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Lessons From The Storm

2013 Wind Storm 2Last Thursday afternoon seemed fairly normal. After a day of running around doing this and that, I had picked up my daughter from school and we were watching a little Doctor Who and chatting when we heard thunder. I had seen on the radar that a storm was coming so it wasn't a huge shock. To be on the safe side, I ran upstairs to shut the garage door. What happened next was unreal. I could tell the wind was a lot stronger than usual as I hit the button to protect my car from the elements. It was then my daughter yelled that a branch had fallen in our yard. By the time I came back downstairs, our very mature silver maple was snapping off limbs like little twigs. Our yard looked like a war zone in a matter of seconds.

2013 Wind Storm 3Later, we assessed the damage. It's unclear if our silver maple will survive. Our pear tree definitely will not. We lost a few shingles and I'm waiting to hear from the roofing contractor. After a quick drive through our part of town, we realized we fared better than many in the neighborhood. Now a week later, I'm looking back on what I learned:

  1. Gratitude - for me the storm, at worst, was an inconvenience. Many neighbors suffered major damage to their homes and automobiles. I suffered a few days of yard clean-up. I'm also grateful there will be fewer leaves to rake.
  2. Neighbors - never underestimate your neighbors as part of the value of your home. After they cleaned up their own messes, two of my neighbors were helping me out with the debris in my yard, chainsaws running. (Of course, we made our wives nervous when dislodging stubborn branches. Imagine Grumpy Old Men meets Cirque du Soleil, and you have a good image of the activity around our house.)
  3. Accomplishment - often things take longer than estimated or projected. As long as you keep making forward progress, it's all good in the end.
  4. 2013 Wind Storm 5Long View - the storm lasted seconds. It's now a week later and most of the mess is clean. Most of life's storms are like this also. Remember: this, too, shall pass. Right after the storm passed, a beautiful double rainbow appeared in the sky... just a reminder that everything will be alright.
  5. Resourcefulness - I now have a large stack of wood for future firepits with my family and friends. Sometimes storm produce resources you didn't realize you had.
  6. Timing - I was grateful I hadn't yet returned to full-time consulting work so I had time to deal with the effects of the storm. Sometimes things just have a way of working out.

2013 Wind Storm 6City crews are picking up the debris this week. The roof will get fixed. And things will get back to normal. There will be other storms, weather and otherwise. But for a few brief moments, my best teacher was a bit of atmospheric upheaval. What are you learning from the storms in your life?

Tastes Like Check-In

Fried_chickenI spent a great summer away from consulting work this year. After wrapping up an almost two-year project, I decided to take time for myself. There were home organization projects to do, books to read, and calories to burn, so the project deliverable of the summer was... well... me. It felt great to invest time in myself. As Christine Kane once said, "I'm always impressed with anyone who can stop their life when their life starts speaking to you, when things start falling down around you. You know, most of us, we just think it means that instead of ordering a grande at Starbucks, we should order a venti and go a little harder." Not this boy. After all I've been through in the past five years, it was time to take that "self-imposed vision quest."

Anyway, I'm now back on the hunt for speaking engagements and/or contract projects. One lesson I've learned consistently over the years (and am reminded of constantly the past few weeks) is to pay attention to how people treat me during the initial contact and interview process. The "check-in" process is a great indicator of how things will go. If people are combative and caustic during the interview process, they will act that way during the project. If people are hospitable and friendly during onboarding, that's how they generally act throughout the duration of the contract. Indecision and waffling in hiring leads to indecision and waffling when work needs to move forward. Micromanagement breeds micromanagement. Openness breeds openness. You get the picture.

I had a phone interview a couple of weeks ago for something that seemed like an interesting project. I was very up-front with the person about my skills and abilities over our half-hour conversation. The following week, I found out the person came away with a completely different perception of our conversation and what I could/couldn't do than I remember telling him. I withdrew my name from consideration within the day, figuring if a simple half-hour conversation (and a couple of subsequent emails) yielded such disparity, I could only imagine what a multi-month project would do to my blood pressure.

