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What I read in April

Charlie “Tremendous” Jones once said, five years from now, you will be the same person you are today except for two things: “the people you meet and the books you read.” Well, thanks to COVID-19, I didn’t meet too many new people last month. But, also thanks to COVID-19, I had a lot of extra time to read.

And, as promised, I’m sharing the best of what I read last month.

The Invisible Leader

According to author Zach Mercurio, most organizations are not tapping into their most powerful leader. That leader isn’t in the C-suite – in fact, it’s not a person at all. That leader is a compelling, authentic purpose for the organization – an Invisible Leader. The reason that this most powerful leader is untapped is that organizations are primarily focused on results: grades for students, quotas or other KPIs in business, etc. At best, these provide short-term motivational pushes – cramming to get a grade on a test, a flurry of activity at the end of the month to achieve a sales quota – but they don’t last. It’s authentic purpose, which Mercurio defines as “a person or organization’s genuine and unique reason for existence that is useful to others in society,” that acts as the ultimate differentiator and motivator.

Marketing Rebellion

We are in the midst of a third marketing rebellion, where consumers are rebelling (for perhaps the final time) against advertising. The first rebellion – in the early twentieth century – brought an end to the lies of the advertising that sold snake-oil and other dubious products. The second came with the internet, bringing an end to the secrets that advertisers had depended on (think MTV VJ turned podcaster Adam Curry saying, “There are no secrets, only information you don’t yet have”). The third marketing rebellion that we’re in the midst of is bringing an end to control. In this new era, two-thirds of a consumer’s purchasing decision involves “human-driven marketing activities like internet reviews, social media conversations, and word-of-mouth recommendations from friends, family, and online experts.” Author Mark Schaefer points out: two-thirds of your marketing is not your marketing. Then, he asks: So, what do you do? You forge human connections with your customers. Thus the tagline of his book: “the most human company wins.” At FiveFour, we say that your marketing is your customer experience, and most of Schaefer’s examples of human-centered marketing are what we would call customer experience. Consumers can see through lies, there are no secrets and businesses are no longer in control of their marketing. They want a human connection with the companies that want their business. Consumers are demanding remarkable customer experiences. And, as previous rebellions have shown, in the end, the consumer always wins.

Living Life Backward

I can’t remember the first personal development session I sat in that had me write my obituary, but I know I’ve done it several times. The intent of the exercise is to get you – as Stephen Covey has coined it – begin with the end in mind. According to David Gibson, the preacher who wrote the book of Ecclesiastes did that same thing over 2,000 years ago. Life is short – a mere breath. The world is confusing. We have far less control over our circumstances than we would like. The only certainty is our eventual death and the likelihood that none of our accomplishments will survive us. By confronting us with these realities, the Old Testament book asks how we should live in light of them, right now. The answer it provides is to stop trying to escape the limitations of life. Stop treating your life as a problem to be solved. Stop worshiping and depending on stuff. Be content with your circumstances. Be grateful for the rhythms of life, for they are a gift from God. “Gift, not gain, is your new motto.” Be generous with your time and possessions. Pay attention to the world around you rather than the distractions of life. “Eat, drink, and be merry, not because that’s all there is, but because that’s what there is.” What can help us do this? The reality of death. “Preparing to die means thinking about how to live.”

Overcoming the Five Dysfunctions of a Team

Patrick Lencioni has long been one of my favorite business authors and perhaps the best there is on organizational health. His style of writing easily-accessible business fables that teach timeless truths has led to millions of book sales. By far the most famous of those fables is The Five Dysfunctions of a Team: A Leadership Fable and those dysfunctions are worth listing: The first is an absence of trust among team members. Essentially, this stems from their unwillingness to be vulnerable within the group. A failure to build trust sets the tone for the second dysfunction, which is a fear of conflict. Teams that lack trust are incapable of engaging in unfiltered and passionate debate of ideas. That ensures the third dysfunction of a team: lack of commitment. Without having aired their opinions in the course of passionate and open debate, team members rarely, if ever, buy in and commit to decisions, leading an avoidance of accountability, the fourth dysfunction. Without committing to a clear plan of action, people often hesitate to hold their peers accountable, which creates an environment where the fifth dysfunction can thrive: inattention to results. If none of those dysfunctions sound familiar, you’re either not on a team or you are in a state of blissful ignorance. Every team suffers from at least one of these dysfunctions and could benefit from reading both books. While the fable clearly lays out the impact of these dysfunctions, it’s this Field Guide that shows you how to overcome them. And isn’t that the whole point?

