Tuesday, October 15, 2013

How I came to work in leadership development and why I love what I do

Originally published on the Owl, Fox & Dean Blog. 

People often ask me how I got into this work, here's how (and why I love it).

I've worked on many different kinds of projects throughout my career. Real estate, start-up business ventures, economic development initiatives, rural community building, collaborative story-telling... meaningful projects that I believed to be viable, and knew that if successful, would help to make the world a better place

Though so much time, energy and money was invested in these projects, many broke down, fell apart, or failed to launch.

One day, during a stakeholder meeting as I watched those involved argue and fail to understand each other, I realized that one reason these projects were breaking down was because of poor communication amongst those involved. People did not understand each other nor were they being understood. I saw them grow frustrated and resentful until they ultimately couldn't work together.

I was inspired to figure out what the issue was and how to solve it. I knew that is breakdown must be happening to meaningful projects and ventures all over the world.

What was lost? What opportunities were not seized? What potential was not actualized?

I set out to understand the science of communication. I studied and developed my own ability to communicate effectively both one-on-one and broadly to large groups of people by paying attention to the subtleties in my behavior, my energy, the language I used, how I told a story, what resonated, what influenced people and my ability to listen and be heard, to understand and be understood.

As I continued to focus on communication, I noticed that there was something special about the projects that did get off the ground, something unique about the people involved.  I realized that it had to be more than the variable of communication that caused some teams to succeed and some to breakdown and fail. I wanted to understand what allowed some teams to thrive, certain people to understand and be understood, and some people to resolve conflict and inspire those around them. There had to be something deeper going on. While communication is critical there was yet more to learn.

Was it something external? Was it the viability of what they were working on? Was it a natural chemistry between the people? Was it luck?  Was it that some people, some personalities, had the natural ability to succeed?

I found and studied the discipline of systems thinking and systems design as a way to illuminate all of the moving parts in a system, how to identify leverage points for change; how to get to the bottom of things and design better systems, projects, and businesses. I also studied my own behavior, beliefs, and emotions, becoming hyper aware of my own actions and abilities to communicate, understand and be understood. I learned to use my voice, resolve conflict, build teams, and inspire those around me. I experienced myself and the people around me stretch and grow as humans and develop as leaders.

All projects and organizations, at a human level, are manifestations of the good, the bad, and the ugly of all those involved. It became so obvious that more meaningful projects and businesses would be successful if people had the leadership ability to inspire and creatively lead those around them. More ideas and more potential would be realized if people understood that they always have the opportunity to grow and develop as leaders, and make the projects they touch and those they lead more successful.

Every system, however complex or simple, has a set of variables that if left unchanged will continue to allow the system to function. For better or for worse.

Humans are innately developmental. Physically. Mentally. Emotionally. Spiritually. We are not hard wired to handle every situation the same way every time we're faced with a challenge. We grow, we stretch, we learn, we adapt, and we evolve to become more skilled at survival, at being successful. We've been doing it for hundreds of thousands of years. It’s how we've changed the natural systems around us and the systems we've created.

Everyone... every single person, working on anything, in any aspect of their lives has the ability to develop their capacity to understand themselves better, use their voice, negotiate and resolve conflict, and inspire and creatively work with the people around them.

Everyone has the ability to increase their capacity to develop as leaders and because of this, leadership development is the ultimate leverage point to change a system.

Leadership is the ultimate leverage point for positive, productive, and creative change in the world and I have the privilege and the honor of helping people realize their leadership potential and create bad-ass ventures.

That's why I love what I do.

Monday, May 13, 2013

Can technology save us all?

It seems that everyday I hear about a new technology that is going to save the world. Whether it's a new clean tech solution to help us meet our energy needs or materials that can "think" and adapt to their surroundings, there are incredible minds inventing incredible technologies that will no doubt change the world. So, can these technologies save us all from the monumental challenges we face?


Well really the answer is more nuanced, and perhaps if I slightly rephrase my question we can begin to delve into why.

Can technology, alone, save us all?

I recently traveled to Cambridge and Boston (MA) with my friend and colleague, Ben, and among other things, attended the MIT Sustainability Summit hosted by the Sloan School and held at the Media Lab. The Media Lab is arguably, the "Mecca" of innovation and technology and represents the East Coast academic hub of the maker movement. Think, 3D printing, 4D printing, and cars that drive themselves, for a start. Along with an admirable speaker lineup, the venue was one of the main attractions for attending. The conference was impressive, as was the venue. With views of the Boston skyline, surrounded by innovative design, and among passionate intelligent people, it was hard not to be inspired.

