10 Timeless Thoughts on Work & Life

Though she's only 20, Samanee Mahbub's insights into her 10 weeks in NYC are important for all of us at any age.  How many of these thoughts do you identify with? They are timeless, universal and very human.  Please read and reflect.

"On New York, and on life

After ten weeks in this city, I have a lot to reflect and think about on my last day before I embark on my next journey. This post has no clear theme other than what’s been going on my head. Thoughts about New York, about being lost, about feeling useless, about feeling useful, about adventures, about learning, about healing, about loving, about everything and about nothing. Hope you enjoy the thought ramble :) ...."

Who actually told us that feeling lost is bad, and that we actually have to have everything figured out?

Live your life with as much enthusiasm so other people can benefit from it.

When Disruption Meets Laughter & Fun

I was so honored to be a guest on DisrupTV with my good friend Vala Afshar of Salesforce and Ray Wang, founder of Constellation Research.  As to be expected, we had a great time talking blue lobsters, innovation, virtues, strategy and women in tech.  Take a look!

                   

Some Stories Need Retelling

With Thanksgiving coming up, I thought this was a story worth retelling - Thanksgiving, Christmas, Chanukah and a new year ahead.  I am continually overwhelmed with the blessings in my life and this remains one of the most powerful in my entire career - thanks to Vala Afshar & Sidney Kushner
 

What Gives You Hope?

Summer is ending, leaves are changing and we know what is coming, and I'm so filled with Hope!  Yup! InBIF10 Top Row L-R Marlea Brown, Andrew Kaplan, Nicha Ratana; Bottom Row L-R: Faisal Khurshid, Isby Lubin, Fiora MacPherson, Sarah Kandath, Me  what, in Whom do you Hope? Hope is a powerful force in life.  It is based in what is both possible and probable, not in hallucination. That's why September is Hope Month for me...because of BIF10 

BIF is the most amazing gathering of humans from all over the world sharing stories about perseverance, innovation, impact…and Hope! Every year we wonder how can the next be better and it always is.  Because of HopeHope in what the human spirit is capable of achieving:

I urge you to look at the videos, photos, and posts…. And sign up for next year!!

The Power of Perspective and Its Impact

Thank you Molly Cantrell-Kraig for asking me to share my story on Women's Impact Movement. Your founding of Women With Drive has impacted so many!

"When I got married, my mom told me, “Don’t start doing the things now you don’t want to do for the next 40 years.” I’ve taken this advice to heart in so many areas of my life, discerning the trade-offs between today and tomorrow. It helps me understand what it means to leverage all of one’s gifts and channel everything learned into a path that is uniquely your own." Read on.

The Power of Your Network is the "Ask"

Originally published in Harvard Business Review, this post needs to be reread since my friend Vala Afshar will be a storyteller at BIF10 and Sidney Kushner will be attending - in just two weeks!  
~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~ 

One of the biggest assets in anyone’s life is a generous network. It is a gift that grows simply by sharing it. Think of it as the Law of Accelerating Returns — the more you share your network, the more people share it in return and the more the rate of sharing accelerates. For me, my network has literally and figuratively been a source of survival. For most of us, networks have played a critical role in our lives, whether we realize it or not.

I asked executive and super-networker Vala Afshar if he thought there were any common traits or patterns that could be ‘taught’ or encouraged for networking.  We came up with a few unsubstantiated traits based on the people we know who are great connectors: 1) hard working (it does take work to network); 2) humble (now that’s pretty arrogant of me to say!); 3) quietly confident that connecting the people they introduce will result in something great even if it’s not yet clear; and, perhaps most importantly 4) who understand the power of the ask. For instance, Vala remembers arriving in America at age 10, escaping the 1979 Iranian Revolution not knowing any English, not blond and blue-eyed, and not stylishly clad. He also remembers the very few kids who overcame their shyness to ask him to play kickball — and how happy he was to be asked.

