The Power of Probing Questions

In 1983 Apple Computers was looking for a new CEO. Steve Jobs was brilliant when it came to new products, but he was a terrible manager. So, the board asked Jobs to find a promising CEO. After interviewing 20 candidates, Jobs decided that Pepsi executive John Sculley was his choice. When Jobs asked him to lead Apple, Sculley said no. He didn’t want to leave Pepsi. Jobs kept asking, Scully kept declining.

Jobs made a final pitch. He asked Sculley one question: “Do you want to sell sugar water to teenagers for the rest of your life, or come to Appel and change the world?” Sculley said the question landed like “a punch to the gut.” He took the job. Years later Sculley reflected on his decision: “I came out of the world of corporate combat. If Pepsi went up, Coke had to go down. It was a zero-sum game. These guys [at Apple] were talking about a ‘noble cause.’ I had never heard those words before. It stuck with me.”

Sometimes the best way to get someone to change is to take the direct route; say what you want and give them a reason. But that often doesn’t work. If you want your spouse/partner, your adolescent kid or a subordinate to change a habit, it can get complicated. There’s a back story; you need to think about timing and whether it’ll just make person defensive; about your ongoing relationship. Rather than telling the person you want them to change something, what if you were to ask this person what I call a probing question? Here’s an example:

When I started writing a new book in 2019, I asked Warren Blank and two others to read and critique drafts of the manuscript. Warren is a gifted instructor and author. After he read the book’s Introduction, I learned that he’s also a skillful coach. When I asked him a few questions about the Intro, Warren said, “Actually, Russ, I wanted to start by asking you a question. If you had to summarize what your book is about in 30 seconds, what would you say?”

After I talked for a couple of minutes, I laughed. Then Warren joined in. It became clear that I couldn’t state the book’s overriding purpose in a few words. Warren had asked one simple (and fundamental) question. He didn’t have an answer in mind. He thought that the Intro was fuzzy, but rather than say so he asked his question.

Asking a probing question – one that asks the person to reflect on what they’re doing or how they’re thinking – has many advantages. It’s an invitation, not a demand. The person is free to think without pressure. It helps the person reflect on their assumptions and beliefs. Sometimes, it leads to enormous change. For instance:

In 1988, when leadership expert Jim Collins was in his first year on the Stanford University faculty, he wanted feedback on his teaching. So, he asked an older colleague, John Gardner, for his thoughts. Gardner, former Sec. of Health, Education and Welfare and founder of Common Cause, knew the power of probing questions. He made it brief: “Jim, it occurs to me that you spend too much time trying to be interesting. Why don’t you invest more time being interested?” Later, Collins reported that this one question changed his life. He needed to become an active learner and stop trying so hard to impress others.

When a probing question is part of a story, one that grabs us, it can be especially effective. That happened at a fund raiser I attended. The attendees had all decided to donate, the only question was, how much? When the leader made his pitch, he ended with this story:

“The Sea of Galilee is beautiful. Its water is deep blue, it is full of fauna and flora. Life exists. Trees line its banks. The Jordan River feeds the sea, coming down from the north. The Jordan continues flowing south from the Sea of Galilee. and ends in the Dead Sea. This sea is well named. There are no fish, no birds above, no trees along its banks. Nobody would ever drink its water.”

What makes this enormous difference? The Jordan River? The soil? The people? No. So, what is the difference?

“For every drop that flows into the Sea of Galilee, another drop flows out. The Sea of Galilee gives as it receives. But the Dead Sea only keeps. It has no outlet. Every drop stays there. The Sea of Galilee gives, lives, and flourishes. The Dead Sea keeps everything, shares nothing and is dead. Which kind of sea do you want to be?”

As you can guess, I donated more than I’d expected! I’m sure many others did the same.
Sometimes a probing question can be used to reframe a conversation when it’s not going the way you want. Here’s a great example:

A musician named Calvin Earl was trying to line up support for a Congressional resolution to ‘Recognize the African American Spiritual as a National Treasure and honor the enslaved Africans for their gifts and contributions to our Nation.’ When he asked one Congressman to sign on as a co-sponsor, the man answered, “We’ve never had slaves in America, and I don’t know what a spiritual is!” Calvin described what happened next:
“I just took a deep breath, understanding that his intention was to be demeaning to me. I explained that a spiritual was an original song created by the enslaved Africans here in America. Then I said, ‘Did your grandmother sing one of the spirituals to you as a young boy?’ At that point I began singing the African American spiritual ‘Swing Low Sweet Chariot.’ After I sang a few bars of the song, he asked me to hand him the legislation and he signed on as a co-sponsor.”

A changed heart? Of course not. That wasn’t Calvin’s goal. Rather than take the bait when the man said, “We’ve never had slaves in America,” he reframed this as a part of the man’s memory. He changed it from the political to the personal.

Finally, the Torah includes several probing questions. One occurs near the beginning, after Adam and Eve eat the forbidden fruit, become frightened and try to hide from God. God calls out, “Where are you?” It’s a rhetorical question; God obviously knows where they are. What did the question mean? Some religious commentators suggest that God is asking something specific: now that you have disobeyed me, have you changed your mind? Do you regret your act? Others believe that “Where are you?” is far broader. It is God’s question to us all: Where are you in the world? What have you accomplished?

So … where are you? What probing questions have helped you rethink something important about your life? Is there a probing question you want to ask someone else?


Adapted from Russ’ new book: Loss and Discovery: What the Torah Can Teach Us about Leading Change. [more info]

Taking Care of Ourselves During These Disruptive Times

Adapted from Russ’ new book: Loss and Discovery: What the Torah Can Teach Us about Leading Change. [more info]

On a Friday evening in early 2022, Judy Woodruff of the PBS NewsHour asked her guest David Brooks how he was doing. Brooks, a well-known New York Times columnist, is a popular speaker and author with a quick wit and obvious intelligence. But when Woodruff asked her question, he paused and said, “You know, I’m not doing so well. I’m used to getting up refreshed each morning, focused and ready to meet the day. Now, I feel kind of hazy. I stumble around. I walk into another room and forget why I went there!”

