The Sarajevo Effect

A few months back, after a talk I’d given in Warsaw, I was invited to speak in Sarajevo. “There are dozens of entrepreneurs there,” the woman told me as we sipped drinks in the setting sun on a busy street outside a bar, a favorite for ex-pats working in Poland. “They need to be inspired too.”

Sarajevo sent me spinning. The Sarajevo of my youth conjured images of athletes flying above the snow. The Sarajevo of my adulthood conjures images of death and destruction; of beauty and potential thwarted.

The woman approached me after weeks of travel that had taken me, again, to Berlin and to Krakow, Munich, and Istanbul as well. Months before, in a castle overlooking gorgeous Ljubljana, I met entrepreneurs from Zagreb, Vilnius, and Yerevan.

A year ago, I walked the streets of East Berlin with a young Russian who told me of his plans to distribute work to students around the world all the while really telling me about his life-long desire to rise above, break out, stand apart, and become himself. Earlier last year, I’d sat in a hotel conference room in Chengdu, chatting about the importance of cash flow to entrepreneurs from the Tibetan plateau.

At that moment, standing in the sunset on a Warsaw street corner, I recalled all of these people. I was transfixed: Sarajevo has a startup community.

I remember when the Berlin Wall fell. I remember being told that the forces of Democracy had defeated the bogeymen of my Cold War-dominated youth, Socialism and Communism. I remember Presidents past talking about democracy marching on. At the time, I wondered and doubted. Now I understand. No one won. No system defeated another. That is, the changes implicit in this movement have little to do with the machinations of politicians. What is happening is far more powerful, far more important. From Moscow to Chengdu, from Tunisia to Armenia from San Jose to New York to Boulder, people are taking control of their lives.

I often write about the challenges of being an entrepreneur; it is a large part of why people come to see me. Because of this I try to avoid anything that smacks of the naive cheerleading that often passes for analysis (Apologies to my friends at Inc., Fast Company and, even, the Harvard Business Review but each of you could do a better job of warning about the dangers of pursuing the startup life.).

Those who seek to create their own startup do so more often out of the desires for freedom, dignity, validation and, ultimately, self-actualization (in the full Maslow-vian sense) than for riches. (Indeed, those who seek riches most often fail.) For them, and despite what most politicians and government officials blather on about, it’s not about jobs. It’s about life.

Which is why Startup Communities, by my friend Brad Feld, is so important and why my friends in Armenia, China, Tunisia, Turkey, Germany, Iceland, the Czech Republic, Croatia, Slovenia, the United Kingdom, as well as Idaho, Texas, et al should read it. (You can order it here. You can also take his workshop developed by my friends at Cojourneo in support of the book here. )

The book essentially lays out a blueprint for creating and nurturing startup communities for, as Brad writes, “I have a deeply held belief that you can create a long-term, vibrant, sustainable startup community in any city in the world, but it’s hard and takes the right kind of philosophy, approach, leadership, and dedication over a long period of time.”

He calls his framework The Boulder Thesis and it consists of four components:

  • Entrepreneurs must be the leaders
  • They must take a long-term view
  • The community must be inclusive of anyone who wants to engage at any level
  • You must have activities and events that engage the entire entrepreneurial stack

What I love most about this view is what it lacks: notice there’s no call for government action; no pontificating on the need to create “technology parks” where the only people who tend to make money are real estate developers. No pleas for tax breaks or incentives. Indeed, the most important aspect of his view is its focus on the entrepreneurs themselves. You guys, he says, have to do it yourselves.

That fits so well with what drives people to become entrepreneurs: savoring the dignity and pride in being responsible for your own failure or success.

Ultimately, that singular experience of doing it ourselves is the magic behind the entrepreneur-led social revolutions implicit in the startup communities around the world. Just as no one should hand you a job, no one is going to hand you your freedom.

As I internalize that reality, and all the ways it’s shaped my life and the lives of the men and women I work with every day, I realize I have my own little thesis brewing: freedom, dignity, pride, opportunity all coexist with the success/failure roller-coaster of the startup life. And that co-existence is more likely to lift people out of poverty, war, and chaos than any political intervention. I think I’ll call my framework The Sarajevo Effect.

Taking My Seat

I’m blessed.  I’ve been struggling a bit of late and my ability to delve in, dive in and write has been impeded. I wasn’t entirely certain about what was going on but, as the weeks of the summer faded, and back-to-school time kicked in, I connected with some of the reality. The recent blessings came from conversations with Fred and Brad. I went to them for a little coaching…some reflection on thoughts that have been percolating for months.

“It feels,” I imperfectly remember saying, “that yet again things are shifting for me.” I remember years ago when I began much more earnestly building my coaching practice. At the time, Fred laughed and said something like, “Ah, so you’re serious about this now.” I had signed a lease on my own office space.

Another time, about two years ago, having been prompted, prodded, challenged and ultimately coached by Ann for some time before, I took another deeper step towards being serious. So over the last year I stepped up two aspects of my work: public speaking and going deep with client companies.