Too many of us worry that asking will appear self-serving, even if it’s not. We fear rejection. We fear looking stupid. Perhaps some of us actually fear hearing a “yes” — what would we do then? It’s tempting to say that asking takes courage. But really, think about it — what’s the worst that can happen? You’ll hear a “no.” No one’s going to throw you in jail. Let me share a brief story about a couple of normal (well, in their eyes) people and a kid to illustrate the Power of the Ask.

I first met Vala, CMO and CXO at New Hampshire-based Enterasys, now Extreme Networks, on twitter and reached out to him, since his tweets seemed so spot-on to me. We conversed over email and twitter, sharing stories of our jobs and of eating lobster, which we both love. We met last September on my way up to Maine for my annual vacation. I was greeted at Enterasys’s headquarters like a long-lost relative — even including an epicurean delight of lobster salad*. Needless to say, we really hit it off. I also learned that Enterasys provides network services to companies like the New England Patriots and the Boston Celtics.

Meanwhile, one of my mentees, Sidney Kushner**, has been creating CCChampions, an organization that creates connections between professional athletes and children with cancer to provide a source of inspiration and excitement during a very trying time in children’s lives. To date, CCChampions is working with over 6,000 professional athletes plus health care professionals, child psychologists, local students and community partners. Sidney’s compassion, drive and entrepreneurial savvy are contagious.

But let’s face it — Providence, RI, where Sidney lives, is not exactly a professional sports powerhouse. Yet Boston is nearby! So, sucking up courage, I ask Vala if he’d talk to Sidney and, if willing, then introduce Sidney to the Celtics. What’s the worst Vala could say? No. And I’d perhaps look like a fool… but I’m very used to that. But Vala said that after about 5 minutes of talking to Sidney, he wanted help. Still, since the Celtics were a fairly new client, Vala was a bit nervous about making the ask. Nevertheless, he did, and a 30-minute discussion ensued in which the Celtics offered to honor Sidney as part of their Heroes Among Us program at their January 9th game in a special in-game presentation. Vala said he had goosebumps and when he told me, I certainly did. When the Celtics called Sidney, he was speechless — all he could do was text me, not even talk.

On January 9, 2013, because Sidney will be honored on the famous parquet floor of TD Garden, more kids suffering with cancer will have an opportunity for joy, inspiration and valuable distraction from their pain. As parents, both Vala and I can only imagine what this would mean to our children.

And let’s face it, Vala and I have gotten great great joy from bringing Sidney and the Celtics together — beyondSidney and KJ (an 11 kid with cancer) are high-fiving on center court as CCChampions got honored as a "Hero Among Us" by the Boston Celtics! expression, so perhaps it’s very selfish of us. And in the end, despite feeling awkward at certain moments, we really risked very little to help make this happen.

When we don’t use the “Power of the Ask” we are in essence saying “no” before the question has even been asked — saying no to opportunities that change our businesses, our organizations, ourselves…and actual lives. So even if it feels uncomfortable, look for even just a small way can you use the “Power of the Ask” in your network — for someone you work for, with or manage. Make this your year of the Law of Accelerating Returns.

*This feast has become an annual tradition and on Sept. 15, we will be celebrating our third year dining upon the epicurian delights of Chef Brian Townsend (aka Director of Global Technology Services & Operations at Extreme Networks)

**Sidney graduated from Brown in 2013 and CCChampions is having an impact beyond his dreams. I am also very honored to be on his board. 

The Paradox of Trust, Vulnerability and Leadership

Thank you Switch and Shift for this series on trust!

"We usually think of great leaders as strong, unflappable, all-knowing, all-confident and ready to forge ahead.  They have all the answers, they know where they are going, and we trust them without doubt and question. Wrong! Great leaders are strong but don’t hide all their emotions. They know a lot but not everything, they are confident but not arrogant and they are ready to forge ahead – with the help of their team’s insights and inputs.  They want to be challenged and they want hidden assumptions brought to light and questioned." Read on...

