Twenty Two Oh Five

Yesterday night at bedtime, my son handed me this envelope.

2205

Earlier this year I visited with his Fifth Grade class and had a 90 minute discussion about Acumen. If you ever want to figure out how to explain what you do simply and clearly, I strongly recommend talking to a group of 5th graders. You’ll have to boil everything down to its essence in a great way.

I was blown away by how sophisticated and prepared the kids were: having 5th graders in a nice suburb of New York City ask me how things are going with the rice gassifiers that Husk Power Systems runs in Bihar gave me a lot of hope for the world.

What I didn’t know, until last night, was that a few of my son’s classmates took it upon themselves to raise money for Acumen as a thank you. They self-organized and went around to other classes in the school, talking about Acumen and asking kids to bring in bottles they would return for the 5 cent deposits.

So the $22.05 represents 441 bottles that 5th graders collected and returned because they wanted to help people they’ve never met who have less than they do.

The feeling I had upon receiving this envelope reminded of one of the most powerful impacts that fundraising can have on you. When someone you trust and respect shakes your hand, looks you in the eye, and agrees to give you their hard-earned money to support the work you do…well, I find that moment always motivates me to do the work harder and better, to do right by them and to earn the trust that they are placing in me and in my team.

To know the work that these kids went through – learning about Acumen, courageously going up to their friends and asking them to bring bottles from home, having those kids then go home and explain the same story to their parents – makes me want to work twice as hard and twice as smart.

I hope this story inspires you as much as it’s inspired me.

What would be fabulous is if more kids choose to do a similar project – to collect and turn in 441 bottles to support Acumen or another cause of their choice.

If they want to, let me know how I can help.

 

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“Brave”

Last week, my wonderful four-year-old daughter had minor surgery to have her adenoids removed.  In the hospital she heard lots of encouraging words from Mommy and Daddy and from the doctors and nurses. The surgery went really well and she was a champion through it all.

The following morning, as I walked into the kitchen she looked up at me with a big smile and said, “Daddy, I was really brave when I went to the hospital.”

“Yes, sweetheart,” I said, smiling back,“you were.”

“Daddy,” she continued, looking me straight in the eyes. “What does brave mean?”

What a sweetheart, and how wonderful it is to be a child where the world is full of questions to be asked.

In this moment she reminded me how often grown-ups will listen to the words we say and keep quiet if they don’t understand what we really mean.

It’s our job, not theirs, to fix this.

Posted in adenoids, brave, communications, surprise | Tagged | 2 Comments

The Myth of the Responsible Consumer

My friend Nancy Giordano has a wonderful newsletter called Cultural Acupuncture in which she explores many topics, mostly centered around the future of the modern, responsible corporation. You might like to receive it too.

Nancy and I got to talking this week about a theme in most writing about corporate responsibility that drives me bonkers – it’s about how much consumers care about the responsible behavior of companies they interact with.

So, for example, Cone Communications’ most recent Corporate Social Responsibility report claims thatnine-in-10 consumers [sic] expect companies to do more than make a profit, but also operate responsibly to address social and environmental issues…[and] Eighty-four percent of consumers globally say they seek out responsible products whenever possible.”

Yeah, uh huh, that’s exactly how people decide what to buy and not to buy.

Can we please, please put these sorts of nonsense statements behind us? Consumers say one set of things. They do another set of things. What they say and do are not mutually exclusive. But the amount of overlap, when the question being asked reflects directly on how morally a customer behaves, had better be taken with a heap of salt.

Statements like this one – which are everywhere – paint a picture of a much more engaged and active consumer than the one who’s really out there. Most consumers don’t dig deep. Most consumers aren’t willing to go out of their way. Most consumers don’t actually switch nearly as much as you’d expect. Most consumers don’t want to bother with all of this. And most consumers certainly don’t make “ethical” purchases most of the time.

Stating that they do suggests that we’re much further along than we actually are in building an economy in which the true costs of what we consume is taken in to account.  We are at the very beginning.

Think about the question that leads to this “data” about 84% of consumers seeking out responsible products “whenever possible.”  It is something like:

How often do you seek out responsible products when shopping?

  1. Never
  2. Occasionally
  3. Sometimes
  4. Often
  5. Whenever Possible

To me, this question essentially equivalent to:

Are you a total jerk?

  1. Whenever Possible
  2. Often
  3. Sometimes
  4. Occasionally
  5. Never

OK, end of rant.

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Trying right

It might be my long-ago past as a wrestler, but I’m a big believer in effort. The willingness and ability to try hard for a sustained period of time makes a huge difference in what we can accomplish.

But sometimes it’s not enough. Yes, people care about the effort, but if it doesn’t deliver what they need then they can end up frustrated.

