Daffodils, Duolingo and the power of really small goals

Some years ago, a beautiful story about planting one daffodil bulb a day for 40 years went viral. Although it might well be an urban legend, the daffodil principle remains a lovely metaphor about the value of doing something small but regular on a daily basis. Of course this is the same principle around compound interest – if we invest a small amount of money for a number of years, we will eventually be rewarded in years to come.

Nearly two years ago, I started learning Spanish on Duolingo in preparation for a trip to Spain. Two weeks learning was only enough to get some basic phrases under my belt (¿Dónde esta el baño? quiero la cuenta por favor) But it was such fun that I kept it up and now have a fairly decent vocabulary. This year I started some conversational Spanish classes and my teacher was surprised with what I’ve achieved with an app and fairly regular practice. As someone who has never really been very good about daily disciplines, learning Spanish has been a satisfying experiment in my own personal daffodil principle.

Writing mentor Jeff Goins talks about the value of starting small.  I’ve always had a tendency to over-estimate what I can achieve in a day and underestimate what I can do in an hour.

But the trick I’ve learned, is to take really small goals or chunks of time and turn them into a daily discipline.  Author Fiona Snyckers told our book writing circle to write just 300 words a day – so much more accessible than the loftier 1000 word goal I had in my head but have been finding tough to achieve.

Happy Spring Day to everyone in the Southern hemisphere. (and here is my 300 words for the day done and dusted)

How to make sure that your dinner parties don’t suck

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A modern playbook for the art of conversation

Everyone hates meetings. Most of us concede that they are a waste of time and an opportunity for the preening and posturing of only the most powerful and obnoxious.  From walking meetings to virtual meetings, agendas and catering, corporations are hungry for good strategies and creative ideas for making meetings less mind-numbingly boring.  

In a generation where few have heard of Emily Post, teaching the art of hosting, practical listening skills and allowing everyone a voice can be surprisingly effective when it comes to creating the kind of psychologically safe spaces which Google has made famous.  It’s no coincidence that these are also the kinds of environments where innovation flourishes and meetings are most effective.

Earlier this year, Harvard Business Review ran a piece called “Why your meetings stink and what to do about it?” Author Stephen G. Rogelberg says that “the goal should be not to kill all meetings but to eliminate the ineffective or unnecessary ones and improve the quality of those that remain.”

The challenge of course when it comes to any gathering which involves human dynamics, is how best to do this. “It’s easy to simply show up and default to the usual way of doing things. But when you’re a steward of others’ time, you owe it to them to make some modest upfront investment.” says Rogelberg.

While the number of books on how to run better meetings and host richer conversations at work continues to grow in number and in quality, they are a mere hors d’ouvre when compared with the smorgasboard of offerings around anything to do with the culinary arts.  We’ve come a long way since Julia Child was the last word on cooking. From Nigella Lawson to Nigel Slater, MasterChef to Chef’s Table we are spoilt for choice. Game of Scones is the recreational choice for the meeting-weary when weekend strikes.

Strangely though, it’s in the sanctity of home and hearth that little has changed in the way we run our dinner parties.  There’s still a chasm between how we set our tables and the kinds of conversations that occur around them. The food might be delicious and the table settings sublime.  But it’s unusual for any but the most unusual host or hostess to remember the kind of conversational decorum that is in fact a whole lot more common in the boardroom than it is around our dining room tables.

The big difference between meetings and dinner parties is that we know the former are boring but dinner parties are meant to be fun.

Priya Parker the author of the Art of Gathering says

“I like to tell people that Martha Stewart’s greatest crime wasn’t insider trading, it was telling a generation of hosts that gathering is about fish knives, flowers and canapés; that if you get the things right, magic will happen. One of the documents I found that illustrated this for me was a party-planning guide on Stewart’s website. It’s a 29-item checklist and only three of the items focused on people.”

A great dinner party isn’t just about good food and wine. Usually tables are full and conversations are empty. But what we are really craving, is meaningful conversation, human connection, forming closer bonds with our inner circle and meeting interesting friends of friends who expand our worlds.

It’s bad enough not meeting anyone new (At what age do we decide: “This is it. I’ve met all the people I need to know, the cart is closed”?)

What’s eminently worse is having to listen to the same voices who continue to dominate while displaying no curiosity about new opinions, views and voices.

