The Simple Secret to Sustainable Productivity

Working Soft

It’s easy to think that hard-working people are productive, but it’s not always true. I know a man who proves the point.

His name is Dee, and he taught me the secret of truly sustainable productivity. He’s the most mysteriously, uncannily productive person I ever worked with.

Dee’s from the southern US. He speaks with a lovely slloooww drraawwll, and he moves at the same slow, deliberate pace. We worked together building the Nova Scotia Sea School’s first 30′ wooden expedition boat.

Dee is a great storyteller, and he loves to stop and lean on his work, a tool dangling in his hand, to tell a tale. When someone came to visit the boat shop Dee would stop and talk with them, explain what we were doing, make them feel welcome, while his work sat neglected on the bench.

I was often irritated by Dee’s lack of focus and unhurried attitude. I’d try to discourage his ramblings by setting the example of being super-focused on my own task, though half my attention was really focused on my annoyance. Or I’d remind him of our production schedule and demand to know how much longer his task of the moment would take. But I soon learned that I didn’t need to manage Dee’s work ethic.

The thing is, Dee always accomplished more in a day than I or the other boatbuilder on the job could believe. He did this day after day, tirelessly. This was a mystery to us, almost magic. And it just didn’t seem right.

Over time I realized some of what the secret was about. For one thing, Dee didn’t make mistakes. I never saw him have to rework something because the piece he made didn’t fit. He didn’t make false starts. I never saw him be confused about the critical path for his projects, so he never had to backtrack or be held up because he hadn’t planned for the right materials. He didn’t get frustrated. I never saw him in a sloppy or resistant or tired state of mind, so he never got in the way of his own work.

He also always seemed to know where to get an obscure piece of hardware, or find the right tool for the job. The boat’s keel was made from a single 25′ long piece of oak, 4″ thick. We didn’t know how we were going to cut it to shape. Our circular saws weren’t big enough to go through it, so I suggested we cut one side and then cut through from the other side and try to line up the cuts, and then do the hand trimming of the very hard oak to get the perfect line we needed. I thought this was the best plan because, even though laborious and not very exact, we could start right away, we could “get on with it.” We were working this out when Dee came in and said, “I think I can get something for that.”

It took him an hour to drive to a friend’s house and get it, a huge circular saw with a 3-foot blade. It took him 20 minutes to tell us the tale of how a guy who came into the shop one day told him about a guy who knew this guy, how he tracked the guy down and made friends sharing stories with him, and about all the other unusual tools the guy had in his collection. It took him a half hour to slowly set the wood up just the way he wanted it so he could make an uninterrupted cut with the saw, another half hour to lay out the guide lines exactly, and about an hour to make the cuts. So he got it all done, and done right, in an afternoon, where my approach would have taken at least as long, been much harder work, and harder to make accurate. Plus, we all really loved the improbable tale he told about getting the saw, which we enjoyed repeating to our friends.

The secret to Dee’s sustainable productivity is this: he’s relaxed. He’s not tense and narrow under pressure. Precisely because he doesn’t have his head down in his work all the time, he always feels fresh, clear, able to do his best. Because he doesn’t get flustered and hurried, he doesn’t cause trouble for others, and doesn’t need supervision. Because he takes time to build relationships with people, he has great resources to call on when he needs them. He enjoys himself at work, not just because he enjoys the work, but because he just enjoys being himself wherever he is.

It’s not that seeing everyone chatting and hanging out in the office is a sign of super-productivity. Some people are good at wasting time. It’s that a narrow view of what someone looks like when they’re “working” can be misleading. In these days of having to do more and more with less and less, it can ironically be more productive to focus less on doing all the time and relax, so that when we are doing, we’re doing our best. I always thought it isn’t right to say that Dee works hard. Maybe it’s more accurate to say he works soft. And this lets him get great hard results. To boost productivity, try relaxing. It’s uncanny, but it works.

For more about productivity and efficiency, click here.

How a Strong Back and Soft Front Make Us Powerful

Gentle and Tough Together


Soft? Do we really want to be soft? How can strong and soft go together anyway?  They’re opposites, right?