So it has been a fun trip for my inner anthropologist to observe these people. I'm able to get a fairly accurate reading of their corporate culture before I even step foot in the door. And it gives me the opportunity to say "no" before I ever have to say "yes." There's a lot to be said for first impressions. One of my favorite books is Malcolm Gladwell's Blink, and I've shared with a lot of people the importance of "thin slicing," or taking that first impression to draw conclusions. Our brain's experiences coupled with our gut's intuition is generally spot on.

So what can you do to make the check-in process reflect the type of organization you really are? How can you as an individual align first impressions with reality? Because people are watching you, and they're drawing conclusions about you as well.

Countdown to Zorro

ZorroAs this blog post is being published, my dog, Zorro, is breathing his last. We came to the conclusion this week that his quality of life had diminished, and it was time to put him down. (Our last dog did us a favor and came to this conclusion on her own, saving us this agony.)

It's been a rough week at the Johnson house. A lot of hugs and cuddling with the dog. A lot of tears. But also a lot of laughter and story-telling. We talked about Zorro's quirks. We talked about how his command for "Speak" was "Zorro, use your words." We laughed about how odd he looked when he was on the extremes of his grooming cycle. We reminisced about the first time I met him and brought him home, how he bolted into my car, jumped over to the passenger side, put his paws on the dashboard and looked at me as if to say, "OK, you're my human now. Let's get this show started." His comedic timing was always epic, adding a bark or a snort at just the right point in the conversation. He was a smart, special, affectionate, loving dog.

Continuing from my last two blog posts, the final components of the Heath brothers book, Made to Stick, are Emotions and Stories. If your accomplishment or your message tells a story that resonates with its listeners, and if it inspires something deep within them to motivate them to act, then you probably are set. I started a new project management class last week, and the things that the students seem to remember years after the class are the stories I shared.

Stories are universal. They are impactful. They are powerful. We relate to stories (and to their characters); we empathize with their plight. Stories live long after the accomplishment, event, or person has expired. I'd like to share with you one of my favorites: a very short story about story-telling from the book, Kidgets: And Other Insightful Stories about Quality in Education:

A friend of ours is a minister. Years ago, when he was first starting out in the ministering business, he was the pastor of a small congregation in the hills of western Tennessee. He saw himself as a theologian, in the process of getting his doctorate from Vanderbilt University, yet working with simple folks, many of whom could not read or write.

One Sunday, Matty Lou Bird came out of our friend's church, smiling as she always did. She was even smiling when she said, "Brother Rick, we just loves you to death. We just loves you to death. But we don't understand a word you say."

He took it well. He called a meeting of the church elders, determined to get to the bottom of the problem: "This is what Matty Lou Bird told me, and I'm real worried about it. What does it mean?" Joe Stanton, a long-standing elder, didn't beat around the bush - "Well, she's right, preacher. We don't understand what you're saying. We're simple folks. Just tell us a story."

Brother Rick was spending all this money and years of his life to get a great education, a PhD in theology, and all they wanted him to do was tell stories?

For the next six months he did some of the most intense listening he had ever done in his life. He would sit on the porch of the general store every Saturday, in the heat and humidity, and just listen.... Brother Rick learned that if he was going to be an effective preacher, he had better become a story-teller, too. And, in time, he did - PhD from Vanderbilt notwithstanding.

To this day, people in his former congregation come up to him and remind him of a story he once told - a story that touched them, that made them nod and say "amen." They can't repeat the title of the sermon or discuss now it relates to a particular passage from the Bible, but they remember the story. They got the point. (Cotter & Seymour, pp. 19-20)

Zorro now belongs to the ages. We'll miss him (a lot), but we'll remember him through stories. What about you? What stories can you tell to inspire others and help them get the point?

(Note: I wrote this post three days ago while I could actually muster the emotional strength to do it).

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