Often, the most interesting dinner parties are the ones where no-one knows each other or at the very least where not everyone belongs to the same social circle. Awkwardness can dissolve into lively discussion.  Learning to listen can result in new learnings and surprise connections.  

It requires effort to step out of one’s social comfort zone, but in the same way that organisations benefit from diversity, so do our communities. Something special happens when people can’t get stuck on small talk, work, school and holidays.  

So even though the next dinner party you host doesn’t need to have an agenda, a chair and a stopwatch, perhaps the next time you decide to invite people over it’s time to borrow some of the pre-planning discipline from the corporate world.

Focus first on purpose before getting overwhelmed with logistics and details. Ask yourself “Why am I hosting this gathering? Who should be part of it? What do I want to achieve? “

Make a point of introducing everyone to each other and seating your guests thoughtfully.  Ask questions which encourage personal stories rather than opinions.

Sometimes generosity of spirit is even more important than generosity of food and drink.  It’s time to shift our focus away from recipe books and table settings and focus instead on the timeless ingredients that create magic between people.

Inclusive leadership is natural for women

It’s tempting to talk about how far women’s leadership has come over the last few decades. After all a record breaking six women are running for President in the US. More women are running organisations and governments around the world and the  #Metoo campaign highlighted the reality and scale of sexual harassment for everywoman.

However as Director of UN Women, Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka reminded us at the recent G7 ministerial meeting on gender equality and women’s empowerment: “No country in the world has achieved gender equality. No country. And this is nearly 25 years after the adoption of the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action.”

Progress aside, the fight for gender equality still has to be won on many fronts.  Women’s leadership is important because it is only when there is more equality in who leads, that gender issues like educational injustice, weaponised rape and child marriage will receive the attention they deserve.

Feminism (still a surprisingly fraught and misunderstood term) simply means that men and women should have equal rights and opportunities. And one of the best ways we can accelerate this process is to get more women into positions of power.

Not surprisingly, as the late Kenyan Nobel Peace laureate, Wangari Maathai noted “The higher you go, the fewer women there are.”

Some advocates of change like Sheryl Sandberg the COO of Facebook believe in what has been referred to as the DIY model of empowerment. Women should “lean in” more and be more assertive in order to increase their leadership potential

Sandberg’s critics include Anne-Marie Slaughter, political scientist and the author of Unfinished Business (OneWorld) who believes that much broader social, political and cultural change is necessary to change the system.

I believe both. The broader system and the values it represents certainly needs to change but for many of us who aren’t able to influence change on a structural level, we still need to find a way to make changes where we can. I’d like to suggest two strategies for making a difference that are accessible for most of us.

The first is that we broaden our definition of what leadership is.  And the second is that we focus on some of the skills that come naturally to many women.

Even though there is more recognition of different kinds and styles of leaders, we still tend to default to the style of leadership which is more traditional and patriarchal. (I lead and you all follow)

After all which names come to mind when we think of who is at the helm of countries and organisations and even who we should invite to give the keynote address at a conference?  It’s still easier to give lists of high profile male leaders.

Years of being socialized into a way of being in the world means that many of us are more comfortable to be in the wings than to take centre stage. It’s not that there’s a shortage of talented women. Rather it’s a sign of how reluctant women often are about taking a seat at the table.

However, when we use a different, more inclusive definition of leadership it’s easier to think of more women who fall into this category.  We are more inclined to include ourselves as legitimate candidates for leadership.  And most important of all, we can become more ambitious around what leadership is able to achieve in the world.

Leadership author Margaret Wheatley’s definition is helpful.

“A leader is anyone willing to help, anyone who sees something that needs to change and takes the first steps to influence that situation”

When this is our definition of leadership a leader might be a parent who intervenes in her child’s school or a colleague who refuses to allow mistreatment of others in her workplace or a neighbour who rallies others around saving trees in the suburb.

When we expand our notion of what leadership is, we encourage people to step forward and make a small difference in their communities. It’s also the kind of definition that is naturally more appealing to a wider range of women leaders.

In the same way that research into the world of micro-financing reveals how women who accept loans are more inclined to invest back into their families and communities, women are more inclined to expose themselves to the risk of leadership when there is a greater cause at stake.

When we think of leadership as a call to make a contribution rather than a more individualistic instinct to put ourselves in charge, we tap into a feminine ease with supporting others, speaking up for the voiceless and making a difference to many.

The second strategy is to harness a set of skills which comes especially easily to women . This is the cluster of skills which I and others in leadership describe as the art of conversation.

