Dain Dunston

The Language of Leadership

Dain Dunston

Archive for February, 2013

You Are What You Read #1

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Know Yourself, Forget Yourself:
Five Truths to Transform Your Work,
Relationships and Everyday Life
by Marc Lesser

In my coaching work, I’m often asked what books I might recommend for leaders seeking to deepen their leadership presence. I’m going to start cataloging books, reviewing them here and offering a “bookshelf” for readers to browse when looking for recommendations. But to start, let me offer this book on leadership from a surprising source, a Zen teacher turned CEO, consultant and coach, Marc Lesser.

Zen is a highly distilled and esoteric form of Buddhism that originated in China as Ch’an Buddhism and the was refined over hundreds of years in Japan to become the essence of elegant, less-is-more thought and design that has characterized so much of Japanese culture. Marc Lesser discovered Zen while he was taking a break from college. What began as an investigation turned into years of living in, and later managing the San Francisco Zen Center, founded by the legendary Suzuki Roshi, the monk who brought Zen to the United states, and the Tassajara Zen Mountain Center, the first Zen monastery in the Western world. He later received and MBA from NYU and founded and led several companies, the lastest of which is SIYLI, the Search Inside Yourself Leadership Institute. Marc’s purpose is to create leaders who are more effective. The path to effectiveness, says Lesser, is to become self-aware and emotionally mature through mindfulness and the latest in cognitive science.

Much of the book is told in modern anecdotes or traditional Zen stories, like this one.

There is a story from the seventh century in China, part of a collection that has been passed down through the centuries. In the story, a student approaches his old and sick teacher, who is near the end of his days. The student asks, “What is the teaching of an entire lifetime?” Somtimes this question is translated as, “What is the teaching of a thousand lifetimes?”

The teacher answers, “An appropriate response.”

An appropriate response — knowing when to speak or to be silent, to say yes or to say no, to stay or to leave. Knowing when to pick it up and when to put it down, when to move toward a person or situation and when to walk away. Knowing the right thing to do in any situation — this is the definition, the key, to effectiveness. My former publishing company, Brush Dance, once published a greeting card that said, “Wisdom is knowing what to do next.” Management guru Peter Drucker defined effectiveness in very similar terms: getting the right things done.

Another way to describe an appropriate response is to say it is an authentic reaction to the world around you that is consistent with your values and true to yourself. Not true, necessarily to what you were taught in school, or in your religion; not true to what earlier managers and leaders taught you to do, think or believe; but true to yourself and to the lessons you have learned in a life.

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Missing the Gorilla in the Midst of Your Work

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Great article from NPR about a study done at the Harvard Medical School Visual Attention Lab. Curious about how focusing on one thing can lead you to miss other, equally important things, they created a test where radiologists were asked to study a series of lung scans to see if they could accurately detect the presence of cancer cells. But while the they were looking, 83% of them missed something much more disturbing on the scans: a picture of a man in a gorilla suit.

This is not to put down radiologists: we all experience similar blind spots when told to look intently for something specific. It’s called inattention blindness and it’s been heavily documented ever since the famous Invisible Gorilla Study, done by cognitive scientists Chris Chabris and Daniel Simons. Try the video below to understand the problem.

So you walk into your office or your business every morning and look around. What are you missing that anyone else would see?

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Yahoo Ropes in Remote Workers

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Yahoo’s new CEO, Marissa Mayer, has shaken up the company with a memo announcing that as of this June, all remote workers will be required to start working out of the office. This has created a lot of comment today both from Yahoo employees and from industry observers. Many point out that remote workers are a growing trend and that Yahoo’s move is regressive. And there’s no doubt they’re right: 32% of employees now rely on mobile devices and 38% say they feel most productive working from home.

But Marissa Mayer’s job isn’t to support demographic trends, it’s to turn the company around. That will require a seismic shift Yahoo’s culture. It will require a period of people being uncomfortable and a period of those who can’t abide discomfort making room for those who can. It’s not about being Draconian, for just being harsh and rigid will not make the company more innovative or productive, but it is to offer a challenge: let’s get together and make a difference, let’s make a new company that has a clear purpose and a clear culture, and let’s do it fast, while we still have a company to do it with.

There are a lot of reasons that telecommuting makes sense (as the absurdly long infographic below from Mashable points out) and I can almost guarantee those reason will make sense in Yahoo’s future and that they will have as active and productive a cadre of remote workers as anyone else does. But as San Francisco State University’s commented in this article in the New York Times, “If you want innovation, then you need interaction. If you want productivity, then you want people working from home.”

Without doubt, this will inconvenience some employees. Is it the right step to take? I don’t have the benefit of a deep inside view of Yahoo and their culture so I don’t know. But it’s clear that the culture they have isn’t working and hasn’t been for several years. Marissa Mayer was hired to make it work and this may be one sign that she’s willing to take unpopular steps that, if they work, will build the Yahoo of the future.