Or is the business world in desperate need of the “softer directness” that Phil, in my last post, saw he had to develop in order to be more effective?

Here’s a true story of one of the most naturally powerful people I ever met, with a strong back and a soft front; a boy named Peter whom I sailed with on a Nova Scotia Sea School voyage.

Peter was barely 14 when he came on board, and he was young for his age. But he was exceptionally competent and quick to learn, a natural high performer. He was also terribly homesick. He wasn’t ashamed of his homesickness, even though it brought tears to his eyes now and then, and he never said he wanted to go home. He never complained about anything, and often stepped up to help his teenage shipmates with knots, navigation, setting the tarp up at night, all the things they wrestled with that he was immediately good at doing.

On the first night of the trip he was crying softly as we all sat together for our circle conversation to end the day. He wasn’t sobbing or sniffly, just a few tears on his face. He told everyone how homesick he was, but he said it was okay. The rest of the crew tried all kinds of things to make him feel better, but Peter wasn’t uncomfortable about his sadness and didn’t encourage their consolation. He sat up confidently, his emotion simply another presence in the circle, genuine and no big deal.

A few days later he was taking a turn as helmsman to steer the boat. It was a windy day and we had the wind strong and fair on the starboard quarter, which means it was nearly behind us. We roared along at our maximum speed down wave after wave after wave. The crew were exhilarated, faces laughing out from the yellow hoods of their waterproof jackets, dripping now and then with the salt spray blowing over the boat.

Peter had a hard job steering in those conditions. The strength of the wind kept trying to force the boat to turn, and the waves rolling under us would twist us right and left and back again. Peter had both hands on the tiller, which took some strength to manage, and he was braced against the side of the boat to keep steady, thrilled and focused. I sat next to him to coach him but he was such a quick learner that he was soon doing an excellent job on his own and I turned to look forward and enjoy the ride. I could tell by the way the boat continued to surf on the waves that he was doing just fine, and I began to talk with the rest of the crew.

After a while I turned back to check on Peter, and saw that he was crying again. Steering well, with his whole body and attention, with tears running down his cheeks. I asked him if he was homesick again and he smiled a big smile and said yes, very, he really missed his family. Then he turned forward again and continued to surf the boat down the waves.

Peter seemed able to hold everything, his natural skill as well as his sadness, with strength and gentleness. He wasn’t struggling to put up the tough front you would expect from a teenage boy in front of his peers.

This was Peter’s power. Not having to protect himself all the time, he was without struggle, and inexhaustible. Whatever came up, he could handle it. He was truly brave.

But most important, no matter what he was experiencing himself, he was always open to everyone else in the crew. The crew had never seen anyone like Peter, and they began to share their own worries with him, because he could be patient and kind, but clear and not indulging. If they were having trouble with knots or another sailing skill they asked him for help, because he had nothing to prove and would help them and not judge them.

The crew were inspired by Peter to drop their complaint, do their best, and appreciate each other. Peter led by example, the most powerful leadership of all, and he transformed that crew from a group of fussy teenagers into the most high performing crew I ever sailed with.

This is not to say you should break down at your next team meeting. Soft and gentle alone are sentimental and thin. But strong and tough alone are self-protective and blinding. Together, strong back and soft front, gentle and tough, fearlessness and open heart, these are the ingredients of the most effective kind of leadership. We need more leaders like Peter.

Please share this post. I’m in a campaign to grow my readership. Thank you.

3 Steps to Fix Bad Peer Relations at Work


This is the real-life story of a client, a VP at a national financial services business, who found 3 concrete steps to change poor relations with his peers on the leadership team.

Phil (not his real name) experiences personal friction with his senior leadership colleagues because they:

  • often revisit their decisions
  • agree with the plan but then do something else
  • don’t give him input on his projects even when he asks for it, but complain later about what he does

This frustrates Phil, who has all the qualities of an exceptional performer. He’s:

  • clear, decisive and direct
  • quick-moving but also strategic
  • often the smartest person in the room.

Phil was stuck in classic high-performer arrogance: “Just let me explain it to you,” “Just let me do it.” But Phil’s colleagues aren’t dolts, and he’ not a jerk. He has enough humility to see his part in the problem and he decided that he wants to practice what he calls a “softer directness.” Over the 5 months we’ve been working together, here’s what he did.

