Sunday, September 27, 2009

What do you know that I don't know?

I traveled to Fredericton (New Brunswick) for business this week. I arrived in the late afternoon and since it was a beautiful sunny day, I decided to sit on the patio of the hotel to read a book, watching the sun go down over the river while sipping a glass of wine. I was having one of those rare moments of pure bliss and I was feeling grateful.

A bit later, an older gentleman took a seat at the table next to me. I commented on the beautiful sunset and he replied that this was his favorite place to pause after a days' work to watch the day surrender to the night. The gentleman's name was Neil. He said he came here every week night. Neil spends his day at the office until close to 6:00 pm, does an hour workout at the gym and sits on that hotel patio with a glass of wine to reflect on the day. As we chat, I find out that Neil is a public servant who has been planning to retire for the past five years but every year he seems to put it off for a little while longer. He tells me that he has finally made the decision to leave and this is definitely his last year. Neil hired a 37 year old to train as his replacement. The young man has many ideas on how to improve things but Neil is not open to his ideas. Neil tells him to do the job his way. He reasons that the young man will have lots of time to implement his new ideas once he retires.

"Really?" I exclaim. "Why aren't you interested in what your young employee has to say?" Neil replies "I am too tired to start something new. My way works well and I would rather not complicate things before I leave. I want the last few months before I retire to be quiet and uneventful." I understood him and at the same time I felt he was missing an opportunity to learn: "This is fascinating to me because tomorrow I am giving a talk about leadership and inter-generational communication. Both generations can learn from each other but we need to create more opportunities for a knowledge exchange in the workplace."

Neil and I had a lively conversation over supper. We compared notes about our definition of leadership, our work ethics and our perceptions on work life balance. By the end of the evening, I knew what had been Neil's most satisfying work experiences, his biggest disappointments and the important life lessons he had learned along the way. Even with the age difference, Neil and I had many things in common. In that short span of time we gained enough trust in each other to share some painful truths. We both have children that are struggling with health issues and may not live up to the dreams we had dreamed for them. I left that conversation changed. I think it meant a lot to Neil as well. When I got back home from the trip, Neil had already sent me two emails!

The following day I led a group of a hundred people through an exercise where I paired up an older, more seasoned, public servant with a younger public servant. I asked them to interview each other and tell a story about a high point in their life when they felt they showed true leadership. They listed the common elements found in the stories from the older public servants and did the same thing for the stories from the younger public servants. They compared the list of key leadership attributes from each set of stories and identified the similarities and differences.

The group discovered that the definition of leadership was the same between generations. What was different was the approach that each generation used to achieve their goals. For example, the younger generation made good use of technology to establish and sustain social networks, using tools like Facebook, Twitter, and Skype to their advantage. The older generation put in a lot of overtime to get the work done and operated closely within the confines of the written and unwritten rules of the workplace culture.

For the older generation, the young public servants are the fresh eyes. After spending many years in the same work culture we take things for granted and not be able to see the new possibilities. It takes humility to consider and give merit to someone else's ideas, especially if they are younger and less experienced than yourself. It takes courage to acknowledge that there might be a better way and allow someone else to point the way. At the same time it can be a worthwhile exchange. The younger generation can teach the older generation how to gain an edge through the use of new technology and new approaches among other things.

For the younger generation, the older public servants have a wealth of information that can help them become successful in the workplace. Through their many years of work experience, older public servants have acquired tacit knowledge about how to get the job done that cannot be learned at school or in books. Younger public servants honor their older colleagues when they ask them to share their stories, teach the lessons they learned along the way, and solicit their advice on work issues. It is a gift and privilege to be chosen as a mentor or a guide.

What about you?
  • What was the best piece of advice you've ever received at work?
  • Who gave it to you?
  • Older or younger? Same age and level of experience?

What would happen if you purposely sought advice from someone of another generation this week? You could learn a thing or two ... If nothing else, you make that person's day because they would feel appreciated and valued. So what have you got to lose?