The Transformative Power of Positive Leadership

General John Michel of the U.S. Air Force has graciously written this post for my blog.  To say I'm honored is an understatement. Gen. Michel is finishing his assignment as Commanding General (CEO) at NATO Air Training Command in Kabul, Afghanistan in a few weeks. Gen. Michel knows more than most of us ever will about leadership in ever changing complex, complicated, dynamic, multi-cultural, life-and-death situations (see bio at the end)  Thank you, John, yes for this post but more so for your integrity, dedication and service to preserve the freedom we have the luxury of taking so for granted.  
~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

"It is our attitude at the beginning of a difficult undertaking which, more than anything else, determines its outcome."

William James

On 16 October 2005, an incredible feat was achieved sixteen miles West of Denver, Colorado.  What was once considered one of the most contaminated and environmentally dangerous locations on earth, was reopened to the public as a pristine wildlife refuge in one-sixth the time and less than one-sixth the cost of original clean-up estimates. In tangible terms, a project initially forecast to span 70 years and cost taxpayers $36 billion was completed 60 years ahead of schedule and $29 billion dollars under budget....a feat the government's own General Accounting office declared unlikely, if not impossible.

In their book, Making the Impossible Possible, Leading Extraordinary Performance The Rocky Flats Story, Kim Cameron and Michael Lavine chronicle how in 1989, following years of complaints from workers, Unions and environmental regulators, the FBI raided the Rocky Flats Nuclear facility and shut it down. Three years later, the facility was permanently closed by order of President George H.W. Bush.

Shortly thereafter, the Department of Energy conducted a careful study of the site's residual pollution and concluded that the clean-up and closure of the facility would require a comprehensive effort on a scale that had never been attempted in United States history. Yet, less than ten years after beginning the massive cleanup effort, every building at Rocky Flats had been demolished, all radioactive waste had been removed, and all soil and water had been remediated to a level that exceeded federal cleanliness standards by a factor of 13.

In the end, the transformation of Rocky Flats wasn't merely a matter of going from good to great. It was nothing short of altering awful to astonishing. And the best part is it offers all of us a series of compelling leadership lessons on how each of us can promote positive change in our surroundings-one willful choice at a time.

***

It would have been understandable if everyone charged with sanitizing Rocky Flats had focused on all the challenges that were to be overcome.  What, with scores of contaminated buildings, 5,000 disenfranchised employees, and enormous quantities of weapons-grade nuclear waste, there was no shortage of problems to be tackled.  Yet history confirms those charged to lead this change effort chose to spend far less time fixating all that was wrong and instead, opted to channel their energy into creating ways to make things right.

Over the course of the last decade, I have been privileged to lead three massive, multi-billion dollar change efforts myself. In the process, I too have learned that in every organization something works and change can be proactively and positively managed. Yet, for as simple as this idea may sound, it's important to understand this is not our natural approach.

The traditional approach to leading change is to identify a problem, do a diagnosis, and seek a solution. In other words, the primary focus is on what is wrong or broken. This makes sense when we consider most of us have years of practice in the art of problem-solving so we shouldn't be surprised to discover we frequently find exactly what we are looking for: That which isn't working.

Conversely, some of us learn along life's journey the same lesson the leaders of Rocky Flats understood. Namely, there is actually greater power, energy and opportunity in allowing our successes to crowd out the unsuccessful. As psychologist and psychotherapist Carl Jung highlighted, a challenging problem is rarely solved. Instead it is outgrown, as a newer, stronger interest compels us to direct our attitudes and actions in a more compelling direction. Much like a plant naturally grows toward the light, the fact-of-the-matter is we each yearn to be exposed to positive forms of leadership.