Many of us are feeling this way today. Clearly the ongoing pandemic is one cause, but I’m convinced it’s more than that. I think we are reacting to a series of disruptions in our nation’s life that affect us all – the organized attempt to overturn the 2020 election, the enormous increase of hate groups, extreme weather events like we’ve never seen, to name but a few. These and other disruptions seem to come out of nowhere, they change the rules and leave us feeling disoriented, uncertain, and scared. They are bad for our mental health and for our souls.

Continual disruption is also bad for our brains. That’s because our brains thrive on predictability, certainty, and control. While many of us enjoy occasional surprises in our lives, we expect and need a great deal of stability. Think about it; how would you react if your supermarket moved its items to different shelves each week? Or your favorite coffee shop continually changed it hours?

In Silicon Valley, “Disrupt!” has been the name of the game for many years, and we consumers often benefit. Uber and Lyft disrupted the taxi industry, and their apps make it far easier to track and get rides than using taxis. But when it comes to overturning an election or the ever-evolving pandemic, that rattles us. Our brains aren’t wired for this.

WHAT TO DO?
I’ve been looking at some research and interviewing a variety of individuals to learn what’s helping people cope – and even thrive – during this time of upheaval. Here are some of the themes. Many people have been:

Managing their attitudes. As some research shows, the most resilient people understand that “attitude is a choice.” We can’t control the macro forces affecting us, but we can choose how we respond. Some people are beginning or increasing their use of meditation and mindfulness practices; focusing on the present and “living in the moment.” Some have become more grateful for their many blessings. Others are even finding humor in these tumultuous times.

Sharing feelings of vulnerability. When the pandemic broke out, the chair of the board of an Israeli nonprofit instituted a small change that had a big impact. At the start of their meetings he asked each board member to say how they were doing. When one of most accomplished members answered, “I’m depressed,” it shocked several. It also helped many to open up. Sharing vulnerabilities makes us more authentic; it shows others they aren’t alone.

Learning and exploring. Many are learning musical instruments, taking an online course, developing a new hobby, learning a foreign language. Several people I asked have taken up painting. They’re surprised at the satisfaction they receive from the process.

Spending more time on relationships. One of the most frequent comments I’ve heard: “I’m getting back to what’s most important.” For many, that means family. One family with kids and grandchildren spread around the country holds a weekly virtual meeting. They discuss a book or video they’d selected. And once a month they decide on a worthy nonprofit and send a check.

Here’s one more approach. This didn’t come from the research or the people I interviewed, but whenever I’ve mentioned it to clients, their eyes get wide and they say’s a keeper:

Letting go of perfectionism. Few of us are at our best when we’re continually bombarded with bad news and disruptive events. Take some pressure off yourself. Appreciate what you are accomplishing and don’t dwell on what you missed. Consider this true example:

A hard-driving New York City executive felt the need to change his ways, so he sought a therapist. Several friends suggested the same person, so he called her office for an appointment. He was told the earliest opening was four months away, and he took it. On the morning of the appointment, he ran into terrible traffic. He got frustrated, furious, (he was used to being in control), and ended up 20 minutes late.

He rushed into the therapist’s office, sat down breathless, and started apologizing profusely. After a minute or two he paused. The therapist smiled and said, “But you made it!”

Sometime later he told friends he was grateful for that reaction, and surprised. “I never imagined this kind response! It opened me up to all kinds of new thoughts and ideas.” The man realized how much his perfectionist standards weighed him down. And he learned a lesson we can all use: letting go of the need to be perfect helps us see how much we have accomplished, probably far more than we give ourselves credit for.

This starter list includes activities we have some control over, which meets one of our brain’s key needs. These also give many people energy.

What are you carrying around that’s wearing you out? What could you do, or let go of, to release new energy?

Learning: A Key to Dealing with Disruptive Times

Adapted from Russ’ new book: Loss and Discovery: What the Torah Can Teach Us about Leading Change.  [more info]

I grew up in Detroit and learned a good deal about the auto industry. That learning began with Henry Ford. He was a brilliant entrepreneur, he built a strong company and a great car—the Model T—the first car that was affordable to the masses. But Ford was a control freak who wouldn’t delegate and tried to run everything himself. When one of his senior executives told him that consumer tastes were changing and that they had to update his beloved Model T, he fired the exec on the spot! The Model T was hot, and he wouldn’t change.

Twelve years after the Model T came out other auto companies began to offer new options that consumers craved, and they overtook Ford in profits and customer satisfaction. Some auto leaders learned and changed; Henry Ford didn’t. Why not?

What Hinders Learning?

There’s a host of factors that can prevent leaders – and all of us – from learning. Interestingly, one is success. Bill Gates put it well: “Success is a lousy teacher; it seduces smart people into thinking they can’t lose.” That was clearly an issue with Ford. The Model T had outlived its success, but Ford was rigid. He blamed people around him for the car’s problems. And that points to another learning issue: egos.

“Success is a lousy teacher. It seduces smart people into thinking they can’t lose.” – Bill Gates

Ford simply couldn’t accept others’ suggestions. In fact, when he turned over Ford’s leadership to his son Edsel, he kept running the company from behind the scenes. He frequently overruled Edsel’s ideas for modernizing the company’s products. You might think that people like Ford, who demonstrate supreme confidence in themselves, have inflated egos. Some do. But, ironically, people who appear super confident are often compensating for a weak ego. Change, to them, is seen as a weakness. As psychologist Dave Waters puts it, “A fragile ego is a terrible burden to bear.” And that, too, is a barrier to learning and change.