Sunday, September 20, 2009

For the Love of Trees

Trees. I love trees. Trees are the visual backdrop to the change of seasons. Bare in the winter, tender green in the spring, deep shades of green in the summer, and colorful in the fall. It is the last weekend of Summer and you can smell Fall in the cool morning air. The forest is starting to dress for fall with shades red, orange, and yellow.

My love of trees started in my childhood. We had big tall trees in our backyard. Younger, I took refuge under the biggest tree entertaining myself with imaginary games of ladies in distress and the brave knights that rescued them. Older, I spent hours reading under the shade of that tree. I remember feeling sad the day my dad had to cut some trees who were dying because of dutch elm disease. Our backyard seemed oddly bare after that. My favorite tree was spared.

Many years later, when my little brother was born, that same tree became the home for his tree house. My dad lovingly built that tree house for his only son, who came to them later in life after four girls. The tree house was in the form of a pirate ship complete with a decorated bow, an anchor that could be thrown overboard and wheeled back in, and a zip line to another tree for a quick escape in case of invasion from enemies. One day, my dad and my brother ceremoniously buried in the ground, at the base of the tree, a treasure chest that became a time capsule filled with mementos of a child's life.

My love of trees has followed me into adulthood. My family teases me because I come back from every trip with pictures of me hugging a tree - in Japan, Australia, Thailand, and in my own country, hugging centennial trees in Stanley Park in Vancouver (BC).

This week I watched a movie called Taking Root about Wangari Maathai, a Kenyan woman who also loves trees. She won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2004 for her work planting trees.

"Today we are faced with a challenge that calls for a shift in our thinking so that humanity stops threatening its life support system. We are called to assist the earth to heal her wounds. And in the process, heal our own… In the course of history there comes a time when humanity is called to shift to a new level of consciousness. To reach a higher moral ground. A time when we have to shed our fear and give hope to each other. That time is now."

Excerpts from Wangari Maathai’s Nobel Peace Prize
Acceptance Speech, 2004

At the beginning of the movie, Wangari Maathai tells the story of how, when she was a child, she spent hours playing by a huge fig tree near her village. At the foot of the tree there was a stream. In the stream there were colorful and glittering frog eggs. She thought those eggs would make wonderful beads for a necklace and she would spend hours trying to collect them in her hands. One day, after spending years studying abroad, she returned to her village and was saddened by the fact that her tree had been cut down to make place for a church. The stream had dried up. There was no more vegetation. The land was dust.

That was the beginning of her quest to reclaim the land of her native Kenya.

Maathai started by reconnecting with the rural women with whom she had grown up. They told her they were walking long distances for firewood, clean water was scarce, the soil was disappearing from their fields, and their children were suffering from malnutrition.

Planting trees was the answer. Maathai taught the women how to plant trees and they taught each other. These women found themselves working successively against deforestation, poverty, ignorance, embedded economic interests, and government corruption, until they became a national political force that helped to bring down Kenya's 24-year dictatorship.

"We approached the women and tried to make a relationship between environmental problems and their daily problems . . . And we called the foresters. They came and they talked to women. They did not really see why I was trying to teach women how to plant trees. Because to plant a tree you need a diploma! I said, 'well, I don't think you need a diploma to plant a tree."
Wangari Maathai wanted to remind her people of the values and wisdom they had inherited from their ancestors. She wanted them to remember how to live in harmony with nature. It was not until foreigners came to their country, the English who wanted to colonialize them, that their natural resources were seen as a way to make money and gain power. The delicate balance between human and nature changed then and led to disastrous results. The earth was stripped of its bounty and people began fighting over the earth's resources.

"There was something in our people that had helped them conserve those forests. They were not looking at trees and seeing timber. They were not looking at elephants and seeing ivory. Or looking at the Cheetahs and seeing the beautiful skin for sale. There was no such economic value of these animals so they let them be. It was in their culture to let them be."
In essence, what Wangari Maathai did was help people reconnect with something deeply imbedded in their psyche, a profound respect for nature and for the old ways. Once people re-discovered their true path there was no turning back.
"You raise your consciousness to a level where you feel that you must do the right thing, because it is the only right thing to do."
Your strong conviction gives you the courage to act. And acting in community can change the world.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Mind Over Matter

This morning I ran a 10 km course for the Terry Fox Run to raise funds for cancer. This is the 5th year in a row that I have run this race. I dedicated my run to my mother-in-law and my friend Jill. Both are battling the same form of blood cancer. The dedication wall was filled with handwritten notes: "I am running for..." My gramma. My mom. Aunt Michèle. Papa Jack. My friend Shirley.