The dark side of this ability is when girls exclude others socially. Most women  have at least a memory of what it feels like to be an outsider. Often it’s as a result of these social scars that women reinforce the narrative that women are inclined to bring other women down rather than build them up.

But the flipside is a natural ability women have around creating conversations, safe spaces and making others feel welcome. Like good listening skills, the idea of inclusion is becoming core to good leadership. Inclusion simply means making sure that an organization is welcoming at every level to every individual. Inclusion is about diversity of thought and individuality regardless of race, heritage, or gender. It’s becoming the new normal and at its heart is a skill that is second nature to little girls all over the world.

Teaching the art of hosting conversations, practical listening skills and allowing everyone a voice can be surprisingly effective when it comes to creating the kind of psychologically safe spaces which Google has made famous.  It’s no coincidence that these are also the kinds of environments where innovation flourishes and meetings are most effective.

Women from different countries, cultures and socio-economic backgrounds have been raised to welcome others into their homes, make them feel comfortable, introduce them to people they might not have met before and offer them food and drink. The limitation is that we have been raised to think of these skills as the skills of home economics rather than as the elements of leadership. These are skills that we don’t need to go to business school to finesse.  They are abilities that have been relegated to the catering committee of our communities rather than into boardrooms or peace talks where they belong.

In an age where we have too many connections but feel less connected than ever before, we crave meaningful conversation, human connection, forming closer bonds with our inner circle and meeting diverse voices who expand our worlds.

These are the kinds of leadership skills that the world needs now. Not because they come naturally to women but because they create and encourage essential human values.

It’s time we took them out of the domestic realm and put them into the world.

This article first appeared as an Op Ed in The SA Jewish Report. Sajr.co.za

Fairies and Custard – why radical creativity beats chocolate

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My grandmother was quite convinced that she saw a fairy once.

So it’s not surprising that fairies and fairytales were central to my childhood. My mother filled our heads with magic and other whimsical creatures  and I formed my own code for what was good and bad in the world

Fairies were a metaphor for anything happy, hopeful and filled with possibility. Holidays, surprise parcels, exciting emails still fall into the fairy category.

On the other extreme were custards. (How I loathed the lumpy stuff especially when it formed a skin)

So a fight with a friend, a piano lesson when I hadn’t practised my scales, a dentist visit   – custards.

I still find myself scanning my day, my week and my life to see the ratio of fairies and custards at any given time. I have even hosted a Good Fairy Week and Wonderful Wizard Week to encourage those of us jaded by work, bills and responsibilities to get back in touch with magic and the joy of paying it forward.

Whenever I feel myself getting sucked back into lumpy custard territory (and yes, there have been times when my Doc Martens have felt a little soggy of late) it’s time to recommit to fairies once again.

How we do so is the key question.

Too often when we want to get the magic back we turn to addictive behaviour like sugar, facebook or shopping when what we are really craving is something far more nourishing and far more radical.

When I scan the last 25 years of my working life, my favourite projects and those I’m still most proud of – are those I created with attention to curiosity, creativity and a fair dash of risk. All the elements which make for grown up magic.

It’s the kind of work that makes me feel most alive. I believe too that it’s the work that makes the most difference in the world. Work that brings surprise, courage  and magic into a world that needs it.

Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t. But it’s always fun. And it always includes wonderful people and great conversation.

Wishing you an abundance of fairies and no lumpy custard in your favourite shoes

with love and a renewed commitment to radical creativity

Debby

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With my own Wonderful Wizard at a Good Fairy Week celebration

 

Feisty girls, women and power

I was a feisty little girl.  With a mixture of pride and amusement, my father still tells me how fierce and fearless I was when I drove bumper cars at the fair. I spoke up easily about injustice when I saw it. I got angry when I felt like it. And at the age of eight I was the obvious choice to represent the preparatory school and speak at the high school assembly.

But it’s been difficult to unleash these memories. In fact if I didn’t have my parents’ account of my youth or photographic evidence of little me flashing my eyes at the world, I probably wouldn’t believe it. Because it’s not long before popularity and fitting in become far more important than speaking up and accessing our power. Very soon we learn that holding a contrary opinion is a sure way to be excluded and labelled as odd. Very soon feistiness becomes a distant memory buried in the pages of a dusty album.

