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Anna Karenina: The Beauty and Tragedy of Life

Anna Karenina by Lucio Palmeri for Dolce & Gabbana

Anna Karenina has been on my must read list for many years. I have been keeping lists – and book lists in particular – since my first summer journal at eight years old. The epic Russian novel appears at the top of many top ten novels lists and has been referred to as “flawless” and “the greatest novel ever written” by two of the most celebrated novelists of our time.

I have owned a copy of Anna Karenina for about ten years. If I have made any attempt at all to read it, I have never gotten much past the first sentence, which is one of the most iconic quotes from the book “All happy families resemble one another, each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way”. Last Sunday, realizing for the first time that there has been yet another movie remake – this one starring Kiera Knightly and Jude Law – I decided I’d better read the book before “accidentally” catching it on television.

Tolstoy’s world is mid-to-late nineteenth century Imperial Russia. The primary characters live lavish and eminently superficial lifestyles. Their daily existence is a whirlwind of sparkling balls featuring hair-pieced chignons piled high, and decadently luxurious boudoirs where the aristocratic Russian society of Moscow and St. Petersburg affectedly pepper their speech with French. In stark contrast to the elaborate, but constricted life of the city is pastoral Russia. The agrarian countryside has expansive landscapes, rich soil and an unending sky.

Tolstoy’s romantic masterpiece is as vivid as it is relatable. The book captures the imagination with its straightforward and exact language. Tolstoy stops time as he bores into his characters’ every thought, motive, and facial twitch, even as dialogue is being exchanged. It is a romance – admittedly not my favorite genre – but juicy from the get-go with marital infidelity, unrequited love and a tragic love affair.

The novel is sweeping, with at least two dozen named characters whose lives spiral around the two central protagonists – Anna Karenina and Tolstoy’s alter ego, Konstantin Levin. Tolstoy peers not only into the lives of a few rich 19th century Russians, but into the whole of humanity. The novel has stood the test of time because it reminds us that even the most desirable of circumstances may be unbearable, that bumps in the road may still lead to happy endings, that glamor and frivolity are but fleeting joys, and that family and real love are worth crying for, fighting for, striving for, waiting for.

Anna Karenina is a celebration of human frailty and redemption. Tolstoy says its okay to be flawed, its okay to make mistakes, just keep trying. We see that there are infinite possibilities in life, but we indeed choose our own path. Without seeking to reduce a 150-year old, 900-page classic tome to a few epithets, Anna Karenina is a celebration of life – its beauty and its tragedy – and all the meaning there is to be found, if only we will choose to see it.

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Considering the Balanced Scorecard Approach

“When you can measure what you are speaking about, and express it in numbers, you know something about it; but when you cannot measure it, when you cannot express it in numbers, your knowledge is of a meager and unsatisfactory kind…” William Thompson

As the leader of a relatively young organizational unit, I am always looking for innovative ways to measure and improve overall performance and achieve strategic goals. A few months ago, I stumbled upon the Balanced Scorecard approach.

The Balanced Scorecard Approach in a Nutshell

The Balanced Scorecard approach was developed around 1990 and a result of the extensive research of Robert Kaplan and David Norton. They developed a methodology of translating organizational strategy into a balanced framework which guides organizational energies toward achieving long-term goals. Kaplan and Norton’s framework transforms the company’s vision and strategy into a coherent set of performance measures and objectives. The system is designed to balance both short and long term desired outcomes, and hard financial measures against more intangible deliverables. In their book ‘The Balanced Scorecard: Translating Strategy into Action‘, they arrange performance measures into the following distinct perspectives:

  • Financial perspective
  • Customer perspective
  • Internal business process perspective
  • Learning and growth perspective

The idea of a balanced approach to developing performance strategies and achieving business goals resonates strongly with me. I am from a hard-numbers, public accounting background, and so making a profit is essential. On the other hand, I have a strong long-term vision for the company I serve. I want to make a difference in the lives of the people who use our products and services, and I want our organization not just to be a place to work, but a place that shapes the lives of its employees in a positive way.