First Question: What’s the biggest trouble trigger?

Phil looked at when he gets into interpersonal trouble, and saw that his biggest trigger was impatience. Others don’t always move as fast as he does. Some talk things through more before they understand. Some examine all sides. Some dig deep enough to know that everyone is truly agreed, not just acquiescing. To Phil, this is time-wasting inefficiency. “Let’s get on with it.”

Step 1: Find value in the process

Phil accepted that his impatience doesn’t change anyone’s temperament, but it does make people not want to listen to him and not want to tell him what they think. His attachment to “get on with it” is a blind spot, too narrow a definition of “results.” It makes true agreement impossible.

The process of interaction that he calls inefficient is the process that builds strong teams, and a strong team is the most important result of all.

So Phil is giving more space for the process of his interactions with his peers. He’s noticing his impatience as it arises and he’s taking a breath and listening. People aren’t on edge around him anymore so they don’t hide their thoughts. He’s letting himself be curious enough to get out of his blind spot and learn how the process itself is a valuable result.

(For more on mistaking efficiency for results, click here.)

Step 2: Ask, don’t tell

Phil understands things quickly, and is particularly good at seeing how specific efforts do and don’t serve the larger purpose. When other people don’t, he tells them. He may be right, but in a team right isn’t enough

Phil describes this as “wielding clarity,” but people don’t like having something wielded at them. They resent being told, and because they haven’t themselves been through the mental process of understanding, they don’t really trust or accept what they’re told. They also don’t build their own capacity to see the bigger picture.

So Phil has stopped telling, and asks instead. This is tricky. His questions have to not be veiled statements. He has to intend to draw out the understanding of his colleagues, not make himself look smart. But asking, “How does this fit with X?” is very different from saying, “This will never work with X.” Especially if the tone of the question makes it clear that Phil actually wants to know what the other person thinks. Achieving this tone is a great way for Phil to practice being part of a fruitful discussion.

This approach creates two options, neither of which is an argument: Phil may see that actually it does work with X, or the other person may see for themselves that it doesn’t. Both build capacity, not resentment.

Step 3: Pull back to see the context

This is really the biggest thing Phil has changed about his behaviour. In the past, his impatience made him lean in. Now he takes impatience as the cue to pull back, to lean back in his chair, take a breath, look out the window, relax.

He asks himself,

  • “What’s at stake right now?”
  • “Is this something I really need to jump on?”
  • “Is there something more important to make a point about later instead?”
  • “Will my jumping in now help the process for everyone?”
  • “Am I just reacting to my pattern with this person?”

These questions let him see the bigger context in the moment, and help him not make waves where there’s no storm.

The key: Let your body advise you

The big question is, how does Phil remember to stop and follow these three steps in the middle of his frustration and impatience?

He listens to his body. He doesn’t watch out for impatience so much as he watches out for physical tension, fidgeting, hunching in his chair, crossing his arms. These are all signs of growing impatience, but are easier to notice because they’re physical. Then he can ask himself, “Why am I fidgeting?” Sometimes he’s just antsy, too much coffee. Sometimes it’s impatience. Then he has a choice.

(For more on ways to stop and remember your intentions even under pressure, click here.)

There are three practices of generous leadership:

  • Generosity
  • Curiosity
  • Less Velocity

Phil was stuck in lack of curiosity and trying to make everything go too fast. Now he’s slowed down enough to ask questions and is generous enough to make space for other people’s process and understanding. He no longer pushes his leadership peers into decisions that won’t hold up. He plans to go back through their meeting minutes and notes for the year and expects to see that the rate of revisited decisions has dropped. Plus, he and his colleagues just feel better about working together. And that’s not trivial.

How to Not Burn Out in the Weeds

In the Weeds

The weeds are no place for a leader. We get lost and burnt out in the weeds, we all know this. But the weeds often feel taller than us, so we literally can’t see out of them. And if we get our heads above them for a moment all we see is more weeds like an endless prairie all the way to the horizon.

To see the big picture, for ourselves and for our team, we need to be able to raise our gaze above the weeds. But to do that we need some good weed cutters.

