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Whenever I am approached for advice by someone facing a difficult “either/or” decision of personal significance, I typically follow a two-step process:

  1. Talk through the pros and cons of each option.  This step anchors the person in objective analysis of the upside and downside to both paths, and to make sure each has been fully explored.
  2. Flip a coin.  This isn’t a flippant (pun intended!) action.  Rather, it’s meant to validate what the person already knows, deep down inside.  I realized the genius of the coin flip years ago on my own and it wasn’t until this past week that I discovered the genius didn’t belong to me.  No matter; it’s still awesome!  I found the possible origin of this idea in Tim Hurson’s book, Think Better (p.184), in which he quotes the Danish mathematician and poet Piet Hein, who said the following in “A Psychological Tip”:

Whenever you’re called upon to make up your mind,

and you’re hampered by not having any,

the best way to solve the dilemma, you’ll find,

is simply by spinning a penny.

No – not so that chance shall decide the affair

while you’re passively standing there moping; 

but the moment the penny is up in the air,

you suddenly know what you’re hoping.

Caution: This coin flip business is not to be taken lightly.  That’s why step 1 is important, especially if the swath of the decision’s impact encompasses those you love and/or respect.  Still, when your heart is telling you the answer, it is unwise to ignore a source with such a solid track record.  I’ve watched a number of people hold their breath while the coin is in the air, lending credence to Hein’s assertion.

It is tempting in our virtual world to convince ourselves that the best way to make progress on our work is by communicating almost exclusively via email or other electronic means.  However, even with – especially with – all the enabling technologies at our fingertips, it is critically important to maintain regular, personal contact with those you lead and those who lead you.  I am going to describe my process for facilitating efficient and effective progress at work while continuously strengthening relationships.

  1. Schedule regular meetings with your boss, each person you directly supervise, and anyone else you need to connect with routinely.  At Epilepsy-Pralid, Inc., I meet with my boss and direct reports weekly, and my vice president peers monthly.  I meet with my peers one-on-one less frequently because we all meet with our boss as a team every week.  These meetings should be established as calendar invitations and protected, by which I mean do not postpone or cancel them unless absolutely necessary.
  2. Get a notebook.  I prefer a very basic, perforated wide-ruled notebook like the ones my daughters use in school.
  3. Take that notebook everywhere you go.  I bring it to every meeting and keep it right next to me when I’m in my office.
  4. Capture your thoughts as they come.  Whenever I think of something I need to discuss with someone identified in step #1, I decide whether it must be addressed before my next meeting with that person.  If so, I contact him/her ASAP.  If not, I write down my thought on their page in my notebook. I simply write their name on the top of the page on the left-hand side, and the date of our next meeting on the right-hand side.  If I already have a listed started for that person, I just add to the list.  I write down the topic with enough detail that I will remember the context of my thought when we next meet.  This applies to my one-on-one meetings and group meetings as well.
  5. Cover the list during the meetings.  With my direct reports, we start with the Top 3 (more on that below) and move on to the other items that we have collected in our notebooks throughout the week.  In the weekly team meeting with my boss and peers, we exclusively utilize the Top 3 approach (no time for more than that).
  6. Note actions determined in the meetings.  Next to the items that require action by me, I put a star in the left-hand margin, along with a description of the action needed.
  7. Complete actions as soon as possible after the meetings.  I scan my list and note the stars.  I put a checkmark by each star as I complete the action.
  8. File the document.  Once all the actions have been addressed, I tear out the page and file it in the folder I have for each person listed in step #1.  I am motivated to keep my notebook manageable, and it is oddly satisfying to tear out the page triumphantly!  It helps hold me accountable to moving actions along promptly.
  9. Refer to past conversations as needed.  Taking good notes is helpful so they can be referenced when there is a question about a past discussion or decision.
  10. Select content for performance appraisals.  For my self-appraisal and for the performance appraisals I draft for my direct reports, I go back through each page in the folder and look for notable items I want to include in the appraisal.  I find that nearly all of the content of the appraisal comes from these documents and other supporting information (such as emailed feedback from others, a notable written document that was produced, etc.) I place in the file throughout the year.
  11. Purge documents at regular intervals.  After I write the performance reviews, I destroy the papers from that performance period.  I purge my peers’ folders annually as well. It feels good to have thinner folders!

