Monday, November 30, 2009

Walking the Walk...

As a college football fan and a Notre Dame supporter (I remain a sucker for tradition), today is a sad day. It is a sad day because a college football program that once stood for so much has become just like the rest of them. Until today, Notre Dame had been an institution that prided itself on high standards on and off the field. They prided themselves on ensuring their student-athletes met the same entry standards required of the rest of the student body and enjoyed great success in ensuring these same student-athletes met the same graduation requirements at the end of the South Bend experience.

At a press conference today (transcript), Notre Dame Athletic Director Jack Swarbrick announced Notre Dame had fired their coach, Charlie Weiss, and in doing so, showed the world that Notre Dame no longer values the very standards that once separated them from the rest of the field. After clearly stating that it was time to "move the program into another direction," he went out of his way to point out "...Charlie did win a National Championship; he won a National Championship when his football program finished first in graduation success rate this year, and that is an important contribution and one which we value very highly." Most thought the firing was a foregone conclusion due solely to the record on the field, which was 6-6 this year and included two losses in the last three years to the US Naval Academy. Other fools, like myself, held out hope that Notre Dame would continue to stand for something more.

I must admit, I am not a Charlie Weis fan, but liking the man is not relevant to the discussion. The unique challenge (the fact it remains unique is of concern) at Notre Dame is they have not lowered their student-athlete standards in order to compete at the highest level. Instead, standards are continually lowered by those with whom they are expected to compete. Many college football fans will tell you Notre Dame has not been relevant since 1993 when they finished 11-1 and won the Cotton Bowl. I would argue that it is there adherence to meaningful academic and conduct standards that has made them irrelevant in the minds of the same people. It is the same reason the service academies are not expected to compete in the Bowl Championship Series (BCS) and likely never will. What is often lost on too many is that college (a term to denote a degree-awarding tertiary educational institution) is not about athletics. Yes, college sports can generate a great deal of money, they are a great deal of fun for both the participant and the spectator and yes, many life lessons are learned on the athletic field, but college is about so much more and the measure of success is the degree that documents the journey.

While Mr. Swarbrick thought enough of the fact Notre Dame is graduating football players at a 96 percent rate (tied with Duke and slightly ahead of Navy (93%)), he still recommended the University "move the program into another direction." Suffice it to say that those schools at the top of the BCS rankings are nowhere near that percentage. Where Duke, Navy and the other schools at the top of the graduation list get it right is that they acknowledge they are playing in a different league. They play college football, while the others play minor league football. They produce college graduates, while the others produce a few professional athletes and exploit the rest of their rosters. They schedule games against like minded institutions with a few "stretch games" each year (Navy played Ohio State this year) to push the boundaries of the possible. I am not saying a school and a coach cannot work together to maintain high entrance standards, high graduation rates and enjoy success on the field of play (Coach K at Duke proves that point each year), but more often than not, there is an inverse relationship between meeting even minimal academic entry requirements (let alone graduation standards) and competing at the highest levels on the field.

Notre Dame wants to "move the program into another direction," rather than celebrate the reason their days of dominance on the gridiron are behind them is a direct result of the high character of their leadership and commitment to the prime directive of a learning institution...preparing students (in partnership with their parents) for the next phase of their personal growth journey and ultimately delivering contributing members to society.

Though most of us are far from the gridiron, the dichotomy between what we claim as values and what our actions demonstrate is not always as small as we would like to think. Where do we place more value in our lives?

Educators/Students: The grade on the report card or what one learned?
Employers/Employees: The time spent at work or the value created while there?
Parents: The fact our "husky" child cleaned their dinner plate or the reality it was a McDonald's Happy Meal, again?

Are we walking the walk, merely talking the talk, or completely ambivalent? Appears Notre Dame is no longer walking the walk. Welcome to the rest of the NCAA, Irish...

Thursday, November 26, 2009

Trail of Gratitude (1 of ...)

