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November 20, 2013

Leadership in a 1,000 Words

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Leadership is ever-present.  We experience it almost from the time we come into this world until the end.  When we are very young our parents, or guardians, guide, teach, and care for us.  They influence us to achieve common or at least desired goals.  Teachers and coaches do the same, though in a somewhat more detached and less informal way.  The same can be said of supervisors, religious leaders, and various professionals we solicit to assist us.  Friends and colleagues also display leadership as do civil servants, like police officers, firefighters, and military personnel.  Leadership is part of our lives and it would be difficult, if not outright impossible to thrive, or at least survive long, without it.

Leadership can have positive, negative and insignificant influence on our lives, depending upon your perspective.   Similarly, some lessons learned from leaders stay with you for a lifetime, such as the way some address elders as sir or ma’am, while others fade quickly like wearing your clothes a certain way to be perceived as “cool”.

It has been talked and written about since at least the time of the ancient Greeks and very likely much earlier than that.   Some who study leadership will tell you that it is learned from observing and experiencing it.  Others believe that leadership is innate and that we are born with it.  Another group advocates that leadership is some combination of the two.  Formal theories have been devised that range from leadership being explained by a series of rewards and punishments, to personality traits both in-born as well as learned, to situational factors, which give weight to context as well as to individuals.  There are also theories that seek to explain it by relationships, with power being a key ingredient, as well as many hybrid approaches.

Most will agree that great leadership has the ability to inspire, motivate, and transform outcomes from group endeavors of all types.  Many civilizations, nations, corporations, groups, and individuals have benefited from leadership.  Similarly, much damage, destruction, and pain has also been wrought by people exercising leadership for conquest or oppression.  These days, if you desire, you can take classes in leadership and even earn an undergraduate or advanced degree in it.  Innumerable books have been written about leadership, especially in the last few years, and yet we still do not really know much more than we did when we first started wondering about it.

One of my early jobs was as a dishwasher in a college cafeteria.  The supervisor was a man named Rick and he led a team of young people like me by being actively involved and often personally teaching us how to complete required tasks.  He did this usually with a smile and was always willing to lend a hand, whenever needed.  The employees, my peers, respected him and the work was also always well done and completed on time.

Many years later, I worked for a boss who knew little about the operation and cared nothing for the staff.  As far as we could tell he spent much of his time simply goofing off in his office.  The decisions that he made were done with little regard for facts and the results were not given any real scrutiny.  The end was predictable and he was soon out of work.

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A leader that I later worked for was very obviously tired and did not want the job.  However, because of the circumstances, he had little choice but to stay.  The staff respected his experience and he obviously worked very hard.  However, he was easily manipulated and many of the employees took advantage of this, which caused great problems for the organization.

Yet another individual I worked with was very successful at her job and made many improvements.  She listened to employees, analyzed issues thoroughly, and quite obviously cared about the organization and those who were employed by it.  She worked hard to enhance organizational performance and challenged everyone to do the same.  She was focused more on the work and less on what was in it for her and the organization prospered under her leadership.

These types of experiences, and many more, combined with my education and training have provided me with a unique vantage point from which to contemplate leadership.   These days, I really do not think any of the theories satisfactorily explain or account for all facets of leadership.  This is because human behavior is complex (any mom, little leaguer, or bartender knows this) and is very likely influenced by both inherited as well as learned factors.  The expression of inherited factors itself is complex and is probably affected by multiple environmental influences, in ways that we do not yet completely understand.

Additionally, the context of any situation contains a multitude of factors that can and likely do alter outcomes.  In this regard, followers themselves also influence leadership through formal and informal means, though this is seldom taken into account when evaluating the effectiveness of leadership.  Similarly, individual definitions of leadership are diverse and not fixed.  So what defines good leadership to one person may be perceived as inadequate, ineffective, or just plain bad to another and both could be evaluated differently by the same person on a different day!  Follower and leader moods and attitudes are also not fixed and these too will affect perceptions and subsequent behavior (i.e., the world looks better when we are happy than when things are not going our way).

Where does this leave us?  At this point, with three thoughts:

  1. Leadership is important
  2. We do not yet really understand leadership
  3. That understanding leadership should be a priority for everyone

It is important to keep these in mind, because there are some who claim to fully understand it and will pass on their knowledge to anyone who will listen, or pay, for the privilege.  Until we fully understand it, which may take a while, keep this in mind and decide for yourself just what constitutes effective leadership!

