Anastasia’s Music

I was running south on Shaw’s Creek Road and a beautiful tune came through my headphones, an Andrea Beaton original that made my feet dance and my face grew a smile. I found myself humming along and by the time I got home, I had to grab my fiddle, pull the tune out of my memory and play it.

Close ups

Pulling a tune out of thin air…

I’m lucky like that. I can’t always remember the words to songs, or have the first notes of a tune ready to just start and play. But if I hear a tune few times, I can almost always play it back. I’ve never thought much about that skill, until I met my most wonderful friend Anastasia. 

Anastasia (or Aunti-Stasia, as I sometimes say in my head) is an amazing fiddler. She picks up her bow, and she looks like a professional player,  with an intense focus and drive. She’s also a  NINJA when it comes to sight reading. You can put anything in front of her, and she can play it. It is almost as if her brain doesn’t even have to register the notes she sees, and the tune goes from the paper to her eyes and down to her fingers in lightning speed. At our Tuesday night fiddle group with Sandy MacIntyre, she puts us all to shame when we get a new set of tunes, because she can play them perfectly as soon as she sees them.

But here’s the thing: she has serious trouble memorizing tunes. She can read anything. But take the music away, and she’s temporarily lost. 

I have read about how people’s brains are different, and I can acknowledge that, intellectually. But it really wasn’t until I spent time playing music with Anastasia that I really, truly understood how different people can be.

At first glance, Anastasia and I pretty similar. She’s got a handful of university degrees, and so do I. We are both medium height, with Germanic last names. We are both runners, and we play the fiddle. And we both smile a lot.

IMG_2426

Partners in crime after our Half Marathon in Ottawa!

But the way that we process information is dramatically different! My brain seems to capture the tune in its entirety, and I can reproduce it. Anastasia’s brain sees the individual parts of the tune, as transcribed in notes, rests, time signatures, and she reproduces it. We can both play the music, but we do it using different skill sets. 

I was running a workshop for York Region last week, and I had a room full of people who worked in the forestry sector. A quick glance around the room told me everyone was pretty much the same – outdoorsy types who prefer to wear plaid shirts and hiking boots, but were stuck behind a desk doing management plans. I imagined that everyone was going to have the same ideas and perspectives about the upcoming tree planting programs.

But then I thought of Anastasia and our differences. How many people around the table had brains that worked like mine? And how many were like Anastasia? And (gasp) how many other kinds of brains were out there???!!!

Before I got myself twisted into a knot, it occurred to me that I could just ask a question and I’d find out what kinds of brains were going to contribute to the discussions. So well before panic set in, I simply asked people to tell me how they “thought”. Were they problem solvers? Were they skeptics? Did they see a few clear choices, or did they see a variety of options? Could they hear the music and repeat it, or did they prefer to see all the notes beforehand?

As each person shared the way they “thought”, I wrote down their responses on a flip chart so we could all see them. Once I realized the wide variety of thinkers who sat around 

IMG_3609

Don’t be blind to the differences!

the table, I got excited about the diversity of ideas, options and models that we could generate. And interestingly enough, once everyone else understood this incredible diversity, they looked at one another differently and with a more critical appreciation of what each person could contribute.

Suddenly, the plaid shirts appeared quite different!

My take away from this? If you are a facilitator, or a participant in a meeting, or any living, breathing human being, please don’t forget that there is a wealth of diversity all around you, and that is goes above and beyond gender, culture and apparel choices. Take the time to recognize and take advantage of that diversity in your work and your personal life, and celebrate the differences as your move closer towards your goals.

I read a quotation this morning that said: Play the music, not the instrument. So listen for Anastasia and I playing music this weekend. She’ll be the one paying close attention to the notes, making no mistakes and playing with joy. I’ll be the one with my eyes closed, playing whatever notes come from my fingers, and also playing with joy. We may get to the music in different ways, but the result makes us both happy! 

Sunk costs, adapting and connecting!

I just spent a day at a 2 day Change Management Conference. I hoped that it would provide critical and meaningful insights into change, and help shape my future as a change leader and manager. The agenda had references to a variety of exciting change specialists (Rick Maurer, John Kotter), creative thinkers (Michael Bungay Stanier) behavioural economists (Neil Bendle) and a host of others on the cutting edge of business change. But I left the conference without my expectations being met. Not even close.

