Recently, I've read six books that have impacted my thinking and spirit -- and feel aligned with my overall quest for Growth (along multiple dimensions).
Here's the list and why I'd recommend them:
On Kindness by Adam Phillips and Barbara Taylor. This compact, 114 page exploration of the history and philosophy of kindness packs a punch. I especially found the authors' perspectives on Enlightenment-era debates by Hobbes vs Rousseau, Hume, Smith and others to be fascinating. The Freudian sections dragged on from my perspective and can be skipped. This fundamentally optimistic book is perfect for a flight -- especially if you're coming from or going to meetings in larger cities where not everyone outwardly and consistently projects kindness!
The Art of Stillness by Pico Iyer. I loved this book. Like "On Kindness," it's a quick read (even shorter at 66 pages). You might even be tempted to finish it on the airport tarmac before your ascent. But what it lacks in length, it makes up for in riches via a call to the quiet life. Iyer, an acclaimed journalist and constant traveler, simply and beautifully describes the benefits of silence and aloneness. Whether via short retreats or quick walks, he encourages us to slow down at times in a way that feels refreshing, energizing and achievable.
The World's Great Thinkers: Man and Man, the Social Philosophers. Originally printed in 1947 and part of a four part set, I found this gem on my late father's book shelf. As a public school kid from Upstate NY, and a management undergrad major at a State university, I missed a classics education. If you're like me, or are looking for a brush-up, this wonderfully edited piece includes important slices of Aristotle, Plato, Epicurus, Marcus Aurelius, Epictetus, Emerson and others -- coupled with historically grounding editorial introductions. You may have to hunt a bit for the now out of print set but it's well worth the search.
Wind, Sand and Stars by Antoine de Saint-Exupery. Like many, I originally discovered de Saint-Exupery as the author of "The Little Prince." What I didn't know was that he was one of the original French aviators. This National Book Award winner, recipient of the Grand Prix of the Academie Francaise, and National Geographic Top Ten Adventure Book of All Time is soaring and majestic. The translated prose captures the spirit of humanity via first-hand accounts of the dangers and gifts of early air travel. Riveting history and thought-provoking explorations abound.
Reinventing Organizations by Frederic Laloux (forward by Ken Wilber). While I've yet to finish this overview on a new way to create business structures, I've deeply appreciated what I have read. In 2014, Laloux quietly published a book that has had rippling impact (see the Amazon reviews, for instance). In it, he looks at the evolution of organizational structures that parallel our evolution of consciousness. And he argues that we're at the forefront of a major shift that can be seen today in select organizations. Full of concrete case studies and examples, Laloux's work to build upon Wilber's theories is important for those of who study and lead organizations. This has become a book that I'm keeping close at hand as I challenge myself to fully digest its essence. The Foreword and first couple of chapters are already dog eared and reread in my copy!
Brain Maker by David Perlmutter. I was first introduced to Dr. Perlmutter via his exploration of the evolution of wheat, increase in inflammatory states, and link to brain diseases in the important book "Grain Brain." In his latest piece, Perlmutter explores how our gut microbes (our "microbiome") impact our health. Once again, his research seems sound, his writing is clear, and his topic important for our ability to lead and serve with health and vigor.
In closing, the above clearly aren't a typical set of business books for entrepreneurial executives. That's definitely by design. In my experience, the journey of business is one where our whole, authentic selves can be drawn in. These books have helped me discover and explore new boundaries, thinking and frameworks. I'm hopeful that they are enjoyable, challenging and enlightening for you as they have been for me.
Idea in a nutshell: 100% of unscientific survey respondents indicate that great teams are a major factor in fueling energized work.
About a month ago, I posted a variety of loose thoughts on what I've been calling Energized Working. In a nutshell, I offered that Energized Working was different from Flow, that it required an amalgamation of aligned elements, that it had the potential to operate over an elongated time horizon, that focus and optimism often seemed to be at play, and that I was just starting to scratch the surface on my exploratory work.
Last week, I pushed forward a bit and leaned on my friends for perspectives. Picking 35 folks in a very unscientific way, I asked two questions: 1) How would you rate your current work/professional energy? and 2) What factors contributed most when you last felt most energized at work?
The results were interesting -- to say the least!