Now I know the definitions and variations of leadership abound.  Yet after a quarter century of studying and, more importantly, applying leadership to a whole host of challenges and opportunities, I've found leading effectively is less about your ability to plan, organize, set a direction, establish a strategy or execute meticulously. Yes, these things are important and necessary, but they are insufficient in themselves. You see, relying on these more traditional forms of leadership leaves out the most powerful act of leadership there is: equipping, encouraging, empowering and ideally, inspiring those around you to use their personal influence to leave the world around them better than they first found it.

The key word in this personal definition of leadership is positive influence. Specifically, resolving do what you can, when you can, where you can to add tangible value to your surroundings. Those leaders who guided the improbable (and now historical) transformation at Rocky Flats did not succeed because they opted to do more of the same. Rather, they chose to envision a future that was a collage of bests. They effectively instilled in every member of the team that they were each doing something purposeful, meaningful and important, igniting a cycle of positive change that propelled the organization to heights no one had once thought possible. So how can you use your personal influence to become a more effective, positive leader? I recommend you begin by putting into practice the following principles:

Embody Optimism. Positive leaders allow their example to speak for itself. They choose to believe that they will find a way to be successful - even in the face of what seems to be insurmountable obstacles. Hannibal (the great Carthaginian military commander) once said, "We will find a way, or make one." Allow your enthusiasm and optimism to compel others, in the words of my favorite Nike commercial, to "Do Hard Things." Let your positive example inspire others to be and do their best.

Elevate Morale:  Orienting toward the positive goes beyond just a few people doing the right things for the right reasons; it involves everyone within an organization collectively performing in a manner that has an impact on both people and results. Make the most of opportunities in your sphere of influence to communicate and demonstrate compassionate support for those around you. Take time to honor people for their contributions and acknowledge their individual talent. Resolve to do your part to create conditions for every member of your team to flourish and thrive and come fully alive.

Enhance Inquiry: Author and innovation expert Warren Berger reminds us in his wonderful book, A More Beautiful Question, one of the most powerful forces for igniting positive change in business and in our daily lives is the simple, under-appreciated tool called inquiry-smart, frequent question asking. Leaders who make it a priority to question--deeply, imaginatively, frequently--are more likely to identify and solve problems, come up with game-changing ideas, and view as opportunity what others largely see as obstacles. The leaders of the remarkable Rocky Flats transformation succeeded because they appreciated the value of raising questions no one else was previously asking-and discovering powerful answers in the process. Take a page from their playbook and opt to be a leader who assumes less and question more. Make inquiry your priority.

Value People Above Things....Always:  Positive Leaders are not confused about life's most precious and valuable commodity-healthy, effective, mutually beneficial relationships.  Although we certainly need systems, processes, technology, and a host of other tools and platforms to accomplish our goals and objectives, none of these are a suitable substitute for the power of people working toward a common, compelling cause. Never lose sight that as a leader, what stands the test of time isn't the projects you completed, the awards you amassed, or the rank you achieved. What matters more than anything are the lives you touch-for good-along the way. Never, never forget that people are always more important than things.

All of these characteristics have one thing in common. They are contagious. As a leader, you have the opportunity every day to inject energy and passion into your team or organization. You can choose to use your positive influence to do everything in your power to leave the world better than you first found it.

Radioactive waste not required.

General John E. Michel:  John is a widely recognized expert in culture, strategy & individual and organizational change. The senior-curator for GeneralLeadership.com, he is an accomplished unconventional leader and proven status quo buster who has successfully led several multi-billion dollar transformation efforts. His award-winning work has been featured in a wide variety of articles and journals, including the Harvard Business Review. In addition to serving our nation as an active duty General Officer in the United States Air Force, John enjoys helping people learn to walk differently in the world so they can become the best version of themselves possible. He is blessed to be married to the most patient person on the planet and together, they have two amazing sons. You are encouraged to learn more about John at his website, www.MediocreMe.com

Does the "Practice Mastery" Rule Apply to Trust?

