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Tastes like ... what??

When our son Ben was a toddler, he was struggling to learn colors, and to develop new food tastes. One day as we pared pieces of a golden de...

Tuesday, October 4, 2016

Into the Webbed World

Today I sent a piece of me into the webbed world.
An email, a message, a text, a chat, a tweet;
I can’t remember which.
It really doesn’t matter.

Into the webbed world it went,
Rich with wisdom,
Full of expectation,
Bare with honesty.

Into the webbed world it went
In search of a reply;
Anything would do.

Into the webbed world it went,
This byte-sized piece of
Thought synapse,
Probing inquiry,
Smart observation,
Information request.

Into the webbed world it went.
Audience known:
Audience unknown:

Into the webbed world it went:

Into the webbed world it went,

Into the webbed world it went.
My dreaming.
What I imagine.
How I hope.

Into the webbed world it went.
But who knows
Where it arrived?
If it was heard?
Will it be kept?

Does it really matter?
I can’t remember which:
An email, a message, a text, a chat, a tweet.
Today I sent a piece of me into the webbed world.

Wednesday, September 14, 2016

What an old Honda Civic taught me about how I think about people

I am the proud owner of this 1992 Honda Civic hatchback. It's the simplest modern car a person can own, with a tiny engine and a simple interior. Our one non-negotiable when we purchased it new was air conditioning to combat the midwest humidity. We were especially glad we made that choice when we took it to southern California. It's a five speed manual, and the clutch is original (more on that later).

It's been used gently over its 24 years. There are just over 170,000 miles on it, and for a Honda of this vintage, there is only negligible rust on it. The interior has some tears in the driver's seat, the door locks, having frozen and then broken during harsh Chicago winters, only operate with the key, and the rear window hatch needs to be propped open with a stick,

For its age and life experience it still gets over 30 miles/gallon around town and would probably do better if I felt the need to take it on the tollway. I don't.

At least twice a year somebody comes up to me in a parking lot, stops at my driveway, or rolls down their window next to me at a stoplight and says, "Hey, man! Interested in selling that?" My answer used to be "no." Now I usually give them a ridiculous number (like $6000.00) and then explain to them that it isn't possible to put a value on this little workhorse that, with regular maintenance and necessary repairs, just keeps doing its job.

This week was one of those "necessary repairs" weeks. The starter went out and left my wife sitting at work. I'm not patient enough to make the repair myself, and don't really know too much how to do it, although I'm sure I could figure it out. Instead, I put my AAA membership to work and had it towed down to my trusted guys at Kellenberger Auto. They expertly took care of the starter and it's back on the road. It will need a clutch soon, too, a more expensive proposition, and that got me to thinking.....

When and how do we decide to keep something or to replace it instead?

Jack and Larry at Kellenberger like to say that, with cars these days, the choice is between a monthly payment or the expenses of fixing an older car on a regular basis. Either way there's cost involved in ownership. Cars have to be one of the most resource-exhausting tools in our lives. Often it comes down to fix or replace.

Sometimes we treat people the same way.

Our culture is becoming a disposable one. Lots of things we purchase these days aren't able to be fixed, or the out-of-pocket cost of fixing them outpaces the cost to replace them. I just threw away my toaster oven and got a new one. When something can't be fixed, or is cheaper to replace than repair, we simply throw it away. I tend to think that manufacturers understand this phenomena, and strategically design items in a way that requires consumers to buy more of their products more often. Cynical, I know, but still....

I see this happening to people, too. When they can't be fixed, or their value seems to be outweighed by the challenges they pose, then we get rid of them. This disposition happens in businesses. It happens in families. It happens in churches.

Another spin on the throw-away approach relates to my Honda Civic. Because sometimes it requires a significant amount of effort to repair (a head gasket, for instance), it would be easy to decide to get rid of it rather than repair it. The time and money required to solve the problem overwhelms us and our reaction is to give up and start over with something new(er). There are days, like when it needs a new head gasket or the original clutch is finally giving out, that I feel exactly this way about my Honda Civic. But I also know that with the proper attention that little engine will run for many more years. I know precisely what I'm dealing with. Oh, and I love that little car.

I see this happening to people, too. When it seems easier to replace than repair the person or the relationship we have with them, we get rid of them. This disposition happens in businesses. It happens in families. It happens in churches.

