Friday, December 30, 2011

Warmth

As the end of 2011 draws near, my annual ritual of assessing the year in review is here.  As it turns out, I, along with my wife and son, are on a plane flying to California to visit my parents and brother.  As my wife sleeps and my son plays with our iPad, I am grabbing a few minutes to admire the wake of 2011 before committing to my 2012 goals (not resolutions). This year has been exceptional by just about any measure, so it is that I find myself focusing more on the various measures we use to qualify an exceptional year.

Looking back over the year, I feel good about acknowledging that YES, I have been blessed to be a part of many teams that have accomplished much; YES, I have personally created opportunities to contribute (and sometimes to fail) in new and unique ways; and YES, I have had the privilege of observing and/or helping others to personally enjoy great achievements.  Each is plenty reason to declare 2011 an exceptional year, yet none is the reason 2011 will go down as one of my favorite years to date.  That is not to say I am not proud of the accomplishments, contributions, and achievements to which I have played varying roles...clearly, I am.  This year, I am most pleased by the warmth created in my life.

My most prized accomplishment of 2011 is gaining a more complete understanding of the value of warmth in personal and professional relationships.  This is the year that I really came to understand how many of us view achievement as the primary means to fulfillment.  In fact, I have come to believe that those focused most on achievement live the emptiest lives of all.  Straight A's in school may be the path to an elite college and the (false?) promise of a great job, but what are we likely giving up by encouraging (even demanding) our children to pursue such a path?  The long, stressful hours we force upon ourselves and our coworkers may very well result in greater pay, additional promotions, and increased recognition, but what are the opportunity costs of such an approach?

In my opinion, the answer is warmth...the warm relationships we build over time.  The warmth of the relationship I enjoy with my son is far more important than the metrics others may use to assess his level of achievement.  The warmth of the relationships I enjoy with my Shipmates not only makes the journey that much more enjoyable, but serve as the foundation for even greater professional achievement...mission accomplishment.  And the warmth of the relationship I share with my wife is more important than anything else.

Others may measure our life by what they perceive as our achievements, what they read on our resume (or biography), or even the material goods we accumulate.  Let our measure be the warm relationships we build along the way.  

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Well Rounded Mediocrity

As a father, I am interested in doing my part to help my son find his path.  As a Navy leader, I take great pride in mentoring others toward realizing their potential.  Clearly, there are many similarities between the two roles and the driving force behind both is a shared commitment to enjoy the journey while building both an individual and shared legacy.  Though I take greater pride in being a father, this post will focus primarily on the role of mentor, and I am fortunate enough to play that role for more than a few young Sailors.  

As a mentor, I get asked for advice on how to go about creating a successful career; one that is upwardly mobile, filled with opportunity to have a meaningful impact on Shipmates, and builds a meaningful legacy.  That amplifying information about what makes a successful career is important, for those who don't include the last two components in their definition of success are not people I am likely to consider a protege.  In fact, that is why I value significance far more than success (click here for more on the difference).  Recently, I asked a protege what advice she was receiving from other mentors.  She quickly replied with what seems to have become the standard, "sustained superior performance" and "be well-rounded."  I must admit that I have heard both and have grown numb to such advice over the years.  "Sustained superior performance" is a way we choose to encourage others to do whatever we ask of them and do IT well (or at least make sure it is reflected positively on your performance evaluations).  I bought into that years ago and will agree that it is part of the equation, but it fails to express the value we should be placing on the accumulation of specific experiences that result in the development of the knowledge, skills and abilities we hold in highest regard.  Personally, I believe WHAT we do is often just as important as doing IT well.  The second piece of advice has shaped me over the years, but you won't catch me advocating that anyone should focus on becoming "well-rounded."  

Don't get me wrong, I know what type of person we intend to build by encouraging them to be "well-rounded."  Generally speaking, well-rounded individuals are good at many things, have varied experiences, and have minimal character flaws.  Advocating for well-rounded individuals is a way of creating cookie-cutter personas in an effort to build predictable and repeatable skill-sets shared by each person on the team.  Put in those terms, it is a way of building clones who think and act in similar fashions.  It is a way of deliberately countering any of the objectives that our diversity (of thought) initiatives are attempting to address.  In fact, it is a way of dumbing down the team by making shared mediocrity the standard.