Some Factors That Can Hinder Learning:
• Continual success
• Egos
• Groupthink

“Groupthink,” the tendency to go along with others even when we have doubts, is a problem in many organizations and a huge barrier to learning and change. A classic case was the 1961 Bay of Pigs fiasco, the Kennedy Administration’s effort to initiate a revolt against the Castro regime in Cuba. None of the members of the planning team ever raised serious questions about the plan’s chances of success, although several later admitted to having serious doubts about it. Nor did Kennedy ever insist that they debate the plan’s potential downsides. After it ended in a humiliating defeat, Kennedy later recalled, “We looked at each other and asked, ‘How could we have been so stupid?’”

To his credit, the president then spent many hours listening to advisors and others to learn from the debacle. He put those lessons to great use 18 months later during the Cuban Missile Crisis. Among other changes, he insisted that the planning team give him at least two different ways to deal with the Soviet missiles that had been placed in Cuba, and that they analyze the pros and cons of each.

And What Promotes Learning?

Again, there are several approaches. One is to adopt an attitude of curiosity. Creativity expert Chic Thompson puts it this way: “Curiosity before criticism.” When someone offers an unusual idea, start by exploring it: what are the potential upsides? How might it fit into the organization’s culture? Can we learn from anyone who’s tried it? Then (but only then), subject it to critical examination: what are the risks and costs? Possible untended consequences?

The story of Joseph in the Torah is a wonderful example of curiosity. His father’s favorite, he was an arrogant youth who earned the hatred of his brothers. But after a near-death experience and later a prison sentence based on trumped-up charges, he matured. He took a genuine interest in those around him, got his ego under control, and became a wise leader.

Another way to foster learning is to focus on our changing, disruptive environment. If the ongoing pandemic has taught us anything, surely it’s that we need to keep learning from the new discoveries about COVID and adapt. The great economist John Maynard Keynes used to tell people, “When the facts change, I change my mind.” Tragically, tens of thousands have died from COVID because they paid attention to conspiracy theories and myths, not to facts.

And that brings up a third potential source of learning: seeking out others’ perspectives. I say “potential” because too many people are creating their own “facts” today. But if we use our judgment and listen to those who have credibility, it can be a powerful source of learning. Here’s a wonderful example told by Bill Ury, a highly experienced mediation expert:

A man left 17 camels to his three sons. On his death bed he told them that the eldest would get one half of the camels, the second would receive one third, and the other would have one ninth. After he died the brothers started to work through the numbers and they got stuck: 17 doesn’t divide by two, it doesn’t divide by three, nor by nine. Tempers got hot; they were desperate.

So, they found an old woman known for her wisdom and asked for advice. The woman went away and thought about the problem for a while, then returned and said, “I don’t think I can help you. But, if you want, I’ll give you my camel.” Now they had 18 camels, and voila! The oldest son took his half: nine camels. The second took his third: six camels. And the youngest took his ninth: two camels. Nine plus six plus two equals 17 camels. They had one camel left over, so they gave the wise old woman her camel back!

I love this story. The brothers realized they were stuck and went to a credible outsider with no stake in the issue. The old woman didn’t give a quick answer; she left and contemplated and then came up with something. Finally, her answer was available to the brothers from the start, but they got too emotional to see it. Sometimes the solution is hiding in plain sight.

Henry Ford was allergic to others’ perspectives, and he didn’t learn. We need to be smarter than that. What can you do to continually learn and grow?

Resilience is Critical Today. But Where Does It Come From?

Adapted from Russ’ new book: Loss and Discovery: What the Torah Can Teach Us about Leading Change.  [more info]

Why are some people more resilient than others? Researchers have asked that question for decades. Some of the answers relate to individual characteristics like initiative, determination, motivation, optimism, and self-awareness. These all make sense, but resilience usually requires other factors. I learned that from a middle school teacher who told me about two brothers she’d had in her classes. They were raised by a mom who worked long hours at minimum wage and came home with no energy or time for her sons. They lived in a high-crime neighborhood. These were genuinely nice kids. But both struggled in school, both were influenced by the gangs on the streets, neither got support at home.

Over time, one demonstrated what we’d all call resilience. He was accepted to a magnet school where he blossomed. He got into college, worked all four years, became an informal leader on campus, and had several lucrative job offers when he graduated. He turned them down and chose to become a professional human services worker, helping kids who were struggling as he had. His brother, alas, has continued to struggle. If you talk with those who’ve taught school for many years, they’ll probably know of similar stories. One kid in the family escaped a negative situation, the others didn’t. That one kid was somehow “different.”

How did this brother break out? In middle school he met an adult who liked him. She helped him get into the magnet school. She found a college with a work-study program. When he occasionally slipped, she provided confidence and support. She showed him how to use his good people skills to give and get support from others.

This story, and several studies, taught me that resilience isn’t only an individual characteristic. Resilience, it seems, is a team sport.

Many famous leaders relied on others to get through tough times. Abraham Lincoln suffered from depression from the time he was a young man through his incredibly difficult White House years. One of his tonics was spending time with others. He loved to regale friends and colleagues with his colorful stories. He selected his famous “team of rivals” to form the core of his cabinet, and continually talked with them about his most difficult decisions. He often visited with parents who’d lost a son in the war. Lincoln needed a team to be resilient, and he knew it.

Nelson Mandela also gained strength from others. That was especially true during the 27 years he spent in prison. He and the other political prisoners continually shared information about key events in their country. Mandela used his legal skills to write judicial appeals for his fellow prisoners. Remarkably, he found ways to form mutually respectful relationships with some of the prison guards, relationships that often led to improvements in the prison conditions.