Every successful leader has their own collection of weed cutters. Here’s one of mine. It may seem too simple, but simple has great power.

I wear a hematite bracelet with a clasp made of two small magnets that hold the ends together around my wrist. The bracelet is a little tight, and I fidget with it repeatedly through the day.

Sometimes when I fidget with it the magnetic clasp separates for a moment and then snaps back together, catching a small fold of my skin between the two ends. Suddenly, in the midst of that momentary physical sensation, the weeds vanish. I stop and admire the bracelet, which I like a lot, and for that moment there’s just me and the bracelet, nothing else. No weeds.

When I look up from the bracelet I have two choices: let the weeds rise around me again, or take a breath and raise my gaze before the weeds have the chance to raise themselves.

It takes discipline to make the second choice. The weeds are strangely attractive, even comforting in a perverse sort of way. But if I raise my gaze instead, I often see that I’ve been working very hard and very effectively on the wrong thing. Or I suddenly have an experience like in the shower of seeing the answer to a problem. Or I feel the weight of worry fall away for a moment.

In that moment of open space, I can see clearly. And I can choose to stay in that open space for a while, to look at the big picture, to see the things the leader needs to see.

But without the weed cutter, I wouldn’t have given myself the chance to look.

A leader needs someone whispering in their ear all day, “Look up. Look up. Look up.” Seeing the big picture isn’t just a corporate retreat or strategic planning exercise. It’s a moment by moment discipline throughout the day, and it’s fractal. We need to see the big picture of this hour, this meeting, this report, as well as of the next quarter. So we need moment by moment reminders to get out of the weeds and look.

I have no one to whisper in my ear, but I have my bracelet. What have you got?

Sense perceptions like the pinch of the bracelet are excellent, and we all have sense perceptions already. But we usually see them as distractions. Instead, we can let them be small weed cutters that give us a moment to raise our gaze.

A loud noise, the sound of our heels as we walk, the feel of a chair when we sit down, all have the power to cut through our mental weediness and bring our mind into focus. Extending that moment with a deep breath or a good stretch is powerfully refreshing.

Our sense perceptions are also very real. They are a contrast to the shifting hopes and fears that wrap themselves around our plans, our problem-solving, our deadline-meeting, our whole forest of weeds we live in. This is why sensations can be so powerfully reassuring.

And sense perceptions connect us with our big, simple human experience. They are a momentary gateway to the bigger, unencumbered state of mind that is free of all the weeds.

Then we can decide which weeds, if any, really deserve our attention.

As a CEO I’ve worked with, at a private equity fund, says, “Few leaders effectively manage their own effectiveness. The two key things are having greater awareness to see more options, and greater insight into which option is the right one. When I’m just in reactive mode, responding to the stimulus of the moment, I don’t have the space to see as many options and can’t judge them as clearly. That’s a problem I need to avoid.”

For more weed-cutter techniques, see Claustrophobia and Space

Don’t Get Buy-In, It’s a Myth

The Myth of Buy-In

If you’re trying to get “buy-in,” you’ve already missed your chance to get genuine acceptance and engagement for whatever you’re trying to do.

That’s because when you’re in “buy-in” mode, you’re selling something. But you’ve only got one thing to sell, it can’t possibly fit everybody, the costs and features are completely inflexible, and the “buyers” don’t really have a choice.

It’s really more like getting people to pay taxes. No matter how great and real are the benefits our tax dollars bring us, no one gets excited about paying taxes.

Leadership isn’t a sales job. In fact as a leader, you’re the one who should be buying. Buying the best ideas from your people at all levels. Buying the best customer service ideas from the people who spend their days on the phones with customers. Buying the best production ideas from the people who spend their days with their hands on the product. When people see their own ideas “bought” and promoted, you can’t get any better acceptance and engagement than that.

Southwest Airlines didn’t get its reputation as an iconic customer service company by getting its customer service people to buy in to a set of rules and procedures sold to them from above. The Southwest Airlines leadership let their customer service people do whatever they think is best to satisfy the individual customer they’re dealing with at any given moment. The leadership has bought in to the experience, the wisdom, the inter-personal-relations savvy of the people who do the job every day.