Yes! Thank you Barbara Kimmel for sharing some of my chapter in Trust Inc! 

"Deb Mills-Scofield shows how Menasha Packaging Corp proved “You Can’t Take 164 Years of Trust for Granted.

Menasha Packaging Corp (MPC), a 164 year old, 6th generation family business, has grown from making wooden pails in 1849 to a design-oriented packaging company that today delights customers, employees and their communities with over $1 billion in revenue.  How? By leveraging their culture of entrepreneurship, collaboration, and autonomy based on trust and faith in each other..." Read more...

When Did Accountability Become Passé?

From customers’ and suppliers’ viewpoint, Company X is fast growing, exciting, and high-energy. Inside, though,Diamantini & Domeniconi and designed by Tak Cheung  it’s a tornado. Fighting fires, arguing over who committed to what, why it didn’t happen, and noticing things that fell through the cracks in just enough time is normal.

How can this happen when they have weekly departmental meetings, keep track of action items, and post projects and timelines everywhere? Easily! There is no accountability. They don’t hold each other accountable for commitments. They’ve seen what happens when you fail, and it isn’t pretty, which undermines individual commitment. Requesters frequently change their minds, reprioritize, or create new, more urgent projects without ever really closing the loop on the old ones.

The Bell Labs culture I grew up in had a strong sense of accountability. When you’re working on things that literally change the world, it’s easy to be committed to something bigger than yourself. The “Labs” culture meant failure was a viable option. Success was discovery and application, not climbing a corporate ladder. At AT&T, the culture was the opposite. While I was privileged to have great management, the majority of AT&T focused on the bottom line. Failure was not an option. When I left AT&T and started working with many companies, I realized this culture was more the norm, not Bell Labs. That’s why I believe culture creates (at least?) two reasons for people’s struggle with accountability.

First is the fear of failure. Even before kindergarten, we’re taught failure is bad. What if we can’t do it or do it right or something goes wrong? So, we whittle down the scope, involve others so blame can be shared, make resource requests we know won’t fly, or let our fear hold us back from really creative solutions.

Since “failure is not an option” is still the modus operandi in most organizations and the odds of success are never certain, accepting accountability can be very risky. What if I can’t deliver? What if the people I need to work with won’t make the time or collaborate? What if factors I can’t control impede or inhibit success? Will I get a poor performance appraisal? Will I lose prestige, status, or my promotion? If there is a downturn, am I going to get cut? Unfortunately, these are natural, normal responses to accountability.

Accountability means putting our word and reputation on the line. Someone is counting on us — and we should care that someone is counting on us. If failure’s not an option, that can feel like too much of responsibility — or a liability — to take on.

The second problem is a lack of commitment on either or both sides. Either we don’t believe the request is important enough to make us change our priorities, or we don’t trust the “asker” to keep his end of the commitment. If the requester keeps changing his mind, his priorities or timelines, then it’s tough to accept accountability for the outcome. Trade-offs have to be made which means sacrifice — of time, priorities, perhaps things we are passionate about. Accountability works both ways, and if one party isn’t really committed, it can undermine the entire project.

Realities of 21st century business make accountability even more daunting. In the “old” days, a commitment’s path to success was fairly clear, linear, defined and prescriptive: follow this framework or process, and you’ll get there. Today, the path is usually messy, ambiguous, paradoxical, and maybe unknown. We may need to create our own frameworks and processes. It’s a discovery, not a prescriptive process, with many ways to get where we’re going, not “a” way to succeed. Success itself has changed; it used to be via a tangible output, a new product or service, a “thing” based more on what was probable than possible. Success today can be both tangible and intangible, like new learnings, viewpoints, networks, or opportunities, where we look for what is not just probable, but possible.