This year I collected 12 visa stamps–four from countries I hadn’t visited before. At times, I measure my happiness by the number of stamps in my passport. What’s more, I made friends and connected deeply (that is, made people cry) in all of those places.

I also started working more fully with teams–even dedicating whole days to working within a company. In those instances, it’s felt like I’ve had a different, larger impact.

This all unfolded against a backdrop of the launch of Cojourneo, the platform for online workshops, which Kevin and Dan and team have worked so well and so hard to manifest and about which I feel a deep pride.

Sitting in Fred’s office a few weeks ago, just days after walking and talking with Brad through the streets of Boulder, I spoke about the cooking that seemed to be underway for me. “I’m marinating,” I said, “and I’m not sure what’s next. I like the trajectory that I’ve been on but there’s more out there and I’m not sure what’s next.”

Practiced as he is in getting to the point, Fred  quickly responded: “You’re loving having an impact. You want to have more of an impact.”

Yes. I have loved my private client practice. I am blessed (there’s that word again) with having borne witness to folks’ personal work. I consider myself like Lou Gehrig: the luckiest man in the world.

And yet I do want more; I do want to touch even more lives and impact more folks.

So yet another transformation is occurring. Several months ago I asked a brilliant brand strategist friend of mine to think about the brand of Jerry (presaging, I suppose, this transformation). She’s come back with a series of recommended changes to the way I present myself, my services. A redesigned website and blog are being cooked up now. The hope is to have a more coherent message about my work and my offerings. I see it, if you will, as a redesign of the container to clarify and make sweeter the contents.

Cojourneo is a part of that…next week we officially launch my first paid workshop. It’s a version of the explorations I’ve done around surviving life in a startup. It feels like an important turning point in this process of becoming  more impactful. We have a number of incredibly gifted-teachers and writers lined up to use the service to support their work. Check out the roster here and, if so inclined, sign up for one of the workshops. My upcoming workshop is nearly sold out.

In my Buddhist lineage we have a saying that we use when we describe someone coming into their own. The imagery is of a king sitting on their throne, a warrior sitting on their meditation cushion. We say “they have taken their seat.” My clients know I often encourage them to take their seat, to sit upright and unafraid and embrace life as it is.

I’m taking my seat with new depth, clarity and what the Tibetans call Lungta–Windhorse–the energy that flows like a horse running in the wind.

I’m not certain what, if anything, will change. I suspect I’ll be speaking more, spending more in-depth time with more clients. In effect, perhaps, fewer “clients” but those that I have I will spend even more time with.

I wouldn’t be honest, though, if I didn’t add that this is coming with changes in my personal life…the inner one-third from which my lungta arises. With these changes, I foresee spending even more time in solitude reading and writing. Feeding, if you will, the parts of me that I use to help and feed others.

I have a new house in Boulder, for example. I hope to spend more time there. I’ll be working, of course (When you embrace the notion that work is simply another aspect of life, you don’t stop working until you stop living.). I imagine that these changes will also enable me spend more time with me. And that’s a precious gift to myself.

Lately at night and early in the morning I’ve been hearing this poem:

SONG OF A MAN WHO HAS COME THROUGH

Not I, not I, but the wind that blows through me!

A fine wind is blowing the new direction of Time. If only I let it bear me, carry me, if only it carry me!

If only I am sensitive, subtle, oh, delicate, a winged gift!

If only, most lovely of all, I yield myself and am borrowed By the fine, fine wind that takes its course through the

chaos of the world

Like a fine, an exquisite chisel, a wedge-blade inserted; If only I am keen and hard like the sheer tip of a wedge

Driven by invisible blows,

The rock will split, we shall come at the wonder, we shall find the Hesperides.

Oh, for the wonder that bubbles into my soul, I would be a good fountain, a good well-head, Would blur no whisper, spoil no expression.

What is the knocking?

What is the knocking at the door in the night? It is somebody wants to do us harm.

No, no, it is the three strange angels, Admit them, admit them.

D.H. Lawrence

I’m wondering what will happen when the rock splits. What will the angels say to me? Nevertheless, I’ll admit them.

 

 

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Mind Your Elders

It seems these days I’m always either packing or unpacking. Right now, I’m unpacking. A few hours ago I landed in Istanbul where I’m going to work with the folks at Peak Games. Later this week I’ll be in Munich and Berlin, the latter being one of my favorite entrepreneurial communities. The whole trip was brought about by the folks at EarlyBird VC, especially Ciaran O’Leary (who’s written about why Berlin is a great entrepreneurial city). Traveling like this is hard; I miss my family. I even miss the dog (even though I have an ambivalent relationship with him).

But I also love it. As far back as I can remember, I’d walk into an airport, and be riveted by the names of the places up on the departure board. I suppose I’m still that little boy looking to ride the river.

I also love when the worlds in which I play swoop and dive into each other. I love when the work I do every week that I’m not packing and unpacking, on Broadway, becomes relevant in places whose names I first glimpsed on a departure board.