First, ~2/3 of those asked actually answered the survey. This shocked me as typically surveys I've conducted have gotten less than 50% response rates. Way less. I optimistically looked at this as an indicator that people were interested. And several of the comments I've gotten since further demonstrate interest in the topic. Maybe we're on to something here. Thank you deeply to everyone who took the time to respond!
Second, my friends are feeling better than I would have imagined. While ~8% indicated their energy was relatively low, ~60% said that it was pretty good. And a full ~32% (nearly one in three) said their energy was excellent. Wow. I didn't expect such good energy (but again, since this was an unscientific survey there are likely all kinds of biases and skews at play here).
Third, the ranking and focus on energizing factors was intriguing. Per below, 100% of respondents indicated that a great team was a primary factor in contributing to the last time they felt energized at work. Amazing, right? I can't think of the last time 100% of my friends agreed on anything!
Some items that I personally expected to be higher in the survey, weren't. For example, only 40% of respondents indicated that meaningful work relationships were major energizing factors. And a great boss? Only 44% felt significantly energized via their boss (sorry to my managerial readers).
While the survey was intentionally skewed towards motivating factors, hygienic elements were included as I was curious to see how people would respond (for deeper perspectives, see Herzberg's motivator-hygiene, or two-factor, theory). And via conscious intention or not, work hygiene factors like compensation (30%) and a commute (9%) found their way to the bottom of the list.
In other words, minimal dissatisfiers don't produce energy.
Here's the full set of responses:
What do you think? Did I skew the survey too much via who we selected and/or the choices I provided? Do these results seem aligned with what you might expect? Is this whole Energized Working thing something new...or are we just backing our way into yet another test of happiness or flow, subjects well covered elsewhere?
As always, I'd love your feedback, via either a comment below or to steve at alder dot vc via email.
And until next time, I hope that your energy is high and your hygienic dissatisfiers low!
Idea In Brief: Finding the zone of Energized Working facilitates profound flourishing and significant accomplishments. This initial post is a proverbial toe dip in the waters of conceptual exploration.
Over the last three decades, I've been fascinated by how personal energy impacts work. And as I glance at my bookshelf, I'm not alone: The Living Company, Flow, The Advantage, Flourish, Jamming, The Art of Happiness, Linchpin, Built to Last, Blink, Drive, Unstuck and more are titles that directly or indirectly look at how energy influences our work.
McKinsey also conducted research in the early 2000s around organizational energy in times of transformation. Not surprisingly, 57% of executives involved in successful transformative efforts felt that their companies had maintained positive energy.
Based on my often limited personal energy (e.g. I tend to function best with ~9 hours of sleep per night), motivated by a variety of challenging autoimmune diseases in my family, and influenced by books like those above, I've become even more curious about personal energy, especially as applied to how we spend the majority of our time -- our work.
I also had a moment of illumination recently, brought about by a gift from my good friend Bo Durickovic. As we were literally "going to the mountain" (hiking Mt Humphreys in Flagstaff, AZ) and talking about life, nature, business, entrepreneurship and more, he stopped me on the trail and said something like, "Dude, you're the energy guy. Why don't you do something with it?"
Simple words, but like most profound challenges they left me stumped. What should I do? Is there a product here? A new take on research? A gift I can bring to the world? A book? A talk? What is it and does anyone care?
Further, what do we really mean when we use loose terms like "good energy" or phrases like "I'm feeling energized?"
As I started digging in more, I felt even more convinced that I needed to better understand how we build positive personal energy that can both fuel great individual work and ripple through those we serve. And I felt compelled to start a journey of research, meditation, reflection and writing to provide perspectives that might help others.
This blog post is my first attempt to inch towards Bo's challenge. I think there's a bunch more here and I'd love to hear from you. Is energy something that you think about? How do you build and maintain your personal energy? Is too much energy a bad thing? How might darker forms of energy (e.g. like anger and anxiety) actually serve us in certain times?
There are so many questions that I'm playing with and I'd love to glean any of your thoughts via a Comment below or an email (steve at alder dot vc).
To begin, I'll initiate the conversation with a set of incomplete perspectives on Energized Working. I view these as an initial attempt to put some initial thoughts on paper. Please bear with me.
What is Energized Working?