If I was building a baseball team, I wouldn't care if my pitcher could play the outfield;  if I was building a football team, I wouldn't care if our left tackle could catch the ball at all; and if I was choosing an Orthodontist, I wouldn't care if he knew anything about fixing a broken leg.  If other professions that valued specialized expertise made being well-rounded the mandate, think about how mediocre we would be.  How much of the specialized expertise we now take for granted would have never been realized?  By promoting a "jack of all trades" mentality, we are telling the team that mastery is not something we value.  We are telling them to address their weaknesses vice play to their strengths.  We are telling them to take jobs in which they may have little interest, instead of encouraging them to follow their passion and create unique value.  Truth is, I have grown up "well-rounded" and I want to break the cycle to an extent.

To build upon a recent Seth Godin Blogpost, I don't want to be surrounded by "well-rounded" mediocrity, I want to be a part of a team that is "well-rounded" in the aggregate, yet made up of "sharp" specialists.  Right now, I have the privilege of being a reporting senior for some of the Navy's finest.  With that privilege comes the responsibility to help shape the future Wardroom and Chief's Mess.  I will make the most of that opportunity by facilitating front of the line privileges for those who have something unique to offer, who are more oblong than round (current climate will never make being sharp acceptable, at least not in the wardroom), and who are passionate about fully developing and contributing through their specialized skills. 

I will do my part to promote diversity across the team, to encourage specialization, and to build a well-rounded team made up of sharp individuals.  My hope is that others choose to use their influence to break the cycle of mediocrity that our emphasis on sustained superior well-rounded Sailors is promoting.  We can be less relevant and well-rounded or we can be pioneers and sharp.  We cannot have it both ways...

As a father, I will encourage my son to be a master of "The Golden Rule", to follow his passion, and to make a self-defined meaningful legacy his mandate.  I hope that he aspires to more than being "well rounded."

Saturday, December 10, 2011

Deciding: To Kill or Create

I must admit that I enjoy making decisions. I enjoy committing to a way ahead. I enjoy turning idle chatter into deliberate action. As much as I enjoy doing those things, I enjoy empowering and observing others doing the same. In fact, one of the characteristics I respect most in people is a bias for action. I have little patience for people who talk themselves out of doing, who let themselves get stuck in the observe phase of the OODA loop, who err on the side of the status quo. Observing others has helped me to realize there is another side of decision-making that I had not considered. That is the idea that decisions kill.

The latin root of the verb decide (cid) means to cut down, to cut off, to kill. This is a concept I began thinking about while helping my 8 year old son to make what might seem trivial decisions. The decisions we were contemplating are not of importance to this stream of consciousness (though I will share one), but my "a-ha" moment is (at least to me). I finally came to realize that for many the challenge in making a decision is the idea that they are deciding what NOT to do as opposed to what to DO. They are more concerned about the possibilities that they decide against pursuing, or kill, with their decision. If we paint the wall green, we kill the idea of having a red room. If we purchase a new sports car, we kill the idea of carpooling with our neighbors. And in my son's case, if he signs up to play competitive soccer, we kill the idea of experiencing his first season of lacrosse, enjoying our already planned family vacations, and maximizing our time on the beach for the next year.

Decisions regarding time are the most difficult of all, as we can't spend the same time in more than one way. In essence, we can't do two things at once. When I was my son's age, I knew soccer was my thing. That is what made me smile most, that was where my friends were, and that is what I wanted to work hard at to reach my full potential. The time I spent on the soccer pitch was time I wasn't camping, time I wasn't studying, time I wasn't playing with the neighbor kids. I have absolutely no regrets, but my decision to play soccer killed opportunities to experience other things that may or may not have brought me equal or greater joy.

As parents, my wife and I see it as our responsibility to expose our son to as many experiences as possible. In time, some experiences prove to be of great value to him, while others give the appearance of being time not so well spent. This week, we considered the opportunity costs associated with a decision that would have lead him down the path of a specialization in soccer. We discussed the experiences he would unknowingly deny himself (i.e. kill) by choosing competitive soccer and he decided against dedicating so much time and energy to kicking a black and white ball. Just as I made a very different decision without regret, I am certain that in years to come he will be able to say the same. Though he considered the options his decision would kill, he made a decision before all options disappeared.

Making a decision is easy when we have a clear understanding of what we are attempting to accomplish, a strong commitment to our personal values, and an ability to focus on the opportunity we choose without regard to any potential regret for the path(s) not chosen. Language aside, I'll continue to believe deciding is less about killing and more about creating. Decisions are made as much by our actions as they are by our inaction. Truth is, when we are hesitant to decide, the only thing we kill is our opportunity to actively influence the outcome.