On the drive home, I called my father and he asked me what I learned, despite my disappointments. This caused me to do some critical thinking as I explained my thoughts. I then sat down this morning and reviewed the notes to compare them to what I had shared with my Dad. There, I found some ideas from Michael Bungay Stanier of Box of Crayons fame (http://www.boxofcrayons.biz (that I had read on my iPad while I was bored during one of the presentations). These made real sense to me, and had it not been for my distraction at the conference, I may not have read them. Have a look and see what you think:

Be guided by opportunity, not sunk costs: This conference was expensive. As an independent consultant, I rarely indulge in professional development that costs more than my per diem. But I decided this might be worth it, and “sunk” a lot of money in the Conference – the registration fee was my sunk cost. (Economics 101 tell us that a sunk cost is any past cost that has already been paid and cannot be recovered.) In my case, the first day of the conference was a bust, but since I had already invested the money, surely I should return the second day. But if I returned simply because I had already invested in the conference, I would let myself be led by that sunk cost.

Missing the conference to enjoy morning coffee was all worth it!

Missing the conference to enjoy morning coffee was all worth it!

I chose to be guided by opportunity. If I didn’t return, I would be gifted with the opportunity to have a morning coffee on my deck, to complete an exciting project proposal AND go for a long trail run with Lucy Blue. I jumped at those opportunities, because they were more valuable to me than the sunk costs of the conference.

Be ready to adapt: Michael explains that he saw a presentation by a senior manager at McKinsey, a company known for its strategic planning excellence. This individual noted that they don’t really do strategic planning anymore, and to paraphrase Michael (who is also paraphrasing the individual) …”We meet every three months, test out a range of different scenarios and imagine our best responses to them … and then make our best guess on the direction for the next 90 days.”

Clearly this rock was heavy, so I adapted by holding it up!

Clearly this rock was heavy, so I adapted by holding it up to get by!

If McKinsey can adapt and excel, then so can I! I started my career as a wildlife biologist and educator/interpreter; adapted to become an education specialist, and as I moved further in my career, found that the skills sets that I was acquiring – communications, facilitation, consultation – make me uniquely qualified to help lead and facilitate change. My plan of being the best educator/interpreter got re-routed as I acquired new skills, and I adapted to become the new and improved Susan Gesner!

Connect with those who matter: To quote Michael “To get back on track, reconnect with those who hold you with love and generosity in their hearts. “ I believe that’s not always easy in the business world, but  if we do it in our personal lives, it may make us stronger and more capable in our business life. This is one idea that I take advantage of on a regular basis. Connecting serves to ground me in reality. Too often, sitting in board rooms or conference rooms, I find myself wondering if senior managers with whom I work have a real life on the outside, or if they tuck themselves under their desks at night and rise, fresh and refreshed, the next day. In my work, I strive to meet the real people behind the leader/manager role, and remind them that human connection is both acceptable and beneficial in the business world.

I can't think of any people I'd rather connect with than these two.

I can’t think of any people I’d rather connect with than these two.

Don’t sweat the sunk costs – be guided by opportunity and what might be the unexpected result of an expensive conference. Be ready to adapt: if it makes more sense to read your iPad or talk to your Dad, or take advantage of evolving skill sets, then do that and adapt to those new outcomes. And don’t forget to connect with those who matter, because they will help you realize what is really important in business and everyday life.

Those three pearls of wisdom guided me today: I took the opportunity not to go to the conference and to finish a proposal (and have a coffee and go for a great run); I continue to read, learn and adapt as I aim to become a better change leader, facilitator and consultant; and I will be heading out to my deck shortly to have a cold one with my friend Bonnie and try to answer all the important questions of the world.

Consider your own day (week, month or life), and share with me how you’ve embodied these three ideas. I find it helps if I write things down and share them. Why don’t you do the same and share them here!

Stuff That Really Matters

“And I felt a change
Time meant nothing
Never would again.”

From “Time Warp”, by Richard O’Brien

I saw a picture of my friend Kathleen today. Kathleen is the Executive Director, Chief Pooba and heart and soul of the Cleveland Restoration Society. If memory serves me correctly, we entered the world 24 days apart, so we are the same age….just youngsters, by my count!