Why Financial Measures Alone Don’t Work

More and more organizations are realizing that achieving profitability or even product and service quality is not enough to shore up the probability of long-term business success. In his book ‘Balanced Scorecard Step-by-Step: Maximizing Performance and Maintaining Results‘, Paul R. Niven gives five reasons why focusing on financial measures alone does not work:

  1. Overabundant use of financial measures is not consistent with today’s business realities. Since value resides in the ideas, relationships and cultures of people scattered throughout the firm, financial metrics alone will provide  little value in identifying opportunities with customers or employees.
  2. Financial KPIs only measure past performance, but have no predictive power for the future. Scores of great companies with excellent financial metrics virtually vanished from glory without warning.
  3. Financial statements are prepared by functional area. This approach is inconsistent with an organization’s cross-functional nature; teams come together to deliver value that is impossible to track via financial measures alone.
  4. Financial measures often sacrifice long-term success. Downsizing, for example, may provide the required short-term goals required, but may also have a hugely destructive impact on morale and the firm’s overall long-term value and future prospects.
  5. Financial measures are irrelevant to day-to-day tasks of employees at many levels of the organization. The measurement of strategic performance be interpretable in a meaningful way at every level of the organization.

Balanced Scorecard for the Win

While most companies have mission statements and vision statements, these are often no more than well-worded inspirational statements, equally as grand and unused as the foyers they are displayed in. Employees don’t understand them, managers don’t implement them, resources are not invested in achieving them; they are, in essence, devoid of meaning and impact. Rare leaders, such as Steve Jobs, do a remarkable job of keeping their companies focused on the overarching vision. In stark contrast, many companies are led astray, distracted by the alluring siren-song of ‘profit maximization’ to the detriment of their identity and purpose, and ultimately their survival.

The Balanced Scorecard approach has gained an impressive following in its twenty year history; it is estimated that up to 60 percent of the Fortune 1000 has a Balanced Scorecard in place. Indeed, the greatest argument for the Balanced Scorecard approach is its ability to bring organizational strategy to life, by interweaving a company’s definitive vision and strategy so that it is felt, understood and executed at every level of the organization.

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Crucial Confrontations

Slightly ahead of my annual goal, I have just completed book number fifty-three for 2012. ‘Crucial Confrontations: Tools for Resolving Broken Promises, Violated Expectations, and Bad Behavior‘, was released a few years ago by authors Kerry Patterson, Joseph Grenny, Ron McMillan and Al Switzler. The book teaches how to confidently address violated expectations and resolve accountability issues without harming relationships.

The Scenario

[Husband lying on the sofa watching TV.]

Wife: Honey, can you please remember to take out the garbage tonight?

Husband: Yeah

[Thirty minutes later.]

Wife: Honey, are you going to take out the garbage?

Husband: In a minute.

[One hour later.]

Wife: Honey, the garbage!

[Snore.]

How Do You Respond to Bad Behavior?

We have all been there, situations where someone disappoints us not just once, but repeatedly. Your wife takes so long to get herself dolled up that you are late every time you go out together. Your assistant hands in sloppy assignments. Your boyfriend drinks too much and embarrasses you. Your boss screams at you. Your best friend borrows money and does not pay it back.

How do you respond to similar disappointments?

A) You handle yourself with grace and aplomb. You introduce the topic of the broken promise or inappropriate behavior in a safe environment, explain your disappointment, carefully get feedback from the other person and mutually agree on a plan of action.

B) You condescendingly remind the other person that the infringement has now been committed for the two-hundredth and thirty-seventh time.

C) You silently replay your fantasy to strangle him or her and curse under your breath.

D) You grudgingly ignore the first few instances, whine to your friends about it, and then explode like a crazy person when it happens a third or fourth time.

If you answered A, then you’re already applying the skills taught in ‘Crucial Confrontations’. If you answered B, C or D, then you’ve done what most modern human beings have been conditioned to do. We respond to conflict in one of two ways–fight or flight.

Crucial Confrontations

The pre-programmed responses do not work. Failing to adequately resolve touchy, controversial or complex issues at work can lead to major organizational problems and can be very costly. Picking fights or ignoring ingrained family problems because we feel ill-equipped to deal with broken rules or failed promises is a common cause of long-lasting family tension and strife. In ‘Crucial Confrontations’, the authors teach how to skillfully handle sticky situations without resorting to silence or violence. The book explains how to carefully prepare for an accountability session, how to conduct one and how to follow-up so that the behavior does not continue to occur. These skills applied in a disciplined manner will empower you to face the challenges that plague families, teams and organizations and resolve them permanently.

