Eternal Gratefulness

In 2006 – when the economy was surging with no apparent end in sight – we decided it would be good to let our children experience the struggles less fortunate people endure.  So on Thanksgiving, we joined with other families from our parish to serve at a homeless shelter in downtown.

There we encountered men and women whose lives no one would choose to endure. Yet amidst all of the pain and suffering from ailments, abuse and avoidance, there was gratitude. As they made their way through the line to receive turkey and all the fixings, some responded with words and smiles, others simply nodded. I struck up a side conversation with a young man who said he arrived in Houston three nights earlier, having been dropped from a bus after being released from prison. “I don’t know anything about living on the street,” he said. “I’m scared, and have no idea what to do.”

Watching our youngest, who was eight, refill water glasses and hand out cake, I realized she had no fear at all. To her these were just people and she was getting to help them. It was a wonderfully fulfilling day for the five of us… and we returned at Easter and a few other times over the next few years. With each opportunity to serve came joyous feelings of playing a small part in making our community a better place. I believe our children have a clearer understanding of the world because of those simple acts of kindness.

Today, as you break bread with your family and give thanks for the many blessings in your life, take 10 seconds to remember those who are alone and adrift. There are a lot more people hurting than five years ago… and every one of them could use your prayer.


Overnight Success

Kathy and I had dinner two weeks ago at the home of a couple we’ve grown close to the past few years. At the end of a wonderful evening together that included intriguing conversation and a meal featuring delicious pork, our hostess asked if we would like to see her latest paintings. Chris is an excellent artist and illustrator – with several published books – and she wanted to share her recent foray into impressionism.

As she shuffled through various outdoor, still-life and portrait works, I was amazed at her ability to vividly capture subjects on canvas. Being a neophyte to the art world, I asked about one nighttime scene of a bridge with water flowing rapidly beneath it, “How long did it take you to do that?”

“An entire lifetime,” she quickly responded. “It’s my art degree, the decades I’ve spent learning colors and technique, the ability to transfer what I see with my eye to my hand and onto the canvas, and the 10,000 hours I’ve stood in front of an easel. That’s how long it took me to paint that bridge.”

Malcolm Gladwell highlighted the 10,000 hours phenomenon in Outliers, using Bill Gates and the Beatles as prime examples. It’s become the accepted standard for the amount of time someone must put in to become an expert at his/her craft. Gladwell got it right… and our friend Chris is living proof. So, keep practicing.

[Note: Kathy and I commented that night how much we liked the pork entrée. Chris said it was her mother’s dish. A few days later, a note arrived in the mail. Enclosed was the recipe for “Mom’s Tender Lemon Pork Chops.” Those artists… they don’t miss a thing.]


Better Results

At dinner two nights ago, our kids took sips of their milk and said almost simultaneously, “This doesn’t taste right.” So I jumped up, went to the refrigerator, looked at the plastic container and proclaimed, “The ‘sell by’ date says it’s still good; must be your taste buds.” My wife, meanwhile, had a different attitude about this situation. She opened the other gallon purchased the same day and poured the kids new glasses. Sure enough, that milk was bad, too. Must have come from the same cow.

Our house – which is one year older than the 12 we’ve lived in it – is starting to have some big things go sour as well. By month’s end we’ll have replaced one air conditioning unit, two hot water heaters and three faucets. Like the spoiled milk, my thought is ‘How did they all know to go bad at the same time?’

In business, so much of success is about hitting expected dates of completion. Whether it’s meeting the deadline your boss asked for that spreadsheet, or delivering a product on the day you promised a customer, it’s imperative to pay close attention to the calendar. Unfortunately, one of the biggest challenges my coaching clients typically face is the ability to get their team members to finish things on time.

The biggest reason for this is these leaders are better at abdicating than delegating. They hand off assignments, set off to extinguish the next fire and forget the essential piece of following up to ensure things progress on a steady schedule. Then on the due date, they pick up the phone and ask where it is. Usually, a quiet voice on the other end says, “Yes, I’m still working on that.” What follows is a hurried race for the employee to remember exactly what their boss wanted and quickly reprioritize his own ‘to do’ list.

A better approach is for you, as leader, to set firm deadlines upfront including ‘check-in’ dates where your direct reports share progress and solicit guidance and feedback from you. This tweak in your approach eliminates last-minute surprises, ensures things finish as planned, and keeps you from ending up with a sour taste in your mouth.


Keep Churning

A coaching axiom in sports is to always play through the whistle. You see this all the time in football: a running back is thwarted at the line of scrimmage, yet keep his legs churning as the linemen gain traction and forward motion plunges him into the end zone. Meanwhile, frustrated defenders plead with the officials…having ‘Why didn’t you blow the play dead?’ looks on their faces.

The last many months have drained your emotional (and perhaps financial) resources. Your team is dragging, having picked up the workload of departed peers. The grind and frustrations of ‘Just when will this recession end and things pick up?’ are probably starting to wear on everyone.

Winston Churchill said it best some 68 years ago this month as England struggled to survive: “Never give in. Never give in. Never, never, never, never – in nothing, great or small, large of petty – never give in…” Your role as leader is to keep everyone believing that tomorrow will be better. Perhaps it’s time for a pep talk?

If you need a story to share, consider the Minnesota Twins.

In September, they trailed the Tigers by seven games. A week ago, they were three back with four to play. Yet by winning 16 of their last 20, these never-say-never believers forced a one-game showdown for the division title. Yesterday, down three runs early, by two in the middle and a run late, they – fittingly – took the game to extra innings. They tied it for the third time after the Tigers scored a run in the top of the 10th, before finally winning on a base hit in the bottom of the 12th.

Whether the Twins have enough comebacks left to beat the New York Yankees in the first round of the postseason playoffs is to be determined; however, it’s clear Ron Gardenhire’s squad lives and breathes Churchill’s mantra. Your team would benefit by doing the same.