As James Conklin wrote recently in the Globe and Mail Business section,

“In a complex and fast-moving organization, the change leader’s role is often not about coming up with all of the answers and then figuring out how to persuade staff to go along with the change. Instead, it’s about creating opportunities to have conversations about worthwhile improvements. When you do this, some surprising and unintended consequences may surface that only a front-line professional could anticipate.”

The Zen sword masters say, “If you have to draw your sword, you’ve already lost the battle.” This isn’t because you’re going to lose the sword fight. It’s because the victorious leader knows how to work with a situation in advance to make battle unnecessary.

If you need people to buy-in to something, you’ve already lost the battle.

Read the whole Globe and Mail article by James Conklin.

What’s Generous Leadership Really? Not More Benefits

What's Needed?

Executives sometimes tell me, “I can’t afford to be any more generous than I already am. Benefits, pensions, perks, it’s huge. You want me to give even more? In today’s economy?”

No. That’s not what generous leadership means.

Generous leadership gives people what they need to thrive at work.

But generosity is also about what not to give. Not giving people what they don’t need, obstacles that hold them back from thriving, that’s just as important. Real generosity depends on knowing what’s needed and what’s not needed.

For example, an executive coaching client of mine is Director of Business Process and IT at Canada’s largest independent travel agency. He had been holding all-team meetings every two weeks where everyone reviewed what they were doing, what they needed help with, and he set direction for the next two weeks. These meetings gave collective clarity, support, guidance and accountability. Generous, right?

Except that the meetings weren’t what was really needed. They were just what the director’s predecessor had done. The meetings were too long, and sometimes focused on one issue that didn’t affect everyone, so they weren’t a good use of people’s time. People tended to report to the director, rather than discuss issues among themselves. The meetings were also too far apart to address the needs that came up between them. The meetings weren’t keeping the team in close enough contact with the director or with each other. Things fell through the cracks, and redundant or counter-productive work got done by different people who didn’t know what each other were doing.

Our coaching work involved an extensive inquiry into what the IT team thought was working and what wasn’t. As a result, the director scrapped the meetings, and instituted a daily morning “stand-up” for 15 minutes. The IT team literally stands up for the meeting, which helps keep it short. Everyone in turn gets a couple of minutes to say what they did yesterday, what they’re doing today, what problems they’re hitting. They can ask for or offer help, but those conversations happen after the standup, because they don’t involve everyone. People don’t report to the director, they report to each other. The director listens, and offers what he needs to, but isn’t directing the conversation.

This is what’s needed for this group. Everyone is aware of the whole team’s work every day, so no more redundant or counterproductive efforts, no more falling through the cracks. No one is bored because the problems that don’t involve them are being solved during the stand up itself. And everyone gets an informal chance to check in with each other, so they all feel more connected, more friendly and mutually supportive.

The director wasn’t suddenly pouring out great new generous gifts. His generosity was in taking the time to ask his team what they needed, and what they didn’t need, so they could thrive in their work. In a sense, by scrapping the bigger meetings he was giving them less. But less of what they didn’t need.

The three practices of generous leadership are generosity, curiosity, and less velocity. To be truly generous we have to be curious enough to find out what’s needed and what’s not. To practice that curiosity, we have to slow down enough to make time to ask, to explore, to reflect.


How to Make the Mark that Matters

How can you un-encumber your day from all the marks that other people are trying to make on it, and make your own mark instead, the mark that matters? Here’s a short video blog, and if you want some practical ways to make space in your day for the mark that matters, there’s a free pdf download.

Download simple practices you can do at work.

The Mirror-Like World as New Year’s Ally

The vivid world

Good morning everyone!

The child is born, the candles are lit, the days grow longer again. The celebrations are soon over, and it’s time to enjoy ourselves.

At sea, the sun rises from the edge of the world and the ship’s crew rises with it. We scrub the decks and polish the brass before breakfast. When the ship is clean and shiny, she becomes a worthy mirror for the new day, a mirror that reflects back to us the best we each have to offer.

In the city, my cooking pot is clean and bright, and my oatmeal bowl is patterned in blue. There is a chip in the rim, which fits my thumb nicely, and brings a moment of sharpness and attention when I touch it.