March 30, 2013

My time in San Quentin Prison

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I just completed spring quarter at the University of California in Santa Barbara and was looking forward to spending the summer at home with my parents.  My father had recently accepted a position as Associate Warden of San Quentin State Prison in Marin County, California.  One of the perks, which could be debated, was that staff had the option to live on grounds at the prison.  The facility consists of an outer gate with full security that houses the prison inside as well as a community includes streets and living quarters for hundreds of employees and their families.  At that time, it also had a community gym as well and a small post office and gift shop located just outside the main gate.  The cost, I was told, was much more reasonable than rent or a mortgage payment was in Marin County, which is one of the more affluent areas in California.  The real estate that the prison and the expansive grounds it occupies, due to its location and proximity to the bay, are worth millions of dollars should the state of California ever decide to sell it!

It was very early in the morning when I left my small off-campus apartment in Isla Vista and my mind was filled with a predictable mix of thoughts about school and anticipation of a summer spent at home.  I moved out a couple of years before when my parents had lived in Sacramento and, though I had visited them since the move, I was unsure what to expect spending a few months living at San Quentin.  This was before I entered the Army and so I had no experience living in any type of secured community.

I arrived in the late morning and the gate guard asked me who I was there to visit.  I informed him that I was moving “home” for the summer and would be around for a few months.  After verifying my identification, and calling to confirm I was authorized, he lifted the gate and I drove in and down the road towards my parent’s house.  They lived on a hill in a beautiful home that appeared to be built around the turn of the last century, plus or minus a decade.  The yard was filled with flowers and the living room had huge windows that had a fantastic view of the San Francisco bay as well as the prison itself.  I remember thinking what a contrast the two aspects of the view were.  On exceptionally clear days, which were rare due to the near ever-present bay area fog, you could also see Alcatraz prison, then a state park, which added to the spectacle.

In addition to the living room, the house had a family room, sun room, back yard (also filled with flowers) and three bedrooms.  I remember thinking that aside from the proximity to the prison this was a nice place to live.   Interestingly, the grounds were all maintained by inmates supervised by guards.  I realized this early on when I saw that the landscape workers wore the same blue shirt and denim pants that the inmates had on.  I also noticed that they were very observant, especially if you were with a female.

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In the morning scores of inmates would gather in the main yard and would chant in unison while exercising.  I later learned that some of the groups also did this for religious reasons as well as for a show of unity.  To a curious outsider, hearing this mixed with the chilling and dense morning fog was both fascinating and somewhat unnerving at the same time!  In thinking about it now, it was not unlike some of the more solemn cadences that resonated during early morning physical training sessions that army units do when in garrison.

I visited the inside of the actual prison several times that summer and was fascinated not so much by the denizens, as I had been raised around that (i.e., my father spent the majority of his career in corrections), but by the stark surroundings and the aging architecture of the walls and buildings.  I later learned that it was constructed in 1852 with little renovation or change since.  In many ways it was similar to ancient forts of the type you would see in far-flung outposts still standing from Spain’s hegemony in places like Manila Bay.  During my visits, I also was the recipient of catcalls and much staring as I was 18 then, and even though I am a native Californian, it left an impression on me.  One positive outcome from this was that it helped me to more fully understand just how some employees feel when they are victims of harassment, which was useful when I started working in human resources a few years later.  I also viewed death row and saw the gas chamber, which was still operational at that time, though that summer it was not put to use.

Visiting day was on Sunday and I remember that because it was one of three times that the main gate was often crowded with people and cars.  The other two were during protests, which were also fairly common and usually concerned the death penalty, and during daily shift changes.  Visitors would line up and they included a fairly representative sampling of individuals from all walks of life, ethnicities, and income levels and included; girlfriends, family members of assorted ages, attorneys, and friends.  The expressions were as varied as the people though many sported looks of sadness tinged with frustration, no doubt in part due to the wait in line, and some tried to look cheerful, though it was clear they did not want to be there.  It was not too different from the group that I would see visiting juveniles when I worked as a counselor in a probation department later on.  During these experiences, I always wondered what these many were really thinking as they journeyed through the rote security process and queuing just to share a few moments with family, or associates, who were incarcerated.

The prison was located just a few miles down highway 101 from the Golden Gate Bridge, which was next to San Francisco.  During that summer I often rode my bicycle around the area and occasionally over the bridge never-failing to marvel at the scenery and the pace of life in and around the city.  It is impossible to live in Marin County and not visit the City for shopping, entertainment, or just for escape.  When you live on grounds at the prison this is especially true because there is a ferry terminal outside of the back gate that goes directly to Fisherman’s Wharf in San Francisco.  The ride across the bay takes under an hour and is better than fighting traffic and searching for an overpriced place to park your car on the weekends.

The summer eventually passed and it was time for me to leave the prison by the bay and get back to college life.  As I left I told the somewhat bored looking gate guard that I was going back to college and he responded with an indifferent “I don’t care gaze” but, being the well-trained peace officer and public servant that he obviously was, he wished me well nonetheless.  Living on grounds at a prison and not being a convict or peace officer is an unusual experience and one that stays with you for life, especially when that prison is San Quentin.