It turns out that this kind of confidence is not unusual for girls in their early years. In her 1993 book, Fire with Fire, Naomi Wolf talks about how our five year old selves are naturally feisty: we dance in public, we wear what we like, we speak up when boundaries are crossed and when we disagree.

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I still believe that women’s leadership brings something new and necessary to the world. We care more about people and peace and sharing prosperity. It’s right and overdue that these conversations are becoming more prominent and less alternative. But there’s a missing piece in the conversation. In fact it’s so conspicuous in its absence that it almost feels deliberate. And that is the conversation about power: how to excavate it from beneath the layers of social constraints and when to use it; how to understand the rules of power that are still affecting our lives and dictating how we live.

There’s a reason that we’re working too hard and not getting the recognition we deserve. There’s a reason someone else gets the position or the promotion. It’s because we’re not taught about power and don’t know where or how to decode the rules. In our anxiety to be liked and patted on the head we didn’t notice where they hid the manual.

Power and influence are where I’ve been focusing my attention in the last few months as I’ve been putting the finishing touches on the WeLead Women’s Leadership Program (the pilot launches in May). I’ve never been clearer that there cannot be leadership without power and influence. The women in my network are tired of being distracted into thinking that we need to spend even more time on personal branding and self-awareness. While we’ve been watching Brene Brown, it seems that the other half of the world is still studying Machiavelli. If we really want to change the world, we need to stop pretending that this isn’t so. It’s time we learned how to understand the rules so that we can really change the game.

But far more important is that you commit yourself to getting back in touch with that feisty girl you once knew.

We need her.

With love and power
Debby

 

What If you could design your own women’s leadership conference…?

welead_320I’m becoming more and more convinced that all the skills I need can be found within my WeLead Circles. From marketing and design, to copywriting, music, project management and research – I can’t begin to tell you how brilliant and generous my tribe of WeLeaders has been in helping us make this the best women’s leadership event yet. Continue reading

The silly story behind #ThinkingThursdays

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Connecting people I know to people they need to know gives me a kick. I don’t even think of it as networking. And I don’t fully understand why it’s such a rush for me. But perhaps it’s because the process taps into the A-type wannabe-a-spy part of me (I love being able to rolodex the perfect person to solve a problem faster than anyone else can) and the whimsical, mystical part of me (there’s something magical about making the right connections for people and tapping into a cosmic interweb where people help each other just because they can).

But it frustrates me no end when I miss an obvious connection or only think of it too late for a deadline.

Until recently I thought this was an organizational problem (being intuitive about systems is not a strength) so I tried to brainstorm some solutions.

“Maybe I need an excel spread sheet” I put to my son Adam who is one of the people I most like to think with “so that I can plot out all the connections I have and map them against each other with a list of skills and attributes? “

But Adam told me that this spread sheet would take up streets and would be bigger than the CIA database. (And he wasn’t trying to flatter me. Firstly because this is not what he does and secondly because millennials don’t think that knowing a lot of interesting people is particularly impressive.)

I conceded that he might have a point. Yet another database would be unwieldy. An app would be too expensive to design. And it would all take too long to get right. So out of desperation I thought I should meditate on it. But to meditate on it I needed a perfect spot. Somewhere with trees and close to water. So I put out a request on Facebook to my trusty inner social media circle. Where was the perfect spot for me to think?

My Facebook network was typically generous with suggestions. One lovely person suggested I take advantage of the sprawling grounds of the private school where she teaches. And I was tempted. But then I walked into my garden and saw the pic which I’ve posted with this blog post.

Yes this water feature is the very one we had installed in our garden 14 years ago even before we fixed the wiring that ran through the house (old houses have all sorts of hidden surprises that are not visible on show day) But my rushing around screeching for solutions meant that I missed the obvious sanctuary outside my very own front door.

And that’s when #ThinkingThursdays were created. I need (sometimes desperately) quiet time to reflect and think. When I don’t give myself this time I get frazzled and depleted. It also means that I start missing obvious, simple, sometimes elegant solutions.

I don’t need an app, a database or a spreadsheet to rival the CIA. I need quiet time to reflect, to think and then to create. And that’s when I am most able to make the best connections between projects and between people.

Now I try to give myself the gift of thinking at least once a week (Thursday is a good day for me). I seldom manage to dedicate a whole day but even a hour or two works wonders.

But mostly it’s simply a way to keep myself sane, centred and probably quite a bit nicer. I suggest you try it. Just remember to look outside your own front door first

Warmly

Debby