Resilience is a team sport. Indeed, on the American Psychological Association’s list 10 ways to build resilience, “build your connections” is listed first. But resilience also requires something else, something that helped Lincoln and Mandela deal with their enormous challenges. They both understood that attitude is a choice. By his own account, Mandela entered prison an angry man. But he let go of the anger and chose to use his prison years to help his fellow inmates develop the leadership skills they would need if and when they were released. He chose to study the prison guards and learn their language and culture, and he used that knowledge when he negotiated with white South African leaders and convinced them to abolish the repressive apartheid system. Once president, he urged his black supporters to see white South Africans no longer as their enemy, but as their fellow countrymen. His most militant colleagues said he’d sold out. But, like Lincoln, he chose to follow the path of reconciliation, not retribution.

Two things to remember about resilience:
1. Resilience is a team sport, and
2. Attitude is a choice.

In the Hebrew Bible, Moses offers another example of extraordinary resilience. Over the 40-year period after he led his people out of bondage he endured their continual complaints, their violations of God’s laws, even attempted rebellions against his leadership. But Moses didn’t take on these burdens alone. He teamed up with his brother Aaron throughout the journey. He took his father-in-law Jethro’s advice to stop rendering decisions on all issues by himself and create a system of judges to share the responsibilities. When the people’s constant carping drove him to such despair that he begged God to end his life, he accepted God’s suggestion to gather 70 elders to share his burden with them. He knew that resilience is a team sport.

He also demonstrated that attitude is a choice. When the Israelites were about to go into the Promised Land, Moses told the people that God wouldn’t allow him to enter it. Rather than betray the disappointment he no doubt felt, he presents their next leader, Joshua, to all of the people, telling him to “be strong and resolute, for you will go with this people into the land that God swore to their father.” It’s an extraordinary act, visibly handing Joshua the mantle of leadership that he so dearly wished to maintain. Moses demonstrated that attitude is a choice.

None of us is a Moses. Few of us will ever undergo what Mandela endured. So, let’s look at an example of resilience that we might identify with more easily.

A week after our stepfather Bob married our mom, he learned that he had cancer. In his next 10 years he went through multiple operations for a nasty and clever cancer that kept finding new places to attack him. He was realistic, he knew his long-term possibilities were grim. Never one for self-pity, he chose to focus most of his time on our mom and others he loved. Those connections meant the world to him. He knew he needed connections to keep on going.

And Bob’s attitude was superb. Before each operation he found something funny or offbeat to say. After every operation he had just one question for the surgeon: “What can I still do?” He never dwelled on what he could no longer do (like eating his favorite foods). And as he was wheeled into what would be his last operation, he told my brother Jim, “And I bequeath to Jim Linden my Los Angeles Lakers tickets!” with a great smile and twinkle in his eye. He understood that attitude is a choice. So, he chose to live in a way that was meaningful, drawing him even closer to those he loved.

What are your ways of maintaining resilience when things are tough? What attitude do you adopt? Who helps you get through it?

[To purchase this book]

Racial Justice and Policing in Camden NJ: Lessons for Change Leaders

Adapted from Russ’ new book: Loss and Discovery: What the Torah Can Teach Us about Leading Changemore info]

In 2012, crime was spiraling out of control in Camden. The city had a murder rate 18 times the national average. Officers saw themselves as warriors trying to dominate criminals, not as professionals there to protect and serve the public. Relationships between the police and African Americans were extremely tense. At that time, most cities had experienced dramatic drops in violent crime, and Camden’s leaders had several models to consider, from tough-on-crime methods like stop and frisk, to community policing, where officers form relationships with the residents and business owners in their precinct.

Camden’s leaders ultimately opted for a version of the second approach, but first they did something radical: they disbanded the police department and gave the county control over policing in the city. Those who’d been laid off could apply to be re-hired. Several new people joined the force. The powerful police union was taken over by new leaders who were committed to change. Interestingly, the county didn’t immediately change its policies and practices (though some were changed in the coming years). Rather, city leaders first spent time meeting with residents to ensure they had a voice in how the new department would operate.

Those conversations proved important, so much so that the person who became police chief in 2015 made clear his top goal: build relationships with the community. Over the next several years the department trained officers in the art of de-escalation; preserving life was the goal, and use of force by cops was to be used only as a last resort. Complaints about police using excessive force fell. By 2020, murders had declined 63%, robberies were down 60%, and overall violent crime had fallen 42%.

It’s impossible to pinpoint the precise reasons for these improvements. But comments from community leaders reveal what changed their perceptions of the police. As one put it: “Before the change, the police department didn’t care about our safety. When they made the transition, they built partnerships with members of the community.” Those partnerships created trust. The residents then started sharing more information about law breakers, helping increase the number of murders solved from 16% to 61%. Significantly, this trend has continued since 2017, when many other have cities experienced big increases in violent crimes.

What can we learn from Camden?

While there are several lessons, I think two are critical to all leaders. First, consider the wise advice from leadership expert Jim Collins. When considering a change, first ask Who? and then What? Start by getting “the right people on the bus, in the right seats,” as Collins puts it. In general, the “right people” are those with character, who play well with others, who are open to change, who have a strong work ethic. That’s what Camden’s leaders did. Rather than institute a host of new policies and procedures (the What), they started by focusing on the Who. As they got those people on the bus, they worked together to plan and implement the What – the strategies, practices, and procedures to implement.

And second, Camden’s leaders understood the power of relationships. Most of Camden’s residents, especially African Americans, didn’t trust the police prior in 2012. They saw the police as an enemy, which only heightened tensions. So, the new Camden police chief emphasized relationship building, and it began making a difference. Most residents were willing to give the new police department a chance when its officers showed a genuine interest in getting to know them and learn about their concerns.