Life is so very precious.

The Terry Fox run is a great event for folks of all ages and fitness levels. Families walk the course with kids in strollers, toddlers on trikes and dogs on leashes. Teenagers jog in groups making it more a social event than an athletic trial. Some "keeners" start fast and whiz by you like the wind. A bit later, it is your turn to pass them as they have run out of steam. (I always think of the Aesop's fable, TheTortoise and the Hare, when that happens. Slow and steady wins the race as they say.)

I even saw a man covering the 5km distance on crutches. A friend was keeping pace walking along side him. They were both wearing a T-Shirt that said "We can beat cancer". I couldn't help but wonder what was this man's story. Why was he so determined to participate even when he was injured? Something important was motivating him.

Why push yourself to do something that does not come easily? When I first started running I hated it. Using well-honed guilt tactics to drag myself outside to run. All my aches and pains seemed amplified and time seemed to slow down. I would bargain with myself: "I will run to the next tree and then I will stop and walk for a bit". Pretty soon the next tree turned into the next 5 minutes, and 1 km turned into 5 km. I felt so proud of myself when I reached that goal of 5 km. At the time I thought that for a forty something woman, 5 km was pretty darn good and had no ambition to go any further. (In my opinion, the best part of running is the feeling you get when you're done!)

My sister Lyne, who got me into the sport on a dare, is a natural runner. I cannot even come close to her speed and grace. She runs like a gazelle. Whenever we race toghether, I see Lyne for a split second at the start line and then she's gone, leaving me behind in her dust. She almost always wins a medal and often that medal is for best woman overall. So, I have made my peace, Lyne is not someone I can compete with. The only person I can measure myself against is myself.

If asked I might deny it, but I can be pretty competitive. So after winning a (bronze) medal for my age category in my first ever chip time 5 km race, I started to wonder what my next feat would be.

On a cool September morning in 2004 I registered for the Terry Fox run. The man who was in line ahead of me signed up for the 10 km race. He asked me what distance I was running and I replied meekly that I was running the 5 km. He asked me: "Why not the 10 km? I bet you could do it." Throughout the first leg of the run, I kept hearing his voice in my head taunting me. I started to consider that I might be able to run 6 or 7 km if I really tried. If it was too much I could always walk the rest of the distance.

As I was running the first 5 km, I changed my mind a dozen times fretting that running a longer distance would be just too hard. Then as I approached the 5 km mark and the volunteer indicated the turn off point to the Finish Line something clicked and I announced proudly that I was running the 10 km. The second half of the race was so much easier because my mind got out of the way and I let my body move me forward. I ran the 10 km distance, without prior training, in 53.30 min. A very respectable time if I do say so myself. I realized that day that running long distances was more about will power than physical ability. In a competition, my mind could be my biggest ally or the voice of doom. All I had to do was to become aware of the critical voice in my head and choose to think positive thoughts instead.

In a way, that is what Terry Fox was asking us to do when he set out on his Marathon of Hope 29 years ago.

Terry Fox was born in April 1958 in Manitoba but lived most of his life in British Columbia. Terry was a spirited young man who loved all kinds of sports. In 1977, at the age of 18, he was diagnosed with osteosarcoma, a type of cancer that strikes men more than women, usually around ages ten to twenty-five. Very often this form of cancer starts at the knee, then works its way up into the muscles and tendons. In Terry's case, his right leg was amputated.

Three years after losing his right leg to cancer, Terry Fox launched the Marathon of Hope. His vision was to raise $1 from each Canadian citizen to fund cancer research to find a cure. On April 12, 1980 he started his quest in St-John Newfoundland by dipping his right leg in the Atlantic Ocean with the intention of repeating this symbolic gesture in the Pacific Ocean at the end of his marathon in Victoria (BC). Terry was running an average of 42 km a day. Day after day, in all weather conditions, Terry ran a distance equivalent to a marathon.