For example, in terms of working with teams, I find the Situational Leadership framework, developed by Paul Hersey and Ken Blanchard, hugely helpful.  It serves as a simple but powerful framing for how different team members need different things depending on the task they are doing and their skill at executing against that task. (Ian does a nice job explaining situational leadership in some detail, and if you want to go deep, go here or here.)

SITUATIONAL LEADERSHIP

Situational leadership_two graphicsThe framework describes the different roles you can play in interacting with a colleague (or a team) – from Directing to Coaching to Supporting to Delegating – depending on how committed to and competent they are at completing a given task.  (The graphic on the right is the classic visual for Situational Leadership; the one on the left focuses particularly on how willingness and ability map to different intervention styles).

It’s a simple framework but it takes a lot to apply it: you’ve got to diagnose the elements that make up a task; map your diagnosis onto an assessment of another person’s skills and motivation for accomplishing the elements of that task; intervene successfully to provide support based on that diagnosis; and adjust along the way for both how well/poorly you diagnosed both the task and your colleague, and how well/poorly you succeeded in your intervention.

My point isn’t about the situational leadership framework (though if you’ve never used it I recommend it highly), it’s about the leverage comes from the right diagnosis of each situation. This is the continual work of figuring out what’s needed at this moment in this situation with this person.

Yes, we should try hard, but the question becomes: where to direct that effort? More often than not, the right starting point is to listen, think about, and reflect on what another person needs to succeed in a given situation.

There’s a selflessness to this orientation, as we move from an internal focus (“I’m thinking about how I am going to act”) to an external one (“what is this situation, who is this person relative to this situation, what do I know about their wants and needs in this type of situation?”).

In this reorientation, we start the work of shifting from trying hard to trying right.

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Walking in the Rain

I’ll admit it, I’m terrible at checking the weather. It’s just not part of my morning routine. So, even though I spend 30 minutes a day walking to and from the train and to my office, more often than is reasonable I end up trudging through a downpour as everyone around me pops open their umbrellas.

So the starting point here is that it’s on me.

That said, the other day, while I walked home from the train in the leafy suburb I call home, the rain turned from steady to torrential. I was apparently one of few people who was surprised by this turn of events, since, as I got out of the train, the line of cars waiting to pick up passengers was 30 deep rather than the usual 5 to 10.

As I slowly made my way up the hill, my light blue shirt having turned a deep shade of violet from the downpour, I scanned the lineup of cars, looking for a familiar face. And, when it became clear that I didn’t know any of the drivers, I couldn’t help but wonder: is anyone going to give me a wave and a nod and offer me a warm dry seat?

Apparently not.

Why does no one roll down the window to help? To boil it down, how we act in these situations is the result of our assessment of four things:

  1. How dire is the need of the person?
  2. What is the perceived social cost and benefit of action?
  3. How much do I perceive that I, and I alone, am responsible for taking an action?
  4. In the story I tell myself about myself, how do I act in these sorts of situations?

Put this way, it’s pretty clear why I got drenched on my walk home: my need was far from dire (it’s just a bit of rain); it is mildly socially awkward to invite someone in to your car; lots of people could help so we have a Kitty Genovese situation (bystander effect) going on; and….well, what about #4?

This last one – the story we tell ourselves about “how do I act in situations where I have the opportunity to help?” – this strikes me as the wildly unaddressed leverage point for anyone in the social change business.

Since launching my Generosity Experiment in 2008 I’ve been trying to understand what it takes to unlock the sense, in myself and in others, that in situations where help can be given, more of us will be the kind of people who chose to act.

While this is lifelong work, as I trudged through the rain I reflected on some of the things I think I’ve learned so far:

That everyone starts in a different place, and that these starting points come first and foremost from the values we were taught at a young age.

That there are real, powerful social norms that hold us back from acting.

That pushing against these norms creates real discomfort. And that pushing through this discomfort creates a giddy sense joy that can be addicting.

That one of the most important jobs that social groups perform is to tilt these norms in favor of care of others….and that, as these social norms become weaker as societies modernize, and as we hide behind our screens, car windows, and devices more and more, it is the job of new actors to set a new set of norms.

That, for those folks who routinely do more than the least that’s expected of them, their work began with a decision it’s not enough just to believe we all have the same potential. What’s required is living that belief through actions.

That part of the story we need to tell ourselves is that it (whatever “it” is) is up to us, not to someone else.

That, like everything else in life, the first step towards living more generously is the belief in and commitment to making a change in ourselves. It is in that moment of decision, and in the actions that reaffirm that decision, that we open up a new conversation about who we are and what we can become.

That there’s a profound sense of alone-ness in the world, and that finding moments to break through by creating a personal connection is one of the most powerful things we can do.