In  the dojo, the Aikido master Wendy Palmer works with her Japanese teacher to bring the fullness of herself to her training. Her teacher cries out to her, “I want to see your NOBLE. I want to see your AWESOME. I want to see your SHINY.”

Shinning the mirrorOur noble awesome shiny is with us always, of course. But when it’s hard to find, the world can be our mirror. Polishing our brass, cleaning our pot, touching the sharpness of real things, whatever we do to make the world bright and vivid makes life mirror-like. The mirror commands us, and the command is, “See this noble awesome shiny. Enjoy yourself. Enjoy yourSELF.”

When this command is hard to give, the mirror-like world can give it for us.

I wish you all a new year full of your most noble awesome shiny.

Generosity or Manipulation – What’s the Difference?


A few people emailed me to object to my last post, How to Let Someone Fire Themselves, saying that “compassionately” manipulating people into firing themselves is horrible.

That’s certainly a possibility. Of course it’s not what I’m talking about.

For me, the question lies in motivation. Are we “getting” someone to fire themselves, or “letting” them fire themselves. If a boss tries to get an under-performing manager to quit in order to cut costs, or for any other self-serving reason, his actions are manipulative and wrong. A direct approach, “To meet my goals, I have to let you go,” is right.

But if our motivation is good, then we genuinely want people to find the situation that meets THEIR goals, that lets them thrive. That’s different. If our motivation is to help a manager see themselves more clearly, it may mean that the manager sees that they are not going to grow into their particular job, that it’s just not a fit. The mis-match isn’t helping the company, and certainly that’s a concern for a boss and part of the equation. But a mis-match doesn’t help the manager either, in their career, or personally.

When the boss in my story asked the manager, “What do you suggest I do next?” the question was genuine. A question like that can serve as a mirror, and in this case the manager saw themselves, through the question, as being in the wrong place. With help from the boss, they were able to find another place elsewhere that fit better. There were no recriminations.

I believe that helping people to see themselves more clearly is the essence of generous leadership. It’s tricky business. If we don’t see our own real motivation clearly first, we may well become manipulative, patronizing, self-righteous, or worse, and sadly we see that in workplaces all the time.

If our motivation is truly good, what is the best technique? Asking questions, if they are genuine, is always better than telling. Inviting people to see for themselves is better than telling them what we think they should see.

For more on using questions to deal with problem employees, click here.

How To Let Someone Fire Themselves

Questions can be a mirror


A recent post was about using the “questions only” approach to deal with a problem employee. But what happens when questions aren’t enough, when you need more improvement than you’re getting?

Here’s another real-life example of how to deal with a problem employee. Let me know if you think this intervention went well or not.

The owner and CEO of a marine safety training company told me this story. Their company trains oil rig workers to escape from a helicopter that’s crashed in the ocean, as it capsizes and sinks, and all kinds of other very high intensity marine safety training.

This CEO had a manager who was consistently under-performing. They set clear goals and expectations with each other, but these just weren’t being met. The CEO took the questioning approach to understand what the man thought the problem was. The manager was active in the conversations, seemed to be looking realistically at the situation, said what he would do to change, but nothing changed. He just didn’t seem to have the attitude of accomplishment, of taking the bull by the horns, that a company with as demanding a product requires.

So at their next meeting, the CEO said, “This doesn’t seem to be working. We’ve made these clear goals, and we’ve made them together, and we can both see the goals aren’t being met. The situation isn’t improving. Frankly, I don’t know where to go from here. What do you think I should do next?”

The manager thought a moment, and said, “I think I’m in the wrong place. I should look for another job where I’m a better fit.”

We can’t say the CEO changes the manager’s attitude. Some things won’t change. Not everything is workable. But the CEO solves the problem without any rancor or hard feeling. The manager sees his own strengths and weaknesses for himself, not just as his boss’s opinion of him. He gets a severance package and help with getting another job better suited to his talents. Everyone is happy.

When you reach a dead end with someone, it’s still not too late to let them take initiative for the solution. “What do you suggest I do next?” is a great question.

Is this really just manipulation? Read other opinions here.