There are many things in life for which I am extremely grateful. When I consider each and every blessing, I see a trail of gratitude lined by others who continue to contribute to my good fortune whether they know it or not. Because my wife and I celebrate our wedding anniversary on the 25th of November (14 years yesterday), my list of "Turkey Day" thanksgivings will forever have her at the top. Though I'd like to take credit for capturing her heart, the below trail of gratitude is more responsible than anything I did myself. With that, I am grateful for:

My friend Heather who introduced us...

The Detailer who banished me to Adak, Alaska where we met (though admittedly, I was not happy with him at the time)...

The then Cryptologic (now Information Warfare) Community for welcoming me to the wardroom...

The mentors who helped convince the then Cryptologic Officer Community Manager (the position to which I am honored to be currently assigned) to take a chance on an economics major from the Naval Academy (USNA) with little to offer...

The strength to quit flight school (not as passionate about flying as I had originally thought)...

The friends who helped me graduate from USNA (graduation required much teamwork)...

My parents who helped me make the informed decision to give USNA a shot (for me it was not a childhood dream, but something that "just happened")...

The USNA Soccer Coach (Dr. Greg Meyer) for helping with the admission process...

My congressman (Pete Stark) for nominating me for both the Naval and Air Force Academy...

My guidance counselor (Ms. Linda Ellis) for encouraging me to seek a congressional nomination...

My parents for nurturing me into a young adult that others saw as worthy of attending a service academy...

My parents for signing me up for soccer at the age of six and giving me every opportunity to fully develop that passion (admittedly, the ability to kick a ball opened many doors that would not have been open otherwise)...

Clearly, that is the Cliffs Notes version and but one trail of many in my life. If any one thing on the list did not happen, I would not enjoy the life I do today. Thanks to all who contributed to my ultimate introduction to Marianne. As I "connect the dots," it started as a six year old boy signing up for soccer. It is absolutely crazy when we step back and consider how connected and dependent our decisions, opportunities and challenges truly are.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Choosing Happiness

Yesterday, I was fortunate enough to participate in the retirement ceremony of a friend, mentor and shipmate by the name of Commander Scott Fields. Scott is a wonderful man who is generous, sincere and caring among many other positive attributes (though yesterday he demonstrated his eloquence, humility and love). There is much I will remember about my time sharing an office with Scott, but the one thing I will never forget is the enthusiasm with which he continues to embrace life. Each morning he would ask those he encountered in the passageway on the way to his cubicle, "Do you know what I did this morning?" to which the trained response is "You woke up and chose to be happy." This was and continues to be one of Scott's trademarks. If you were to ask anyone who has had the privilege of serving with Scott throughout his 31 year naval career, they would know of this daily dialogue.

At an early age, Scott realized happiness is a choice, as are so many other things in life. Some of us have to work harder than others to convince ourselves to choose to be happy with the cards we have been dealt, while others don't have to give it any thought, it's a reflexive action. Like many, I know more than a few people who have been diagnosed with terminal illnesses of late. If there ever is a test of one's ability to make happiness their choice, receiving such news is that test. Recently, a child hood friend, Erik Lemoine, passed away from Malignant Metastatic Melanoma. He kept a journal of his battle (which is still maintained by his phenomenal wife) and in doing so helped so many to see the brighter side of life and embrace the moment. Prior to his death, he wrote his final message (shared below) which was used to notify those who loved him of his passing. Truly a remarkable man...

"Let us remember
the smiling,
the laughing,
the talking,
the sharing,
the caring,
and the loving.

Let us remember the good times -- always.

- Erik Jon Lemoine (13 JAN 1973 - 01 NOV 2009)

As we go through life, let us "choose to be happy" and let us smile, laugh, talk, share, care and love so we can follow Erik's lead and remember the good times as we near the end of our journey or witness a loved one do the same. Thank you both Scott and Erik for helping to keep everything in perspective.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Well Liked and Average...Really?