the path between us

There is no shortage of personality and behavioral tests: Myers-Briggs, DISC, Motivators, the Five-Factor Model and an endless number of lesser-known models. In The Path Between Us, Suzanne Stabile introduces the Enneagram, an ancient personality typing system that leads to self-discovery. From the Greek words ennéa, meaning “nine” and grámma, meaning something “written” or “drawn” the nine-pointed Enneagram is a typology of nine interconnected personality types, each with distinct strategies for relating to the self, others and the world. It has become commonly used in the Christian community as an aid to spiritual formation. I first heard about it on the podcast of Donald Miller, read The Road Back to You: An Enneagram Journey to Self-Discovery and took the Enneagram test. It was fairly easy to identify myself and it taught me some important lessons about how I engaged with the world. Almost simultaneously, my wife was engaging the Enneagram in a study with her friends, so we decided to listen to The Path Between Us during a weekend getaway and it gave us valuable ways to better interact with each other. In my work, I lead teams through the DISC and the most valuable learning is always through their interactions with each other. The Enneagram is the same. It’s one thing to discover my type and learn more about myself. But the real insight comes from how I interact with others. That’s the insight that comes from The Path Between Us.

What You Do is Who You Are

Ben Horowitz is at pains in this book to explode the myth that you can establish culture simply by writing it down. That’s an important first step. You have to first define what you want. But it’s not enough. It’s not even enough to model the culture you want, even though that’s incredibly important. You must make sure that the values you want in your business are actionable, be crystal clear what those actions are, and constantly reinforce them. Horowitz goes back in history to draw lessons from obscure cultures like Haitian slaves, prison gangs and the samurai to show his main point: “Culturally, what you believe means nearly nothing. What you do is who you are.” A good read for those who need to define the culture of their organizations.

Jack’s Life: The Story of C.S. Lewis

This biography of C.S. Lewis was written by his stepson, Douglas Gresham. The book both benefits and suffers from that fact. The benefit was in the first-person account. The drawback was his tendency to cast Lewis in the best possible light, no matter what the circumstance. For example, the falling out between Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien doesn’t even register. Ultimately, the book would have been improved had it included more first-person narrative and less defense of Lewis. However, given the relationship between the two and the fact that Gresham is no author, it’s understandable and the book is worth reading by fans of Lewis.

More

I also read Nine Lies About Work by Marcus Buckingham. Many of the lies recast familiar learnings from his earlier books, but my favorite of the lies was #3: the best companies cascade goals. Not true, says Buckingham. The best companies cascade meaning. Crushing It! By Gary Vaynerchuck was a good reminder that, no matter how good you or your idea, success requires total commitment. Due to its role in bringing about the fall of the Soviet Union, One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich by Alexandr Solzhenitsyn was a compelling read. And I blogged about Finding Flow by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi here and here. Finally, I read Lancelot by Walker Percy, which had some profound points while being profoundly weird.

What are you reading? What should I read this month?

The 4 Components of a Compelling Vision

In his book Visioneering, Andy Stanley identified four components of a compelling vision. Before you go public and start casting your vision, you must be able to articulate these four things:

  1. The problem. Your vision isn’t a problem, but it always addresses a problem (see #2). Without this villain in the story, as Donald Miller puts it, no one is going to find your vision compelling.
  2. The solution. Just identifying a problem doesn’t get anyone excited. They can see problems every day on the news. Your vision is the solution to the problem you identified. It’s a picture of the future with that problem solved.
  3. The reason something must be done. Just because something can be done, doesn’t necessarily mean it should be done. A vision calls people to change something and change is scary. Casting a compelling vision must convince people to act now for a better future.
  4. The reason something must be done now. There are lots of demands on our lives. Why should I help attack your vision right now? Does it rank higher than my other priorities? If I do nothing, will time or someone else solve it? A compelling vision calls people to action now.

What vision are you building? Does it address these four questions from Stanley? If not, you may need to keep working on it.

The Fundamental Attribution Error

I recently finished listening to Overcoming the Five Dysfunctions of a Team by one of my favorite authors: Patrick Lencioni. The book is a field guide for implementing the principles from the most famous of his several business fables: The Five Dysfunctions of a Team.

The first dysfunction that a high-performing team must overcome is an absence of trust. People have a natural fear of being vulnerable with each other, which prevents the development of mutual trust. And trust is the foundation of any team. Without trust, you can’t overcome the other four dysfunctions.