So, how do we help our cultures, ourselves, our people overcome the fear of failure and commit in a uncertain world? I have a few suggestions based on my experience in both accountable, and unaccountable, company cultures:

  • Communicate100. Communicate why the request is important to the organization, to both of you, and how it’s fulfillment will make a difference. What may seem trivial to us may be profound to someone else. To commit, we need to believe in something bigger than just ourselves or the organization, such as the mission and purpose of the organization. That is how we start changing behavior and making new habits.
  • Make sure that you’re present to support the request and remove or mitigate obstacles. Meet regularly to identify potential challenges and opportunities before they become a major problem.
  • Re-prioritize responsibilities and tasks to allow the person or team to complete the request. Don’t just add on. Not everything is urgent and important. Seriously, show your commitment to the request you’ve made. If it’s not worth re-prioritizing, then it isn’t worth asking.
  • Create ways to eliminate or minimize the stigma of failure. Focus on what’s been learned and how that applies, watch how you react to and treat the person, how you discuss it with others affected by the result and how you let it impact that person’s future success in the organization. Even if you can’t change the organization’s performance management process, your own personal demeanor and handling has an enormous impact.

I’ve also started to experiment with using the classic virtues to help improve accountability, but don’t have enough data’ to posit it as a suggestion above yet (though it can’t hurt).

Accountability is important on so many levels — professionally and personally. Let’s create the environment where it’s easier to have it be the norm than not.

Originally published in Harvard Business Review

Are You Just a Leader or a Just Leader?

A little 1 letter 'article' - "a" makes a huge huge difference - so what kind of leader are you??

"There are so many important traits in making a great leader – character, integrity, honesty, authenticity, vulnerability, trustworthiness, conviction, vision, communication and others I’m sure you can name.  Let’s talk about communication.  It’s not just the right words in the right tone; grammar plays a role.  Where you place certain words has a big implication on what is important which impacts the culture.  So let me ask you – are you Just a Leader or a Just Leader?"  read on...

I'm Standing Up, Not Leaning!

I don’t lean in, lean out, lean sideways, lean back…I stand up straight.  As a kid, my parents kept telling me to stand up straight and strong.  It created an aura of confidence, self-assurance, and supposedly, it was better for your back.  In fact, we now know that standing strong can actually change your mood and confidence.

Perhaps because I’m short (5’ 1” on my driver’s license), I’ve always stood straight, because I had to.  And I became tall – not in the physical sense, but intellectually, emotionally and professionally.  Throughout my career, I never felt discriminated against because of my gender.  Even after I had children, I never felt the need to do anything but stand up straight.

That’s why I have trouble with Sheryl Sandberg’s book, Lean In. What I find missing in much of the Lean In discussion is the joy of parenthood.  I didn’t “hear” any joy of being a mom, wife or even executive.  Children are not tactics or tasks to check off a to-do-list.  I’ve found being a mom an incredible privilege, responsibility, and indescribable joy.  Admittedly, I’ve had a charmed career path that I worked hard at, very hard, and built the credibility to ask, and get, what I wanted.  Having children and enjoying them, relishing in and with them, has been key to my success. 

I waited to have children.  Most of my friends and colleagues thought it was because of my fancy career.  They were wrong.  I waited til I became closer to being a mom I’d want, especially since my mother was, yes really, the perfect mother for me.  I didn’t want to inflict myself on a child when I wouldn’t even want myself as a mom.  Having children has taught me so much about myself, about motivating the behavior you want to see, about managing and freeing people and the illusion (delusion?) of control.  Being a mom has matured me into a better human being. My children didn’t hold me back, they propelled me forward…and made me redefine and want different things out of my career.  They have helped me define success and impact.

My stay-at-home mom unwittingly taught me about being a ‘career woman’.  She taught me the value of diverse thinking, of integrating art, music, science, and literature to look at the world differently (#STEAM 50 years ago), to create and recombine ideas.  She taught me how to criticize without being critical, without even realizing I’d been criticized, and therefore motivated to change.  She taught me how to prioritize what really and truly mattered.  She taught me that relationships matter more than stuff.  She taught me how to ‘present’ myself in public.  She taught me to stand straight.