Stark white, modern, and thoughtfully designed, the interior of the Media Lab welcomed close to 300 people convening to talk about innovative solutions and sustainable business applications that address the world's most wicked problems. Just two days prior, Ben and I were welcomed into a much more humble space that is aiming to do a very similar thing. 

Industrial, gritty, and built with purpose, Greentown Labs is a 17,500 square foot incubator space with the mission of providing space for clean tech entrepreneurs to "get dirty, bend metal, and make noise." Located in the Fort Point Channel neighborhood in Boston, Greentown Labs is home to 26 clean tech start-ups, many of which have come out of MIT and other local institutions. From high altitude, helium filled, portable wind turbines to dirt batteries, this space serves as home to many companies that will surely make in impact. Again, it was hard not to be inspired.

What these experiences, these spaces (along with the "Sustainability Unconference" at the Cambridge Innovation Center we stumbled upon) each demonstrate, are the power of collaboration and deep human desire for community. The outcomes, the tangible products of these spaces are technologies that we may all use someday,  technologies that may change or even help to save the world. Not always apparent and somewhat intangible are the sparks of collaboration and the inspiration and support of a community built on purpose.

It is because of the inherent power of collaboration and our deep desire for community that the technology, alone, cannot save us. Technology helps us meet surface level needs, very real needs that allow us to thrive while collaboration and community help us meet our deeper level needs, those that allows us to be inspired and imagine and those that hold us accountable drive us to make ourselves and the world a better place.

Can technology save us all? No.

Can technology imagined and inspired by a supportive community and made possible and durable through collaboration save us all? I hope so, because really, what are we trying to save if not the communities we are a part of and the world that supports us and allows us to thrive?

Thursday, December 27, 2012

Financial Reflection: Linear Time and the Willingness to Change

The variable that I rarely hear in the discussion of the financial crisis and the issues that plague our economy is that of time. It appears that our society has become reactive, linear, impatient, and unwilling to look outside the immediacy of whatever issue we are dealing with at any given moment. Because we are constantly reacting rather than actively improving, testing, and producing we are unable to see the benefit of long-term planning and the full impacts of the quick fixes we implement. In addition to short-term thinking, it seems that we forget that the economy and financial systems are of our own design and that we have the power to change not only our actions, but the interconnected system in which we operate.

When I first think of my own role in the economy, finance, and specifically the crisis, it's difficult to not feel powerless. What could I have done? I don't work in the financial industry, invest in the stock market, or even own a home. I am not a shareholder of any corporation. Yet, all of these actions and reactions affect me as a United States citizen and as a global citizen. I am then reminded of the variable of time and the interconnected systems we live in.

When I think about time, especially in regards to financial systems, I am reminded that we all perceive it differently, especially during moments of crisis. Our ability to think about long-term productive solutions to the issues we face is reduced when we exist in a volatile political climate. For example, the most recent "fiscal cliff" crisis has completely swept aside conversation about climate change (and the long term financial effects of a reliance on fossil fuels), our strongly divided dual-party political structure, and even violence in America. This tendency towards distraction during crisis is, I believe, true for those of us deciding how to stimulate the economy as well as those of us who are deciding how to feed our families over the next week. Whether we are desperate for jobs or desperate for food, the immediacy is the same. Collectively, we believe that we need to do whatever it takes to find a solution (now!). And yet, the fiscal cliff will be followed shortly by the Farm Bill Cliff and the deficit cliff... as Maureen Dowd of the New York times describes, "Once you start with the cliffs, you can fall into cliffinity-- with endless cliff riffs on the horizon."

We are living in a paradigm of revolving crisis where the discussion is not about long-term improvements but of short-term fixes. When we only feed the immediacy of now, we fail to see opportunities for long term societal health.

When I think about the interconnected systems we live in, I am reminded of how important it is to break free of linear thinking. If one party is right, then the other must be wrong. If we have this, then we cannot have that. We are in a constant state of compromise where there are clear winners and losers. Does anyone stand to gain when some of us lose, or at least perceive to have lost?