I recently helped my 18 year old son buy his first car. It's a 2014 version of the Ford Fiesta, a stylish and spunky little car. It, like my Honda Civic, gets great gas mileage and comes with strong ratings. With any luck he'll own it for 24 years. But it did get me thinking. Well, maybe not thinking. More like coveting, desiring the hands-free bluetooth connections, the 1.6L ecoboost engine with 197 horsepower, the racing interior, and sports suspension.

We're often enticed by our desire for something new. Marketers understand this, and prey on it. Our consumer economy counts on it. In order for us to have a growing economy, our desire for the new, even when the old still works, must prevail. While the old may still be good and solid, it does not have the appeal of the new, and so out with the old and in with the new.

I see this happening with people, too. When someone new and more exciting comes along, we are enticed and "phase out" the ones who are already here. This phasing out happens in businesses. It happens in families. It happens in churches.

Our relationship between the old and the new is complex. It's one thing to think of inanimate products, consumer goods if you will, and how we covet, care for, and dispose of them (and these things are important to consider!). It should be something quite different, though, when we think about people and the relationships we invest in.

Unfortunately, it seems that there is "consumer creep" in our approach to people. People become a commodity. They become disposable. We treat them as replaceable. They're not.

I understand that it's complicated. I have cut people out of my life for "good" reasons. I have contemplated throwing away lifelong commitments in favor of "newer and better" opportunities. I have fired people from jobs that I knew they needed.

I'm glad I got my Honda Civic fixed again. Today it will get my wife to work and then to the doctor. This evening it will get me to the grocery story and a meeting. Tonight it will sit familiarly in the driveway next to an under-used 2006 Starcraft pop-up camper and a shiny orange Ford Fiesta ST. The family vehicle, a 2006 Honda Pilot, will rest in the garage.

In the morning I'll get up and settle myself into the slightly ripped driver's seat of my old Honda Civic and be glad that I haven't thrown away a quality piece of my life.

I'll be glad that you're still here, too.

Wednesday, September 7, 2016

Stepping Out: Unexpected Thoughts on Being an Entrepreneur

When I resigned from my job in April, I assumed that I would find another job within an organization. I immediately began exploring possibilities where I could use my years of organizational experience and a newly minted certificate in nonprofit management in an executive management position.

I was excited about the changes, and nervous about how to translate my church-based experience into other fields of leadership, but I was confident that my work background, skill set, personal profile, education and references would open opportunities for me. And although job searches in today's work environment are arduous and largely impersonal, there has been some progress. No job, but what feels like progress.

One day along the journey I had a person suggest to me that I start my own business. My laughter could be heard down the hallway! But that laughter turned into consideration, and the consideration led to imagination, and imagination led to consultation, and consultation led to articulation, and articulation is being converted into action. I am starting my own business. Are you laughing now?!?

Since some of you might also be in transition, I thought I'd offer some of my thought process. Maybe it will help you. If you'd like, I'd be glad to talk with you more directly. Drop me a line.

Here are some of the thoughts that I've wrestled with along the way. I'm pretty sure my wrestling is not done.

Point: I don't have much to offer. Even though I have rich and varied leadership experience, there is a nagging sense that such experience is not really experience. I've had great staff members to cover my backside. It's hard to point to the specific skill sets that distinguish me.

Counterpoint: My experience and education are unique and profound. I am frequently surprised when practices and concepts about leadership and organizations that for me are intuitive are heard as new (and helpful) ideas by others.

Point: I am not an entrepreneur. I've always worked in organizations with a set job description and lots of bosses. I don't know anything about starting something from scratch.

Counterpoint: My whole life has been entrepreneurial. Within the context of my jobs, I have always been a creator, initiator and developer. Each of my jobs required major changes, and it was an entrepreneurial spirit which helped me thrive in those situations.

Point: I am at the wrong point in my life to risk self-employment. While my wife and I share the income burden, I have always been the primary wage-earner. Insurance, retirement savings, paid vacation and the like are all part of the work culture that we count on.

Counterpoint: There will never be a better or right time to take the risk. This is my mid-life. Well designed and astutely managed self-employment will be different, but it is not impossible. We will learn to adapt to a different financial flow to our lives.

Point: I am a team player and this is an individual sport. It will depend wholly on me, and I work better in teams and as a leader of groups.

Counterpoint: Already I see that I will not be alone. There are several wise advisers walking with me. There are potential partnerships emerging. I will able to use my passion for working collaboratively to bring people together.

Point: I don't have my act together. I am a flawed and limited human. I have weaknesses and vulnerabilities. I am unsure at times. My brain doesn't always work the way I want it to when I want it to.