Sheryl’s path, my path, your path, isn’t prescriptive.  And, as Stew Friedman points out, we all need options – to be professionals, parents, spouses, siblings, children.   We need to stop using words like Leaning In, Leaning Out and just be ourselves.  This may be idealistic, but if we don’t put it out there, we won’t aim for it.   Our world (and I firmly believe the fabulous Millennials will force this) needs to encourage and enable diversity of work styles, not just thoughts, gender, race, creed.  There are times that our work requires us to be front and center, but if it’s always the case, we end up being less than productive for our work and our families.

The Generation Xers are the transition between moms who stayed home and moms who worked.  Most of our role models are our moms who mainly stayed home, if we were privileged to be in that socio-economic position.  We are presented with a plethora of options that we still struggle to justify and judge.  I hope that our Gen-Y ‘kids’ – both women and men – will have an easier time defining their roles for themselves and their own relationships.  Our world, our work, our communities and our homes need them to.  We need to stop requiring ourselves and others to lean in or lean up – and instead, encourage and support standing up straight.  And it starts with us – with each of us.

A version of this was originally published in Switch and Shift as "Standing Up Against Leaning In"

15 Hours: A Common Sense Action Blueprint for Congress

What if our youth started to take government back? Well, it's happening. SamGilman and Andrew Kaplan, college juniors started Common Sense Action in 2012 with one chapter.  Now they have over 20 chapters in 15 states with AGE, The Agenda for Generational Equity to get their voice impacting policy.  Read on, be proud of our next generation and get on board! See why I love learning from these guys? 
~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~ 

15 Hours: A Common Sense Action Blueprint for Congress

Don’t you wish that we sometimes forced Republicans and Democrats in Congress to sit in a room until they agreed on how to move the country forward? Unless you’re one of the 9% of people who view Congress favorably, you probably do. 

A generation ago, politicians saw eye to eye – literally.  Our Democratic and Republican members of Congress lived side-by-side in the nation’s capital, linking their professional lives with their personal ones.  They ate and drank together; their families were friendly; they stood on the sidelines of their children’s baseball games together.  So when it came time to negotiate and make a deal, they trusted each other, knowing they would have to see each other the next day. Today, most members live in their home states and travel to Washington for three days for a whirlwind of legislating, interest-group meetings, and fundraisers – quickly returning to their home states on Thursdays whether business is finished or not.

At one event last summer, we spent half-an-hour listening to a Representative professing to make an enormous effort to get to know members of the opposite party. Seconds after the Representative finished talking, the former chair of the member’s committee walked in.  This former chair was from the opposite party.  They introduced themselves to each other for the first time. They had never met.  This kind of disconnect is unacceptable, especially when the political gridlock we face can only be broken by the power of relationships. Without time to get to know each other, how can we expect the Senator from Michigan to trust her counterpart from Georgia?

But what if Congress followed the old model today?  What if Congress used a Common Sense Action blueprint?

On Sunday, January 6, delegates from Common Sense Action (@CSAction) chapters across the nation gathered at the Bipartisan Policy Center in Washington to finalize the Agenda for Generational Equity, CSA’s foundational policy agenda.  The setting?  A single conference room.  The goal? Don’t leave until it’s finished.

At 9:00am, we came to that table, all 40 of us, strong in our own beliefs and ready to fight for them – principled partisans in short.  Before beginning debate, we set community norms that allowed us to create a safe space. In particular, our discussion was guided by three principles:

  • “Trust intent, name impact.”
  • “Safe space, honest space.”
  • “Make space take space.”

In other words, we trusted that people have good intentions, but were not afraid to call out hurtful or wrong speech; we created an honest space; and we established a structure for everyone to participate in discussion.  How else could leaders from rural Mississippi, inner-city Baltimore, and suburban Iowa all feel comfortable sharing their experiences?