The Top 3

I embraced this concept when I first learned it in an audio presentation by Chris McChesney of The 4 Disciplines of Execution.  I greatly respect the work of Stephen Covey and the FranklinCovey company, and this gem is no exception.  You can learn more about the disciplines on the FranklinCovey website devoted to this topic. The Top 3 approach is embedded in the fourth discipline: Create a Cadence of Accountability.  Of course, as the Accountability Evangelist, I am a big fan of that!  Here’s how I apply it:

  1. In my supervision meetings with direct reports, we start each meeting with the Top 3 identified in the last meeting.
  2. We cover those 3 items and if they were not accomplished, have a brief discussion about what happened and how to prevent the “whirlwind” (McChesney’s term for the day-to-day demands that interrupt goal progress) from impeding completion of the top 3.
  3. We move on to the rest of the items on our lists.
  4. We close the meeting by jointly agreeing to the Top 3 due by the next meeting.  I have routinely stated: “I know you have 500 things to do. Once you complete these 3 top priority tasks, you are welcome to move on to the other 497.”
    • Of note, there can be less than 3 but no more than 3.  This is because McChesney convinced me that working on more than 3 tasks/goals/initiatives at once pretty much guarantees none will get accomplished.  If we select 2 that are particularly challenging to accomplish in a week’s time, that’s plenty.
    • The Top 3 is supposed to be anchored by the goal-setting process, which is covered in the other three disciplines.  Therefore, as often as possible, the top 3 tasks chosen should be directly related to – and facilitate progress on – one or more of the top 3 established [typically annual] goals.

I have included a fictitious example of what a notebook page might look like following a meeting with a direct report. 

I will close this topic by reinforcing the key benefits of the approach I have described:

  1. Get more work done faster.  Diligently conducting regular, focused meetings is the key to aggressive progress on goals.
  2. Reduce interruptions.  By having regular meetings and capturing thoughts in between, you are giving the gift of discretionary time to yourself and others.  Everyone can comfortably work on their priorities knowing that the non-urgent items are out of heads and onto paper and will be handled at the next meeting.
  3. Context!  Emails are easily misinterpreted especially when people are hurried or stressed.  Having conversations in person (or at least via phone or video) allow for consideration of body language and tone, two major methods of communication that indicate satisfaction or a need to address potential concerns.  Email messages in between meetings are more benign (as written by the sender and interpreted by the receiver) because email is being used for its intended purpose (i.e. information exchange) and not as a substitute for real communication.
  4. Relationships blossom.  #1-3 in this list contribute to trust.  In addition, the informal chit-chat that occurs during regular conversations adds up over time and you get to know each other better.  Isn’t that the best way to appreciate another person – by getting to know them as they are?

Feel free to use the Contact Us feature to ask questions about this process or share your own.

If I were to rank order my favorite months, January would be near the bottom of the list if it weren’t for football playoffs (FINALLY the Bills are in again!) and the promise of a blank canvas.  I’m not talking about New Year’s resolutions.  I’m referring instead to the first few days following the removal of the Christmas decorations.  As much as I look forward to the Christmas season and celebrate it as fully as I can manage within my schedule and energy level, I am relieved by the return of routine.  The simplicity of the standard decor – which only looks simple immediately following several weeks of anything but – signals possibility and opportunity.  I love the serenity of the walls that are comparatively bare and demanding nothing from me.  I can decide what to do or not to do.  It’s very empowering.

Kidden Prep was established because of a firm appreciation of the influence of our mental and physical surroundings.  If we walk through a cluttered room on the way to another cluttered room, how can we possibly sort out the clutter in our minds in order to decide what to focus on next?  Contrast that obviously or obliviously stressful journey with a stroll through a house without piles or unnecessary items to clean and store.  One image conjures hope and the other, despair.  Yes, some people appear not to notice clutter or be bothered by it until or unless they experience what it’s like to live without it; sometimes you have to not see it to believe it.  One cannot underestimate the impact of a peaceful (or not) material environment.

My faith value is stronger than my decluttering value, so the Christmas decorations will stay up until the Epiphany.  Then, I’ll say a prayer of thanks for the blessing of Jesus’ birth and another prayer of thanks for the blessing of a satisfyingly organized and visually quiet home.