The 2008 financial crisis was the result years of increased government deregulation of the financial sector and the prevalence of complicated financial products such as bundled securities that leveraged bank assets at an alarming rate. For example, banks sold mortgages to Americans to buy homes. Because of the high rate that homes were being purchased at, home prices rose. Banks that lend, before deregulation, were not legally allowed to sell high risk investment products but because of deregulation of the banking sector, the very banks that sold mortgages were (and are) able to bundle these mortgages and sell them as securities to other investment banks. This allowed lending banks to turn a profit quickly and not wait for homeowners to pay off their mortgage over time. This short-term payoff caused these banks to relax their standards of who they sold mortgages to, meaning that, many, many people who could technically not afford to pay back their loans were given them anyway. Options on these bundled mortgage securities were then sold meaning that some banks (and investors) stood to gain whether these mortgages were paid back or not, whether Americans were able to make their payments and keep their homes or not. When people began to default on their mortgages, the chain of investments that leveraged and releveraged other people's "real wealth, fell apart.

Over the years that led up to the crisis, those who who sold these highly leveraged financial products made an incredible amount of money by being rewarded for their risk taking. Those who leveraged people's long term investments to make a short-term gain were rewarded with cash. As David Korten says, phantom wealth was created by leveraging other people's real wealth. Phantom wealth being money that is created by accounting tricks and real wealth being productive uses of money in such things as homes and infrastructure that helps people meet basic needs and increase the capacity of even more people to do so. As phantom wealth increased for a few, real wealth diminished for many. Whether those who gained understood how their actions and risk taking affected others in the system, they did nonetheless.

In order for us to truly "fix" our economy and ensure that our financial systems perform in a way that helps many people meet their needs and increase our collective capacity to do so, we must think with long-term stability and productivity in mind and appreciate our ability (and responsibility) to adapt the systems we use.

Joel Solomon, a responsible investor from Vancouver British Columbia, once explained the power that each of us has vote with our money. This sentiment is something I now live by. No matter how big of a player we are in the financial system, every dollar we spend has the ability to be productive. Change will take time and there is no one way to fix the economy but by understanding our own role and our own power to influence the systems that we design, we have the opportunity to create financial systems that allow us to thrive.

Saturday, December 1, 2012

If You Are Willing...

Thank you, Sarah Green, Associate Editor at HBR, for tipping me off to an opinion piece that I missed last week in the New York Times.

The piece, "The Go-Nowhere Generation," by Todd G. Buckholz and Victoria Buckholz, a critique of the millenial generation, is an incredible display of two of the biggest challenges (also known as opportunities) of our times: One, the disillusionment of an entire generation with almost every current system in place, and two, the seeming obliviousness that older generations have to a movement and an economy that is being developed right under their noses.

Another opinion piece that ran recently in the Times also points to the challenge of disillusionment.

Christy Wampole's critique of hipsterdom and all its irony appears at face value to echo the sentiments of the Buckholz's piece; our generation needs to grow up and start taking things seriously. Wampole believes that hipsters somehow feel nostalgic for times they never actually lived. By growing mustaches, raising chickens, learning to pickle things, and filtering their digital photographs to "look old" they are living in irony because, how could and why would they ever hark back to a time they never actually experienced? The answer is because we are a generation with a dearth of living role models and we are a generation collectively going through paradigm shattering change where every system we know is falling apart.

I'll frame this disillusion with a personal story.

On September 11, 2001, I turned 18. I was a senior in high school from rural Western Massachusetts preparing to apply to college. I felt privileged to come from a supportive family and community and was raised to be aware of the world outside and those without privilege. Until that day, I viewed the world as full of opportunity. I knew there was war, poverty, atrocities, and many, many people in the world who did not feel this same way as I did, but because there was the promise of opportunity, I felt optimistic about my role in making the world a better place.

Things shifted after that day. My perspective of my role in the world changed. Rather than operating on optimism, the world (I knew) began to operate on fear. Purse strings tightened, along with security and trust. My friends who had signed up for the National Guard with the promise of tuition and higher education found themselves in Iraq and Afghanistan. My friends who applied to college with the promise of employment, found themselves feeling dismal about their prospects upon graduation. There was a collective shift from, "what can't I do to," to "what the hell can I do."

Disillusionment is not the same as apathy. If we are speaking in generalities, my generation is not apathetic, we are disillusioned and fed up with what we have to deal with. Staying home to save money and using technology that connects us is not apathetic just as learning to pickle things and developing other self reliant skills because of the realization that the economic system we were born into may not exist in the near future is not ironic. If we were apathetic we would be pretending like the world around us has not changed. We would be doing things your way. The combination of this generational awareness of the need for systemic change, our increased global connectivity, and new (old) skills that allow us to meet our basic human needs actually gives our society a chance to adapt and survive. Apathetic we are not.