Istanbul now. Munich tomorrow. Berlin the day after. Krakow and Warsaw at the end of May (see here for tickets to the Hive53-sponsored event and here for CEED Regional Conference). Ljubljana last December.  I love when the talks I give, the discussions I facilitate, and the conversations that ensue move through themes common to entrepreneurs everywhere: the emotional roller-coaster; the challenge of funding, learning to balance and integrate your lifeexplaining what you do for a living to your loved ones, and surviving the start-up life. For all our vaunted cultural differences, it’s the commonality of these struggles that make so much of the world—old and new, East and West—one big start-up community.

A few months back, my friend Brad–as part of his efforts to document the ways in which communities grow–built a blog to gather the common experiences. He asked me for my thoughts on building a start-up community. Thinking back to my trip to Slovenia, I shared this story.

I’m sure, as these next weeks unfold and I meet entrepreneurs in Turkey, Germany, and Poland, the stories and the themes will deepen and merge. I can’t wait.

_____________________________________________________________________

I first noticed his eyebrows. Bushy, steel-gray, they danced when he agreed with me.

It was the first of a half a dozen talks I was scheduled to give that week in Ljubljana. This night I was the guest of both the US Embassy in Slovenia and CEED and I was there to speak about the importance of mentoring in the building of start-up community. My subtler mission was to convince many in the room to be mentors.

Born in Socialist era, when Slovenia was a part of the Republic of Yugoslavia, most of the 100 or so folks in the room, it seemed from their stony faces and crossed arms, were still a little suspicious of the emphasis on entrepreneurship taking hold in the city.

“They don’t know,” I continued speaking about the young mentees dominating the nascent tech scene. “They don’t know the cost of missed football games, dance recitals, spelling bees, and dinners with the family.”

And I knew I had him. The bushy eyebrows arched so high in vehement agreement that it threw his head back. It then came down in a deep nod. “They don’t know about the dangers of disappearing into the fire.

Even the stoniest children-of-Socialism-now-captains-of-industry were sitting up.

I moved on. I read to them from an email I’d received in April, after my first visit to the area. In that note, a young entrepreneur spoke not only of the frustration of raising capital–something he understood was a challenge everywhere-but of the alienation and isolation. Growing up in an era of small, flat worlds and in the belief that he could help create the next Google, he was disheartened by the beliefs of the older generation. That group, satisfied with lifetime employment in the Postal Service and a little house in the country, openly criticized the risk tasking, the ambitions, and the desires for something more that is such an intrinsic part of entrepreneurship.

Frustrated by this lack of acceptance, lack of understanding (manifested, for example, in a law only recently passed that forbade anyone who’d lead a business that failed from starting a new business for ten years–the law, thankfully, overturned by the Courts), he was moving to London. After all, he wrote, he wished he’d been Born Somewhere Else.

Finished with the excerpts from the email, the whole room was now sitting up. The young guy could be their son, their grandson. This young man, and the men and women with whom he struggled everyday to create an enterprise out the nothing more than an idea, these people on whom so much of this tiny country’s economic future rests, was leaving.

My thoughts about what makes a start-up community grow from a Silicon Valley-wannabe into a vibrant and integral component of local economy aren’t particularly earth shattering or unique. They stem, though, from having had the good fortune of sitting beside people like Fred Wilson and the dozens of others who helped grow this community in NY into something expansive and exciting.

Put simply, the entrepreneurial ecosystem needs seven things:

  • Opportunities
  • Entrepreneurs
  • Staff
  • Government Support
  • Universities
  • Local Capital
  • Elders

It needs the entrepreneurs, staff and opportunities to create interesting companies. It needs the support of government (or, at a minimum, the non-interference of government where crazy laws that criminalize risk-taking are not the norm), universities, and local capital.

But, most of all, it needs Elders. That is, Mentors, coaches, Angel Investors; people who can serve informally and formally as guides. Their roles vary…from providing the seed capital to germinate ideas to providing a steadying, calm demeanor making the roller coaster of the startup experience just slightly easier to bear. “An Elder,” I say in my talks on the subject, “isn’t merely someone with grayer hair. It can be the CEO of the company next door who is two months ahead of you in their fundraising process. It can be the CTO of that failed company whom you bring in not just for their technical capability but for their experience in having lived through a failure and knowing that there’s life after failure.”

Elders come in all forms.

The day after my talk on mentoring, I ran a miniature version of my Disappearing into the Fire Workshop. The room was filled with 150 entrepreneurs, each at varying stages in their journey. And one man stood out. To my right, the bushy eye-browed grandfather–a local professor of business as it turned out–sat erect and grinning. In my mind, he’d come to personify the Elder and I was thrilled he was there.

Later, at the break, I made my way to him. Gripping his strong weathered hands, I asked if he was enjoying the talks. Yes, yes, he said, he very much understood the need for mentoring and was happy to help. But then he leaned in close to me, whispering into my ear, “But really I’m here to learn because I have this idea. I know it can be the next Google.”

 

Sharing the Journey

A few months back, I lamented the lack of scaleability in my business. I used that fact to talk about an effort I was making to branch out more, do more talks and workshops. That effort helped greatly and I’ve found myself working with many, many more people…in short bursts as well as longer efforts.

