Meet Your Brain

For my final post in the series on the books that have made the biggest impact on my coaching practice, I choose Your Brain at Work by David Rock.  It outlines the implications of all the recent research in neuroscience to the way we function at work – as employees, as bosses.  There are several terrific takeaways from it, notably, that the pre-frontal cortex – the front of the brain where complex calculations take place, decisions get made and self regulation gets handled – is easily exhausted.  It needs a great deal of rest and glucose.  Our ability to think clearly, make good decisions and manage ourselves erodes steadily over the course of the work day. 

David Rock also shares his model expressing what people need for their brain to be at its best, known as the SCARF Model:

Status – a clear sense of our own self worth and the acknowledgement of this perception in our environment is critical to our brains feeling good.

Certainty – we crave certainty the way we crave sugar or any other reward.  We will avoid uncertainty at all costs.

Autonomy – it is critical that we feel as much control over our environment as we are capable of managing; loss of control is interpreted by the brain as a serious threat.

Relatedness – we will naturally find what we have in common to increase relatedness, we will move toward people with whom we can relate believing them to be like ourselves, and away from those to whom we cannot relate making them “other”.

Fairness – is as rewarding as food or sex, and when things are perceived as “unfair” it causes us to feel an intense sense of threat. 

 For more on The SCARF Model check out some of David’s YouTube videos.  The book is also a really fun read, and there is a lot more that what I can share here!

The E-Myth Revisited

As a fledgling coach with a private practice, back in the day when if you said you were a coach the inevitable question was “oh, what sport?” a book that made an earth shaking difference was the E-Myth Revisited by Michael Gerber.  If you are in business, thinking of starting a business or have a friend or loved one who is suffering in a business, this book is a must.  There are several brilliant ideas in this book including:

  1. If you have started a business, you are either a technician (that’s what I was as a coach, so is your friend who loved to knit and started a knitting shop), a manager (the guy who understands the processes and systems that a business must have to succeed – people who buy franchises are usually managers) or a visionary (the person who sees a gap in the market place – Don Fisher started The Gap because he couldn’t find a pair of jeans, Steve Jobs wanted computers to be friendly).  You might have a little of the other two but you are primarily one of these and if you are going to succeed you need to partner with others who have the other two or find a way to grow yourself enough to get the other two covered.  It is stunningly simple and true.  The crazy thing is that as I have moved out of the small business world into the corporate world, I find that the same holds true for leaders inside organizations who need to be “intrapraneurs”.
  2. As a business owner, you need to find a way to spend as much time working on your business as you spend working in your business.  Obvious?  Maybe, but in 1995 I didn’t know it.  Again, totally applicable to people in organizations.
  3. Anything that works in the business must be systemized and if possible automated.  You have to do this so if you get the flu and can’t make it in,  the whole house of cards doesn’t fall down.  You also have to do it so you can grow.  It was the compelling evidence for how important this is that made me start my own coaching company with coaches using my system to coach the audience I had mastered.  And finally, I have used this maxim again and again as a manager in a much larger machine and it has served me well.

Michael Gerber has many other books out and has an institute and all that, but for sheer straightforward simplicity for people who maybe don’t think of themselves as “business” people, this book is a bible.

Going With the Flow

Flow : The Psychology of Optimal Experience  by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi  (pronounced mee-high  chick-sent-mee-high, my friend David Rock told me that, and he is important because he wrote one of my top books The Brain at Work) is another book that stopped me in my tracks.  Published in 1990, my copy is old, much dog eared and underlined.  The author is more recently widely known as a pioneer in the Positive Psychology arena, and his early work outlined in Flow was required reading for coaches because it was solid research about what makes people feel good.  Absent real problems like psychological damage, war or pestilence, people were coming to coaches with the objective of optimizing their existence and more specifically, their time at work.  Csikszentmihalyi says that in his studies, when people reflected on their most positive experiences they seemed to share one if not all of these characteristics:

  1. “ the experience usually occurs when we confront tasks we have a chance of completing.”
  2. we must be able to concentrate on what we are doing.”
  3. The task has “clear goals and
  4. Provide immediate feedback
  5. There is deep but effortless involvement that shuts out the noise of everyday life
  6. We are able to exercise a sense of control over our actions
  7. Self consciousness disappears, but sense of self emerges more strongly after the experience is over
  8. The sense of time passing is altered; minutes can seem like hours, or hours can feel like minutes.” (Harper, 1991, pg. 49)

Csikszentmihalyi’s theory was that to achieve flow we needed to maintain the balance between the level of challenge of the activity, and our skill level – if the challenge is too low, we become bored, if it is too high we become overly anxious.  Each individual needs to monitor their own challenge level to keep it optimal to stay engaged. 

