Monday, March 05, 2012

Raising Issues When Others Hesitate

When asked recently if she had ever considered asking her famous father for venture capital, clothing designer Stella McCartney gave what I thought was a great reply, “We don't do things like that in my family, we work.”

Now if arguably the most successful songwriter in history, who is worth give or take about $75 million in assets and earns about $4 million  a month can instill that value in his children, why hasn’t it, as my daughter often wonders aloud, apparently been imparted to so many people in their 20-somethings today?

As someone who spent all but about four years of his now concluded nearly 40 year career as a CEO, I've read a bazillion articles and books and listened to several consultants with tips about how to help people succeed in their work life.  Some were excellent, many were a bit trite.

But I came across one 10 days ago in Inc. magazine written by Jeff Haden , who writes an excellent column entitled Owners Manual. It is entitled 8 Qualities of Remarkable Employees and it is well worth the read regardless of whether you are a parent, a manager, employee, student or wanna-be-employee.

They are all worth reviewing and you can see them by clicking on the link in the previous paragraph, but the one I want to blog about today may apply to an entire community.  It is number 6. They speak when others won’t.

Shortly after I arrived in Durham North arolina more than two decades ago to jumpstart the community’s official marketing agency E’Vonne Coleman Cook came to run the Durham Arts Council for a decade where she stayed for a decade before moving on to work for Duke University for a few years and now works for my successor at the Durham Convention & Visitors Bureau as its Chief Operating Officer.

When E’Vonne returned to Durham, where she went to college, she left a post as an executive at the National Endowment for the Arts.  We collaborated and became good friends and then, as now, she was particularly insightful about both Durham and North Carolina from the perspective of a female executive and as an African-American.

After returning home from a particularly draining statewide meeting with colleagues I was complaining to E’Vonne on the phone the next day that it seemed like I was always the one who had to bring up difficult issues and ask difficult questions.

She laughed and said “Sure you are. People from Durham are always the ones who have to speak up.”  She was right.  It also remains true of my successor in that organization and I've also heard that same thing in general about people from Durham from many other friends around the state.

I agree with Haden who wrote further about this quality:

“An employee once asked me a question about potential layoffs. After the meeting I said to him, ‘Why did you ask about that? You already know what's going on.’

He said, ‘I do, but a lot of other people don't, and they're afraid to ask. I thought it would help if they heard the answer from you.’

Remarkable employees have an innate feel for the issues and concerns of those around them, and step up to ask questions or raise important issues when others hesitate.”

The same thing is also true when working outside the office representing your organization or your community in collaborations with others. It isn't always so easy to speak up especially surrounded by others who won't or by many who are eager to just “go along to get along” or make decisions by “who’s asking” or to stay or be accepted as “one of the boys.”

Being willing to speak up to ask questions and raise important issues is also essential to what Dr. Frank Luntz frames as paradigm-breaking, one of the “9 P’s” of being a winner, in his new book Win.  Luntz describes a paradigm as “a set of assumptions, concepts, values and practices that constitutes the way of viewing reality for the community that shares them.

Possibly Durham has paradigm breaking in its DNA but take a moment to read about Haden’s other 7 qualities and then forward them to a 20-something as inspiration.

As Luntz notes in his book, “winners…read incessantly and they consume outside their comfort zone…But more than simply devouring everything around them, they're always thinking about life in strategic, unique ways ways.

To me that fuels an ability to ask questions and raise issues.

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