Counterpoint: I don't have my act together. I, like the people and organizations I work with, am a flawed and limited human. I, like those I serve, have weaknesses and vulnerabilities. I, like those I would encourage, am unsure at times. Amazingly, my brain still works, and in mysterious, unique and wonderful ways.

There are, of course, other points of concern. Where will the business come from, especially that first contract or two? How will I respond when things don't go as planned? Will I be able to focus? Will the work become too consuming?

But the possibilities are too great to ignore, the calling too strong to shrug off. I love helping others perform at their best. I have a passion for healthy organizations and a deep understanding of how leadership fosters that health. I like questions, big, hard, complex questions alongside simple obvious ones. I have a unique view of how artistry impacts leadership, a perspective cultivated as a musician and bureaucrat.

So here I am at a crossroads in life I never anticipated. How I got here is still a bit of a blur, and where it ends up is definitely hidden around the corner. The current vantage point, however, holds a clear vision. It is a vision for how artistry leads and how blessed I'll be to help others find that synergy. 

Wednesday, August 24, 2016

It's Not Over When It's Over: Six simple post-interview practices for employers

 Recently I have been seeking employment. I've submitted dozens of resumes and applications. I do not expect to hear from the recipient of each submission. I understand the digital age and applicant screening well enough to know that such courtesy is a moot point.

I have been somewhat perplexed, however, at the arms-length responses from organizations that have actually given me an interview.

On several occasions I have been fortunate enough to be invited for a face-to-face interview. I've prepared myself by researching the job, company and individuals with whom I'm meeting. I've taken special care to dress appropriately. I've arrived early, sometimes traveling a good distance, and spent 60 - 90 minutes in thorough conversation with the company leaders. After the interview I've taken a few minutes to send a note of thanks for the opportunity.

I know the potential employers have also invested significant time into the process by developing job descriptions, researching candidates, holding interviews, and evaluating their prospects. They seem, however, to have given little thought to what happens once the interview is over.

After each interview, there have been long periods of undefined silence, silence during which I find myself singing over and over in my head that catchy little chorus by Indie pop artists A Great Big World and Christina Aguilera: Say something. I'm giving up on you.

I have also been on the other side of the interview process, hiring excellent employees and turning down other quality candidates. Here are six simple things I've learned that make the tail end of the process go better for the candidate and strengthen the candidate's perception of you as a potential employer, whether or not they ultimately end up working for you.

  1. Know your timeline and share it. When the interview concludes, say definitively to the candidate, "You will hear from me no later than the end of the day on .........". And then get back to them by then! Block out that afternoon to make those calls. If your process has become delayed, let the candidate know. If you still have questions or need more information from the candidate, schedule a time for additional conversation. But give them a timeline, and stick to it.
  2. Make the phone call. While email or text are convenient ways to contact your candidate, they are cheap and disrespectful. When a candidate has committed time and energy to a face-to-face interview, they deserve a live voice sharing the news of whether or not they will be offered the position. These calls aren't always easy for either party involved, but a quality manager will take a deep breath, pick up the phone, and do what's right. Then you can follow up with an official letter or summary email.
  3. Be prepared to offer feedback. Assuming you have interviewed quality, thoughtful candidates, be prepared to answer their questions. A candidate might ask: "Are there any specific areas of training or experience that could better prepare me for a job like this?" or "Was there anything during the interview itself that I could have done better which would have improved my candidacy?" or "What specific skills, experiences or knowledge are you looking forward to me bringing to this position?"  
  4. Be honest. When you're offering feedback, make sure you're telling the truth and being as forthcoming as you can be within non-discrimination practices. If the candidate asks for feedback on their interview and you felt they said something off-putting or exhibited an uncomfortable demeanor during the interview, tell them; perhaps they had no idea they came across in that way and would be able to correct it in the future. And don't make up excuses. You're interviewing smart people; they'll see right through your platitudes.
  5. Stay focused on who's in front of you: Your candidate, especially one that is being rejected, doesn't need to hear how good all of the other candidates and interviews were. Frankly, if you haven't selected me I assume that at least one other candidate must have been a rock star! They also don't need to hear how difficult the decision was for the employer. "We have chosen to go with another candidate" or "we are going in another direction at this time" or "we will not be moving forward with your application" are sufficient. If there are specific things you can say to the candidate about their candidacy, say them (points 3 & 4 above). Otherwise, reserve your process observations for conversations with your colleagues, coach, or counselor.
  6. Say "Thank you.": Saying "thank you" should be natural and heartfelt. Hopefully it is for you. Be sure to express your appreciation for the candidate's interest in your company/organization, the time that they have devoted to this process, and their willingness to undergo the scrutiny of an interview. Say it on the phone. Put it in writing when you follow up.
The last impression a candidate will have of you and your organization in the interview process is what will stick with them. Make sure their experience is professional and transparent the whole way through to the final "no" or the hallelujah "YES!"