Kath’s photo was taken during Cleveland’s 2015 Community Luncheon. She looks outstanding, with cool glasses, great hair and passion simply emanating from her being. I was so proud of her!

Kathleen, the President!

Kathleen, the President!

Then I looked at a few other pictures of folks attending this luncheon. Boy, there were lots of grey haired people, and folks who looked their age, if you know what I mean. Not my Kath, though. She looked younger and cooler than anyone else I could see in the photos.

Was she? I mean, given the demographic of the group who were made up of representatives of the Downtown Cleveland Alliance, perhaps she was. Or was it what I saw when I looked at her? Did I see Ms. Crowther, power professional from Shaker Heights, Ohio? Or did I see Kathy Hackman, who biked across southern Ontario with me one summer (from youth hostel to pub, etc), and then the next summer, hiked Assateague and Chinctoteague Islands with me (waking up to the wild ponies at the door of our tent in the morning!).

These guys would show up near the tent in the morning!

These guys would poke their noses near the tent in the morning!

When I look at her now, I see etched in her face those memories of the times we laughed so hard we cried, danced to Time Warp a zillion times, sang Emmy Lou Harris songs while drinking Rolling Rock from the can…you get the drift. I suppose I don’t see the 58 year old professional who singlehandedly defines the urban gentrification of downtown Cleveland. Nope, I see a young woman lying on a bunk bed outside of Stratford, Ontario, trying to convince herself to get up and on her bike after a very long night at the pub!

Shared experiences bring richness and a unique perspective to our vision. We peel away those things that are apparent at first glance, like laugh lines or a new hair colour, and see what the individual really represents to us. It can be a gift or a curse, depending on the nature of those experiences. I look into the faces of those I love or respect, and I see beauty, ability and potential. In others, I often see something very different, just what is on the surface.

Can you recognize and use this phenomenon in your working life? When I consider the change management activities that I help shape, I realize that sharing positive experiences between and among change agents, leaders and all impacted by the change makes a huge difference to success. When we are undergoing change, if we can “see” the people who help us with the change in a positive light (much like how I “see” Kathleen), perhaps we can create more successful outcomes during the actual change process.

There are about 23 gazillion change management continuums/processes/activities, give or take a few, that you can find online.

Just some of the "change" literature

Just some of the “change” literature.

But thinking about how I see Kathleen reminds me that those real life, positive experiences MUST be a central part of helping people through change. I must build in the opportunity for those actual experiences into my plans. Sure, I can create briefing notes, build slide decks, host senior management information meetings, town halls and deliver internal videos till the cows come home. But until all people affected by that change share experiences that allows them to really see the good side of the change…and of each other…the change will be in name only. It won’t be anchored in your organization. Or your heart.

Change impacts us all. And the spectre of change, the fear of change, can loam large. But managing change means figuring out how to navigate those fears, recognize the obstacles and move forward with a light heart. It means recognizing a multitude of positive shared experiences that includes everything from grabbing a cup of coffee to dancing to the Time Warp, again, that will allow you to see past the grey hair and the uncertainties, and find the stuff that really matters.

NOthing like a good distance shot so you can't see the grey in my hair1

Nothing like a good distance shot so you can’t see the grey in my hair! (photo by R. Rodden)

 

Failure and its teachings

Failure has its place in the career of a consultant. I learn a lot from failure, even if it doesn’t feel good at the time. Responding to “Request for Proposals” often means putting my heart and soul into something, waiting for a response, and then crashing down because I come second. Again.

The past 3 weeks have seen me on the receiving end of three failed projects. I can handle one or two with aplomb, but three is a bit much. It is time to do some serious thinking about the why and how of what happened, and find the good in these rather difficult experiences.

Janey "failing" to actually grab one of her beverages. So sad.

Janey “failing” to actually grab one of her beverages. So sad.

The kind of happy money can't buy - my amazing friend Marj and her Bobbie.

The kind of happy money can’t buy – my amazing friend Marj and her Bobbie.

Each “failure”, if you allow me to call them that, was unique:

  • I was invited to let my name stand to be a member of a Board of Directors.
  • Bart and I partnered on a proposal for facilitation activities related to First Nations and the provincial Growth Plan.
  • Nicole, Lisa and I bid on a HUGE contract with a national not for profit organization. (We wanted this one. Big Time.)