Around that time, I was approached by a few people about the “scaling Jerry” problem. Kevin Friedman, who’d attended a Disappearing into the Fire Workshop Ann Mehl and I conducted at General Assembly took up the challenge. Supported by his friend Tim Pettit and my friend Dan Putt. This little band of optimists have set up a service, the intent of which is to make it possible for even more people to get the support they need on their journeys. We call it Cojourneo. The vision is a platform that will allow people to come together in a safe and intimate way (much like offline support groups) to share their experiences and get peer advice, while being supported by a guide like myself or Ann or another “elder” who’s traveled the path before.

We have no idea if this will be a business. We have no idea if this will work. We have no idea if folks will be helped in this process. And all of those unknowns make this that much more fun.

We’re finalizing the designs now and will be launching an alpha version of our first journey shortly (umm, I think this week). We hope to move quickly into a beta mode and have a series of journeys running simultaneously.

When I do a talk on the dangers of losing oneself in the fire of work, I often end with a set of recommendations to help keep oneself from getting lost. One of the most powerful of these is the notion of an ongoing support or advocacy group…especially a group of peers. Our hope is that this could be a platform for folks to do just that.

One final note, despite our lack of certainty about whether or not this will turn into anything (or, at least anything more helpful than similarly structured platforms), we’ve built a small company–a container if you will–to house the effort. And more important we’ve created for ourselves a values statement. The values have been  guiding principles behind everything we’ve tried to build and how we’ve tried to operate.

I’m very proud of the effort and even more proud of the values. Kevin and Dan deserve credit for driving these.

  1. Treat people as human beings first.
    1. We aspire to be a great company to work for and work with as well.
    2. We aspire to bring heart and soul to uncharted territories.
      1. “Call it Needs-based governance. It’s an incredibly clarifying and empowering tool. It expands the notion of the CEO…to include the notion of the CEO making certain that the great people they’ve hired (and put into the right positions) have what they need to succeed.” – Jerry Colonna
      2. “Authentic leaders in every setting — from families to nation states — aim at liberating the heart, their own and others’, so that its powers can liberate the world.” – Parker Palmer
  2. Life is better shared with others.
    1. We aspire to find ways to make it easier, more helpful, and more fun for people to share life together.
    2. We aspire to build awesome collaborative communities that change lives.
      1. “The thing is, we’re all in this together. We’re a community of helpers, a sangha of fellow travelers, and we’ve got to work together. I mirror you. You mirror me. I hold your heart. You hold mine.” – Jerry Colonna
      2. “The gift of giving to the Other is the most powerful salve for closing that hole in your heart.” – Jerry Colonna
      3. “Depression is the ultimate state of disconnection — it deprives one of the relatedness that is the lifeline of every living being.” – Parker Palmer
      4. “The key to this form of community involves holding a paradox — the paradox of having relationships in which we protect each other’s aloneness.” – Parker Palmer
  3. Follow fun and aliveness.
    1. We aspire to help people esteem and pursue that which they find fun and brings aliveness.
    2. We aspire to remind people that loving oneself is often the best way to love others.
      1. “But I think the work is not getting people to romanticize our heroes but to see the incredible in the simple act of getting along, of growing up, of becoming more and more wholly, utterly, ourselves.” – Jerry Colonna
      2. “Discovering true vocation does not mean scrambling toward some prize beyond my reach but accepting the treasure of true self I already possess. Vocation does not come from a voice “out there” calling me to become something I am not. It comes from a voice “in here” calling me to be the person I was born to be.” – Parker Palmer
      3. “Vocation begins — not in what the world needs (which is everything), but in the nature of human self, in what brings the self joy” – Parker Palmer
      4. “By surviving passages of doubt and depression on the vocational journey, I have become clear about at least one thing: self-care is never a selfish act.” – Parker Palmer
  4. Dare to be open and honest in a safe place.
    1. We aspire to build a safe place that encourages people to deal openly with the challenges of life.
      1. “And I watched as this first time CEO manifested not only Connect-Think-Do but the even more powerful Connect-Think-Lead.” – Jerry Colonna
      2. “There is a fundamental human gesture that must take place first, before any leader can guide, direct, or point the way. Leaders must first open. They must step beyond the boundaries of what is familiar and routine and directly touch the people and environment they want to inspire. Leading others requires that we first open ourselves to the world around us.” – Michael Carroll
      3. “Pain held in is pain. Pain let out is dance.” – Mark Nepo
      4. “A second shadow inside many of us it the belief that the universe is a battleground, hostile to human interests.” – Parker Palmer
  5. Expect and embrace mistakes.
    1. We aspire to build an environment where people have freedom to make mistakes.
    2. We aspire to treat people that make mistakes with grace and love.
      1. “The lesson I tried to teach was that doling out Do Overs was a powerful incentive. It mitigated the fear of failing and, more often than not, brought out the best….” – Jerry Colonna
      2. “Lives dominated by impossible ideals — perfect happiness, eternal love — are lives experienced as continuous failure.” – Adam Phillips
      3. “But as pilgrims must discover if they are to complete their quest, we are led by our weaknesses as well as our strengths.” – Parker Palmer
  6. Be not afraid or at least admit it when you are.
    1. We aspire to not let fear hinder us from pursuing our dreams.
    2. We aspire to recognize that fear is not a monster but a recurring friend to be embraced.
      1. “When Siddhartha woke up and became the Buddha, the awakened one, he didn’t wake to see the triumphant earthly gods and goddesses. He awoke to the utterly breathtaking beauty of the everyday person facing the truth of the pain and fear of life; facing that truth and choosing to move ahead, regardless. That feels like one heck of a small step.” – Jerry Colonna
      2. “I must not fear… Fear is the little-death that brings total obliteration… I will face my fear…” – Bene Gesserit
  7. Be present, wherever you are, and savor the journey.
    1. We aspire to help people stop and embrace wherever and whoever they are.
    2. We aspire to help people appreciate every moment on the journey to their dreams.
      1. “The real gift is learning to be present in whatever third you’re living. So when you’re working, work. And when you’re loving, love. And when you’re eating, eat.” – Jerry Colonna
      2. “Stand still… The hard part is bearing the stage of “No action” necessary so that the right amount of data can unfold.” – Jerry Colonna
      3. “We do ourselves a disservice when we look only to the extraordinary for affirmation of the incredible. We set ourselves up, then, to see that our struggles with the pathology of every day are somehow less then. And, of course, that then reinforces our own gnawing aching fears that we are never enough.” – Jerry Colonna
  8. See life as a whole.
    1. We aspire to help people nurture a holistic approach to life: professional, physical, and personal.
      1. “But, the only real chance we’ve got of surviving, indeed maybe even thriving in, the chaos of ordinary life is to develop a centered core: A set of beliefs, rituals, and inner-knowledge that not only remains unshakable with every gut-wrenching drop but, in fact, deepens over time into a philosophy that is at once unique and lasting.” – Jerry Colonna
      2. “One third taking care of business. One third taking care of the subtle and gross bodies–the inner you and the physical you. And one third for family, friends, community, the world at large.” – Jerry Colonna
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The Gift of Our Ambivalence

