In a meeting yesterday I twitched with the unexpressed urge to insist on things I urgently felt needed attention. Something about one of the people in that meeting gave me pause, though. There was an attention, an ease, a control they projected over our work. I kept my mouth shut and watched.
By the end of the meeting, my urgent items had been addressed, and more thoroughly and appropriately than they would have been if I had thrown them into the agenda. The person I had my eye on got to them, calmly and capably.
Relax. You work with professionals. People who aren’t in your head have their own experience of the things that trouble you, and they’re just as committed to doing good work as you are. Letting other people work on your stuff is like riding in the backseat of your own car while someone else drives–you feel powerless, even irresponsible–but how difficult is driving, anyway? This driver’s probably steered more precious cars than yours. Strap in and enjoy the ride.
You better believe there will be intersections of disagreement where your collaboration will hang on communication and negotiation. There are a lot of green lights and straight roads too, though. Enjoy those and be thankful.
Here’s to the pros.
Harry Brunger worshiped at the Claremont Presbyterian Church in the twilight of his life, the final six years of which overlapped with my service as that church’s Associate Pastor. Harry was a big deal, a leader in the international YMCA in his prime. He founded the Y in Beirut, Lebanon. Still, he used to sip coffee on the church patio after worship with me and say very nice things about the Children’s Time I’d cobbled together during the service.
He mentored a 9th grade confirmation student only a couple of years before he died. She picked him as her mentor not even knowing his name. She only recognized him at church as the man she passed on her way to school each day. She appreciated that, while out walking his dog, he would smile and say, “Hello” to her every morning. He mentored her good. I’ve written about her here.
Tonight I shared dinner with someone who calls Harry his mentor too. He talked of time Harry invested in him, places Harry took him, adventures Harry accompanied.
Say nice things about peoples’ work. Smile and say “Hello” to a teenager you don’t know. Invite a green professional halfway across the globe with you to break barriers and change the world.
There are so many ways to make an impact. Harry knew them all.
Keeping your mouth shut after an unimpressive introduction to someone protects you in two ways: 1) It guards you against being a jerk, and 2) it keeps your mind open to the impressive work they’ve yet to show you.
The best kind of impressive reveals itself over time, and not all in one showing like spectacle. We aim to impress with persistence, resilience, and growth more than with dazzling displays of skill, because dazzling is a form of hiding.
Likewise, we work with people more than once before writing them off. Our vision is limited, and we seek after our own image, which blinds us to ability we don’t share. So we stick it out a couple of times, so that people we don’t know can shine in ways we’re not apt to notice, and we trust that they’re doing the same for us.
Collaboration is leadership. That feels important to assert.
The chair of a search committee once told me that my candidacy suffered for a lack of leadership experience. “You talk a lot about how you’ve collaborated on things,” He said, “But not enough about how you’ve actually led.” I took that to heart and carried it around for years. Yet I kept defaulting to collaboration, feeling slightly guilty, like I was choosing to binge-watch Netflix instead of read a book.
I’m over that. Water seeks its own level, and I seek collaboration in most of my work. Reaching out, connecting, and inviting feel like very important leadership skills in our era, and so I’m done apologizing for them.
Networks run on volunteers more than professionals. The work of the professionals is to listen to the network and help it amplify its impact.
Today’s volunteer is tomorrow’s professional, though. Yesterday I heard the story of an urban farmer and educator–a professional–who’s running a big downtown operation and who came to that profession as a volunteer. At least twice in his journey to this role, volunteer roles turned into jobs. The most valuable things he’s learned for this work he learned while not getting paid.
The ranks of a network’s volunteers contain former professionals too, and not just aspiring ones. Sometimes getting paid for something you love ruins it, so you go back to doing it for free.
Networks benefit from talented and dedicated professionals who can expend the bulk of their thinking and working on making the network better at what it wants to be, which involves helping it get clear about its aims and values just as much as its tactics. The people in the network who aren’t paid to make it work, though, are where the lion’s share of the network’s value is made. For sure.
