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???

Facilitation possibilities (or finding the magic)

“The great leaders are like the best conductors – they reach beyond the notes to reach the magic in the players.” (Blaine Lee)

I was asked to facilitate a meeting for Natural Resources Canada in Ottawa at the end of September. It wasn’t my regular project work, but a request to provide facilitation for the corporate services section, under the direction of the Assistant Deputy Minister (ADM). I have done some work previously for her, and was delighted to continue.

A previous NRCan session with positive outcomes

A previous NRCan session with positive outcomes.

The purpose of the meeting is immaterial here…other than to say it involved budget cuts. Honestly, there are few discussions nowadays with senior managers in the federal government that don’t involve budget cuts. This one was going to be a bit “ouchy”, however, because none of the Director Generals (DG’s) or Directors were aware that they needed to make these cuts before the end of the fiscal year.[1]

I prepared an outline for the day’s discussions. That outline was approved, but I was prepared for some last minute tweaking. The night before the session, I received an e-mail from the ADM’s contact. She had indeed changed it, but it was not too substantive, and I could easily adapt my plans. However, the next morning, there were more changes…in fact, the ADM arrived with a completely revamped outline. Call me flexible (or stupid) but I nodded and said “No problem” when asked if I could manage the changes.

The session started with a presentation by the ADM, and the silence was deafening. You could actually feel the energy snapping through the room, as people realized what lay ahead. Despite how the media portrays public servants, these directors and DGs care very much for their work and the staff who report to them, and the personal lives of these individuals were their priorities.

My years of facilitation experience has helped me to think about my participants as individuals with lives and loves, connections and experiences. Each person in the room has his or her own story, and that story transcends the office or the boardroom. I knew that in this group of senior managers, there is an individual who aspires to be a personal trainer. Another one would like to run a sailing business. Still another would like to spend her time as an elementary school teacher. My challenge for this session was to find out more about them as individuals, and to use that information to help them explore creative ways to address their budget issues.

He may look like a wine connoisseur, but in his spare time, he works for the UN!

He may look like a wine connoisseur, but in his spare time, he works for the UN!

How this activity came to me, I will never know. But there I stood, in front of a room full of senior managers, and I asked them to think about what they, as individuals, were good at. Not fishing or skiing or balancing a budget, but rather, if they did a personality test, what would the results indicate? I explained that as a facilitator, I was a conscientious observer. I paid attention; to every detail of discussion, activity, appearance, because all that minutiae had value. I needed to actively listen, watch, analyze and synthesize constantly, so I could help move the discussions forward. I asked them to look inside themselves and share what they knew to be true. Here were some of their answers: 

  • I am an innovative thinker who can come up with creative “out of the box” ideas that can stand critical scrutiny.
  • I am a fixer. Show me a problem, and I’ll come up with ways to fix it.
  • I am a cheerleader. I can bring people together, rally a team to move forward.
  • I am a bargainer, I can find and make deals.
  • I’m a visionary. I can see past the problem and see the opportunities.

They came up with almost 20 different roles, and I wrote them up on the flip chart. I then asked them to look at the list, and (without considering who was associated with which role), to shape together three small groups that would have a complementary set of skills to address the budget discussion that the ADM had introduced. When they were organized in those groups, they knew they had the right mix of thinkers, visionaries, fixers and others to make decisions.

Ro, employed by the Ontario Science Centre but obviously possessing the skills of a fine barista.

Ro, employed by the Ontario Science Centre but obviously possessing the skills of a fine barista, using all her energy to make me coffee!

All of a sudden, the session that was initially daunting was doable, and outcomes were achievable. The tables vibrated with intellectual and emotional energy. They looked at one another differently – not as directors, but as fixers or visionaries or creators of options. It was empowering for all of them, and made for a new way of tackling challenges.

Thanks to the powers that be that allowed me to stand helplessly in front of a group of strategic and powerful thinkers, and gift me with this idea. Learning to look past job titles and roles is often not a simple task, but it is worth remembering that we can all contribute something other than what we have listed on our business cards. That is where you will reach beyond the notes to the magic in your players.

Look beyond the notes. Find the music in everyone!

Look beyond the notes. Find the music in everyone!


[1] For any federal public servants reading this, allow me to put you at ease right now. Throughout the hours of this discussion, no individuals or positions were eliminated.