Do I contradict myself?
Very well then I contradict myself,
(I am large, I contain multitudes.)

Walt Whitman, “Song of Myself

A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, adored by little statesmen and philosophers and divines. Ralph Waldo Emerson  “Self-Reliance

A good education teaches us to hold contradictions reflectively rather than reactively. Parker Palmer Healing the Heart of Democracy.

Earlier today, in a dialogue with @shawnccpr, spurred by that Parker Palmer quote, we speculated as to the root cause of our inability to countenance contradiction in the Other or in ourselves. @shawnccpr suggested that it might stem from an “overly self-centered society.” I agreed that the root is a fear but fear of what? The fear of being labeled intolerant, @shawnccpr suggested.

I don’t think so. I think the hobgoblin is a fear of indecisiveness, the fear of uncertainty.

In my work with clients, this fear—this wish to know with certainty—rears up most often in dealing with colleagues. I’m thinking, for example, of the CEO who calls me convinced that they have to fire the COO they just hired.

“The situation at the plant,” he says, “is so toxic and he’s not doing anything about it. I know it’s only been a month but I have to get rid of him.”

Wait, I say. Let’s pull this apart. “Tell me the facts,” I ask, and he starts to tell me his interpretation. I try again, “Okay, tell me a story. You went to the plant and then what happened?”

Pulled aside by some of the staff, the CEO was given a litany of everything that the new COO is doing wrong. “And meetings!” he says with drama and a bit of exasperation, “he’s having too many meetings.”

I remember when I was an active board member. I remember getting calls like this all the time from the CEO. The VP of finance talks too much. The VP of Sales disappears every Friday. The VP of Engineering, a co-founder no less, sits in the meetings and says nothing. Should I fire them, the CEO would ask. And more often than not, I’d say yes.

But I’m older now. I’ve come to realize that understanding the best course of action takes a little more work.  You have to learn to separate facts from feelings, seeing how both contribute to data, which only then morphs into information. And information then becomes knowledge and eventually wisdom.

For example, it’s a fact that you asked for the report before the VP of finance went home on Friday. It’s a fact that you need that report for the meetings with the Series B investors on Monday. But it’s a feeling that the reason this happened is because the VP isn’t suitable for a startup.

Those two things—the fact and the feeling—are simply data. To decide what to do requires separating fact from feeling, triangulating data, and searching for patterns over time. Pattern recognition is the only way to turn data into information. Then, if you’re dealing with a decision about whether or not someone should be fired, you’ve got to present the observation of the pattern to the colleague.

And out of that dialogue comes knowledge. Their response, for example, is more information; vital information needed before you decide and certainly before you act.

The problem is we all want to rush the steps. Compelled by our feelings, compelled by our fears–or those of others in the workplace–we feel we have to act or all will be lost.

I understand and admire the wisdom of the “fire fast” mentality but that wisdom is no substitute for the real work of leadership: figuring out the right people for various roles.  Often when I help a client unpack their feelings while they are  in the throes of a decision about whether or not to terminate someone, what is revealed are contradictory facts and ambivalent feelings. And too often, our discomfort with our contradictory feelings, our ambivalence, leads us to rush to judgement, destabilizing and antagonizing the entire organization.