So, how do you develop trust? You start by simply getting to know each other. One method proscribed by Lencioni is something he calls “the personal histories exercise,” where members of the team share something significant about their past, such as their family environment or a challenge they had to overcome.

Getting to know more about each other has the side benefit of overcoming the fundamental attribution error, which Lenioni labels, “one of the great destroyers of teamwork.” This error, that is present in everyone, causes them to attribute the negative behaviors in others to their character, while they attribute their own negative behaviors to their environment. For example, if a co-worker fails to get me the monthly report on time, I assume he’s lazy. But if I’m late with a report, I attribute it to the fact that I’m much busier than usual. His fault is internal. Mine is external.

At FiveFour, we help teams overcome this by using behavioral assessments and having everyone on the team interview someone else and then report back to the group. The final step in the process is to fill out a Guide to Working With Me. I first learned about this guide when reading the book Elephants Before Unicorns and knew I had to make it part of our process.

Want to know what our guide looks like? You can download it at the end of this post. If you like it and start to use it, reach out and let me know or leave a comment below. If you have other ways of building trust among teams, I’d love to hear about those as well.

Paying Attention to the Obvious

Because I consume a lot of content, I frequently read things that overlap with other things I’m reading, podcasts I’m listening to, blogs I’m following, etc. I try to pay extra attention to those things when they happen, believing that those serendipitous moments often happen for a reason.

Recently, that forced me to pay more attention to…attention. At the same time I was reading Finding Flow, which I blogged about here, and learning about the importance of attention to achieving flow, I was also participating in a class at my church called The Journey. In preparation for a recent session, we read Jesus’ Parable of the Sower and the Lamp Under the Jar.

The Parable of the Sower is all about the different ways that people receive the Word of God and what kind of fruit it allows them to bear. And it turns out that the difference boils down to one thing, and it’s Jesus’ instruction from Luke 8:18a: “Pay attention to how you listen!”

The message was the same to each individual. The difference was in how much attention the recipient paid to it. This made me think about the importance of paying attention. It’s so easy to get on auto-pilot in our busy, distracted world and fail to pay attention to everything happening around us.

It reminds me of the famous Kenyon College graduation speech from novelist David Foster Wallace, this is water. Click here for full transcript and audio. But I really like the shorter clip from this video:

Stop and pay attention this week. See how it causes you to order your life differently.

Measuring Human Impressions

My recent post Elephants Don’t Bite was about companies focusing on big things, like the strategic plan or the latest marketing campaign (the elephants), came at expense of the little things, like answering the phone or greeting the customer at the front desk (the mosquitoes) and it’s the latter that can kill you.

In Marketing Rebellion, Mark Schaefer explains why that happens:

We see our foundations of command and control marketing collapsing before our eyes. There are no more lies. There are no more secrets. There is no more control. For more than a century, we’ve built our greatest brands – like Ivory – through an accumulation of advertising impressions. But to survive this final rebellion, companies and brands must be built through an accumulation of human impressions. That is the only thing we trust. That is the only thing that matters.

That’s why the subtitle of Schaefer’s book is “The Most Human Company Wins.” This is also why my company, FiveFour, helps our clients get their customer experience right before we start marketing. The job of marketing is to get a logical prospect to try your company once. It’s the job of your customer experience to get them to come back.

But even marketing is becoming mostly about your customer experience. Writes Schaefer:

Two thirds of the touch points during the evaluation phase of a purchase involve human-driven marketing activities like internet reviews, social media conversations and word-of-mouth recommendations from friends, family and online experts…Two thirds of your marketing is not your marketing.

If human impressions are the most relevant advertising metric, how are yours? Do they create and keep customers? Do you measure them with something like the Net Promoter Score?

Only Coach the Coachable

I’m a third of the way through reading the Trillion Dollar Coach. At the end of chapter three, the authors summarize Bill Campbell’s coaching style:

He started by building trust, which only deepened over time. He was highly selective in choosing his coachees; he would only coach the coachable, the humble, hungry lifelong learners. He listened intently, without distraction. He usually didn’t tell you what to do; rather, he shared stories and let you draw conclusions. He gave, and demanded, complete candor. And he was an evangelist for courage, by showing inordinate confidence and setting aspirations high.

This is a great summary of the book so far and the recipe for being a great coach. But the one line that stood out the most to me was: “he would only coach the coachable, the humble, hungry lifelong learners.” It’s really tough to coach someone who doesn’t want to be coached, even (especially) if they need it.

In order for coaching to succeed, the “want to” of the coachee is more important than the “have to.”