Two key lessons for leading change, from the Camden story:
1. First “who,” then “what” – get the right people on the bus, in the right seats
2. Build relationships with key constituents before initiating the change

I’d argue that these two lessons are ageless. Indeed, they’re present in the Hebrew Bible. God’s decisions to select Abraham and Moses – the Who – for key leadership roles were essential to living out the covenant God wanted with the Israelites. And the trusting relationships God formed with Abraham and Moses were equally critical. Abraham and Moses were able to tell God to cool it when God was ready to unleash massive punishments. God, like all leaders, needed to have a few people who would speak truth to power.

What about you? Do you have the “right people on the bus, in the right seats,” for what you’re trying to accomplish? What’s the level of trust among those people, and with your key constituents?

[To purchase this book]

The Power of Stories

Adapted from Russ’ new book: Loss and Discovery: What the Torah Can Teach Us about Leading Changemore info]

My client was nervous. He was embarking on a strategic planning effort for his agency’s child abuse/neglect program. I asked about his anxieties. “Our staff are used to doing what they’ve always done, but we need to take a fresh look at how we do our work. I’ve got an idea about a new approach, but some of them may not like it.”

I asked about his idea. He said that they should focus more resources on prevention, rather than only work with children who’d already been abused or neglected. He cited statistics showing the benefits of a prevention-oriented program. I said that the numbers were impressive, but I doubted that most staff would be persuaded by data alone. “Could you tell me in a few words what the new direction is all about and why it’s needed?”

His eyes got wide and he leaned forward. “It’s like this. For years we’ve been going down to the river to pull struggling kids out of the water. But we need to go upstream and figure out how to prevent them from falling into the river in the first place.”

That was a powerful explanation: short, clear, easy to visualize. Stop the harm before it happens. After a few meetings, most of the staff welcomed the change and they started to make real gains as they went “upstream.”

When we’re trying to influence people about a change, demonstrating that we know the facts may (or may not) help get us in the door. But a short, compelling story can create meaning out of the facts. It can connect to people’s interests and values. A compelling story can clinch the deal. How?

Compelling stories usually trump facts.

Stories can build rapport. Say you’re listening to someone tell a story about her grandmother. What comes to your mind? If you grew up knowing a grandmother, you’ll probably think about her and start connecting with the storyteller. In addition, stories stick. People remember them. Memorable stories spread, as people repeat them to others. Perhaps one of the most useful benefits is that a compelling story helps people focus on one key idea, and not get lost in the details. That was the beauty of my client’s story. Here’s another example of focusing people’s attention:

On April 19, 1995, two men blew up the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City. 168 were killed, hundreds more injured. It was horrific, a shock to the entire country. As prosecutors prepared their case they waded through thousands of pages of evidence. Merrick Garland, the chief prosecutor on the case (and later President Biden’s Attorney General) worried the jury would get lost in the thousands of pages of evidence his team could present to them. So, when he huddled with the attorneys who would argue the case in court, he gave them one simple message: “Do not bury the crime in the clutter!”

He told them to describe the families and children lost, the first responders who put their own lives at risk by rushing in to save others, the massive damage done. Present the bombers’ confession. Keep it simple, focus on the crime. Prosecutors followed his lead, telling a powerful, emotional, accurate story. The man who planned the attack received the death sentence; his accomplice is in prison with no possibility of parole.

Our brains are more receptive to stories than to numbers and statistics. I’m convinced that’s one reason why the Bible has been read by countless millions; it’s a collection of wonderful stories about human beings with great strengths and no shortage of flaws, people we can relate to. And stories help create meaning.

There are, of course, many people who are quite logical and need to make decisions based on hard data. That said, trial attorneys sometimes remind each other that “the person in court with the best story usually wins.” And when you think of superior speakers you’ve seen, or leaders you admired, chances are they excelled as story tellers.

Trial lawyers say, “The person in court with the best story usually wins.”

Finally, stories can provide compelling metaphors. I once heard a fundraiser tell this story about two bodies of water in Israel.

“The Sea of Galilee is beautiful. Its water is deep blue, it’s full of fauna and flora. Life exists. The Sea of Galilee is fed by the Jordan River on the north. The Jordan continues flowing south from the Sea of Galilee and ends in the Dead Sea. The Dead Sea is well named. There are no fish, no birds above, no trees along its banks. Nobody would ever drink its water.”

“What makes this enormous difference? For every drop of water flowing into the Sea of Galilee, another drop flows out. The Sea of Galilee gives as it receives. But the Dead Sea only keeps. It has no outlet. Every drop stays there. The Sea of Galilee gives, lives, and flourishes. The Dead Sea keeps everything, shares nothing and is dead.”

“Which kind of sea do you want to be?”

As you can guess, most of us quickly took out our checkbooks or credit cards!

Stories can touch our emotions and connect to our values. They help people imagine possibilities. The next time you’re trying to persuade someone to consider a new idea, try letting go of your left brain and identify a story that captures your message. If you don’t think you have a talent for this (many of us don’t), no problem. There are excellent books about the creative use of stories. One of the best is The Story Factor by Annette Simmons. She identifies six types of stories, how they connect to people, with numerous examples of each.

What’s your story?

[To purchase this book]

Dealing with Disruptive Change? Protect the “Core”

Adapted from Russ’ new book: Loss and Discovery: What the Torah Can Teach Us about Leading Changemore info]

When the country closed down in March 2020, Jill Clark sat at her desk wondering how the Jewish preschool she directed would survive. More than the financial challenge, she worried about the children; kids 2-5 thrive on social interaction. There was no way she and her staff were going to ask them to tune in on Zoom for daily instruction. What to do?