But if we wait, if we can pause and bear the discomfort of uncertainty, then we have a shot at getting to the heart of the problem manifested in all those facts. Then we have a shot at creating the kinds of organizations that not only succeed, but embody the best of our values, the best of our aspirations.

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Jerry Happy Birthday

I turned 48 this week. My friends and family helped me feel loved. My 14-year old son Michael, for example, tweeted “Happy Birthday father o’mine.” And a new dear friend sent me a photo from the Tibetan Plateau:

She wrote it just days after helping a few dozen boys, students at a monastic school in Tagong, move into a new home and school–a building that a few of us came together to purchase on behalf of the monastery.

I first met the monks in Tagong in September of last year when a few of us drove for four days on fairly tricky roads to bring supplies from Chengdu into Yushu where an earthquake had destroyed so many homes. Depending on the roads, Tagong is a day or two drive from Chengdu. (See this post: How I Spent My Summer Vacation)

When I first encountered the boys, I could barely contain my desire to help. That September, though, we had another mission–to get to Yushu.

Later, last January, I came back…to Yushu, to Chengdu, and to Tagong. I wrote a post at the time asking, quoting Tracy Chapman, if you knew you would die today, saw the face of God today, would you change? I vowed to help move the boys from a shelter that was little more than tree branches and plastic sheeting into something safe and warm.

Months of discussion, planning, more discussion, lots of tea (sweet and butter), lots more discussion (this is, after all, Tibet), and just about a week ago, the boys moved into their new home–a recently renovated, three story traditional Tibetan-style building. They are warm and safe and the snows have just begun.

My new dear friend wrote to a few of us:

We just returned from a trip to Tagong to help students and teachers move to the new school. Everything went smoothly and every one was very happy about the new school…on the 9th we had breakfast at 9:00 am, and then went to the old school to help the students move. Students, teachers, and helpers from the town had already started moving…the school also had five tractors to help haul large items like furniture and firewood.

Everyone was happy to work and help with the move. Everything but firewood was moved before lunch. For lunch we had a very simple and delicious meal prepared by the students in their new kitchen. After lunch the students drew numbers for their new beds, then they made their beds and put all their things away. The helpers from town, the TVP [Tibetan Village Project] team and the teachers started moving and stacking firewood. We spent the whole afternoon on this task; it was tiring work but we are happy that students have a stockpile of firewood for the winter. We worked until 5:00pm but there was still some firewood left to move.

On the 10th we had breakfast at 9:30am and then went to the school to visit the students and teachers. It had snowed overnight, so the students were busy outside clearing the snow, in addition to stacking the rest of the firewood…on the morning of the 11th [we] visited the school’s greenhouse. We were excited to see that the vegetables in the greenhouse were growing very well…the students were still busy cleaning the new school, and they expressed happiness and satisfaction with the new school. When we asked for their opinion of the new school, they told us that the new school is warmer and bigger than the old one, and that the new school has a big yard outside where they can play, eat, and enjoy sunshine. They also said that they want to study very hard and be beneficial to people in the future.

A few weeks ago, during that last trip to Tibet, I traveled with some old dear friends. They rightly asked if, given the enormity of the poverty in the region and the systemic changes that will need to be made to create enduring prosperity, for people to move from trying, as they do now, to live on 12 cents a day to be lifted into the magical realm of living on more than a dollar a day (and thereby no longer be classified as “ultra-poor” but merely poor), did it make sense to invest in one school, one village, one building.

As I lay on my bed that night at the lovely Heavenly Jewells [sic] Hotel (by far the nicest hotel in Tagong), I came across this passage from The Gift by Lewis Hyde:

The begging bowl of the Buddha, Thomas Merton has said, “represents the ultimate theological root of the belief, not just in the right to beg, but in the openness to the gifts of all beings as an expression of the interdependence of all beings…The whole idea of compassion, which is central to Mahayana Buddhism, is based on an awareness of the interdependence of all living beings…thus when the monk begs from the layman and receives a gift from the laymen, it is not as selfish person getting something from somebody else. He is simply opening himself to this interdependence.”

I knew then that I would make the gift that would catalyze the purchase and enable the boys to be warm before the snows came.

A few days before their move into the new building, I was in Ljubljana, Slovenia. I’d been invited to come during my last trip, a trip I wrote about in the post Born Somewhere Else.

Over the course of five days I did six talks. My talks ranged from the pragmatic to the esoteric; from How to Lead and How to Raise Capital to How to Survive the Startup Life. The latter talk, essentially a distillation of the workshop Ann Mehl and I developed around my post, Disappearing into the Fire, seemed to be especially poignant for people.

The night before that talk I woke from a hazy jet-lag troubled sleep and, sitting in my room at the Union Hotel, I changed the presentation, adding some pictures from my trips to Tagong.

I was nervous when the talk began because I had shifted things and didn’t know how the 150 or so folks in the audience would respond. I had nothing to fear; from their tears I knew I had touched their hearts.