Let’s hope it works.

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The Downside of Up — A Comic Novel of Outrageous Fortune

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Sneak Preview! Just got the cover art for my new book, The Downside of Up, due out in May from the new media publishing house, Net Minds.

It’s a comic novel about a corporate speechwriter who makes a joke at a dinner party that his dream job is to be “a failed CEO” (“That’s where the real money is! They pay these guys hundreds of millions of dollars to fail? I could fail for twenty five million. How hard could it be?”) To his surprise, someone takes him up on it. All he has to do is go down with the ship and he gets his payday. But he can’t help himself. He starts trying to fix things. And when he finds out there’s a reason the money needs a patsy in the driver’s seat–and he may be in big trouble–the stakes just get higher.

I’ve got a great team working on this with me: Tim Sanders, the publisher, is the former Chief Innovation Officer at Yahoo and author of Love is the Killer App. Shatarupa Ghoshal, edited the Indian edition of Nanovation for us and is hard at work on the line edit now. Phil Gerbyshak is a veteran book marketer, formerly with 800-CEO-READ, and my social media guru. Charles Fleming is designing the book (the cover art here is his baby). Paul Krupin is handling PR for the launch. And Prakash Idnani, who was our man in India for Nanovation, is representing the book there. And Jean Compton, the author’s lovely wife, provided the title. It’s great to have the support of this team.

My friend, the Young Adult novelist G.L. Breedon was instrumental in pushing me to get this book out (Thanks, Geoffrey!) and had this to say about the book:

“Alternately hilarious and heartwarming, The Downside of Up thrusts its hero into the inner workings of private equity firms, pulling back the veil on a hidden world of billion dollar deals and morally ambiguous corporate decisions. A perfect novel for the times we live in.”

I’ll keep you posted on the launch and let you know when you can reserve a copy.

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Service with a Smile: What’s It Good For?

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A long time ago, when I lived in Washington, D.C. and nobody much expected good service anywhere, I stopped in every morning on my way to work to get coffee at the convenience store on the corner of 17th and Q. The young woman behind the counter, about my age, treated everyone in line exactly the same: like we were rodents. I should mention that this was long before gentrification hit Washington and there was no clear delineation between her social status and that of the customers in line. Most, like her, were working people trying to get by. Different colors, different education levels, maybe, but no one special: just people coming in out of the cold for a cup of (really crummy) coffee. But not to her. To her, each of us was an insult.

One day, idealist and visionary that I am, I asked her why she was so unfriendly to everyone. I suggested she could say hi, that I came in there every day, that I was a human being who deserved to be treated with the same respect that I gave her. She looked at me, snarled, and told me she didn’t have to be nice to me. She wasn’t paid to be nice to me. And if I didn’t like it, I could go someplace else.

It seems clear to me that she hated every moment of her job and found it miserable to stand there making change on coffee and cigarettes all day long. It also seems likely that she treated us the way she did because she was treated like a dumb animal by her boss. But if her job was a miserable experience, she had two remedies close at hand. One was to get another job or, if she couldn’t find anyone better to work for, get some more education and then get a better class of job.

The second remedy was in the people who lined up across the counter from her, most of whom were decent human being who would have been quite happy to have exchange a pleasant word with her each morning. Every single person who stood there offered her a little ticket she could punch, a token she could deposit in her bank of self worth, a touch she could turn into small but not insignificant moment of dignity. And I hope, in later years, she learned to do so.

I read Timothy Noah’s article in the New Republic on “emotional labor,” covered here by Andrew Sullivan. I think Noah’s article –which suggests that it’s creepy that “workers must induce or suppress [his or her own] feeling” to achieve the desired effect in others–is a bit of manufactured indignation. People who are serving (and as Bob Dylan says, we all gotta serve somebody) find that their work is significantly more enjoyable and rewarding if they focus on making an emotional connection with their customer. When I’m walking out of the post office or a restaurant and see someone coming in, I hold the door open for them. Why, because they’re weak idiots who don’t know how to open doors? No, because it’s a pleasant thing to do. To serve somebody. I do it not just to make their day better but to make my day better. It’s a habit of my life.

Most business leaders I work with know very well that there is a massive body of statistical evidence to show that the relationship that most affects an employee’s job satisfaction is the relationship with their direct supervisor and the relationship that most affects the customers’ satisfaction is their relation with that one, single employee. And so a great deal of mental and emotional energy is expended trying to figure out how to make that pleasant exchange happen in a chain of hundreds of restaurants with hundreds of customers a day. That one expression of that work is silly manuals like Pret a Manger’s Pret Behaviors is balanced by the extreme likelihood that we will get a nice little bit of friendly attention from the employees there. It’s not an easy thing to manage: it’s much easier to hire for.