You know the end of the story for each of these already. I didn’t get the position on the Board, we didn’t get the provincial contract and we didn’t win the huge contract. That’s the life of a consultant, and the risk we take. So what’s to learn?

It’s all in the details, I often remind myself. I need to reflect on my personal and professional priorities, look closely and learn from the experiences. And determine why I don’t feel quite so bad about losing these contracts.

Member of the Board? I wanted the position because I would be paid to sit on the Board! How cool is that! That’s a big upside. Downside? I wasn’t passionate about the organization. I was in it for the money. In fact, during my member interview, I asked them what they really needed in a Board Member. They told me someone with financial expertise. I said don’t select me.

They took my advice.

Small provincial contract? We worked hard on the proposal. BUT (is there always a but?) neither of us was enamored with working with the particular client team assigned to the project. We had worked with them previously, and the personalities were more challenging than satisfying. When I found out we didn’t win the contract, my reaction was “Oh well”.

The huge contract? The three of us really wanted this one. We made it to the short list and landed an interview. I drove to Toronto with my formal consulting clothes on (read: real shoes, not my usual Blundstones, hair brushed, and the casual suit that even makes me look professional). Despite knowing ahead of time, the interview team had not prepared for a conference call, so I had to connect Nicole and Lisa with the 4 of us in the boardroom myself. I had that niggling feeling that the clients were not impressed that I was the only one there “in person” and it became evident that no matter what we said, we were not going to wow and amaze them.

I choose to work with people I like...like Bart!

I choose to work with people I like…like Bart!

I left the interview feeling like I didn’t really want to work with those folks.

And I won’t be.

Learning opportunities? I can always find them, no matter how distant or impossible they may be. Let’s explore each scenario.

The first one is clear – I need to be passionate about what I do. Whether it is fishing, running, or working – without being passionate about something, I get little joy from it. Being a Board member would have brought money, but without being passionate about their purpose, that was not enough for me. So I am not upset about not getting the Board position

The small provincial contract? Bart and I were both passionate about the project. But we had a previous experience with the clients and it wasn’t great one. Had we landed this contract, we would have done a great job and gotten well paid, but been unhappy. Money isn’t worth that amount of stress.

And finally, the huge contract that we wanted so much? Sometimes you just have to trust your instincts. The clients weren’t interested in preparing for a conference call, and my instincts told me that they had made their minds up about us before we had even started.

You know all those websites on the Internet that tell you how to empower yourself to be the best; to recognize and manifest the laws of attraction; to be the fountainhead of information? This isn’t any of that stuff! This is simply me, an independent consultant, telling you what works for me:

  • Find your passion, and do things that relate to your passion. You may not make as much money as others, but you will be richer by far.
  • Work with people you like, and you will help to guarantee that you will be happy!
  • Trust your instincts. Challenge them, yes, but be informed by them.

I had a really great meeting today, with two people who work for an organization that does great environmental work that I am passionate about. I liked meeting with them, talking to them, and my instincts tell me that there might be some future opportunities working with them. Wish me luck!

Some of my passions...my children, nieces and nephews!

Some of my passions…my children, niece and nephews!

Arianna and Norm

It was just a small photograph online; a group of young women in bridesmaid’s dresses. They were all lovely – their hair and makeup done elegantly, smiles all over their faces, and energy radiating from the screen. But one of the girls was clearly more radiant and attractive than the others. She was my friend’s daughter, Arianna[1]. As I looked at the picture, I was confident that everyone else who saw this picture would feel the same way.

It was a cowboy boot kind of wedding!

It was a cowboy boot kind of wedding!

Then I went for a run. Running always clears my head. I sometimes use my run time to focus on something that is challenging me. Or I might use that time to be creative and dream about “what ifs”. But often, I run and let my mind take me where it wants to go. And what entered my mind was this: “Of course Arianna is more beautiful than the other  girls! You know her. That’s who your eye is attracted to when you look at the photo.”

As I kept running, I considered the phenomenon of “knowing” someone. I have shared memories and experiences with this young woman. I remember sitting in the living room, having tea and laughing out loud about something ridiculous. There is context for her in my life. The other women were just faces and smiles, with nothing else attached to them. They were less important to me than the wonderful person with whom I had shared something.