My intent was to use the photos to talk about the work being done in Tagong. I shared that work as an example of a way in which I try to embody my one-third, one-third, one-third life balance rule. One third for the inner you; one third for the outer you; and one third for the Other–those who embody our interdependence, those to whom, out of the depths of our compassion, we save not only them but, in the process, ourselves.

In my mind the Indigo Girls are singing She’s Saving Me. And the last lines–She’s saving me I don’t really think she knows it/It’s a strange way to show it as distant as last night’s dream unravels/She’s saving me I’m a very lost soul/I was born with a hole in my heart as wide as my land-locked travels–repeat as if the needle is stuck in the groove.

Earlier this week I saw my Buddhist teacher, the one who gave me the gift of “the one-third rule.” He asked me about my trip to Slovenia. With just the slightest hint of pride in his student, he said, “Ah, I see. You are giving them, the Others, the strategies you’ve used to save yourself.”

The gift of giving to the Other is the most powerful salve for closing that hole in your heart, the one that’s as wide as your land-locked travels. Placing alms in the bowl (be it a building in Tagong or a strategy to survive the every day violence of work) feeds not only the begging monk before us but the begging monk within.

Jerry Happy Birthday.

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“I need a plan.”

I must hear that five times a week. It’s as if we think that the existence of the plan, a set of action steps which we intend to take, will somehow make all of the anxiety go away.

“No you don’t,” I often say, infuriating my clients.

“But I don’t know what to do about…”–fill in the blank:

“…my job.”

“…my mate.”

“…my being lost, stuck, frightened.”

Just tell me what to do, they often implore.

And just as maddeningly I’ll say, “Tell me what you want to happen.”

Because, in the end, it’s not really that we don’t need a plan to make the change we desperately know we want. The problem is we think the plan is the answer when it’s simply a means to arriving at the answer.

The hard part isn’t coming up with the plan. The hard part is bearing the stage of “No action” necessary so that the right amount of data can unfold. And then, when you know where you want to go, where you need to be, exactly how you’d like the change to manifest, the steps to getting there lay themselves out the way the Yellow Brick road revealed itself to Dorothy.

 

Connect. Think. Lead.

Adapted from the forward I wrote to a friend’s new book…

Connect. Think. Do.

I’d first gotten the call, an inquiry call for coaching, two weeks previous. In a follow-up conversation, one of the team, one the five co-founders of a hot  local startup, came to the phone with a simple plea: “Help.”

In the year since they’d begun their efforts, they’d successfully raised the necessary capital, begun operations, and even turned a small profit. But this tight-knit team was at each other’s throats. We agreed to meet for an all-day session, all five of them, for six hours, starting early on a Sunday morning. It was about the third hour when the breakthrough happened.

The presenting agenda was, as I call it,  “The five-year old” soccer team problem: everyone wants to chase the ball and no one wants to play their position. It’s a common problem and one I felt at ease in addressing. But, as the morning unfolded, it quickly became apparent that the roots of all the fighting, all the chasing of loose balls, were layers of unmet needs.

And then there was the breakthrough.

I’d spent part of the morning briefly but consistently modeling one of the aspects of Nonviolent Communications (NVC) techniques most useful in the workplace. The aspect was around giving feedback using of the model of OFNR, Observation, Feelings, Needs, and Request. (I’d honed these skills working with my friends/teachers, Miki Kashtan, Martha Lasley, and Marie Miyashiro as they developed a program called Making Collaboration Real for using NVC in the workplace.)

As the morning progressed there came a moment when Mark felt compelled to respond to some things Nicole had done.

“Nicole,” he began with some coaching from me, “I notice that you prefer to work on a single task at a time.” He paused and I encouraged him to check that out.

“Is that right?” he asked.

“Yes,” she said. “It’s hard for me to move onto the next task when I feel the first isn’t complete.”

“When you do that it makes me anxious that all the things we need to do won’t get done.”

“I have a need,” he continued, “in fact, the company has a need, for multiple things to be worked on simultaneously.” Pausing to make eye contact with me, he took a deep breath—courageous conversations require vulnerability–he then made a request, “So can you tell us what we can do to help you handle more things simultaneously.”

Not bad, I thought, for a guy who’d just started the practice of giving nonviolent feedback. But then something really magical happened: Nicole’s eyes began to soften, to “shine”, as some say.

The nervousness in the group was palpable; they wanted to move on—we so often turn away from another’s pain simply because it’s not bearable to us, it’s too evocative—perhaps—of our own stuff. I knew they had to hold steady.

I checked in with Nichole; I held a space that Mark had, in fact, opened by his honest sharing of his inner motivations, his inner needs.

“Nicole, how are doing?”

“Well, I was thinking about Mark’s observations. I started paying attention to the feelings I was having, the tightness in my own chest even as he made the observation.

“He’s right,” she continued, “but I started to ask myself why I needed that. And then I realized…I’m afraid I’ll get hit if the thing I’m working on isn’t perfect.”

The pain that had been in the room had now been named and everyone in the room connected with it. Nichole told a story from her childhood of literally being hit if she didn’t get everything on her homework correct. And she wept.