It is easy to find a lot of support for the practice of keeping a gratitude journal.  One such very comprehensive article in favor of the practice points out the following, among other compelling insights:

By noting what you are grateful for, you can gain clarity on what you want to have more of in your life, and what you can do without.

That statement is timely, as we prepare to celebrate the Thanksgiving holiday, perhaps the most popular time of the year to pause and recognize just how much we have.

I think a gratitude journal is a great idea and I’ve suggested it to several people, including my children. Unfortunately for me, forced writing is not sustainable (see: multiple attempts at consistently populating a food log).  It’s really too bad, because I would love to be able to look back on a documented history of positive moments.  Cloaked in disappointed self-awareness, I decided to devise another approach:

In bed before sleep each night, I offer a thanksgiving prayer to God by reflecting on my day and highlighting 3 things for which I’m grateful. I do not rank them; I simply mention in my mind 3 things that stand out to me.  The entire process/prayer takes less than a minute and I’m generally off to sleep minutes later.  To illustrate, here are examples from the past few days:

On Friday, which is supposed to be my dedicated, coveted Kidden Prep day, I instead spent most of the morning running around taking care of my younger daughter’s doctor appointment, returning her to school and volunteering for an hour shelving books in the school library, then picking up her medication from the pharmacy and bringing it back to school.  These were my 3 thank yous to God for the day:

  1. Keeping my immediate and extended family free from harm and major illness.
  2. Productivity: I thrive on accomplishment.  Even though my work day didn’t start until the afternoon, I was still able to complete quite a few work and personal tasks.
  3. The grilled tuna and swiss panini from Wegmans that I had for lunch.  This delicious comfort food warmed my heart and stomach.

Saturday marked several days in a row of not feeling great, but I still pushed myself to get up early to run a few miles then walk 20 minutes more before heading out for an early coaching appointment.  I then endured a 4-hour shopping/errand marathon with my older daughter.  “Endured” is the label I assign because I’ve never been a fan of extended shopping or errands.  After that was finished, even though my sinuses and lungs were struggling a bit, I remained comfortable enough to dive into some early Christmas decorating to take the pressure off when we return from Thanksgiving travel.  I was on my feet or in the car nearly the entire day, and went to bed with my body very much ready for rest.  While my body rested and before I fell asleep, I told God I was grateful for these things:

  1. My coaching client.
  2. Having a family for whom I needed to spend hours shopping for Christmas gifts.
  3. My general health and stamina that allowed me to function effectively and relatively comfortably despite the presence of several lingering cold symptoms.

Keep a gratitude journal or not – but make it a practice no matter what.  You and your life will be better for it.

I have really been enjoying the coaching part of my business lately.  It has inspired me to focus on increasing my coaching capability, so I can provide continuously enhanced service to my clients and strengthen interactions with everyone I encounter.  A proud bibliophile, reading is my preferred approach to learning and self-improvement, and I am fairly discerning when choosing a book to occupy my precious discretionary time.  Also, I believe God speaks to me through messages in books, or at least, I hear Him more clearly through written words.  Considering all of that, I selected Leadership Coaching: The Disciplines, Skills, and Heart of a Christian Coach by Tony Stoltzfus.  It was highly rated by my “peeps” at Amazon (I like to imagine all the reviewers are doing me a personal favor by sharing their opinions on my pending purchases), and the description of the content aligned well with what I seek to accomplish.

The biggest “Aha!” moment from the book was also its most reinforced concept: The source of the solution to client problems comes from the client, not the coach.  The coach’s job is to help clients to harness the power they already have to identify and implement their own solutions.  This represents a departure from how I’ve tended to operate in the past.  My first inclination upon encountering someone else’s challenge is to offer a number of my own ideas for how to effectively address it.  Those ideas don’t always work out because…they are my ideas!  When I make suggestions, they need to be practical, relevant, and doable in the mind and heart of the client, regardless of how compelling they seem to me.  Put another way, it’s not a viable solution if the client isn’t motivated to pursue it.  Further, when I’m the one driving the solution, the person will likely turn to me to set the course for future fixes instead of relying on his/her own problem-solving ability.  When that happens, a dependency is created that misses the point of authentic coaching.