It's Parent-Teacher Conference time again, which mean both parties get to share positive and constructive feedback (neither of which is mutually exclusive, mind you). After such a conference earlier today, a friend of mine lauded her friend for telling the 2nd Grade Teacher, "Oh, I just don't care if she (her child) is smart...I just want her to be well liked and average academically."

I do not know the mother, the teacher nor the child, but I am all too familiar with that mindset, as it has become overly prevalent in our society. Replace "well liked and average academically" with "well mannered and challenged academically" and I agree 100%. Don't get me wrong, I would rather be "well liked" than the alternative and there are many things at which I would rather be average than my current proficiency level. However, a 7 year old who is taught that the ultimate goal is being "well liked" and not the result of following "the golden rule," or who is encouraged to be average may never be either well liked or average. In many circles, I would prefer my child not be well liked since being well liked is normally a product of demonstrating certain behavior deemed enviable by the target audience. I am not an advocate for making enemies, but should we care if bullies, burnouts, or slackers particularly like our children?

Well liked, average business owners often times go out of business; well liked, average athletes often times find themselves on the bench; well liked, average students often times find getting into their college of choice overly challenging. We have little choice but to accept mediocrity in many aspects of our life, but we need not encourage, nor embrace it. I think we would all agree that as parents and teachers we should collectively build a nurturing environment that demands well mannered behavior and continually challenges our children. A truly nurturing environment helps our children to reach their potential (which may very well be average and that is OK) and produces a person that cannot be anything but well liked by contributing members of society.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Making the Time or Taking the Time...It's Our Call

After a recent meeting, I was thanked for "taking the time" to participate. This was not the first time I have heard someone use that phrase to express such gratitude, though each time I hear it, I leave the conversation a bit confused. The verb "Take" is defined as "To get into one's possession by force, skill, or artifice." I would argue that my presence and contribution was a result of a purposeful decision made by me. To me, time is something we are given, something we share, and something we try hard to create. It is not something we take. Rather, time is finite and something we choose to allocate among our personal priorities and in accordance with our personal philosophy.

When it comes to discussing time, I refrain from any use of the word "take." Instead, I migrated long ago to the verb "make", which is often defined as "To create, construct or produce." A subtle change, and pure semantics to many, but we must admit that when we spend time with a person or on a task we are not "taking" time from someone or something else more deserving of our time and attention. If we are, we might want to rethink our choices. Through time management and personal decisions, we MAKE the time to help our children with their homework, we MAKE the time to complete a task at work, and we MAKE the time to share with our spouse. If we are not MAKING the time to do these things, we are allowing others to TAKE the time away from us.

With that, thank you for MAKING the time to read this post, and congratulations to those of you who MAKE the time to do the things most important to you. Life is too short to spend doing things we do not enjoy. Remember, our place of employment is a choice, the length of our commute is a choice, our personal qualifications are a choice, our relationships with others are a choice. In short, our life is a result of our decisions and a result of what it is for which we MAKE time.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

All Stop or Full Speed Ahead?

As an avid reader of blogs (so much to learn from so many), there are a dozen that I monitor regularly. Chris Brogan, author of Trust Agents, had a recent post on his blog that really struck a chord with me. In it, he uses the metaphor of the intersection as that of a decision point. Although I am not one to "accelerate at crossroads" in a literal sense, I would say that I continue to do so when it comes to important personal and professional decisions (though I have not always been that way). One thing I do not suffer from is "analysis paralysis" which brings with it a fair share of mistakes. Rather than let sitting on the sidelines be my mistake, I make my mistakes on the field (and sometimes just taking the field proves to be a mistake). I have found that more often than not, the mistakes I make on the field are more gratifying. If nothing else, they provide a learning point, and give me a life lesson that I will not likely choose to experience again.

- How do you react when you find yourself at a decision point?
- If you do brake, does your caution result in missed opportunities?
- If you accelerate, do you find yourself avoiding or creating collisions? If you create them, are they collisions of opportunity?