Jill, like all of us, was struggling with disruptive change. For decades, organizational theorists have said that the only constant is change. But today’s leaders know that it’s not just change that they contend with. It’s disruptive change, change that comes suddenly and makes a massive impact on millions of people. For instance, from 2001-2021 our country experienced:

• The 9-11 attacks.
• The Great Recession.
• Extreme weather events related to climate change: In 2020 we had so many major hurricanes that we ran out of names for them!
• The massive social justice movement launched after George Floyd’s murder.
• The @Me Too movement.
• The deep 2020 recession.
• Our hyper-partisan politics, which divide political parties as well as families.

And I haven’t even mentioned the coronavirus pandemic.

We humans aren’t suited for this kind of turmoil. Our brains are wired for predictability and control, and disruption threatens both. At the same time, disruptive change often leads to a surge of innovation. In 2020, numerous drive-in movie theaters that had sat empty for years became sites for weddings, private movie screenings, concerts, art shows and stand-up comedy. Communities which worried about Fourth of July parades that could create a surge in virus infections created “reverse parades;” the bands and floats sat stationery along the side of the parade route while spectators drove very slowly along the street to take it in. A Texas history teacher got in her car and took a 15-day road trip to several historical sites, narrating the history of each location, posting it on her YouTube channel, Instagram, and Twitter accounts so she could interact with her students in real time. And that’s a tiny sample of the remarkable innovations we saw in 2020.

How Can We Manage During Times of Disruptive Change?

There are numerous answers, of course. But here’s a good place to start. Take a tip from the authors of Built to Last, who captured the characteristics of 18 companies that maintained high performance for several decades. One of the characteristics was, “Preserve the core, stimulate progress.” The “core” is the firm’s set of shared beliefs and purpose. It provides a sense of identity, a base of continuity that doesn’t change. At the 3M company, those include collaboration and innovation. At Johnson and Johnson they have a “Credo” that identifies the stakeholders they’re committed to serving, in order of importance. Their consumers are first; interestingly, shareholders come last. And “stimulate progress” acknowledges the fact that in a continually changing and unpredictable environment, the organization must change with it—everything, that is, except its core.

When managing during disruptive times:

1. Preserve the “core,” and
2. Be willing to change everything else.

When disruptive change hits, it’s critical to focus on the organization’s core. It reminds people what’s most important and must be protected. Moreover, it helps meet our brain’s need for predictability and control. But we also need to be innovative on everything else because disruptive change demands flexibility. Perhaps ironically, reaffirming the core makes it easier for people to be creative in a changing world: it’s much easier to be adaptable when you know what you’re adapting from.

During the pandemic, drive-in theater owners maintained their core purpose—providing a way for people to be entertained together, separately—and found new ways to use its purpose to help people starved for social contacts. The history teacher protected her core purpose—bringing history alive for her students—as did local communities planning for July 4th—celebrating our nation’s independence together—in imaginative ways they never would have considered during “normal” times.

Back to Jill Clark and her dilemma: how could she keep her preschool running safely during the pandemic? In a webinar she learned about “forest schools,” which use the outdoors to help kids learn through exploration and discovery. There are some structured classes, but most of the time is spent learning holistically in the natural environment. This was a safe way to help kids learn together, which would protect her school’s core. But it required major changes in just about everything else: what would the parents and teachers say? Where to hold it? What training would be needed?

Jill started by consulting with the teachers. They had dreamed about integrating the
outdoors into their curriculum, so this was a great our opportunity. They were intrigued, but also nervous. It was a huge change, and some were in their 50s. Then she met with parents.

“They were shocked!” she recalled. But as she described it parents got on board, and many helped design it. The staff organized kids into multi-age pods, keeping kids from the same families together. They worked out safety protocols, found a camp that wasn’t being used during the school year, and had the teachers attend a training program on the forest school model. Within two months the school was up and running. Here’s part of the letter Jill sent the parents as they and the teachers planned the new school program together:

“We want to be safe, we want to support each other, and we want what’s best for our children. We know we will not bounce back to how we operated in the past, but instead we will “bounce forward” to a new reality. We will partner in a way that we can be together, use new safety protocols, and imagine a new school focusing on developmental growth while emphasizing Jewish values and practice through a nurturing and stimulating environment.”

The forest school opened in the summer of 2020 and has been a resounding success. Jill’s story demonstrates the power of preserving the core and adapting on everything else when dealing with disruptive change.

For more on forest schools: https://www.forestschools.com/pages/what-is-forest-school-an-introduction

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Leading by Indirection

Adapted from Russ’ new book: Loss and Discovery: What the Torah Can Teach Us about Leading Changemore info]

I love to sail. As any decent sailor knows, you can’t sail directly into the wind, even if that’s where your ultimate destination lies. But you can usually get there by “tacking” back and forth, learning how to read the currents and breezes, keeping a firm hand on the tiller and paying attention to timing.

Leaders often face the same dilemma. They may have a clear goal in mind, only to learn that they’re flying into the wind. Powerful constituents oppose you. Perhaps your staff doesn’t buy in, or there’s no funding for the idea. And sometimes the stars seem aligned, and then a major event occurs and everything else is put on the back burner. These speed bumps occur even more often during the kind of disruptive times that we’re experiencing today. There are myriad reasons why change requires leaders to be flexible, think creatively, and seek other ways to achieve their goal. In short, they need to learn the art of “leading by indirection.” Here’s an example:

Karen, a social services manager, led a division that dealt with child sexual abuse. This is a terrible and complex issue, often involving other organizations like police, health departments, and prosecutors. She met with leaders of those agencies and they all agreed they should work more closely together, but nothing was changing. The leaders were focused on other demands. Since her direct approach wasn’t working, Karen took a different route.  

She did her homework and learned of a collaboration model that was working in other communities. It involved co-locating professionals from agencies that spend the most time on child sexual abuse. Housing these professionals in the same space helps build relationships, which leads to much more collaboration and information sharing. Now that she had a proven model to offer, could she convince the agency leaders to try it?

