They – or the people they serve – are why you’re here in the first place. Always as a leader, you’re a person serving people who serve people.*

*This is vintage Tom Peters

Tom Peters on ‘People Stuff’

I’ve made a start on The Excellence Dividend and really like what Tom Peters has to say, and how he says it. Here he is in his inimitable ALL CAPS style:

WHILE I’VE BEEN ON THE EXCELLENCE DIVIDEND  BOOK TOUR–MOSTLY PODCASTS — I’VE BEEN ASKED OVER AND OVER TO EXPLAIN MY “OBSESSION” WITH THE “PEOPLE STUFF.”

I USUALLY ANSWER, SNIPPILY, “WELL WHAT THE HELL ELSE IS THERE?”

ORGANIZATIONS, NO MATTER HOW MUCH TECHNOLOGY THEY USE, ARE NO MORE AND NO LESS THAN ‘PEOPLE SERVING PEOPLE’.

AND AS A LEADER, YOUR JOB IS: SERVE THE PEOPLE WHO SERVE THE PEOPLE.

(ONE LAST THING: THE PEOPLE WE SERVE ARE OUR EMPLOYEES AND OUR CUSTOMERS AND OUR COMMUNITIES.)

Tom PetersExcellence Dividend Fundamentals Slideshow

The toll gate

There were several cars backed up at the toll gate. Was the toll gate broken, or had the front car broken down?

The problem was simply that the driver at the front of the queue had forgotten to top up their payment card – so they were stuck.

They rifled through their wallet. Tried their backup. Thought for a moment. Asked for help from the car behind. Several drivers refused before – finally – someone lent him a card in exchange for a ten-thousand rupiah note.

The barrier opened. He drove through. He went back to return the card. He got back into his car. Finally, he drove away.

And all the time people watched and waited, and the queue got longer.

It would have been better for all of us if someone who had seen the problem – those closest could see best – had gone forward with their card and paid to let him through.

It needed clear vision (to see the problem), prompt action (to fix it quickly) and generosity (to pay someone else’s way).

As powerful as a smile

Real marketing is built into what you do and why you do it. It’s part of your story, something that you do organically when your business is aligned with your mission and values. Kept promises, free returns, obsession with the details, returned emails, clean tables, and attentive staff – all of this is your real marketing.

Real marketing creates a deeper impact, leaves a lasting impression, and is as powerful as a smile.

Bernadette Jiwa – The Fortune Cookie Principle

Why do people come to you for the thing you provide?
What do they get? Why do they want it? How does it make them feel?
What makes them come back?
Do they tell other people about you? What do they say?

What do your actions / words and tone of voice / website / way you dress / your office / commitment to doing things well say about who you are and what you’re doing? Do they say the same thing?
For a non-profit organisation, do you smile at your donors and your clients in the same way? (you should)
Are you an example of these things for your team? How do you articulate them to the team, to new members, to partners?