This rang so true for me, and it was extremely useful in work with clients who were clearly bored, but judging themselves for it, thinking they had perfectly jobs and should be happy.  Not so!  To stay in Flow, it is critical to constantly be raising the bar.  This is not totally true for everyone all the time, but for some people, some of the time, the model is extremely useful.

For more information on Flow

Habits Make All the Difference

The promise was books that rocked my coaching practice that are off the beaten path. OK, so maybe this one isn’t that original, and I must have stumbled on  The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People  by Steven Covey in Barnes and Noble because I can’t remember who recommended it.   But I have to say that from the day I read this book, I changed some habits that utterly altered the trajectory of my life.  I don’t think it is a coincidence that when I started doing what  Covey said (and let’s be clear, not everything, just a few things made a huge difference) my business took off, my household became more orderly and calm and my quality of life shot up.  I developed a reputation for being freakishly productive.  I feel that almost every other “self-help” book that came after this one simply fleshed out some of the good ideas that were here in the first place.  

In the section called Put First Things First, the 4 box quadrant probably made the biggest impact on me.  The idea is that we all can put every single thing we do into one of the four quadrants. 

  Urgent Not Urgent
Important QUADRANT I
crises, pressing problems, deadline-driven projects
QUADRANT II
prevention, Principle Centered  activities, relationship building, recognizing and leveraging new opportunities, planning the future, recreation
Not important QUADRANT III
interruptions, some calls, some mail, some reports, some meetings, popular activities
QUADRANT IV
trivia, busy work, some mail, some  phone calls time wasters, pleasant activities

The ones who spend the bulk of their time doing things in the “important” quadrants are simply going to have a much higher life satisfaction quotient.   This very concrete model gave me the courage to say no to things that did not fall into the Quadrants I or II.  Today, I let people assume I am extremely busy (everybody does) and if pressed I will admit that I am no busier than anyone else, just extremely focused on what is most important to me and ferociously choosy about what I focus on.  Don’t tell anyone.

Learn to Love Chaos

The second book in my series on books that knocked my socks off and made an appreciable impact on my coaching practice:  Leadership and The New Science

In the early 90’s I was having lunch with a friend and mentor Alex Caillet and I asked him what one book would make the biggest difference for me and he recommended Meg Wheatley’s Leadership and The New Science.  One of the things I had noticed working with clients is that they were desperate for answers.  The right answers.  Of course, as a coach, it was not my job to be the truth dispenser with all of the right answers.  But I did feel an obligation to help clients articulate a set of internal values that they could use to make decisions no matter what the situation.  But I was still at a loss for a set of Universal Laws that were consistent, were not beholden to any particular world view or religious law.  I kept coming back to quantum physics – there had been a recent splash in the news about complexity theory and I had been noodling on how to apply those laws to regular life and work for my clients.  Well – Meg beat me to it, and what an amazing job she did.  Her breakthrough book made a huge impact on me and in the business world at the time, but as happens with many great books, it has fallen out of circulation.  I say, it is time to bring it back.  Some of the earth shaking concepts:

  • Order will naturally emerge out of chaos.  You have to be patient and order will come naturally from within.  Good leaders accept occasional chaos as a revitalizing and renewing step.
  • Relationships are the only things that matter- it is critical to develop a diversity of relationships.
  • Information is the organizing force in the universe; it is the life blood of any system.  If it is not flowing freely, the system will not self organize properly.
  • Vision is an invisible field and it is the leader’s job to hold this field.

Is that all?  Isn’t that enough?  Going back to re-read this book to create this blog post, it has once again rocked my world. 

Click here for a terrific, oldie but goodie interview with Meg Wheatley

PS I think it is important to give credit to whomever introduces us to great books.  The person who introduced me to the Angeles Arrien book mentioned in the previous post is an old, dear friend Belle Linda Halpern, founding partner of The Ariel Group.