So why is this remotely important? It reminds me to consider each person I encounter in my crazy, busy life as an individual, and to try to find or create a context for them.

I conducted a small and entirely unscientific experiment on myself the other night. I went with my friend Eleanor to hear the band “The Outside Track” http://www.theoutsidetrack.com/ at Hugh’s Room. (If you’ve never heard them, you must!).

The Outside Track drivin' 'er!

The Outside Track drivin’ ‘er!

Our waiter was busy and a bit harried, and when I asked him his name, he was taken by surprise. But he said his name was “Norm”, and off he went. Each time he came to the table, I thanked him and said his name, to cement his value and personality into my mind, to create a context. Later in the evening, I turned and surveyed all the tables. The room was a-bustle of activity, with many wait staff hurrying to get tables cleared before the band started. As I scanned the room, amidst all the activity, Norm stood out in my view, and I noticed him wherever he went. I knew there were other waiters, but my eyes were drawn to Norm.

Unscientific and elementary, but still interesting to me: the one individual with whom I had a connection and a context was the one I continually noticed. Norm and I didn’t go way back in our relationship…it was built on a polite repartee´ between a client and a waiter. But we had something, and like Arianna, that connection brought him to my attention more than any others wandering around that evening.

So what? In my personal life, I am always making connections. But this served as a reminder to me of its value in my professional life. Reflect on the last meeting you were at, where introductions were made. Most people will announce their name and job title. This provides the listener with absolutely no connection to the speaker. You don’t learn what floor of the building someone works on, let alone whether or not they play the fiddle, fly fish or have burning love of peanut butter toast. Context is not made.

When I facilitate a meeting, I spend an inordinate amount of time getting people to introduce themselves. I’ve been chastised for this in the past, because it does take precious time. But I tend to ignore that admonishment, because in the long run, it saves time. When people are connected to one another, with a shared context, story or experience, they communicate in a more personal and compelling way. And that’s when the real work gets done.

Jaime, being more "individual" than most!

Jaime, being more “individual” than most!

So I ask you to think about Arianna. And about Norm. In work, and in your personal life, take the time to make connections. Friedrich Nietzsche told us that invisible threads are the strongest ties. Don’t forget to lay out those invisible threads. You will be grateful that you did.

[1] That’s not her name, of course!

More than the obvious

I recently ran a Change Management Workshop. There were 15 participants, remarkably eager and interested in learning about how to help people adapt to a changing environment – in this case, a new information and records management software program. At the end of the workshop, one of the participants said: “Taking a change management workshop with Susan is like taking a ‘workation’… if every day was that enjoyable, I could do another 25 years in the public service!”

A biologist,  between two fisheries officers spells trouble!

A biologist, between two fisheries officers spells trouble!

What a wonderful compliment! But I’m a biologist, for heaven’s sakes, with a Master’s degree in educational policy analysis focusing on environmental science. What am I doing facilitating change management workshops? How did I ever get here?

Image

I have musical skills as well…though I don’t think anyone would pay me to use them!

Well, I finally realized that we are more than the sum of the letters behind our name, or more than our obvious work experience or expertise. Often people my generation believe we start out as a (fill in your own blank here) “biologist”, so we can only work and advance in the field of “biology”. But we limit ourselves when we only recognize our JOB and not our SKILLS. The job is the obvious. Our skills, and what make us good at our jobs, may be something more vital and unique. And may lead us to a future we hadn’t planned on.

My ah ha moment? My buddy Lorne asked me to help facilitate a workshop for the International Joint Commission (IJC) on environmental database integration. No biggie, because it was all related to environmental agencies, and I was confident that I was going to be working with the Canadian organizations.

I was wrong. The morning of the session, I discovered that I was not only going to be facilitating the American agencies’ discussions (and I was not remotely prepared to do that), but also that I would have half of the participants in the room with me, and the other half on the phone, calling in from all over the US. I was unfamiliar with their data, with their information, with their accents, with pretty much everything I needed to know! But I was very familiar with facilitation techniques, virtual meetings and working with disparate groups of people (translation: people who want to thump one another right there in the meeting room), and I knew I could get this group to come to a strategic consensus on next steps for database sharing.