Calling an advertisement an advertisement, within an advertisement, may be ironic. It may also be a sign of disillusion with a medium within a broken system. I see the irony too. More disturbing than hipsters wearing trucker hats, when they've never actually driven a truck, is that the only mainstream media figures telling the truth about our pathetic government are doing so on Comedy Central. Perhaps turning to irony is not an aversion to risk but a collective strategic attempt to hold up a mirror and show the generations who built the broken systems that we've inherited how ridiculous everything they did before us was. If I sound disillusioned, I am. The great thing, is that my tone in this post is both a symptom of inheriting a broken system and of my deep belief that my generation is seizing this opportunity and is in the process of harnessing our collective disillusion to create real long term change.

Christy, I appreciate your humility and self critique as well as your frustration with irony. And, please remember that everyday is an opportunity to live in sincerity.

The second challenge, this lack of awareness that older generations have to the changes they cannot see or measure, also provides great opportunity. Let me hold a mirror to a couple of the questions and points I heard in the Buckholz's article, and again, I'm speaking in generalities.

Why don't you get off your ass, hit the road, and find opportunity?

I if I may, why didn't you value community and sense of place enough and bust your ass to make your hometown a better place for the next generation?

I see a great movement toward a deeper respect for place and community. I have friends across the country working to make their communities, many of which have high unemployment, better places for the people that call them home. Even in Portland, OR, where I live, the epicenter of hipsterdom and the DIY economy, (where young people come to retire), I see a generation of young people who genuinely care about this place and are actively prototyping scrappy business that can thrive in a new economic paradigm.

You're not even buying bicycles. Even further proof of your sedentary lifestyle! (What?) 

There is an entire economy that is being built based on meeting human needs, living within systemic means, and building productive and real wealth. Craigslist, or, selling the stuff you don't want anymore to people who do want it, is just an example of how we are shifting from an economy based on consumption and growth to an economy that meets the needs of people and within the systems means of the planet.

It's not that our generation doesn't care, in general, it's that our generation doesn't care about the only way you know how to do things. So, it's no surprise to us that you explain what you see with cynicism and poor logic.

The irony of the Buckholz's piece is glaring. The only thing more ironic than pointing to rebels and risk takers who shunned the status quo and who were misunderstood by the generations who came before them, to prove their views about our generation, is their use of targeted cynicism and passive tough-love to shake us out of our disillusionment of the cynical, fear-based, and passive systems they perpetuate. The fact that they are using cynicism, shallow data, and a lack of long term systemic thinking to sell their books, proves the sentiment of our generation. If you want us to be like you, all we ask is that you change. Until we see that change, we're going to assume that it's business as usual. A business with practices that have left our country with a mess that our generation is stuck with cleaning up.

If you're willing, perhaps the greatest opportunity to build a high performing society and a strong resilient economy is to match your experience, resources, and knowledge of current systems with our ambition to change. I have the absolute privilege and honor of working with authentic, passionate, hard working leaders from older generations. Because of these people I have hope that the shallow cynical thinking I read in pieces such the Buckholz's  and this one in Forbes (from four years ago) that essentially calls social entrepreneurship a cute fad and likens it to "cuddling up to Barny," is on its way out.

If you're unwilling, please step aside.

Monday, November 12, 2012

Open Solutions Society - Greg Dees - Portland - November 9, 2012

On Friday evening, Greg Dees, professor at Duke University's Center for Advancement of Social Entrepreneurship and who many call the godfather of social entrepreneurship, introduced a group at the Pacific Northwest College of Art to the concept of what he calls the open solutions society. The concept, which I believe will soon be laid out thoroughly in book form, is an all hands on deck approach to collectively solving the issues we face.

The lecture (more of a conversation) was hosted by PNCA's Collaborative Design program and Portland State University's Impact Entrepreneurs. Prior to the conversation, there was an open house at the Collaborative Design space where we learned about three projects that current graduate students in Don Harker's Social Entrepreneurship class are working on. Three groups presented their projects that proposed collaborative design solutions to the opportunities of urban connectivity in East Portland Neighborhoods, the re-purposing of tsunami debris washed up on Oregon shores, and the introduction of systems thinking to the education of our educators.