Rather than meet with the agency leaders again, she found middle managers in the three key agencies who worked on child sex abuse issues and shared her concern about the need for more collaboration. They liked the co-location model. Then she learned about a co-location training session being offered in another state. The three managers agreed to attend and planned to meet at the session. Karen suggested they drive there together. “Let’s save some gas, the meals will be on me. It’ll be a fun road trip.” Even though two of the three didn’t know each other, they agreed. That road trip became a team-building activity. They had time to learn about each other outside of their work responsibilities. And the trip back from the training gave them several hours to compare notes on what they’d learned and how to move forward.

Long story short: The middle managers sold their agency directors on the co-location idea, they tried it on a pilot basis, and continued it as they saw success. More information sharing meant more kids were being rescued from terrible situations and more perpetrators getting caught. Karen had learned the art of leading by indirection.

 

Those who learn how to lead indirectly are usually good at: 

  • Demonstrating situational awareness
  • Being firm on the goal, flexible on the approach
  • Reading people’s readiness
  • Timing, and “ripening”
  • Being pragmatic

When Karen’s initial efforts toward collaboration went nowhere, she considered the situation. The agency directors weren’t responding, so she was flexible and looked for a different strategy. Courting the managers made sense; they were already eager for collaboration and just needed someone to offer a way to get started. Urging the managers to drive together allowed their ideas to “ripen,” which was critical. And Karen was very pragmatic. She’d originally hoped to try the model for one year. When two of the agency directors balked, she suggested they first pilot the idea for several months, and they agreed. Karen understood the importance of timing.

            Karen was a middle manager; she didn’t have the authority to direct the other managers to work with her. But even leaders who have that authority often need to lead indirectly. Here’s an example from the Hebrew Bible:

In the book of Exodus, when the Pharaoh finally allows the enslaved Israelites to leave,  God is ready to bring the people to the promised land. But God doesn’t lead them in that direction. Au contraire, God leads the people south, away from the promised land. Why? The direct route is occupied by a powerful tribe. God says, “The people may have a change of heart when they see war and return to Egypt.” God is reading the situation as well as the people’s readiness for battle. The timing is wrong, God is flexible and changes course.

People trying to speak out against wrongdoing often lead by indirection when the direct route hasn’t worked. A classic example has to do with unidentified flying objects. A small, secret Pentagon office has tracked reported sightings of UFOs since 2007. Numerous sightings were deemed credible, meaning there was video evidence showing the objects moving at remarkable speeds and making sudden changes in ways that had never seen before and couldn’t be explained. The office’s director, Luis Elizondo, studied the videos and interviewed several Navy pilots who’d witnessed these phenomena and were concerned that the government wasn’t doing enough to investigate. He urged his superiors to reveal the office’s existence, arguing that UFOs are real, we’re studying them because they have national security implications, the public and Congress should know. Nobody listened to him.

So in the fall of 2017 he resigned and then told the New York Times about the office and its evidence of UFOs. The Times investigated the allegations and then printed the story. It prompted enormous public interest in the country and on Capitol Hill. The government finally acknowledged the office’s existence, and members of Congress began demanding more information about UFOs. (“60 Minutes” ran a segment about this on May 16, 2021, and the Times story is at https://www.nytimes.com/2017/12/16/us/politics/pentagon-program-ufo-harry-reid.html.)

It’s important to note that leading by indirection as I’m describing it isn’t unethical. These leaders weren’t trying to manipulate people, nor were they hiding their true intentions. They had a clear goal and were open about it, the direct path to their goal didn’t work, so like good sailors they tacked.

Let’s take another look at some characteristics of people who lead indirectly. As mentioned above, they are good at: 

  • Demonstrating situational awareness
  • Being firm on the goal, flexible on the approach
  • Reading people’s readiness
  • Timing, and “ripening”
  • Being pragmatic

What about you? How would you assess yourself on these five characteristics? Which ones would you like to improve?

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Blog for the DOD Family Readiness System.

Recently I delivered a webinar for the Military Families Learning Network (https://militaryfamilieslearningnetwork.org/) which helps organizations that provide services to military families to share ideas, information, and resources in order to better serve their clients. The conference theme was Relationships for Readiness. My topic was Collaborating Across Organizational Boundaries.

We used some polls in the webinar. One of them asked participants to assess themselves on the five characteristics of effective collaborative leaders: Which of these characteristics are strengths?

Here are the results (participants could select more than one):

Listen carefully to understand others’ perspectives: 66%
Thinks systemically: connect the initiative to a larger purpose: 55%
Have great determination, resolve: keep ego in check: 50%
Look for win-win possibilities: 37%
Use more “pull” than “push”: 24%

As you can see, participants rated themselves lowest on seeking win-win possibilities and using “pull” more than “push.” Push is using the formal authority of our position. Pull involves tapping something internal in others – a value, a goal, a source of motivation. And win-win possibilities – solutions that benefit both (or all) parties – are possible when people don’t assume that life is a “zero-sum game;” that your gain must be at my loss.

These poll results are consistent with my experience in working with government and nonprofit officials for over 35 years. There are good reasons why these two skills are difficult for most. One of the biggest challenges to win-win thinking is that people must first believe that collaboration can be in everyone’s interest. But we Americans tend to be very competitive people; according to some studies we’re the 5th most litigious country in the world, and most people see competition as a win-lose game.

And why is it that most of us have a hard time with “pull?” Several reasons. We’re more familiar with push. Push is quicker (though not usually as effective). Pull is more indirect, and it requires knowing what motivates others; it can require a lot of trial and error.