My brain had had to work at warp speed to keep up with terminology of which I was not familiar; I had to keep the representatives from Michigan at arm’s length from the Ohioans; I had to try to remember to integrate the phone participants with those in the room; I had to juggle, dance, moderate, intercede, laugh and learn.

Gail and I facilitating with two of our favourite support staff!

Gail and I facilitating with two of our favourite support staff!

But you know what? I’m good at that. Really good. And I love doing it. Just love it.

I realized I have limited myself in thinking that, because I have a particular title or set of qualifications, I should be or do a particular thing. If I consider what my skills sets are, and what I really love doing, that opens up a whole new set of unexplored and previously unconsidered opportunities. Yes, my job is that of an environmental consultant. But my skill sets make me a proficient facilitator, and that allows me to pursue facilitation opportunities both in and outside the environmental field.

My message is one we’ve all heard before, but we can stand to be mindful of and listen to yet again: Don’t limit yourself. Don’t believe you are only a biologist/teacher/supervisor/whatever! Take some time and consider what you love about your work, what skill sets you love to use, and what you do really, really well. What is holding you back from finding opportunities where you can do what you really enjoy, do it really, really well, and continue to grow?

Stay tuned. Gesner & Associates Environmental Learning is taking a shift in perspective; I am listening to myself. With two associates, I’m going to explore what we love and do well, and find/create/take advantage of those opportunities. We are going to find more than the obvious about ourselves. Why don’t you do the same???

Savagery to Civility – a continuum explored

 

My friend Bonnie and I had lunch with my Dad yesterday. Bonnie jokes that in order to prepare for a lunch with “Poppo”, she has to read every newspaper around and then study what he might be most interested in..then prepare to be schooled by his superior ability to gather and analyze information.

Today was no different from most days. Our discussions took us from assisted suicides to self-induced stress from our over-connection to cell phones and computers, to the similarity of political realities between the first World War and what’s happening in the Ukraine today.

Poppo getting ready to work at his computer...and become smarter than me yet again!

Poppo getting ready to work at his computer…and become smarter than me yet again!

My father eloquently explained that on the continuum between savagery and civility, humankind has not progressed very far. We have learned and seen so much, but we have not moved our positions to any great extent. 

I wholeheartedly agreed with him, quickly rising to the occasion with a story (typical of me…like father, like daughter). 

I recently received an e-mail, along with other members of the project team, about a quirk in a program I’m working on for the federal government. Something about the wording of the e-mail struck me as hilariously funny. I responded, but only to the author. The demands of this task team are huge, the stress they are all under is significant, and praise and acknowledgement is a rarity (in my experience) in the public service. I was careful in crafting my response, to note the humour, assign no personal blame or responsibility, and perhaps, create a smile and make the day better. 

I failed miserably. 

The author’s response to my e-mail was immediate, brief and, in my father’s words, savage. 

I was heartbroken. Not because I was chastised and berated for my attempt at humour. But I was saddened because the default position for this individual was so very, very negative. It hearkens back to our lunch discussion, where the default position of so many powerful political figures, when faced with a posturing or sanctions, is to strike out with negative force. Has this savagery pervaded our society so much that it has become a professionally acceptable approach to business? Or to the rest of our lives?

Honestly, this one e-mail has had a powerful impact on me. I had to stop and consider my own default position. What do I do when faced with something that I can easily misconstrue? Do I lash out, choosing to be savage and remaining on the low-end of that continuum? I hope I don’t. I believe I try to conscientiously move myself towards civility, in fact, striving to move past to a greater form of humanity and love. 

After the great e-mail episode that left me a bit bruised and confused, I took the dogs for a walk. Ball cap, lined coveralls and muddy boots are my dog walking uniform of choice, and few people take a second look as I spring along with the girls. As I was turning for home, a car slowed then stopped near me. A smiling gentleman explained that he has seen me walking with the dogs for months, and though we smile and wave, he didn’t know me. And he just wanted to say hi, meet me in person, so that the next time we pass one another, we will have something more substantive than simply a kind wave. We will have a friendship.IMG_2724

The next time someone does something that rubs you the wrong way, pause. Before you lash out, consider the intent and circumstance. Find perspective, both yours and theirs. Then proceed like my smiling gentleman and reach out with that smile. 

Move up on that continuum. Strive for something even more than civility.

There is hope, my friends. 

It is all around us. 

It is us.