Tuesday, July 26, 2016

Rattle the bones

On Sunday our family attended the 150th anniversary celebration worship service of the Second Baptist Church in Elgin, IL. This prominent African-American congregation was started in 1866 by a group of 125 slaves who escaped from Alabama and arrived in Elgin in a boxcar. It's a necessary story; read it here.

Our mostly white congregation, the Highland Avenue Church of the Brethren, and Second Baptist have been sharing the fourth Sunday of January for over 15 years, exchanging choirs and pastors in a cross-town effort at understanding and solidarity. It's not much, but it's a little bit of something that means I already felt mostly at home walking into their sanctuary.

The service was magnificent, a rich celebration of the history of a people and a church, a strong and hopeful declaration of significance in today's world, and an anticipatory expression of a future of faith and civic leadership.

One moment that washed over me and stirred the deepest parts of my soul was a powerful dance presentation by Divine Movement,  a group of young women of the church. Their dance recounted the pain of the slave experience with a tangible rhythm of suppression, suffering, and dehumanization. It ended with a forceful declaration of liberation, healing, and the strength of human dignity. It moved with faith and freedom.

I, a middle-aged white male who has enjoyed every privilege that my birth has afforded me, really have no idea what that dance meant to most people in that room. As I watched, the young women communicated in no uncertain terms the depth of their African-American experience, and those around me in the congregation responded with knowing.

The part of the dance routine that told the story of slave bondage, however, disturbed my soul. My body felt the wrenching of the restraints, the beatings, and the struggle. Or at least I felt what might have been some small sample of that experience. I began to feel the oppressive power, and the will to resist. My body was uncomfortable. Tears were present. My soul was straining to access this narrative even while it was begging to escape it.

So many emotions accompanied those moments, and have lingered with me in the early days of this week. I know they will eventually dissipate for me, and I will be left to conjure them through memory. And this need to recall is one key aspect of what I, a person of privilege, have learned from this experience: For me, the dance imposed itself into my emotions and thoughts, challenging my experience and bringing to light my complicity. It made me uncomfortable. It caused me to think and feel things that I have not thought of or felt before. It challenged, at least in a small way, who I am and what I know to be true in the world. But it is not part of me.

For those young women dancers and the African-American faith community of Second Baptist, however, that dance released some of the deepest parts of their soul and experience as humans. It was more than a reflection on history; it was the lifeflow, the heartbeat of a people, a rare and raw moment in which the flood of this dehumanizing scourge of slavery was released for everyone who was in that room to feel, and claim, and wrestle with. Perhaps the connection is strong because the horrifying narrative continues to be written today.

The statistics are awful for non-dominant culture folks in our country. Mass incarceration, murder by authorities, institutional patterns of exclusion, prejudice, and fear still limit the life possibilities of too many non-white people, and African-Americans in particular. We are racist and perpetuate structured racism.

I know these realities intellectually. I've heard the hard stories of my African-American sisters and brothers. I've looked at the data. I've visited museums and historical sites. I've done some work along the way to be a better steward of my privilege. And I continue to do these things.

But in that dance, in that dance, that dance.......

There are really no words to describe it. I don't get it. I never will.

But I could feel it. It was full of power. It was raw. It heated the marrow and rattled the bones. It was fully human and fully divine. It was heartbreaking and hopeful. It was long in suffering and strong in overcoming. It was resigned to humanity's failed condition and insistent on God's sovereign plan.

There is no room for bigotry, hatred, superiority, racial divisiveness, fear, and murderous ways in Jesus-land. What I felt challenges me to examine my own privilege yet again and to put into action more things that make for justice and healing. I need to do my part. You need to do yours. Together we need to do ours.

Sitting in the sanctuary of Second Baptist Church on that 150th Anniversary Celebration day was a blessing. I am humbly grateful that I could be present, and that I was a part of the congregation which received such powerful truth through Divine Movement.

May the Holy Spirit rattle these middle-aged white male bones some more, and inspire all of us to dance our way to a world of justice and peace.