The High Five Test

Vicki Gravlin is a local school district administrator who is responsible for “academic excellence and innovation.” She spoke to my business school undergraduate classes this week about the joys, challenges and every day realities of leading innovation and change in the highly diverse and complicated world of K-12 education.

In a common sense, often very funny and always inspirational style, she reminded us that an effective leader is “always on” and always engaged, especially when it’s the last thing they want to be. She challenged us to meet our people right where they are – at their school, in their office, in the classroom – to best understand what is going on, how they are feeling and what they need.

One of her proven methods for doing so is through the liberal application of the “High Five” test. It’s not complicated. She stands at the door of the classroom (or walks around her office environment) and as the students file past she gives them a high five. From this simple and brief act of physical contact she is able to gather a ton of information about both that individual and the state of the group overall.

A look away and a half-hearted effort probably means that the student is preoccupied or disengaged. A too aggressive slap of her hand lets her know there is something unresolved or unexpressed. She’s learned to pull a lot of data from these encounters but she doesn’t accept it all at face value. She connects and verifies with those around her through sincere questions and thoughtful listening to put the pieces together.

Vicki’s high five test is a reminder of the simple and potent power of connection. A small and sincere effort, in the classroom or the office, to even just momentarily connect with others kicks open the door of learning and awareness.

If you’re looking for evidence of thoughtful and committed leadership, the consistent pursuit of learning and awareness is about the best data you can get.

DAVID BERRY is the author of “A More Daring Life: Finding Voice at the Crossroads of Change” and the founder of RULE13 Learning. He speaks and writes about the complexity of leading in a changing world.

Take Responsibility for Your Learning

Jia Jang is inspiring. He feared rejection so much that he decided to pursue it directly with the hope that he would learn to fear it less and respond to it more productively.

He recounts his “100 Day Rejection Challenge” in his self-effacing, funny and beautifully sincere TED Talk. It’s hard not to smile along – to root for him – as he teaches us an extraordinary lesson.

In the end I felt like I was rooting for myself; to keep learning the piano, to keep seeking out speaking engagements, to keep writing every day, to keep opening my heart to new people and experiences. All of this takes risk and, as Jia so thoughtfully proposes, all of it leads to benefits far too richly saturated for the fearful mind to anticipate or articulate.

{You can also hear Jia talk about his experience on this terrific episode of the TED Radio Hour}

DAVID BERRY is the author of “A More Daring Life: Finding Voice at the Crossroads of Change” and the founder of RULE13 Learning. He speaks and writes about the complexity of leading in a changing world.

The Child Inside

At the invitation of Dr. Bennett Cherry I had the opportunity this week to speak to both sections of his “Creativity, Innovation and Entrepreneurship” class at Cal State San Marcos. Dr. Cherry (@edgentrepreneur on Twitter) is an engaging  and natural teacher who aspires to both support and witness his student’s achievement in bringing new ideas to life.

It was a pleasure to join him in this endeavor if only for a day and I am honored that he would call on me to support his work and their learning.

I spoke to the students – mostly in their senior year and beginning to wrestle with the big question of what life will look like after college – about the importance of recognizing, nurturing and enlivening the child inside them; the child who is innately curious, who explores unceasingly, who is willing to take risks, who is unafraid of judgments or criticism. I implored them to recognize when they are playing it safe; when they are favoring the safety of the known over the perceived danger and uncertainty of the unknown. I assured them that their willingness and ability to challenge themselves to move towards their own personal “edge of possibility” will differentiate them as highly desirable employees in a world of organizations so desperate for meaningful evolution but so confused about how to actually make it happen.

And, as I was carrying on, I couldn’t stop thinking about a short movie featuring a young man named Caine Monroy (you can watch it here). His story is one of the most compelling examples I’ve seen of a child’s full expression of creativity and the absolute conviction that his creativity will lead to possibility. More than that, it is a story of how one person’s belief can inspire another person – even an older, “wiser” person – to do something powerful and unexpected.

For all of the students I had the pleasure to meet this week and to all of us who strive to create and contribute to something larger than ourselves, I hope you will find Caine’s story fuel for the journey.

Congratulations on moving towards your possibility.

They say they want creativity…

This is the lead-in to an article by Jocelyn Glei called “The Top 5 Qualities of Productive Creatives (And How to Identify Them)”:

“A recent BusinessWeek article reported that, “According to a new survey of 1,500 chief executives conducted by IBM’s Institute for Business Value, CEOs identify ‘creativity’ as the most important leadership competency for the successful enterprise of the future.” While the study’s results will come as no surprise to hard-working creative professionals, they do raise an important question: How do we identify – and hire for – the qualities that add up to creativity?”

(I hope you’ll take the time to read the whole thing – you can find it here – because then the rest of this thing will make sense!)

Of course “CEOs identify ‘creativity’ as the most important leadership competency for the successful enterprise of the future.” That is old news. The bigger question for those same CEOs is whether or not they will lead the creation of environments in which those “creatives” (and every other employee) can express the full extent of their creativity. It’s almost quaint that in 2013 we’re still talking about “identifying creatives” when everyone knows that 75% of the workforce is actively disengaged. And we know that they are disengaged because, as Gary Hamel says, organizations are a “buzzkill.” They default to conformity and compliance over creation and connection.

And why is that? Because it’s a big, messy, chaotic world and our senior leaders are deeply conditioned to respond to that mess with control and constraint rather than curiosity and collaboration; to close off rather than open up; to stay safe in the spirit of preservation instead of exploring the edges in the spirit of growth and possibility.

We take for granted that finding and hiring more creative employees will lead to innovation and renewal. Shouldn’t we start to ask ourselves whether or not our organizational environments are set-up to maximize their creative output rather than demand their creative compliance?

A Development Culture is an Innovation Culture

Leaders who are intense about their own development and who create accountability and offer support for the ongoing development of their teams and peers create, perhaps without even knowing it, a culture of innovation.

Why is this so?
Intensity about development means one is willing to take an honest look at oneself, see the good and the bad from a perspective of appreciation and empathy and decide to do something about it. This is a distinctly humanizing act and if others see this and have a chance to participate in the leader’s development “conversation” they are more likely to see the leader as fully human (check out the Johari Window). If that’s the case they are a heck of a lot more likely to be open with ideas, suggestions and possibilities. They might even give more of their discretionary effort, that part of ourselves we choose to give or not give to our work depending on how safe and open the leader has made the environment. If it’s safe and open more gets discussed, put on the table, debated and explored. That’s a culture of innovation.
So, what does this mean for our organizations?
It means that we must offer professional coaching, leadership and management development opportunities because we believe – perhaps more boldly, we know – that if more leaders, those with direct responsibility for creating the environment, are more actively pursuing development, more good stuff happens. And, in this equation, more good stuff equals more employees offering more of their best selves to the company every day.