And, like everything else in life, we must find the balance of pushing ourselves to be better and forgiving ourselves for our limitations today.

In the end, I didn’t mind so much getting wet – my kids certainly didn’t seem to care when they ran to greet me as I got home.

Plus, if I am honest with myself, I wasn’t sure I’d have opened my door for me walking by. Not yet. But I’m working on it.

And yes, I’m also working on remembering to bring an umbrella.

 

 

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And what this means is

Whether you are presenting slides or sending out a dashboard to your Board of Directors, every single time you share numbers or graphs or a table, it’s your job to start with simply explaining “this is what this means.”

Of course, in the best cases your slides and numbers will speak for themselves. And, in case they don’t, or they don’t do that job well enough, it’s your job to make sense of them for your audience.

When giving presentations, adhere to the discipline of “clearing a slide” each and every time: name each axis, or each column, or what that trendline represents. Actually say out loud, “on the vertical axis we have fourth grade test scores, and on the horizontal axis you’ll see January 2014 and 2015 – so we can see the effect of the new teachers’ aides who started in March 2014.”

Some goes for piles of data you send to folks: verbally, or in writing, communicate as if they aren’t going to read the attachment. Because in the worst cases, they won’t, and even if they do, they don’t have the context you have for understanding the story the data tell.

Minimally, this sets people on the right path towards looking at the numbers with your guidance and insight. But what you’re actually doing is framing what the numbers mean, guiding and controlling the story that they tell.

On the continuum of data, information, and meaning, you’re in the meaning-making business each and every time.

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What I Learned About Generosity From the Eight Foot Bride

I still remember the feeling I had watching Amanda Palmer’s mezmorizing TED talk, as she described the gentle, intimate moment of handing a flower to a stranger while dressed as a silent, 8-foot bride, busking in Harvard Square.

If that talk was the distilled essence of her experience of love, crowdfunding, trust and connection, her book, The Art of Asking, feels like an exposed, magically cluttered, painful but beautifully honest version of everything that led up to that 13-minute essence of the story.

While Amanda and I are, in the most obvious ways, very different people, I felt a profound sense of connection in her exploration of generosity. In fairness, Amanda’s life is an extreme sports version of trust, generosity and connection, one that makes me wonder if I’m still wading in the shallow end, but the essence of the exploration is the same.

This essence is conveyed beautifully in a passage Amanda quotes from the Velveteen Rabbit:

“What is REAL?” asked the Rabbit one day, when they were lying side by side near the nursery fender, before Nana came to tidy the room. “Does it mean having things that buzz inside you and a stick-out handle?”

“Real isn’t how you are made,” said the Skin Horse. “It’s a thing that happens to you. When a child loves you for a long, long time, not just to play with, but REALLY loves you, then you become Real.”

“Does it hurt?” asked the Rabbit.

“Sometimes,” said the Skin Horse, for he was always truthful. “When you are Real you don’t mind being hurt.”

“Does it happen all at once, like being wound up,” he asked, “or bit by bit?”

“It doesn’t happen all at once,” said the Skin Horse. “You become. It takes a long time. That’s why it doesn’t often happen to people who break easily, or have sharp edges, or who have to be carefully kept. Generally, by the time you are Real, most of your hair has been loved off, and your eyes drop out and you get loose in the joints and very shabby. But these things don’t matter at all, because once you are Real you can’t be ugly, except to people who don’t understand.”

So much of what we are all searching for is real-ness, a sense of seeing and being seen by others. We become real through others, though being willing to break ourselves open and be seen in all of our humanity.

True generosity, then, is not about helping someone else. It is about seeing someone, about meeting them eye to eye, about letting them see us too, and maybe, as Amanda does, handing them a flower. This is why true generosity makes us feel so exposed and vulnerable: because in that act of generosity, we are our most unadorned and our most human.

If we are going to be in the changing the world business – I don’t care if it’s as a fundraiser, a rock star, a philanthropist, or an eight-foot bride – the first prerequisite is our willingness to show up, as Amanda does, with our whole humanity. Social change work begins with a decision to really see the world, and to do this properly we must be willing to be fully present, to connect, to see today’s limitations and tomorrow’s possibilities and, finally and most importantly, to embrace the emotional labor of trying to make a change happen.

The Art of Asking is a portrait of an artist with a deep commitment to showing up as her true self, and her fierce determination to stay open to making real connections – often with total strangers.

The moment she, you or I stand with this kind of real-ness, this kind of grounded passion, this kind of openness, people have no choice but to connect with us in a different way. Not all of them. Not even most of them (that’s where the hurt comes in).  But some of them will see us, just as we truly see them, and in that moment, we both will be transformed.

“When you connect with them,” Amanda Palmer says, “people want to help you.”

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