The “Aha!” moment I have described here should have been more of a reminder to me than an enlightening surprise.  Apparently, I didn’t fully embrace the concept the first time I encountered it years ago.  Back then, I routinely made the following assumptions:

  • I deliberately spend a lot of time figuring things out, so I assumed everyone else does too.
  • I assertively advocate for myself and do not need to be prompted to effectively communicate my preferences, so I assumed that was the case for everyone else too.
  • I have high self-efficacy, so I assumed everyone else has it too.

All of these assumptions are, of course, wrong.  (My father used to say, “You know what happens when you assume…”)  Still, I stand by my staunch belief that people are capable of achieving whatever they want in life, even if they aren’t yet convinced of their potential.  That is why I wanted to become a coach.

The coaching process is basically an interview where the coach asks the questions and the client provides the answers.  I enjoy listening for cues of significance and probing for deeper meaning and ideas.  Clients seem to respond well to this, reinforcing what Tony Stoltzfus and other coaching legends have long embraced:  We already have the tools we need to be the best person we can possibly be, to fulfill the unique purpose God intends for us.  As the Accountability Evangelist, my personal mantra is to “be part of the solution”.  As a coach, I need to be part of your solution.  My job is to help you open your toolbox, select the tool you want to use, and use it in the way you want to use it.  When you do that, your chances of success and personal fulfillment are very high – and I will be eager to celebrate your success with you!

Having just revamped my packing list per my previous post, I was feeling pretty good about my packing efficiency for my recent trip to Scotland…until I saw how much everyone else was bringing.  To my dismay, it appeared that of the nearly 20 people affiliated with the Rochester Fringe Festival who were driving from Rochester to Toronto for our flight to Edinburgh (for the 70th anniversary of the Edinburgh Fringe), my luggage was the most significant.  I had a full size suitcase and a rolling carry-on, plus a backpack with my purse and other flight essentials in it.  Is comparing myself to others the most appropriate way to determine if I had packed efficiently or not?  Maybe.  Perhaps just as relevant is asking this: Did I actually use what I brought?  Since I had my trusty detailed list, it’s easy to go line by line to assess that.  However, thanks to my cancelled flight home, I can answer that question fairly well without looking at the list: YES.  Since I had to improvise to eek out one more workout and night of pajamas, I can say that I used nearly everything I packed.

I have reviewed the list and can share the items that came to Scotland with me but were not used:

  • plastic garbage bag
  • sharpie pen
  • 1 of 2 books
  • 1 of several magazines
  • rain poncho
  • a few of the sweatbands
  • blister stick
  • insect repellent
  • first aid kit
  • laundry detergent – 2 in one sheets that go from washer to dryer
  • sewing kit & scissors
  • laundry stain stick

I highlighted in bold italics the things I would not bring on a similar trip.  The rest of the stuff I would likely bring again.  The poncho, for example, was an absolute must if there was rain during outdoor activities.  Now, one could argue that I could have bought those things in Edinburgh if I needed them, but I find that to be wasteful in part because of everything listed, the magazine and book took up the most room/weight.  Together, everything else represented a very small footprint.

Some food for thought:

  1. Just because I used something doesn’t mean I really needed it.
  2. Just because I didn’t use something doesn’t mean I could have predicted that I didn’t need it.

Overall, I made a lot of good decisions for my summer vacation trips this year, such as using packing cubes. Still, I am going to keep challenging myself to pare down.  Even if I never achieve “carry-on only” status for longer trips like Sharon Kanter did, I can keep making small improvements that will lighten my load.

For the last few years, my family has used a spreadsheet packing list to prepare for our annual trip to Walt Disney World.  The list has served us well, and apparently others are also fans of this approach.

This year, I decided to take it a step further.  Upon returning home, I wanted nothing more than to return everything to its rightful place in our home, as fast as possible.  That is my typical MO – once the trip is over, it’s over.  There is no reason to drag out the unpacking longer than necessary and clutter our home.  Except, of course, if you want to be even more efficient when packing for the next trip.

So this time, I kept the suitcases in the kitchen, grabbed the printed spreadsheet, and painstakingly reviewed every single item to determine if it should remain on the list.  This took a few days because I had other things to do of course, which meant I had to live with visible piles during this unpacking purgatory period.  I had to remind myself the small sacrifice of temporary disorganization would have a worthwhile return on investment.  It wasn’t easy, but some deep breaths got me through!