While I love the state of Flow, I often find that by its very definition it's not maintainable over extended clock nor calendar time periods. Energized Working, at its best, keeps us going over extended periods.
In a nutshell, I'd offer that Energized Working is the intersection of Focus and Optimism.
Specifically, when we're focused on something clear and meaningful, and we're optimistic about the outcome, we have the potential for Energized Working. But in my experience, there's more that's required.
Energized Working requires a highly tuned vessel for delivery. The body generally needs to be in good working condition to enable Energized Working. Factors that influence my physical state (and these are generally somewhat different for everyone) include sleep, moderate caffeine, aerobic exercise, anaerobic exercise, moderate alcohol, nutrition and more. As I start to gain more data on how others experience Energized Working I'll look to share more about physical priorities -- and techniques around long term, reasonable enablement.
While our physical requirements can be high, our psychological needs are arguably higher. In my experience, I need to feel grounded, appreciated, innovative, sharp, articulate, creative, included, visionary, productive, committed and more. I'm hoping through both secondary and primary research to better understand the collection of feelings, emotions and nudges that equip us to engage in energized work.
While our bodies and psyches have requirements, the work itself generally also has a set of conditions that give us the best opportunity to find and maintain energy. For me, purpose is paramount. There needs to be meaning in the cause itself. Second, impact must be big -- either dramatically changing a few people or moderately helping huge audiences. Third, I find that the new trumps the routine; innovation and creativity build energy. Finally, results matter. The work needs to win and grow in measurable ways (typically through revenue as a market indicates their value in the work by paying for it).
Per above, this post is meant to start to scratch the surface. By intent, it's incomplete, scattered and high-level. Accordingly, I genuinely appreciate you for bearing with me as I start to publicly play with concepts, learn on the fly, and work to bring you something of deeper value. If you're still with me, and if Energized Working is of interest to you, please do let me know!
Updated 7/3/15. Something happened for me earlier in 2015: Google Hangouts reached a tipping point in my work life. A catalyst was a client who defaults their distributed meetings to Hangouts. But there was something more in play for me. Hangouts started to work. Really work.
Previously, I found starting, maintaining and using Hangouts to be hard and unpredictable. Voice quality would erode. My pretty modern MacBook Air wouldn't relay the microphone to Hangouts. Video would freeze. Overall, others' invitations to Hangouts caused me to produce palpable groans.
But things kept getting better. And suddenly, there I was, gleefully video conferencing with folks in New York, California, London, Estonia. And it was a good experience!
Now, I have learned a few things through Hangouts failures. So here's what I'd recommend as you embark on Hangouts adventures:
* Leverage Google Calendar's Automated Video Call Setup. It's much easier to get everyone into a Hangout via the meeting item. But watch out: iOS and other calendars don't always pull the link into the meeting invitation so it's a good idea to include the URL in the body of the invite if you have non-Google Calendar folks.
* Switch Accounts When Entering. This took me a number of months to figure out. I use multiple Gmail accounts and Chrome. When I'm invited to a Hangout using my non-primary Gmail account, I often can't enter the Hangout. I've found that if I "Switch Accounts" (small link at the footer as you enter the Hangout) and use my primary Gmail account (e.g. the default in Chrome) I don't have problems.
* Have a Conference Call Backup. Services like FreeConferenceCall, although choppy and sometimes blocked via corporate phone systems, offer an option. We've had issues where voice quality degrades but video is ok. We've also had microphone recognition problems, per above. In either case, we mute everyone in the Hangout (keeping the video going) and fire up a traditional phone bridge. And surprisingly, lip/audio sync has been pretty good.
* Drop Video if Needed. Contrary to the voice problems above, sometimes video freezes and or puts a tax on packet transmission as a whole. If everything is choppy, and you've closed your tabs (see below), try turning off video for a bit in the Hangout and using audio for awhile. Similar strategy holds if you're sharing documents in the Hangout (you may need to close desktop sharing for a bit).
* Close Some Chrome Tabs. This is anecdotal, but I find that if I have a bunch of tabs open in Google Chrome (especially with semi-connected apps like Sheets) my Hangout quality becomes suspect. 5 or less tabs generally seems to be ok, but this is also dependent upon the quality of my network connection (e.g. shared wi-fi in a crowded cafe makes Hangouts hard regardless).