In a coming post, I will discuss some of the valuable lessons from ‘Crucial Confrontations’ in more detail. If you are struggling with unresolved conflict, I recommend that you read this book right away.

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2012 Reading Challenge Update

Two years ago, I set myself the goal of reading about a book a week, so that by the end of each year, I should have read about 50 books. I blogged about it here. When I recently updated my Goodreads profile, I was surprised to discover that I am lagging behind in my progress toward my goal of reading 50 books this year. You can follow my reading challenge booklist here. I’ve been so busy this year that I have only read 23 books to date.

I listen to audiobooks every day when getting ready in the morning and commuting to and from work. I easily clock between 60 to 100 hours of “reading” each month. But it has been a particularly challenging year. I have found myself starting books I “should” read, but then resorting to the staples that help me stay grounded every day. When I took a week’s break during July, instead of returning to my list of half-finished books, I chose to read well-reviewed works of popular fiction. Here are some of the books I chose:


Have you set any reading goals for yourself? Below is the embarrassingly long list of books in my library which I have started, but not completed:

Leadership and Business
23 Things They Don’t Tell You About Capitalism by Ha-Joon Chang
The Art of the Start by Gary Vaynerchuk
The Art of War by Sun Tzu
The Ascent of Money by Niall Ferguson
Delivering Happiness by Tony Hsieh
The E-Myth Revisited by Michael Gerber
How An Economy Grows and How it Crashes by Peter D. Schiff
Less is More by Jason Jennings
No One Would Listen by Harry Markopolos
Winners Never Cheat by Jon M. Huntsman
Winning by Jack Welch

Biographical
Benjamin Franklin: An American Life by Walter Isaacson
A Century of Wisdom by Caroline Stoessinger
Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass by Frederick Douglass
Roots by Alex Haley
Steve Jobs by Walter Isaacson

Psychology and Personal Development
Change Anything by Al Switzler and David Maxfield
The Diamond Cutter by Geshe Michael Roach
Don’t Sweat the Small Stuff by Richard Carlson
Mistakes Were Made (But Not By Me) by Carol Tarvis & Elliot Aronson
Moonwalking with Einstein by Joshua Foer
The Talent Code by Daniel Coyle
Talent is Overrated by Geoff Colvin
The Willpower Instinct by Kelly McGonigal

Classics
Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoevsky
Odyssey by Homer
A Prayer for Owen Meany by John Irving
True Grit by Charles Portis
Water for Elephants by Sara Gruen
The Wealth of Nations by Adam Smith

Popular Fiction
A Prayer for Owen Meany by John Irving
Water for Elephants by Sara Gruen

Science
The Emperor of All Maladies by Siddhartha Mukherjee
The Disappearing Spoon by Sam Kean
On the Origin of the Species by Charles Darwin

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Leadership Lessons: Remember Everyone is Important


After a busy spate at work which lasted months, followed by a glorious week off in Toronto, I have finally gotten around to re-starting the next book on my leadership list: ‘Creating Magic: 10 Common Sense Leadership Strategies from a Life at Disney’ by Lee Cockerell. Lee Cockerell managed Walt Disney World resort operations for over ten years. He has won many leadership awards and crafted Disney’s ‘Great Leader Strategies’. “It’s not the magic that makes it work; it’s the way we work that makes it magic.” On a resort the size of San Francisco, with a staff complement of 40,000, Lee achieved one of the lowest turnover rates in the industry and created magic.

I have just finished Chapter 3 where Cockerell explores the first leadership principle – inclusion. Lee’s most important leadership lesson is not about driving for excellence or being a stickler for operational efficiency. He focuses on making people so comfortable that they always do their best. Disney’s concept of inclusion is summed up by the acronym RAVE: Respect, Appreciate and Value Everyone.