Unexpected Inspiration

In my mentoring of coaches and coaching practitioners in organizations I am often asked what my influences have been, so I thought it would be fun to do a short series about the books that have rocked my world as a coach.  Not the obvious ones, the books that are not necessarily on the beaten paths and the coaching school reading lists.  Over the next few weeks I will share some of my favorite books with a short review of their key messages. 

 To get us off to a brilliant start for 2012, I will tell you a little about The Four Fold Way: Walking the Paths of the Warrior, Teacher, Healer and Visionary by Angeles Arrien.  Arrien is an anthropologist who travelled and lived among indigenous peoples and studied change agents – all of whom draw on the power and wisdom of the 4 archetypes in the title.  What she found was that no matter what their culture – peace loving or warlike,  maternal vs. patriarchal, agrarian or nomadic – all of the effective leaders follow roughly the same four principles which comprise the Four Fold Way. 

  1. Show up and choose to be present (Warrior)
  2. Pay attention to what has heart and meaning (Healer)
  3. Tell the truth without blame or judgment (Visionary)
  4. Be open to outcome, not attached to outcome (Teacher)

I have been using these principles personally as a self leader, and experimenting with them with clients for over 15 years.  They have proved to have astonishing staying power and have supported those who wish to build personal power, be more effective with groups, and increase their coaching skill.  Most fine leaders are not as well rounded as they might be, and find very little inspiration in competency models to articulate their gaps and create a real plan to close them.  This model provides another angle and I have found that the principles work regardless of religious conviction or cultural background.

Have Some Fun in 2012

I posted this in 2009 and guess what?  I am still having more fun than most people I know.   So cheers to all of us.

At the last turn of the decade I made three resolutions:

1. I don’t stand in line

2. I only drink very good champagne

3. I only fly Business Class

12 years later, I haven’t done too badly. I have stayed pretty focused on avoiding things I hate (lines, cheap booze headaches and being smooshed in with strangers), thereby increasing my quality of life substantially. Resolutions #1 and 3 required a long term plan involving joining every frequent flyer program known to man, replacing all of my credit cards with ones that collect airline miles and sweet talking clients into paying for my folly. And the more special the airlines deem you, the fewer lines you have to stand in. If I have to stand in line to check my coat, I keep it on. There is always another bathroom in the airport – one with no line. I conveniently grew a little long in the tooth for nightclubs. I grocery shop in the morning. I do all my postal stuff online. I have to admit in fact that the internet has been a substantial help in my line standing boycott. The economy has messed with my grand Business Class plan, but although I still stand in the occasional line and often still fly coach, I can pretty much guarantee that in 10 more years I will not be. That’s the problem with New Year’s Resolutions – we’re aiming way too low. We tend to go for the things we think we should want, not the things we really want. Here is the way to win at New Year’s Resolutions: 1. Set a goal that will make you blissfully, stupidly happy if you get even close to it. I may not fly Business Class every time (only when the client will pay or I can upgrade with miles), but I can tell you that I appreciate every moment when I do. 2. Make it a goal that doesn’t require you to work too hard, give up something you love or magically wake up with a personality transplant. This is a sure path to failure. 3. Reach for something fun, indulgent, extravagant. Let it feel a little absurd – why not? Just want it with all you heart. Don’t judge your heart’s desire as being shallow and selfish – if it will make you happy you’ll be a nicer person. I don’t have the research to back up that statement, but you have to admit it sounds right. 4. Set your big yummy goal – don’t limit it to a year – and then plan for it. Do something small every day or once a week. I had a client who put every five dollar bill that came to her in a can for her a trip to Fiji. She was mercilessly mocked by her friends. She also played the air miles credit card game. It took a really long time, but she made it. I still have the postcard. Here is the way to lose at New Years Resolutions: 1. Resolve to do something you have already failed at several times. Change nothing about your previous approach, just state that you will have more will power this time. 2. Resolve to do something that fills you with dread or terror. Or worse: boredom. 3. Resolve to do something that you have no idea how to do and then don’t get any support or direction from anyone.

Make life fun again in 2012 – really, why not?