Hoping this helps you jump in as Hangouts become a very real business tool. As always, Comments (including other tips on how you've used Hangouts) are appreciated!
Idea in brief: vulnerability-based trust is instrumental in building cohesive teams, organizational health, and high-growth companies.
Per previous posts on Purpose, Linchpins, Multi-Threading and more, I spend a fair amount of time working with organizations on fundamental cultural concepts. Through my personal experience at four high-growth startups, coupled with my ongoing work with 20+ software companies at various stages, I've become convinced that organizational health is the critical foundation for company growth. While it doesn't ensure success, it's extraordinarily hard to build a company without it.
One of my favorite authors on the topic of healthy organizations is Patrick Lencioni. While his fables are airport classics, the 2012 best seller The Advantage is a must-read. Specifically, his early perspectives on building trust have been game changing for many, myself included.
Fundamentally, Lencioni argues that trust is the basis for any cohesive leadership team. Sounds basic, right? Well, until recently I viewed trust as predictability + empowerment. My early notions were that if my teams felt like I trusted them to do their work relatively independently, and if they felt like my reactions were pretty reasonable and predictable, we'd then develop a trusted relationship.
I was wrong.
In reality, what Lencioni and others have noted is that vulnerability-based trust is what enables people to truly connect. What does he mean by this? Specifically, "At the heart of vulnerability lies the willingness of people to abandon their pride and their fear, to sacrifice their egos for the collective good of the team" (p. 27, The Advantage, Lencioni).
Vulnerable teams are willing to bring their raw, fragile, broken selves to their work. They're willing to admit weakness at times and to ask for help. They develop trusted relationships as they feel like other members of their team understand them better (minimizing miscommunication and maximizing bi-directional empathy). But, even more importantly, each team member understands that by being authentic and transparent, other co-workers then have "dirt" that they could use against them.
When coworkers withhold judgment and actually don't misuse new insights, deep trust develops. Then, the magic starts.
Personally, I've seen this magic occur countless times over the last couple of years since I gained this vulnerability-based trust insight. For example, when I bring my deep, true, raw and vulnerable self to a professional relationship (without going overboard, of course!), barriers seem to come down, collaboration increases, productivity soars and innovation is uncorked.
How might you incorporate the concept of vulnerability-based trust into your work relationships? Lencioni has several exercises to try. I've found a modification of Personal Histories (p. 28) works well.
Concretely, encouraging people to share a quick story about what they found challenging as a kid (often by informally doing so myself -- in the right situation and to the right level), opens up all kinds of new perspectives and conversations. It can be incredible to see people soften and view one another differently as they glean just a bit of the back story.
From there, the foundation for vulnerability-based trust can develop through Duos, a concept that transformational consulting gurus SY/Partners can help unpack and foster.
Overall, I'd encourage even the most hard-charging of high-growth executives to explore vulnerability-based trust. You might be amazed at what it does for your meaty business stuff (e.g key metrics around revenue growth) -- and also for the overall energy of your company.
Idea in brief: helping employees connect authentically with organizational purpose is key for engagement and revenue growth. Here’s why and how you do it.
There’s a lot of current focus on organizational meaning. Most technology companies today – from two person startups to 100K employee behemoths – have a publicly stated purpose. And many are transparent about their values.
Further, there are numerous researchers and observers – including Shawn Achor and Patrick Lencioni – who pour through applied positive psychology and organizational health data, generally concluding that happily aligned companies do better. Folks like Bob Buford also encourage us to think about our “one thing” that clarifies our quest to live a life of significance.
While organizations are complex collective organisms (for more on this, read the classic The Living Company by Arie de Geus), I would argue that clarity and alignment of purpose is the most important single factor that contributes to growth.
First, a bit of a step back on purpose versus meaning. Purpose is generally embedded in a thing by definition. The purpose of a table is to hold the food, drink and other items we consume. Meaning, however, is placed on an object via human experience. The Eileen Gray 1927 adjustable table on display at the MOMA is beautiful because we connect with the essence of what the artist was conveying: modern, multi-purpose simplicity is profound.
