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Accomplishments are a Stitch

Quilts After over 20 years in the business world, much of it in a project management and/or consulting capacity, I think I just stumbled upon the "holy grail" of business knowledge this morning.

The one question I field the most in my career is what one skill an existing or up-and-coming leader needs to have in his or her back pocket to be successful and significant.  (As many already know, it really takes an arsenal of skills to achieve this accomplishment, but humor me on this one and we'll say it can be boiled down to one skill.)

Are you ready for this?

If you encounter an executive who wants to take that ONE training class that will set him or her apart from the pack, here's what you should tell them:


Yes, you read that right: Q-U-I-L-T-I-N-G

As you've noticed, I've been spending a lot of time with my mom recently, and in her desire to "seize the accomplishment," she likes to tackle her favorite hobby: quilting.  So this morning, we cut out some pieces of fabric for a quilt she's making for my niece.

That's when it hit me.  If a leader can master the art and science of quilting, running an organization should be a cake walk.  But let's break this down a bit:

  • Process - at its core, quilting is the process of taking materials and resources, breaking them down into component parts, and reassembling them into something of value.  Isn't that what any organization with a mission and a customer base aspires to do?
  • Resources - any quilter would love the opportunity to pick out her (or his) own fabrics; however, being a very resourceful lot, they also know how to make the best of whatever scraps they have on hand. (They also know which scraps are useless and get rid of them or put them on backlog for a future project.)
  • Pattern - once the fabric is chosen (or thrust upon them), quilters pick the best pattern or set of patterns for their masterpiece.  Experienced quilters have a plethora of patterns at their disposal, and while they may have favorites, can draw from many different styles to fit what's best for the purpose and material. There is no "six sigma pattern" to solve every quilting dilemma.
  • Precision - I watched my mom cutting out squares of fabric; she was exact down to an eighth of an inch. There was no room for variation. Measure twice; cut once. I made a couple of goofs, but she was very forgiving while I picked up the fabric cutting skill to her specifications.
  • Tracking - quilters know how many blocks they'll need, and they tend to track progress block by block. They know what "done" looks like for each stage of the game.
  • Details - even when blocks are assembled individually, and then pieced together, there are still so many other things that make a great quilt.  Things like batting and backing and sashing and stitching all contribute to a wonderful finished product.  Quilters can pick out a quality product by look and feel; they just know.
  • Individuality - every quilter has a special touch, that pride of ownership that makes a quilt uniquely hers (or his). It may be a special kind of thread, or a contrast of color, or a signature move, but there is something about a quilt that makes it identifiable with its creator.
  • Appreciation - quilters know how to appreciate somebody else's handiwork. While a quilt is an individual accomplishment, quilting is a social act.  Sharing patterns, fabric ideas, etc. has been passed down from generation to generation, through sewing circles and state fairs, from friend to friend.  A true quilter knows how to appreciate the accomplishments of another without tearing down or belittlement.
  • Legacy - if done well, quilts outlive the quilter. They serve as gentle reminders that accomplishment is its own reward, that comfort is earned through hard work, and that the longest and greatest legacies are made, not bought.  Quilts are a reminder of our heritage.  They bring us joy that no corporate bottom line could ever achieve, show us wisdom that the highest priced consultant could never attain, and compel us to a creativity that intertwines simplicity with complexity.

So the next time your C-suite asks for some training on doing their job better, the next time a junior executive wants to head off to that retreat in Maui, the next time the boss wants to attend just one more workshop, hand them a needle and thread and send them to the fabric store.  We'll see if it improves their leadership skills.

And to my mother who has made and shared so many wonderful quilts, I am eternally grateful... especially for this latest lesson you didn't even know you were teaching me this morning.


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Dal Grooms

Beautiful, Tim. And to think of all those with leadership qualities like this who work deftly and modestly. Leaders come from the most unlikely of places! (However, I am dreaming of Maui!)

Ms. Admin

As you've encouraged me to take stock of my skills and abilities while I'm recreating my life I find I have many abilities which I "just take for granted." Yet, they say I'm organized, can think in OR out of the box to find a solution (or possibly create a diversion) and I have a variety of passions -- all of which make my employer look great -- IF they're smart enough to use me to my fullest. Your Mom's quilts are amazing -- but then, she is too.

Mike Wagner

Great set of observations. Amazing what we can learn if we pay attention.

Work that results in legacy is not all that common. You're so right about the legacy of quilting -- we have several 100+ year old quilts hanging in our house. A lasting tribute for sure!

Keep creating...I'm sure you will,

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