At first, our debates were cautious.  We did not know each other very well and we were not familiar with each other’s policy beliefs and political ideologies.  It took awhile to get comfortable. We spent two hours discussing the first of 12 potential policy areas – Social Security reform proposals. After finally settling on a policy position for Social Security, we were exhausted.  The discourse, which had started cautious, had turned contentious. Having accomplished little by 11:00am, it was time for a short break.

When we returned to the table, the mood shifted.  During the break, we had hung out with each other, got coffee, and ate breakfast together, sharing a little bit of ourselves with our neighbors.  As the day went on, the conversation grew more and more productive.  At times, we disagreed passionately on ideological grounds. And we honor that disagreement as a necessary part of a responsibly partisan process. However, we were able to build trust through discussion. We tried to live the example that we wished Congress followed: we had made a commitment to ourselves, to each other, and to our chapters to craft an agenda by working together across difference. Of course, the norms helped, as our chapter leaders would consistently bring the group back to the norms before making a critical point or if debate began to get disrespectful.

Ultimately what emerged from this process was an Agenda for Generational Equity that plays between the 40 yard-lines. No Democrats or Republicans got everything they wanted in the Agenda, but everyone proudly endorsed the Agenda as a whole.

15 hours, 3 meals, 3 pillars, and 53 policies later, we had finished.  We finalized the Agenda for Generational Equity as the midnight bell tolled and Monday arrived.

The Agenda for Generational Equity will only have as much life as Common Sense Action members breathe into it.  CSA is building a movement across the country to organize around it. We invite you to endorse AGE to begin building political pressure on Congress to solve our nation’s problems.

Hey Congress – take a page out of Common Sense Action’s book. We have the humility to know when we are not the policy experts, to know that negotiating policy on a federal level requires time, patience, and courage.  But spend some time together.  Get to know each other.  Maybe stay in a room for 15 hours.  It isn’t too much to ask.  By starting with the basics, Congress can get back to good governance, do away with the political football, and start solving the nation’s problems.

Sam Gilman - Co-Founder and Chief Executive Officer (CEO) Sam is a junior at Brown University, pursuing a Bachelors degree in public policy. He is a C.V. Starr Social Innovation Fellow for his work on Common Sense Action. Sam is currently student body Vice President at Brown and previously served as Treasurer and Communications Director. In the summer of 2012, he interned at the Bipartisan Policy Center where he did research for a book on the causes and implications of gridlock in American politics. When he's not working at CSA, Sam is an avid runner, New York Yankees fan, and Civil War buff.  Sam can be reached at Sam@commonsenseaction.org.  

Andrew Kaplan - Co-Founder and Chief Action Officer (CAO) Andrew is a junior at Brown University where he is pursuing a Bachelors Degree in Political Science and Literary Arts. He was selected as a 2013 C.V. Starr Social Innovation Fellow for Common Sense Action. In the past, Andrew worked at the Port Authority of NY/NJ and the Queens Long Island Medical Group. When he isn't working on CSA, Andrew likes to read historical fiction, play baseball and soccer, and occasionally strum the guitar. He is a proud member of the Brown Taekwondo club, the two-time defending national collegiate champions, and he also welcomes anyone to challenge him in Lord of the Rings trivia and/or a cook-off.

January's Top 5 Posts

The top 5 posts for January includes 1 from 4 months ago! Yes, Hanna McPhee's post on Design & Science is still a top post - as it should be!! Here are the top 5:

 

BOLD: Do Your Behaviors Belie Your Beliefs?

My contribution to Switch and Shift's BOLD series - just up my alley!!!

"At one level, it’s a matter of faith.  At another level, it’s a risk-reward analysis.  In all the situations I faced, the risk of compromising belief far outweighed the reward of any compromised behavior.  At the end of the day, if I didn’t have my integrity, what did I have? At the end of the day, what was the worst thing the company could do to me? Fire me!" read on.....