How do people enroll in a network? Does the network make it easy or difficult? Is there a procedure? An invitation? Does the network want more participants, or is it too full?
If we don’t want new people to contribute to our work, that’s easy enough to achieve. All we need to do is keep our head down and mute our impact. A posture of disinterest in new people is predictably effective at keeping them away.
Of course, we may drive people away in our enthusiasm to enroll them as well, especially if we want them for a body to swell our progress. Nobody wants to be wanted as a number. Adults don’t want that. Teenagers don’t want that.
The networks I want to enroll in do three things: 1) they invite me. 2) They invent enrollment criteria and processes that are clean and un-awkward. 3) They state their driving purpose passionately and succinctly–like, elevator speech succinctly.
These don’t get equal weight, though, do they? The third one is easily the most compelling. The first two are mostly barrier-removal.
What are we doing here? What kind of people would want to enroll with us, and how do they do that? How do we find people?
I’m starting with those three questions to build my next network.
I’ve been fortunate to work with people who are excellent and who eagerly partner with me on things because they know me and expect that whatever we do together, even if it fails, will make us better.
I stopped having to prove myself to those people long ago.
Transitions, though, mean that you have to prove yourself all over again to a whole new team of people (“transition” need not equal “move”). That’s a good thing.
When you’re the new person on the team you can’t fall back on what you’ve done before. Everybody knows more than you. There’s a new pressure to show off–your knowledge base, your record, your connections. Proving yourself can be a trap.
But the pressure to prove yourself can help you as long as you’re proving the right things. A former colleague said to me at the start of my last transition, “Begin as you intend to continue.” She meant, “avoid the trap of proving yourself by working late every day, because you won’t be able to keep that up and you will end up disappointing people.”
Beginning as you intend to continue is an invitation to prove yourself in the right way. You can begin and continue with curiosity about your new work and your new team. You can begin and continue with a willingness to own responsibility for what everybody is trying to accomplish together. You can begin and continue with a commitment to not take yourself too seriously and to contribute as much levity as you do intensity.
Proving ourselves is how we grow in the attributes we prize.
I’m kind of love with the idea of “leveling up” at the moment. The work we do is multiform, and the only way we get better is by choosing to work on particular pieces of it.
Sometimes that’s a choice to seek out a training or a coach. Learning Godly Play was a major leveling up for me (I did that with a partner–that’s never a bad idea). The Youth Ministry Coaching Program I did in 2012 was another one. I’m looking to level up even further with that particular platform in the coming months.
Other times it’s a choice to take advantage of some circumstance we didn’t create, like using a budget shortfall as a chance to level up our financial management game or putting a season of unemployment to work learning a different field. Choosing to level up means refusing to be a passive recipient of whatever slings and arrows come our way.
Where can you level up in the next six months?
(for the record, my sweater game needs no leveling up, according to Reverend Fem).
I emailed Seth Godin yesterday and he replied within the hour with a direct answer to my query and a couple of links for follow up.
Short. But no so short that he hadn’t paid attention to what I asked him. Clear: “not only this–also that.” Practical but not without heft.
There’s no reason we can’t all engage people with the same level of class and attention. It costs only minutes, and who could argue it doesn’t make us better too?
Bonus: check out Seth’s interview with Tim Ferris (h/t Adam Walker Cleaveland) and his talk to music students at Carnegie Hall.
I’m all about doing our work publicly and not hiding it behind some scrim while we “perfect” it before sharing it with anyone. Like what Landon is doing. Every day.
But what if your public work is practically private?
What if the product you’re making and sharing with the world gets no traction, no engagement? What if it’s not connecting with anyone? Do you keep at it or shut it down?
I say keep at it. You’re building a body of work.
Two things about bodies of work. First, you don’t know who is connecting with it. Metrics and internet stats don’t tell the whole story, and you may be surprised not long from now when somebody shares what your project meant to them, though you knew nothing of it.
Second, bodies of work are durable, especially with the internet. You make a thing and put it out there, and it stays out there. Even if only for you to look back on your own growth, having a public body of work to assess now and again feels pretty valuable.
Keep making. Keep sharing.