Ideally, organizations would aspire to meaning. But given how challenging it can be to align purpose for a collection of humans serving a market (i.e. a company), I generally recommend that meaning is a second order exercise (and/or something that advanced individuals and work teams strive for).
Don't feel saddened by not striving for meaning out of the gate. Purpose works. From personal experience, I loved the journey that we took while building high-growth companies like Motive and Pluck.
With Motive in the early 2000s, I was energized while helping people attain and maintain broadband connections. Via our activation, provisioning and support solutions, delivered via telcos and cable companies around the world, I felt like we were transforming personal connections and productivity. Broadband was literally life-changing for those who were previously stuck in a dial-up existence.
Later in the 2000s and 2010s at Pluck, our purpose became one of helping content companies open up, enabling journalism to become conversational and participative. By equipping publishers like USA Today and NPR to accessorize their content with integrated community experiences, we both aided mainstream social media and provided new channels for listening, dialogue and growth.
Data backs up my examples. For instance, Deloitte Consulting has found that 82% of people who agree they work for an organization with a strong sense of purpose are confident that their organization will grow this year (compared to 48% who do not have a strong sense of purpose). Further, these employees believe their company will outperform competitors (79% vs. 47%).
Key people are needed to fuel long-term growth. Towers Watson has found that employees who align with their organization’s sense of meaning and significance are three-times as likely to stay with their company.
So, how do you find your company’s purpose? Or, if like many companies you feel that your purpose needs an upgrade, where do you begin?
John Baldoni would offer that you start with vision, mission, and values.
To articulate a new vision, mission and values, consider creating a small task force. Encourage the team to use various collaboration techniques (such as Post-It Note word play) to openly develop concepts. Move fast and iterate rapidly. Realize that your values probably should be somewhat controversial in order to be memorable. Think about also using a mnemonic such as a phrase or acronym to foster repeatability.
From your vision, mission and values, you can set out on your quest to articulate a new purpose. Getting your purpose statement right is generally really, really hard. In my experience across multiple organizations, purpose statements (including many that I attempted to write!) were often cliché, full of jargon, unoriginal, not inspiring or several combinations of these. Like poetry and song lyrics, they require multiple revs and lots of crumpled and discarded attempts.
To create a purpose statement that is authentic and impactful, pursue a leadership-driven exercise, possibly with outside perspectives. A third party can help guide the process and serve as a neutral influence, especially as things can become heated with teams that care deeply.
Assuming you’ve gotten your purpose in place, what’s next? Integration and repetition. You’ll want to drive your purpose in to logical and unexpected places. And you’ll want to repeat, repeat and repeat some more what your purpose is and what it means.
In my work, I've repeatedly seen how quickly people forget purpose and how often they can become cynical if they sense that purpose is mere platitude rather than the core essence of an organization.
So, make sure that you and the team “walk-the-walk” on purpose, vision, mission and values. Remind yourself regularly what they are and think about novel and authentic ways to incorporate them in to your work, including alignment with objectives, strategies and tactics.
Becoming a purposeful company is hard work. But the potential rewards around engagement and growth make the effort well worth it. Plus it's fun to change the world with energized, purposeful colleagues!
Idea in a nutshell: by giving ourselves and our teams encouragement to serve multiple organizations, we can flourish while helping our primary employers thrive. This is the first post in a three part series.
In computer programming, threads enable commands to operate, often in parallel. A multithreaded system, assuming capacity, is both more efficient and more effective. It’s not surprising then, that a large number of engineers in the software space take a multithreaded approach to their careers.
These developers often have a day job. But at night, they do contract programming for friends and former colleagues. And on the weekends, they build their own apps and products. They are artists, as Seth Godin has honed the term, working for a variety of reasons, constantly learning, creating and morphing.
One of my favorite CTOs argued circa 2009 that the world of work had changed and that engineers were some of the first to get it. They saw that the monolithic corporate structures of the past were no longer optimal. They also embraced the idea that any single working organization may not fulfill all of our vast creative potential.
Most of us are wildly multithreaded beings. We are children, friends, partners, parents, and volunteers; we play, listen, travel, pray, grieve and serve. Life is a rich tapestry of interwoven and integrated experiences.