As I pointed out, Chris Brogan is the author of the book Trust Agents, which is one of the reasons I started this blog. The premise of the book is to guide people into leveraging social media to facilitate their evolution into that of a "Trust Agent". The authors' definition of "Trust Agent" being people who "aren't necessarily marketers or salespeople; they're the digitally savvy people who use the Web to humanize businesses using transparency, honesty, and genuine relationships", was enough to get my attention.

I encourage anyone who sees themselves as a "Trust Agent", sees value in becoming one or would like to help others evolve into the same, to read the book and follow through with the ideas brought to the surface.

Monday, November 9, 2009

"Wait Till Your Father Gets Home"

As a child, I rarely heard my mother make the statement, "Wait till your father gets home." When she did, it was a request for us to demonstrate some patience before doing something we were eager to do. It was not used as the warning or threat to which it had evolved in other homes. While on my most recent business trip, I had three experiences that brought the theme song from the 1970s cartoon which shared it's name with the aforementioned statement.

The first instance occurred when I heard a fellow officer state that he personally took no issue with a given situation, but "The Boss" was not going to be happy! In that context, he told those who heard him one of three things:

1. "The Boss" is irrational and will be angry when made aware of a situation that was not deemed all that inflammatory by his juniors.

2. I am a great guy who "gets it" where my senior just won't understand.

3. I am not going to spend the time to help "The Boss" understand that this is really no big deal.

The second time my mind made reference to the theme song was when a different officer told a group that we needed to further investigate a few issues and come up with a couple more solid recommendations before "The Boss" gets back in town. In this context, he was stating:

- I know "The Boss" and he has conditioned me to be concerned about certain issues, so let's go out of our way to explore them to the point we are comfortable and not wait for him to ask us to do the same.

- If I were the "Decision Maker", I would want to address these specific concerns before making a decision. We better be 100% comfortable with the recommendations we are making before we present them.

In the first example, an individual was hiding behind "The Boss" (at best) and being disloyal by misrepresenting him (at worst.) The latter shows an individual taking a proactive stance and acknowledging that we need not wait until "The Boss" gets here to do our due diligence.

The third instance was while waiting at the airport for my flight back to Memphis. My bride and son called me via speaker phone excited to know I would soon be home. A completely different point of reference, but this father couldn't wait to get home.

In short, represent our seniors well; do not wait to take the very action our seniors would otherwise direct; and make our Boss's/Mom's/Dad's return something that is celebrated and not dreaded.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

Firefighters

As a native of California, fires were a constant on the evening news during the summer season. I remember on many occasions local firefighters traveling long distances to help the cause in other "jurisdictions." Though neither lives, nor property were at risk in the following instance, a small group of "firefighters" from distant lands were assembled to temper heated discussion on the latest strategic initiative. Though the topic du jour was the creation of the Navy's newest designator, "Cyber Warfare Engineer", the method of response and the lessons learned are the real take-aways.

Though there were several "firefighters", there were three who truly subdued the flames. Not surprisingly, given the topic, those three were the three most junior people in the room and only one had ever played such a role before. The rest of us were merely providing context, facilitating the discussion and playing devil's advocate.

For those who did not connect the dots of that poorly painted picture, we conducted a working group of subject matter experts from varied locations across the country. As is the norm, the slide deck was beautiful and the recommended way ahead was thorough. After we briefed the senior officer who called the group together, I left with a few observations (though not the first time witnessed):

- Any future success in the Computer Network Operations arena is directly related to our willingness to embrace the good ideas from our LTs and below...they truly have a vision, see the potential and understand the level of investment required to be relevant.

- We have very few Officers with the requisite knowledge, skills and abilities in this important arena, which though a niche today, is sure to be our core competency tomorrow.

- We are at risk of losing the majority of those Officers if we don't change our culture.

Because those three subject matter experts ensured I left with extremely relevant data points, I wanted to attempt to return the favor. Therefore, I shared the following in hopes of creating a mentorship moment since I continue to enjoy when others make the time to do the same for me:

- We are "They"...There is much discussion about how "They" don't have a strategy, or "They" are heading down the wrong path, or "They" have no idea what is happening on the deckplates. By participating in this working group, we needed to understand that we are "They" and the more of us who think in such terms, the better off we all will be.