Suddenly this disjointed, angry, fighting-at-cross-purposes team of brash, young, brilliant start-up executives jelled into a single, compassionate, and loving unit. Suddenly the arguments over who got to play CEO and who took notes and got coffee during the meetings became far less important and everyone, myself included, connected with that kid inside all of us who worries about failing and disappointing an aggressive and demanding parent.

The story of this team, and so many other stories from my coaching and venture practices, resonated with me as I read the first drafts of Marie’s new book, The Empathy Factor. Over the years, I’ve served on more than a few boards of directors, worked with both for-profit and not-for-profit companies. I’ve watched companies get born and grow into success stories. I’ve watched large companies falter and miss opportunities. I’ve watched small not-for-profit organizations struggle through the maturation process; some succeed, many fail. And every one of them, and every one of the people endeavoring to do the sacred work of creating something of lasting and enduring value, could benefit from the lessons laid out in The Empathy Factor. (Marie’s got a compelling video on the underlying precepts here.)

My clients, the startup team struggling to become a Team, underwent the process that Marie refers to forming as “an empathetic connection,” a necessary step before educating, explaining, or justifying; she calls it “Connect-Think-Do.”  And, in doing so, they experienced the transformative power of empathy.

She writes:

Any form of educating, explaining, defending, or justifying before someone feels heard or understood, creates more separation than connection in my experience. Therefore, I like to ask people if they would find value in me explaining something before I begin sharing the information with them. When they’re not ready to listen to what I have to say, they likely have needs for understanding, expression, more information, or the like. This is a clue for me to connect with their feelings and needs. When they’re ready to listen to me, they might pause and stop speaking in such a way that I notice they’re now open to hearing what I have to say. Many times I’ve had people say, “Now I’m ready to listen to you.”

On that Sunday morning, the team created a connection that was so powerful that when it came time to explain, to educate or even to understand, the mutual empathy was so great that, unmet needs could be spoken aloud and the foundation for those needs to be met was laid. They were ready to listen to each other.

Marie makes a compelling case for wider-spread use and awareness of the core NVC techniques not just in situations where the violence of our interactions is so apparent but also in the places where we don’t necessarily see the violence done everyday in the name of productivity:

“As I studied the model of Nonviolent Communication (NVC) that Marshall [Rosenberg] taught,” she writes, “I understood what he meant. I could see the unconscious and unintentional disregard for the feelings and needs of people, both in everyday relationships and in the world of the businesses, nonprofits, universities, and government agencies with which I worked. I observed that the workplace is full of what I call silent pain. I like to tell the groups I work with that I estimate about 30 to 50 percent of what is said in workplace meetings is not what is heard.

She goes on:

Our workplaces are two-dimensional because the process of empathic connection requires a literacy and comfort with two human qualities that have been systematically devalued and misinterpreted in the world around us. Our organizations are born out of this same consciousness and simply replicate this world condition in our workplaces. These two misunderstood qualities are:

1) Our ability to be fluently aware of our feelings without judgment of them and 2) our ability to then connect these feelings to related human needs that are being met or unmet.

 

“Our problem,” she adds, “seems to derive from our entrenched conditioning in using the emotions of fear, guilt, shame, and anger, as workplace motivators [my emphasis] instead of proficiency with connecting to our own or one another’s feelings and needs.”

Is it any surprise that people joke that work is a four-letter word?

The Empathy Factor is a call for ending the subtle, persistent, and awful violence to the Self done everyday in the name of profits and productivity. But more than a call to action, it also offers proof that–ironically–building a more compassionate, empathic workplace is precisely the path to greater productivity and, consequently, profits.

Indeed, one of the most highly regarded business writers, Warren Bennis, asserts in his classic treatise, On Becoming A Leader:

In order to lead a Great Group, a leader need not possess all the individual skills of the group members. What he or she must have are vision, the ability to rally the others, and integrity. Such leaders also need superb curatorial and coaching skills—an eye for talent, the ability to recognize correct choices, contagious optimism, a gift for bringing out the best in others, the ability to facilitate communications and mediate conflict, a sense of fairness, and, as always, the kind of authenticity and integrity that creates trust. Nothing about the world today is simpler than it was or slower than it was, which makes the ability to collaborate and facilitate great collaboration more vital than ever.* [my emphasis]

Marie details how The Empathy Factor facilitates this vital collaboration. More important, she shows how managers can build organizations where empathy is the core driver of their success.

Last week, I met with one of the team members of that original group. In the months since our first meeting, there’s been pain and growth, laughter, success and failure. As we talked about his transition, his taking of his seat as the leader of the group, he reminded me of the transformation possible by simply pausing to check in on yourself and the team. Connecting with the on-the-ground reality creates a tremendous basis for the hundreds of decisions that have to be made every single day.

We laughed as we enjoyed a moment of recognizing both the work that’s been accomplished to date and the fearsome work that has yet to be done. And I watched as this first time CEO manifested not only Connect-Think-Do but the even more powerful Connect-Think-Lead.

 

*From the revised Introduction to On Becoming a Leader by Warren Bennis, Basic Books, New York. 2003

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