Yet, when it comes to our work, many organizations and managers expect their employees to “give their all” to a singular company. They may look the other way at engineers who program for multiple causes and reasons (while secretly wishing the engineers would only code for them). But talk about their sales folks, product managers and accountants? Man, they had better grind out every last erg of energy for the company that pays, trains and promotes them!
What if it didn’t need to be this way? What if there was a different approach to work that actually enabled people to operate more efficiently and effectively? That gave them a greater sense of autonomy? That honed in on their need for purpose? That encouraged them to serve and learn, drawing in experiences that helped them operate as their most authentic selves?
What would a work environment like this look like? And could it actually function?
From personal experience, from anecdotal perspectives and from industry data, there seems to be a case to be made here. Lately, I have come to believe that the concept of multithreaded work (which I define as serving multiple organizations in parallel) is both beneficial and will become much more common in the decades ahead.
My own journey is one that significantly changed late in 2013. After 20 years of a singular career trajectory with wonderful teams, products and outcomes, I experienced a personal setback that shook me enough to cause me to reassess things. After several months of deep pondering, I wondered if I might be able to serve the world in 2014 with more impact, while also flourishing more in all regards, by multithreading my work.
For me, multithreading became a quest to help other people and companies grow. As a framework, I began to consult, advise, mentor and invest. I had no idea what the year would hold but I quickly found myself blessed with incredible clients and the opportunity to help a small portfolio of organizations.
I no longer managed people. So my questions, stories and recommendations came from a new place of depth and truth – and I constantly sought to let go of old voices (ego, fear, anxiety, etc.). My quest was to open my heart and to be fully present for those whom I might be able to help.
While multithreading, I’ve worked incredibly hard this year. I no longer take time off in the traditional sense as every day there is someone to serve. Work and life have become more deeply integrated as I don’t go to a separate office each day. In many ways, I work always and everywhere. I take the people and companies I serve very seriously and constantly appreciate the opportunity they've empowered me with.
And you know what? I’ve loved this model. Have I continued to make many mistakes? Absolutely. Do I still sometimes wake up at night with inner doubts around my approach and actions? More often than I’d like.
But am I fundamentally learning and experiencing profound moments of connectedness with my clients and their teams? Completely! And am I arguably a better father, son, husband and friend in 2014 versus 2013 and earlier? I believe that I am. And most days my wonderful wife agrees.
I don't think I'm alone in my multithreaded journey. It's easy to spot multithreading in public powerhouses like Warren Buffet, Elon Musk and Richard Branson. But there's a lot more happening than what we read about in the mainstream press. And anecdotally, others tell me that they feel more enriched and productive as they multithread their work.
But please don’t think that multithreading is only a senior executive’s game. Here’s why:
While pouring themselves in to work (as measured by intensity and time), all seven of my anecdotal examples report a profound sense of happiness with their lives. And in operating with zest, vigor and cross-service mindsets, they're all experiencing significant success and significance as they uniquely measure both.
We'd love to hear your perspectives, feedback and/or challenges, either via a comment below or by contacting us directly. Thank you!
When I taught the "Entrepreneurial Journey" course at Concordia University, I loved sending my students off with a copy of Linchpin by Seth Godin. For those unfamiliar with the book, Linchpin challenges us to be indispensable to the organizations we serve.
Sounds logically aspirational in a straightforward kinda way, right? But here's where it gets interesting. Godin calls us all to work as artists. He argues that artists do "emotional work." Work that they love. Work that gives them a sense of purpose and, ideally, meaning.
Further, artists ship. They finish projects. Even when they're doubtful, they take a deep breath and push their creative endeavors in to the world.
It's really easy to allow self-doubt and outside criticism to thwart our entrepreneurial/artistic endeavors. Our lizard brains (amygdala) even can scream at us to hold something back just as we're ready to push forward. The challenge is to plow through and unveil that which often scares us.
As Godin admonishes, choose your journey very carefully. Be thoughtful and deliberate about what you work on. But once you're in, unleash your inner-artist and ship what you create -- be it a pitch, a proposal, an idea or a product.
Next time you're uncertain as to whether or not something is "good enough" to unveil, recall Godin's perspective: artists ship. And never forget that you, as a growth-centric entrepreneur and/or executive, are an artist!
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Steve Semelsberger is the Founder of Alder Growth Partners.