This is how I executed the update of our list:

  • I checked off those items on the list that were actually used.  Paring down our packing over the years paid off – we used nearly everything we brought.
  • I made a note of items we didn’t use but should still pack for future trips – such as most of the first aid kit contents.  (I actually evaluated every first aid kit item – EVERYTHING we brought.)
  • I asked my family members to announce anything we did not pack that they wish we had.  Only a few items were mentioned.
  • Finally, I reviewed my written notes and transferred the findings to the electronic spreadsheet.  There were a number of insights I added to my Comments column, such as:
    • Doing laundry in the early evening nearly guarantees available machines.
    • Certain bags are better for carrying our belongings in the parks.
    • We brought way too much sunscreen.  I specified exactly how much we used – and next time we’ll bring a bit more than that.
    • Every year we bring light-up accessories that are Disney-themed, and every year we forget to bring them to the parks OR we bring them to the parks and forget they are in our bag.

I learned that there is much opportunity for packing analysis to go way deeper than even I had considered. No need to go overboard, though.  I’ve drawn the line at identifying specific articles of clothing, for example, and instead will stick with indicating how many outfits and what type.  I don’t want the packing to take longer than the trip itself!  Thanks to our streamlined list, next year’s Disney adventure will be more focused on what we are going to do than on what we are going to bring.

In Good to Great, Jim Collins identified what “great” companies do differently as compared to “good” companies.  He had specific criteria for defining these two subjective terms; however, for the purpose of this post, I simply want to reinforce that the companies did things differently.

Recently my older daughter received an academic award.  Her sister, 4.5 years younger, was proud but also distraught.  The younger one lamented to her father that she was never going to get awards.  My husband wisely told her that to achieve such success, you must be willing to do what it takes, to work hard.  Otherwise, with moderate effort, you’ll likely be “good” – which is perfectly acceptable…unless you want to be great.

In my Control vs. Influence post, I noted that an Accountability Ambassador does “whatever it takes to be the best person I can be”.  You don’t have to be great at everything but you aren’t going to be great if you aren’t willing to earn that distinction.  So, first decide what greatness you want to pursue.  What is so important, so motivating, so rewarding, that it is worth the sacrifice of time and effort that is required to get what you want?  Are you willing to make that sacrifice?

QUICK QUIZ: Is this something you can control or influence?

1. Someone else’s behavior: __________

2. Your own behavior: __________

3. Someone else’s reaction to your behavior: __________

4. Your reaction to someone else’s behavior: __________

The quiz above is one I use in all my training sessions that feature accountability.  Also, I recently attended my daughter’s career fair at her elementary school (grades 3-5) and presented this same concept.  Once the term “influence” was explained, it clicked immediately and the quiz was completed with 100% accuracy by all students.  (I’m sure you also scored 100%. To reinforce your confidence, here are the answers: 1&3 are Influence; 2&4 are Control.)  Two key insights:

1. There is a difference between what you can control and what you can influence.  Therefore, doesn’t it make sense to focus on your own behavior?  You can leverage it to be your best self and to encourage others to follow suit.

2. You can influence almost your entire universe, and control a subset of it.  Most of the time, circumstances don’t happen to you.  YOU have the power to make things happen for yourself, if you are willing to take the actions necessary to achieve your desired outcome(s).

At the conclusion of the accountability lesson at the career fair, I welcomed the students as Accountability Ambassadors.  They were each given 4 badges, one to keep and 3 to hand out to other students caught in the act of accountability.  The badges stated: “I am accountable: I serve others by doing whatever it takes to be the best person I can be.”

I often coach my older daughter, who is now 13, to “be aware of your surroundings”.  I use this directive in many contexts including but not limited to safety, emotional intelligence, and keeping a tidy, organized home:

  • Safety: Stay alert to cars entering and exiting streets, parking lots, and driveways; suspicious activity that may indicate danger; potential hazards indoors and outdoors.
  • Emotional Intelligence: Ask yourself, “Who needs my help?”  If you pay close attention to the non-verbal cues of those around you, the answer will be clear.
  • Organizing: Take in a panoramic view of every room as you enter and leave.  What needs to be put away?  What small action can I take in this room to make it look less cluttered and prevent more tedious clean-up later?

Being able to tie in so many life lessons into one mantra is both efficient and effective in its simple consistency.  Plus, “be aware of your surroundings” will continue to have relevance for children as they grow into [hopefully!] mature adults.