Given these “speed bumps,” how can we improve our use of these two key collaborative leadership skills? It may be easier than you think. After all, both pull and win-win have something in common: they both require knowing the other person or group’s values, motivations, and interests. And here’s the good news: as our poll shows, most of us think we’re good at understanding other people’s perspectives. In fact, it was the most frequently-cited strength among our webinar participants. So we can use a proven strategy for making a change: use a strength to address a weakness.

Here are some examples of using a strength – understanding others’ perspectives – to employ pull and win-win solutions:

  • Ask certain questions that give you a clue as to your colleagues’ values, goals and sources of motivation. Questions like, which work activities do you find most meaningful? Which give you energy? I sometimes ask my clients, “When are you at your best at work?”
  • When Steve Jobs was looking for an experienced executive to become Apple’s CEO in 1983, he started courting John Sculley from Pepsi. Sculley kept saying he was happy where he was. Nothing Jobs said could change his mind. Finally Jobs made a different pitch; he asked Sculley, “Do you want to spend the rest of your life selling sugar water to teens, or do you want to come to Apple and help us change the world?” That hooked Sculley. It touched one of his values. And he took the job at Apple.
  • The HR director at a large university was known for his ability to hire and retain very competent staff. I interviewed most of his 10 senior staff to learn how he did it. They all said the same thing; he made them feel “special.” And how did he make them feel special? They reported that the director was an excellent observer and listener, and over time he discovered talents in each one, sometimes talents that they didn’t see in themselves. He told each what he saw in them. He gave them expanded opportunities to use those strengths, even in ways that weren’t part of their job description. They learned, they grew, and they thrived in that environment.
  • I’ve used a variation of the HR director’s approach while facilitating collaborative teams. If certain team members aren’t very active in the group’s discussions, or seem to be displeased with the team’s functioning, I sometimes talk with them between meetings. I’ll mention something positive they’ve said or done, and that I think they can contribute a lot to our success. Then I ask how they think the team is doing and what the team needs to do to improve. Usually they open up, and identify something that’s bothering them about the team. Then I ask if they can use some of their strengths to help the team succeed. It often works well. It pulls them in, and everyone wins.

Using pull and seeking win-win solutions takes time. It requires us to think from the other’s point of view. It’s easier and quicker to use “push,” easier to focus only on what we need. With push we can get compliance, but using pull and finding win-win approaches usually results in commitment. And there’s a world of difference between the two.

Organizational Miscommunication? There’s a Good Way to Avoid It.

It’s all too easy for team members to misunderstand something. Effective leaders know the value of the “pre-brief.”

In a 1993 survey of 531 companies that had undergone major restructuring, the study’s authors asked the firms’ CEOs this question: If you could go back and change one thing, what would it be? The CEOs’ most frequent response? “The way I communicated with my employees.”

Having worked with senior executives not only in the private and nonprofit sectors but also across all levels of government, I’ve been struck by the number of public-sector leaders who are just as frustrated as those CEOs were because their messages don’t seem to stick. Here’s a stunning example:

On Jan. 13, 1975, the University of Virginia men’s basketball team played Davidson. Terry Holland was in his first season as Virginia’s coach. He had been Davidson’s coach until the year before, so he knew the opponent well. With one minute to play and the score tied, Virginia had the ball and Holland called time out. He outlined the play: UVa would hold on to the ball until the last 10 seconds (there was no shot clock then), and the point guard would pass the ball to Dan Bonner, the team’s captain.

But when 10 seconds remained, the point guard took a shot! He missed. Bonner got the rebound and scored as time ran out. But rather than celebrate, Bonner was furious. He grabbed the guard and yelled, “What the hell were you thinking?” The guard replied, “I was supposed to take the last shot!”

The play that Holland had given the team wasn’t complicated. Everyone else knew Bonner was supposed to shoot. But that’s not what the point guard heard (or, perhaps, wanted to hear).

There are multiple explanations for why the point guard didn’t follow the plan. Players were excited, running on adrenalin; the crowd was screaming; the point guard had been called on to take the last shot in some previous games. What could Coach Holland have done to prevent the mistake? What if, during the time out, he had asked each player to briefly state what he was supposed to do during the final minute of the game? Would that have seemed childish? A good idea? Waste of time? In fact, some of the most effective managers do just that in their own organizations.

Here’s an example. In some law-enforcement agencies before a major activity — say, a raid on a drug den — the team meets to conduct what I call a “pre-brief” (some call this a “brief-back”) to review the plan just before executing it. Each team member states where they’ll be, at what time, to take what action. Sometimes they include what’s going to happen just before they act. The exercise might take no more than two or three minutes. And it offers many benefits:

  • The team leader learns if anyone is confused.
  • It reminds everyone of their colleagues’ roles, which is critical if someone makes a mistake during the activity and others have to cover for them.
  • Team members can also review their Plan B — what they will do if something goes awry.
  • It’s action-oriented, and gets people warmed up for the task.
  • It increases accountability.
  • And the team can determine if there are any remaining issues before starting.

This short, simple and powerful exercise can be used in many settings. Some IT units use it when deploying a new piece of software. It can help conference planning teams the day before the event begins. And many managers use a variation of the pre-brief on Monday mornings. They hold a “stand-up meeting,” at which their direct reports review key events from the previous week and the major tasks for the current week. At a good stand-up meeting, the leader also asks if anyone needs some assistance for any important tasks. A pre-brief is similar in its focus on action, roles and accountability. It differs in that it focuses entirely on an immediate task at hand.

Managers and leaders who use their own version of a pre-brief know a fundamental reality about organizational communications: Many people don’t hear things accurately the first time. People may think they do, but there’s often a gap between what was said and what people heard. And that’s especially true during major organizational changes.

Pre-briefs can go a long way toward eliminating that problem. They can help you know whether what you said and what your team members heard is the same, and enable you to take immediate action when there’s a gap. Leading organizations in today’s turbulent environment is complex and challenging. Nothing is more critical than getting the communications right.