Dees framed the conversation of the open solutions society with the economic notions that: (1) The world's history is of constant adaptation. (2) Entrepreneurs, risk takers, innovators, must be able to test new ideas. (3) There must be institutions and systems in place for new ideas to be supported and absorbed.

So what does an Open Solutions Society look like? Greg Dees posed the following questions to spur the conversation.

What do you think?

Wednesday, October 31, 2012

The Scrappy Shall Inherit the Earth

The Merriam Webster Dictionary definition of the word scrappy is: having an aggressive and determined spirit : feisty

The definition I prefer is one that I found on a slightly less official source, yet a source that, I believe, more accurately represents the way people use the word currently. 

Urban Dictionary, more specifically the user skippy88, defines scrappy as: "seemingly small and unthreatening but shockingly able to kick your ass and anyone else's." Here's how it reads in a sentence: "Look at that scrappy lil dude over there. He just beat the crap out of those punks."

The young Hebrew David hoists the head of the Philistine Goliath -
Gustave Doré (1832-1883)
Nilofer Merchant recently wrote a series of blog posts for the Harvard Business Review laying out the new rules of doing business in what she, and many others, are calling the social era. The social era is defined by our society's move toward social media to connect and how our ability to be so connected and in contact is shaping our expectations and experiences. She states that the new rules of the social era are based the fact that companies must now be fast, fluid, and flexible to thrive. Rather than gaining superiority through size, companies now must be lean; rather than linear (like Porter's value chain model), the social era is fluid and conversational; and, rather than telling customers what they need, companies must share and collaborate with their community.

I agree. I like to think of the companies that will define the new economy as scrappy and these rules paint a high level picture of how a company can best thrive in it.

So, what does product innovation look like in a scrappy economy where to thrive our companies must be lean, conversational, and collaborative?

I work for an organization who's model of problem solving (design) is based on collaboration. We know that we are nothing without the communities we serve. This approach has allowed us to build trust with our stakeholders and grow and learn with our community as they grow and learn with us.

I believe people are increasingly wanting to feel connected to the brands they support and increasingly see purchases as investments, not just in quality products, but in the companies that produce and sell them. This is especially true in the local movement. People want to support their neighbors' restaurant, the farmer they like talking to at the farmers market, and the local retail establishment that goes out of their way to make their favorite products available.

Local businesses (some) are able to innovate at a high rate, in part, because they are in close contact with their customers and other stakeholders. Small local businesses are inherently lean, conversational, and collaborative. Small local businesses are the original scrappers, able to learn quickly, adjust, and innovate solutions as new market pressures and opportunities arise.

In this new economy, to stay relevant, companies must have the ability to innovate products at a high rate. Because the times we are operating in are also increasingly social in nature, collaborative development of products is crucial to the success of companies making and selling goods.

The below graph represents the rate of product innovation increase as new stakeholders are included in the process of the development of new products. Consider the example of a small manufacturer of high-end shoes that has grown from a small local shop to a company selling their products to customers in multiple countries through their website. The founder working by him or herself can innovate at a certain rate, add employees and the rate increases. Enter vendors, and now their working with new resources, capabilities and understanding of the market. Next, to increase the rate of innovation, the company seeks product partners, each invested in the others' brand and success, innovating products together, sharing knowledge and resources. Finally, what does it look like if customers are intentionally involved in the innovation of new products?

Of course, customers are always considered when new products are developed by any company but  consideration is no longer enough. For customers to be truly invested in a company and their products they must feel invested in. Just as customers of small local businesses have always had a voice in the establishments they support, because of technology and the connectedness it brings to society, everyone has a voice that can be broadcast and picked up almost anywhere at anytime. Because everyone has the ability to broadcast everyone has the opportunity to be heard. This connectedness allows for the incredible opportunity to not just consider customers in the innovation process but to collaborate with customers.

This ever increasing interconnectedness allows lean, conversational, and collaborative businesses to thrive. It allows the scrappers to kick some ass.

A high rate of innovation is not the only key to success. Over the coming weeks, we'll explore what else it means to be scrappy.

Wednesday, August 15, 2012


"Too often, in established cultures, cynicism is a way to attain status, and cynical responses to ideas seem justified because they are more “realistic." It is much easier to critique than to build. Yet equating cynicism with realism shrinks the imagination."

- Excerpted from "Yes to the Mess: Surprising Leadership Lessons from Jazz." Frank J. Barrett.