February 24, 2012

Lisa

Painters work with liquids on open surfaces.  Sculptors free representations from unremarkable lumps.  Writers use words to do the same.  Their work is not displayed in galleries, but comes to life for each reader.

Their art appears different to all, but is no less precise, deliberate, and thought-provoking, at least, and impactful, in intent.  These words are a brief portrait of Lisa in simple prose, with some verse, who is anything but simple in reality!

In form, her hair is dark, thick, and wavy and her eyes are large and brown

With complexion smooth, frame slender, and height slightly taller than most

She is pleasant to see and enjoys creating her very own bling

Lisa loves flattering designs though she does not flaunt nor boast

 

I met her through the alchemy of modern electronics and communications

A lady in the tradition of belles past and not unlike the one who loved Rhett

She was far from home, younger, searching, and wondering then…

Her close companion was a gray feline far more familiar than pet

 

Not surprisingly, she was raised in the land of the Iris and Tulip poplars

Her mother was a true southern beauty and her father was smart and lived near

It was said before her birth, by a forgotten carny, that she had a larger destiny

Her early childhood was somewhat challenged and difficult, but her intent was clear

 

Her years of youth and early adulthood were marked with change and growth

Hurts were shared with tears and lessons learned in ways hardest of all…

Still, like that fiery mythic avian she arose from her times and learned much

As an adult, she is focused and her poise self-assured;   She knows her call!

 

When she speaks it is true and well of things both near and far removed

Her thoughts are filled with wisdom and depth from life lived and just half-started

She has a temper and is independent, but still has room to need and be needed

The sum of her to present is demure and direct with future paths yet uncharted!

 

June 30, 2011

Job Interviewing Tales

Unless you were born into lots of money, you have likely had to interview for a job at some time in your life.  Many of us can recall without too much effort how we felt about the experience with nervousness being a common theme along with nausea in some extreme cases.  Whatever your experience has been few of us would probably say that it was fun or enjoyable; even those who consider themselves good at it!

My father, having started his professional career in personnel, would help his friends and members of the family by setting up mock job interviews.  We would later hear afterwards how these really helped the person to overcome some of their anxiety about the process and do well on it.  Many people prepare in this way or study the organization and review questions that they believe may be asked with varying degrees of success.  Numerous articles and books have been written about it as most of us recognize the importance of doing well in what amounts to an oral examination to get offered a job.

Some people, however, do little preparation and essentially leave everything to chance.  These individuals either have lots of experience, great confidence, or both.  The outcomes in these situations depend very much upon having significant amounts of both present to be offered a job.

Interestingly, there are also those who probably do none of these things and actually, for whatever reason, show up for an interview and do crazy, or irrational, things.  The outcomes for this group are as varied as their approach and are the subject of this bit of writing.  The below tales are from personal experience, though the names and some of the details were changed to ensure they remain completely anonymous which is important for reasons that are probably apparent once you read them.

Inseparable?  – It was an overcast fall day when I received a call from Mrs. Jones.  She said that she was calling for her husband who was scheduled to be interviewed for a senior management position next week.  Spouses sometimes call in my experience, so I was not too concerned when she started asking questions about benefits.  When asked what she should wear to the interview is the precise instant I knew something was not right.  After recovering from my shock at her question, I explained that interviews were done with just the job candidate present and members of the interview team.  She would hear absolutely nothing of that and insisted that she be allowed to sit in on his interview.  I told her I would have to get back to her as to whether we could allow it, but that I was sure that she could not.

My second shock came when I consulted with the hiring manager, a very senior person in the organization, and he said he would allow it.  When I explained my many concerns about allowing a spouse sit in on any interview, he patiently listened and then said that the candidate could significantly help the organization (in English – he had an extensive industry specific Rolodex that the organization wanted) and for that reason he would allow it.  At this point you can probably guess the outcome and so yes he was eventually offered the job.  He helped the organization as predicted but he also caused, in my opinion, far more problems than he fixed!  His wife continued to be as involved as she could, much to the employee’s detriment, though I am sure he does not know that to this day!

Pass the mustard – It was late-morning when a professionally dressed candidate showed up a little early for his interview.  The position he was interviewing for was a mid-career professional job and over the last few days the organization had interviewed several good candidates for the position.  He was in his mid-30’s and well-mannered.

I invited him in to the room and we began the interview.  He detailed his background as it related to the job in effective manner as I listened intently thinking at this point that he may be a good fit for the organization. Everything was going well when he casually pulled out a sandwich from his briefcase, un-wrapped it, and took a bite before I could say anything!  While he was chewing I explained that we could have a better discussion if he would hold off eating until after the interview.  He offered no explanation and did not get the message and so we continued the interview and he continued to eat!