- Pretty Slides Do Not Equate to Implementation...The fingerprints of all working group participants are now all over the Cyber Warfare Engineer initiative and we all should be proud of the product we delivered. That said, and as a frequent working group participant, we all needed to understand that success will be measured by assessing implementation and not head nods during an outbrief.

- Share Your Unique Vantage Point...All too often we assume that if we are not hearing the discussion, it must not be happening (especially in the information age). Participating in working groups gives us a unique vantage point and access to information. It is critical that we share what we can about our experiences and provide context to those who didn't have the benefit of hearing the discussion first hand. Transparency is desirable, but without clarity it may very well do more harm than good.

- Frame the Discussion or be Shaped by the Outcome...It is much easier to frame the discussion to inform a desired outcome than it is to change the outcome after high level decisions have gained significant momentum. As mentioned in a previous post, we need not wait until the wildfire is right outside our door before we take action. We needed to understand that a working group is optimally used as a proactive tool for identifying opportunities vice a short-fused response to imminent deadlines.

Though the fire has been significantly tempered it is not yet out, but the three experts rolled into town, helped to contain it and left the remaining smoldering ashes to the locals. We would be remiss if we hadn't ensured the junior officers left knowing how valued their ideas, opinions and recommendations are to the strategic direction of our core business lines. Never before has "Leading Up" been so important. Likewise, never before could seniors learn more from seeking input from juniors (Generation Y). Regardless of our relative seniority, we need not be shy. It is our responsibility to offer unsolicited recommendations to seniors and seek counsel from juniors. Thanks again you three, you know who you are...

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Leadership Versus Power

Regardless of our current employment status (executive, individual contributor, stay at home spouse, etc), each of us is presented with opportunities in both our personal and professional lives to lead on a daily basis. Those of us who take such responsibility seriously create opportunities to lead vice waiting for them to be presented to us (i.e. Teaching our child, volunteering at charitable organization, leading a working group of peers to address strategic issues, etc). Those of us who strive to enjoy a degree of success in our leadership endeavors lean towards demonstrating leadership, while others focused on control are ore comfortable exerting power.

Leadership is influencing others with or without the benefit of a formal platform or charter, while power is getting others to do things because of one's formal platform or charter. Clearly, a position of power facilitates the demonstration of leadership, but it is not required. Likewise, a position of leadership is undermined when exertion of power is the tool of choice.

For those of us living the nomadic lifestyle of service member, we see Shipmates come and go each executing the same exact charter but employing different philosophies and achieving varied levels of success. We have the benefit of learning through the successes and failures of others and the opportunity to emulate those who we admire most. Though, we need not rely on the workplace to see examples...

Yesterday, as I checked on for my flight to Norfolk, the gentleman in front of me took issue with the extra fee he was being asked to pay for his "excessively heavy" bag. The airline employee notifying him of the news did so in a manner that was reminiscent of playground taunting. Clearly, she enjoyed her position of relative power and yet was unable to "influence" her customer. Just as it appeared a real scene was unfolding, the gentleman's wife assumed the leadership role. She offered her lighter bag and had her husband move a portion of his belongings into it.

End Result: No scene, no baggage fees and an example to the power hungry airline employee of how a leader might handle the same situation.

Every day, each of us has the opportunity to demonstrate leadership and/or exert power. Done properly, the means enables the desired end. Done forcibly, the means may prevent the very end we desire. If one is able to achieve the objective solely through the exertion of power, negative second and third order effects are a given. Choose wisely.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

"Building Legos"

When I came home from work today, my six year old son had a friend over and they were making planes out of Legos, or as he calls it "Building Legos." By the look on my son's face, it was clear that something was up and he was not having the best of times. When his friend excused himself to go to the restroom, my wife asked our son if he wanted his friend to go home. The response made perfect sense to all three of us, "Mom, I don't really like him but I don't want him to go home...I don't want to play by myself and he is pretty good at Legos." I was pleased with the response, as over the years I have come to understand that position all too well.