Noah thinks the idea of “emotional labor” is creepy. You want creepy, imagine if American or Delta airlines required flight attendants to sing to customers. Flight attendants on Southwest Airlines sing to passengers not because passengers like it or because marketing likes it; they sing because they like it. And when we see someone having fun in their work, we like it, too.

Not everyone likes their work. Not everyone has learned the capacity to like their work. But we all have the capacity to like other people. And that’s really what is at the heart of commerce.

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The Fortune Telling Leader

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It occurred to me recently that a good leader should be able to do well as a fortune teller and I said so at a dinner party the other night.

“That’s terrible,” said the nice woman seated across from me. “That’s just taking advantage of people. Fortune telling is nonsense. It’s bogus!”

“I didn’t say I’d take anybody’s money. And I certainly wouldn’t tell them things about their future that aren’t true. But you’re missing the point: why does someone go to a fortune teller in the first place?”

“Because they’re stupid,” she said. “They’re too stupid to know that these people have no psychic power.”

I laughed. “I don’t have any psychic powers either. You don’t need to be a psychic to know why people go to a fortune teller. Let me show you.”

I reached across the table and asked her to pretend she was a woman seeking the counsel of a psychic. Then I asked her to give me her hand.

She rolled her eyes. “Oh great, now you’re going to read my palm.”

I took her hand.

“Oh my God,” I said with a start. “What’s happened to you?”

“What?!!” she seemed startled, too.

“I just feel so much concern and confusion. Tell me what’s going on.”

My table mate snatched her hand back. “I’m fine,” she said. “Really.”

“This isn’t about you,” I assured her. “This is about a made-up person, but I’ll tell you what. I’ll play both roles.”

“I’m coming to see you,” I said, “because I’m discouraged and worried and frightened and sad. I’ve watched my dreams fade away. I’ve been to scared to risk and when I have risked things didn’t go well. Nothing goes my way and nobody likes me and I don’t deserve any of this.”

“See, there’s the thing,” I said to the woman across from me, “you know what we want most of all? We want to be heard. We want people to get us. We want to feel like we matter. When I coach people, I do two things: I watch them intensely and I listen carefully.

“I watch their faces. I watch their hands. And I watch how they stand, particularly their hips and knees.”

My companion was starting to get interested. “Why their knees, of all things?”

“Because most of the time, while your lips are flapping, your body is talking, too. And when the body is saying something that doesn’t match the words coming out of your mouth, I can see the disconnect and I explore it.”

As I said that, I saw a flash of tension shoot across the woman’s eyes, as if she’d just remembered she left the gas on in her apartment.

“What was that?” I asked. “Did you leave the gas on in your apartment?”

“No, no. It’s not that,” she hesitated. “It’s just that I gave a presentation the other day and I know that’s exactly what I was doing. As I was telling the franchisees that their fourth quarter sales were down in all but the Southwestern District, I remember feeling like I was just a big phony. I remember feeling like somebody slung a heavy bag on my shoulders and my knees actually slumped for a moment.”

“You felt unsupported. So what was it? What was the disconnect?”

She thought for a minute and then spoke. “I felt sick. Because I actually didn’t know why those numbers were down and as the regional VP, I’m supposed to know. So here I am telling them they need to get their numbers up, but I don’t know how to coach them on how to do it. And the other thing is, these guys really know their business better than I do.”

As she spoke, I noticed that she was scratching her forearm with her nails.

“What you’re telling me is that you don’t feel comfortable in your role.”

She looked at her arm and quickly put her hands in her lap.

“Look,” I said, “there are three questions we each need to ask ourselves and they’re the same three questions a coach has to ask. As I’m watching and listening to the person I’m working with, I’m asking myself—and sometimes I ask them—who they’re being, what they’re doing and are they getting the results they want.”

“Well,” she said with a sigh, “that certainly wasn’t the result I wanted from that presentation.”

“So then, who were you being?”

Suddenly, I saw a light go on behind her eyes. They brightened and her face relaxed.

“I just realized,” she told me, “I was being a kid. Most of these franchisees are older than me. Most of them are men. And most of them have been working in the business since they were in high school. I feel ludicrous when I try to tell them what they should do.”

“How can you change that?”

“I could find out what the top performers are doing that the others aren’t. I could ask the other VPs what they think. I could dig deeper in the data and see if there’s a trend. There’s a lot I can do.”

I could see the wheels spinning so I returned to my salad.

“Wait a minute,” my friend said suddenly. “Do you think it would work if I used what you just did with my franchisees?”

I gave her an astonished look.

“I don’t know,” I said. “What do you think I am, a fortune teller?”

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