Here are the 13 key principles for creating an inclusive environment:

1. Make sure everyone matters and that everyone knows it
2. Know your team
3. Let your team get to know you
4. Greet people sincerely
5. Reach out to everyone on your team
6. Make yourself available
7. Listen to understand
8. Communicate clearly, directly and honestly
9. Stand up for the excluded
10. Forget about the chain of command
11. Don’t micromanage
12. Design your culture
13. Treat your people the way you would want your customers to be treated

In principle 13, Lee goes on to elaborate that customers want four basic things:
– Make me feel special
– Treat me as an individual
– Respect me
– Be knowledgeable

Employees, in turn also want four things:

– Make me feel special
– Treat me as an individual
– Respect me
– Make me knowledgeable

How many of us can name bosses who have routinely done these four things? I can think of leaders who ticked two of the boxes regularly and three occasionally. All four? Only on extremely rare occasions. I know that as a leader, I have failed miserably in accomplishing this. How often do I make my direct reports and line staff feel special? How often do I treat them as individuals and not just department members or someone filling a role? Do I ensure that my team members each feel respected by me? Do I make my people knowledgeable?

I am only on Chapter 3 of this book, but I feel challenged already, and inspired to begin today to become a better leader. I hope you do too!

 

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The Five Dysfunctions of a Team

Ants do it. Why can’t we?

In theory, we all know the value of teamwork. In childhood, grandma admonished that “many hands make light work”. Henry Ford provided sage advice, saying “if everyone is moving forward together, then success takes care of itself”. We have all seen the glossy motivational posters. So why is it so difficult to build strong and effective teams?

Two years ago, when I became a General Manager for the first time, one of the lessons I knew I had to learn fast was how to get the most out of my new team of managers and supervisors. Having spent almost my entire career in audit, accounting and finance positions, leading a multi-disciplinary team was new to me.

I recently completed the audio version of my second book by Patrick Lencioni. “The Five Dysfunctions of a Team: A Leadership Fable” struck a chord with me.  In a cleverly woven leadership fable, Lencioni provides insight into the reasons why so many teams fail. The author shows how ineffective teams create apathy and ambiguity that will eventually cripple an organization.

Here are the natural, but dangerous pitfalls encountered by a team:

The Five Dysfunctions of a Team

1. Absence of Trust

Where there is an absence of trust in a team, members don’t get to know each other well. They are afraid to be vulnerable or admit their weaknesses or mistakes. Because the team members are constantly in defense mode, no one asks for help.

2. Fear of Conflict

Absence of trust sets the tone for a team’s inability to engage in unfiltered conflict around ideas. Effective teams disagree with each other. Instead of running their thoughts through a political filter before being spoken, they say “I disagree with you, here are the reasons why”. Veiled discussions, guarded comments, sarcasm and silence do not achieve the results that active disagreement and productive debate can yield. When team members don’t battle it out passionately, the decisions they reach will inevitably not accurately reflect the shared goals and values of the organization.

3. Lack of Commitment

Wherever there is a lack of healthy conflict then the third dysfunction is almost assured. Where there has been no “weigh-in” on matters, there is likely to be little true “buy-in” for decisions made. Team members may feign agreement during meetings, but haven’t truly given their commitment to decisions and plans of action.

4. Avoidance of Accountability

A lack of commitment to clearly defined plan of action leads to team members being hesitant to hold their peers accountable. No one gets called out for actions and behaviors that are counter-productive to the good of the team. When no one gets called out, everyone saves face, and the team loses.

5. Inattention to Results

Avoidance of accountability has only one natural conclusion. When team members  put their own  – such as career advancement, or the needs of their individual departments ahead of the collective goals of the team, then results suffer.

 

In the last two years, my leadership style has developed into one that is somewhat unconventional. I strive to create an environment that encourages vulnerability. Everyone on the team knows they have a say. I encourage debate and even passionate emotional debate. Conflict is natural and healthy. Without it, there will be no growth because the status quo is never really challenged. Arguing over concepts and ideas is not to be confused with personal mean-spirited attacks and destructive politics. In a good team, everyone knows the difference. It takes discipline and commitment to acquire that level of knowledge, but the results are truly worth it.

End note: If you are a leader who relies on a dogmatic management style, or if you are part of a team that constantly walks on eggshells trying not to offend each other, then I would like to challenge you to read Patrick Lencioni’s The Five Dysfunctions of a Team: A Leadership Fable. Learning to lead in a way that gets the most from your team will yield more positive results than you can imagine.