After we were done he went to the hiring manager and her staff to be interviewed by them.  Afterwards, I was told that they would like to bring him back for a final round of interviews until I explained the behavior he exhibited during interview.  Once they heard that, they decided that the lack of judgment could be a liability and so he was not brought back in for another interview and he did not get the job.  I must admit the sandwich looked good but probably not worth losing the opportunity that he did over it!

Party time! – I knew something was wrong with this one when I saw the candidate run for the restroom, covering her mouth the whole way.  She emerged a few minutes later looking slightly green.  I invited her in and when she shook my hand it felt clammy.  When I sat down I made a mental note to wash my hands after the interview as I thought she might be ill.  I asked her if she was feeling OK and added that if she was not we could always reschedule.  She said that she did not sleep well last night but that she would be fine for the interview.

Midway through the conversation, which was going well except that it was obvious that she was not feeling well, she asked if she could take a short break.  No sooner had I agreed when she got up and walked very quickly (almost ran) for the restroom.  When she was gone I was feeling bad for her as I thought she was ill and was thinking of another way to ask her if she would like to reschedule, when I caught a strong whiff of alcohol coming from the area where she was seated.  Shortly after she returned we completed the interview.  On her way out, I noticed that she tossed a bottle in the trash.

The bottle turned out to be exactly what you would think it was (Vodka actually).  In this case, the interview panel did not select the employee, without even hearing about the above details.

The Auctioneer – John (not his real name) was a well dress man in his late forties was interviewing for a job in sales.  He showed up on time and had a pleasant demeanor.  After I asked him a question, however, he responded with a detailed answer but the rate of his speech would have impressed the most seasoned of auctioneers.  After a couple of more such responses, I gently reminded him that we had plenty of time and to feel free to use it when answering the questions.  He did not get the message and, due to his rapid fire responses, the interview was finished in less than half the time they usually took!

He was otherwise a solid candidate and would have been a good fit for the organization.  Unfortunately, he continued with the same rapid fire responses with the other people who interviewed him and he did not initially get the job.  I say initially, because shortly after the position was filled it became vacant again.  After recruiting a second time, the pool of qualified candidates was such that the decision was made to bring him back for another interview.  He must have received some feedback in between because the second time around, I was told that he spoke at a more natural rate and was offered the job where he stayed for many years and did great work!

Less is more right? – Monique was a 30-something, stay-at-home mom who was seeking to reenter the workforce after a 10 year hiatus.  She had a bachelor’s degree in English and had 7 years of experience working in operations.  When she was brought in to the office she was very professional and had a terrific smile.  When asked questions, her responses, however, were brief and with precious little detail.  When asked if she had anything to add (to try and draw her out) she flashed her smile but declined saying that she felt comfortable with her response.

Regardless of the question asked her responses were always concise and devoid of much detail.  She did not display any nervousness and her answers actually addressed the question but did so in such a way as to leave the interviewer wondering.  An example of this is when she was asked to describe her experience in Managing people.  She replied that she managed 3 staff members in her last job, two manufacturing coordinators and one specialist.  She continued that she enjoyed the work and would not mind being a supervisor again.  On the surface it sounds like a reasonable response but she missed an opportunity to provide information about her challenges and accomplishments.

She did not get a job offer, however, I saw her 3 or 4 weeks later as she was entering the building.  She had signed up for a temporary employment agency and was hired to handle customer service for the organization.  Several months later she was hired into a regular position, though not in the field that she interviewed for.

The early bird catches the worm? – It was just after 9:00 am one morning and I had settled in to work on a project for a few minutes before attending an important meeting.  As soon as I started to work my phone rang and it was the receptionist informing me that Ms. Wong (not her real name) was here for her interview.  I checked my schedule and confirmed what I already knew, that Ms. Wong was not scheduled to be interviewed until 1:00 pm that afternoon!  Showing up a few minutes early was one thing, but showing up 4 hours early was something else.  I asked the receptionist to send her in and that I would talk with her and find out why she was so early.

Moments later Ms. Wong was in my office and we were shaking hands.  I asked her why she showed up so early when her interview was not until the afternoon.  I was honestly expecting her to say that she wrote down the wrong time, when what she said was simply that she always liked to be early for appointments.  I explained that being a few minutes early was always a good idea but that most organizations scheduled interviews as they had other responsibilities to take care of that often could not be changed with no notice.

I informed her that she could not be interviewed until her scheduled time and that she would have to come back then.  She told me that she had no place to go, so I explained that there was a coffee shop and a library nearby as well where she could go.  She left reluctantly and actually showed up a few minutes late that afternoon.  Her interview was unremarkable otherwise and she did not get the job, though not because of her early arrival, but rather due to the fact that there was another more qualified person who was offered the position.

Job interviews are stressful events that sometimes cause people to do crazy things.  If you are ever in a position to interview candidates for a job remember these tales and be prepared to encounter all manner of behavior.  Equally important to note is, if you have a job interview scheduled, relax, prepare as you see fit, and try to behave rationally!

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