He never finished his Marathon of Hope because his cancer came back. He had to give up his dream on September 1, 1980 just north-east of Thunder Bay, Ontario, after 143 days. He had run 5,373 km or 3,339 miles

While outside Ottawa, Ontario about 3,113 km into his Marathon of Hope, Fox said:

"...everybody seems to have given up hope of trying. I haven't. It isn't easy and it isn't supposed to be, but I'm accomplishing something. How many people give up a lot to do something good. I'm sure we would have found a cure for cancer 20 years ago if we had really tried."
Terry still believed when other had given up hope.

What is it that you could resolve if you really tried?

What are some limiting beliefs you have about yourself?

For example:
  • "I'm too shy, I could never speak in front of a group."
  • "I'm not creative."
  • "I'm not good at math."
  • "I can't dance."
  • "I can't hold a note."
  • "I don't have the right look."
  • "I'm too fat, too short, too clumsy, too old, too young, to... (fill in the blank)

Monday, September 7, 2009

Pay It Forward

I was listening to CBC radio earlier this week to an interview with Carol Burnett. She was telling the story of how she came to be a comedic actress. She won a scholarship at University of California in Los Angeles where she studied theatre arts and English. In the mid-fifties, during her junior year, she met someone who changed the course of her life.

The theatre teacher asked the students to create a skit that would be performed in front of the class and graded as their year end exam. The teacher approached Carol Burnett and her group and asked them to perform their skit, a scene from Annie Get Your Gun, at a cocktail party he was giving in San Diego. He would grade them based on their performance at his soiree.

Carol, Don Saroyan, her boyfriend at the time, and their friends borrowed a car and scraped money together to cover the cost of gas to travel to San Diego. Their performance was well received. Later, Carol was at the food table filling her purse with hors d'oeuvre to bring back to her grandmother with whom she lived (they were very poor and surviving on welfare). A man approached her and she thought, "my goodness, they caught me, my reputation is ruined!" Instead the man congratulated her on their skit and asked her what where her aspirations in life. Burnett replied that she wanted to be an actress and a singer. The gentleman asked her what she was doing about making her dream become a reality. Carol said that she was trying to put some money aside to go to New York. She dreamed of making it as an actress and singer on Broadway. He said he would like to help and handed her his business card.

Burnett and her boyfriend drove back to San Diego a few weeks later to meet him. Burnett described how awed she was when she was showed into the man's palatial office with the cushy carpet and the mahogany desks. The man surprised her by handing her a cheque for $1000 to get her started in her acting career. (A thousand dollars was an enormous amount of money in those days - it was enough to get her to New York city and pay for room and board for a good while.)

Her benefactor attached four stipulations to the money: she must use the money to move to New York to try her luck; she had to repay the loan within five years; she was honor-bound to help other young people attain careers in the entertainment business and most importantly, she must never reveal his name to anyone. That man changed the direction of Carol Burnett's life with a selfless act of generosity. In some ways, he has given Carol Burnett and her comedic genius to the world.

Doing good deeds is the premise of the movie Pay It Forward. A teacher challenges the kids in his class to come up with an idea that could change the world. The kids have all sorts of ideas ranging from organizing a neighbourhood clean up day, to donating toys to poor children. But the hero of the movie, a young boy, comes up with this idea that if you do a good deed for three people and you ask those people to do a good deed for three other people and ask them to keep paying it forward, you could change the world.

Oprah challenged her viewers to do just that in October 2006. Oprah gave more than 300 audience members the opportunity to experience what she calls "truly the best gift"…the gift of giving back. The audience received $1,000 to donate to a charitable cause of their choice.
With only one week to fulfill the challenge, these amazing men and women hit the ground running. You can read their stories here.


  • What is the last good deed you have done?

  • Have you ever been a recipient of a "pay it forward" act of kindness?

  • What would happen if you purposely set out to help someone this week and asked them to pay it forward? Who would you help? How would you help?

I would love to hear back from you. Tell me your stories. Who knows, maybe we could start our own little Pay It Forward movement...