In the workplace, how many times do we find ourselves working with people we don't necessarily like being around. We put up with certain people because we need some help in general or because they provide specific expertise that we might not have. I know I am not alone when I admit to having been in such a situation, whether it was a lab partner in high school, a friend who was more mechanically inclined, or someone who was willing to provide a ride to a destination of choice. We have all been there at one point or another...it is part of being a friend, Shipmate or just co-existing on this planet. We make the most of the interaction, complete the task at hand and move on. And yes, I will admit there is a good chance I have been "That Guy" and not just put up with "That Guy."

A much more challenging situation to deal with is that of "Building Legos" with someone whom you truly like but who unintentionally and repeatedly disassembles the creations you made by yourself or with other teammates. How do you let that person know that their actions are setting the team back or resulting in creations that are not all that useful (I know, how is any Lego creation useful? It's an analogy, stay with me)? I see people react to such situations in different ways...

1) Some choose to continually fix the creation after the friend (coworker) leaves...
2) Some choose to talk about the personal shortfalls with other friends (coworkers) as a means of amusement...
3) Some choose to assist that friend (coworker) address their shortcomings and by helping them to overcome whatever issues are causing the destructive "contributions"...

I must admit that I have reacted in all three of these manners in both my personal and professional lives and though I have ultimately connected the dots and migrated towards #3, I still am guilty of #1 more than I should be. If my hope is for those to address my many shortcomings through constructive mentorship, why shouldn't all be given the same courtesy.

Are we helping our teammates to increase their contributions?
Are we receptive to others providing us with constructive feedback?
Is there ever a place for poking fun at someone for their shortcomings?

With that, let's start "Building Legos" and helping others to hone their skills as we work together to create value.

Monday, November 2, 2009

Fourth Quarter

Another week of the football season is behind us, and as always there was plenty of drama in the fourth quarter of more than a couple of games. As a football fan, I enjoy the the last minute comeback as much as the next guy. However, dramatic fourth quarters are usually a byproduct of less than satisfactory performance leading up to that point. Odds are, if a team performs optimally from the first kick-off on, the game is all but won prior to the commencement of the fourth quarter. Though I recognize well matched teams clicking on all cylinders makes the fourth quarter the only period that truly matters, that rarely happens (but when it does, it is a beautiful sight).

In the work place (at least the ones to which I have been privileged to be a part), fourth quarter heroics or failures have no place. I have personally witnessed, done my best to prevent, and maybe even unknowingly created situations where unnecessary stress and unintentional drama was experienced by valued teammates. I have never been one to procrastinate and I am chronically early to meetings and social engagements. Truth is being late tells those around us that they are not as important as the other things we are juggling (i.e. If we are late, the focus of our attention that made us late ought to be defensible).

Over the past couple of months, there have been more than a few frustrating initiatives at work that required fourth quarter heroics due to poor execution leading up to that point. What they were is not important, the fact that we "won" on each account is of interest, but the fact that those who created the need for a last minute comeback may not take note is vital. We need not wait until the wildfire is right outside our door, the night before an important test, or our car is completely out of gas before we take action. Preventive measures are always at our disposal, though with each passing moment the number of tools we have is diminished.

We live in an asynchronous world and many of us are playing multiple "games" at the same time. For the games you are playing by yourself, start playing early. For the games your juniors are playing on your behalf, frame the ground rules, listen to their feedback and give them time in the first three quarters to address game plan changes. Under no circumstances should any of us wait until the fourth quarter to begin playing with all of our heart. If we happen to be in a position to pull out a victory in the final minutes, we should only celebrate if such heroics were not forced because we backed the team into a corner due to a lack of focus/interest. If that was the case, we should merely wipe our brow, thank the hero of the day, offer our apologies to those for whom we made life unnecessarily difficult and vow to improve our process.