Elephants Don’t Bite

Near the end of The Invisible Leader (a book about which I will have more to say on this blog), author Zach Mercurio gave a useful analogy about African safaris to make a great point about modern business.

Mercurio pointed out that when people are on safari in Africa, they are focused on the elephants and giraffes in front of them. What aren’t they focused on? Malaria-carrying mosquitoes. Writes Mercurio:

Elephants don’t bite, but mosquitoes do. It is the small, even tiny, things that have a huge impact. Similarly, organizations focus on the big things – the branding initiative, strategic plan, key meeting, value proposition – while the little things are creating their reputations. How the receptionist out front says hello, how a call is handled or how an email is returned, these are all important experiences that, when added up, become the organization’s reputation.

What Mercurio is talking about, and something we wholeheartedly agree with, is the impact of customer experience on an organization’s reputation. Organizations can get the big things right, but it’s the hundreds or thousands of daily interactions with their customers that determine the public perception. It’s the little things that can kill you.

By the way, I looked it up. Elephants kill approximately 500 people per year, according to National Geographic. Mosquitoes? The W.H.O estimates 435,000 annual malaria deaths, or 870 times as many as elephants. Elephants don’t bite. Mosquitoes do. Get your organization to pay attention to the mosquitoes and you’ll stand a better chance of survival.

Get Bitter, or Get Better

In his sermon this morning, my pastor had a great message for everyone who has had life upended by COVID-19. The advice he gave to our congregation is useful for any person or organization dealing with this crisis, or, as he stated, any crisis that comes along.

Think about not getting caught waiting; waiting for everything to return to normal…most likely things are going to be different in the future. There’s no going back to what was, so we need to lean into what’s coming and not miss out on the opportunity that this season – this situation – gives us. We want to look back at what we’ve lived through in this season and accept the challenge of it for what it is and see it as a part of moving forward.

So my challenge to us is this: ‘Are you going to look back at this season with rejoicing or with regret? Are you going to rejoice in the opportunities that you had to learn and to grow and to engage with your life in a new and maybe different way and set yourself up for a better future or are you going to regret having all of the time that you’ve had and all this opportunity that you’ve had different than it’s been before; are you going to regret not having taken advantage of this opportunity. Are you going to sit back and let this all happen around you and to you or are you going to grab a hold of the opportunity and grow into what you want to become when this is all done and we’re on to whatever the new normal is after the storm?’

As pastor McCready said, we get to choose how we respond to the crisis – we have a choice in how we respond when anything in our life doesn’t go the way we want. He put it like this:

“In every storm, we have a chance to respond. We have the choice. We can either get bitter or we can get better.” Pastor Bill McCready

So, what mindset will you choose in the midst of COVID-19? Are you going to use the time of isolation to get better? To read good books, build new skills, shape better habits? Prepare for a new future Or, just follow Twitter and Google News all day and get bitter, hoping that the world quickly goes back to what it was? It’s your choice.

Here’s his full message:

Focusing Attention in an Age of Distraction

I recently finished listening to Finding Flow: The Psychology of Engagement with Everyday Life. “Flow” is one of those concepts, the definition of which you can find in my previous post, that I have read a lot about without ever reading a book from the source. There was one aspect of flow that surprised me.

When most people describe flow, it takes on a mind-less quality; you’re in the zone and simply repeating a task where the brain disengages and muscle memory takes over. However, as Csíkszentmihályi points out, it starts by being mind-ful; it starts with the ability to focus attention.

According to Csíkszentmihályi, the people who are more often in flow don’t have a greater capacity for attention, but have learned to pay attention to what’s happening around them. As they engage with the world, he writes:

The important thing is to enjoy the activity for its own sake, and to know that what matters is not the result, but the control one is acquiring over one’s attention.

Being in state of flow starts with paying attention to the world around you and how you engage with the world. This includes our work.

Without some effort a dull job will just stay dull. The basic solution is quite simple: it involves paying close attention to each step involved in the job and then asking is this step necessary? Who needs it? If it is really necessary, can it be done better, faster, more efficiently? And, what additional steps could make my contribution more valuable? Our attitude to work usually involves spending a lot of effort trying to cut corners and do as little as possible. But that is a short-sighted strategy. If one spent the same amount of attention trying to find ways to accomplish more on the job, one would enjoy working more and probably be more successful at it, too.

I admit that I have often thought of attention as a limited resource. And there are no shortages of competition for our attention in a digital age. This perspective – of the ability to focus and multiply attention is very interesting. The lesson is clear: if you want more experiences of flow in your life, start by paying attention.