Leading and Participating Effectively (Pt. 2 of 2): Mark Samuel on Making Ourselves Indispensable

July 30, 2012

We could easily make the mistake of thinking that Mark Samuel’s thoughtful and thought-provoking book Making Yourself Indispensable is all about us. But we don’t, as trainer-teacher-learners who need to be playing leadership roles in the organizations we serve, have to move very far into his work to see that Samuel has his sights on more than individual endeavors—and his well-received presentation on the topic for ASTD Orange County Chapter members last month shows that his message resonates with our colleagues.

You are “not indispensable unless you use your gifts and principles in service to other people’s success, improvement, or survival,” Samuel suggests (p. 13), and it’s a theme that makes what otherwise could have been a very self-centered endeavor take on much greater importance for all of us and those we serve.

If, in fact, we move directly from the book surveyed in the first of these two articles (Eli Mina’s 101 Boardroom Problems [and How to Solve Them])–a book that helps us understand the structure behind effectively facilitating meetings and dealing effectively with leadership issues—into Samuel’s exploration of how our actions to support the organizations we serve can foster results that go far beyond what any of us can accomplish alone, we have two interdependent points of view that effectively help us understand how the act of embracing and encouraging interdependence makes us—and our organizations—indispensable.

Samuel’s work is centered on a personal accountability model. He first takes us through what he calls “the victim loop,” where we ignore and deny problems; blame others for situations we ourselves could be correcting; rationalize actions or situations we could be changing; resist change; or simply hide from what we need to be addressing. He then offers an accountability loop that begins with us recognizing and owning situations requiring our attention and action; forgiving ourselves and others for what has not already been done; and engaging in a level of self-examination that leads to effective learning which, in turn, produces action.

“Truly playing big is about using your talents and gifts in service to a cause greater than yourself,” he reminds us repeatedly. “Playing big is linked to your purpose” (p. 26)—an action that he quickly connects back to the path that allows any of us to serve as leaders “regardless of your position” (p. 42).

The theme of interdependence is never far from the surface here. In fact, it’s an essential part of being successful and fostering success within an organization: “Ask for assistance!” he insists (p. 94), and remember that in sharing our unresolved challenges, we may learn from the success stories that colleagues will offer as guidance in our moments of need—a practice encouraged in ASTD through the Sharing Our Success program for chapter leaders.

One of Samuel’s greatest achievements in the book is his effective use of anecdotes that help us viscerally understand the points he makes—a practice that extends to an admission that he almost lost his own thriving business by ignoring the very lessons he had been helping others to absorb. We can’t help but appreciate and learn from his frank discussion of the situation: “It didn’t matter how many times I had taught the Personal Accountability Model; I was now immersed in my humanness and experiencing all of the pain and suffering that comes from victimization.” We certainly walk away from that particular sharing-our-lack-of-success story inspired by how much his own self-examination and honesty shows that we, too, can make a positive difference if we’re willing to learn and take action rather than succumbing to the lethargy that at one time or another threatens every one of us.

Trainer-teacher-learners also can’t help but react positively to Samuel’s focus, late in the book, to how much the learning process is part of our efforts to be indispensable in the terms outlined in this book. Beginning with writer-futurist Alvin Toffler’s assertion that “The illiterate of the 21st century will not be those who cannot read or write, but those who cannot learn, unlearn and relearn,” Samuel reminds us that we need to continue learning—and implementing what we learn—rather than hiding behind timeworn clichés about how we’re doing what we do simply because that’s the way things have always been done.

“Learning,” he suggests, is “the outcome of every relationship we are in and every action we take” (p. 161); if we approach our relationships with the spirit of teaching-training-learning that is at the heart of all we do, we’re likely to reach one of the many useful conclusions Samuel offers: “Being indispensable doesn’t start and stop with whatever job you are currently in. It is a lasting state based on the value you represent to others” (p. 115).

Ultimately, he concludes, we find an ironic guiding principle to making ourselves indispensable: “…you gain your independence not when you act in your own best interest but when you realize your interdependence and act in a way that serves both others and yourself” (p. 210).  And if that makes us more cognizant of the value of both leading and participating in the meetings and other activities that comprise so much of our work day, we will be well on our way to having more successes to share.


Leading and Participating Effectively (Pt. 1 of 2): Eli Mina on 101 Boardroom Problems [and How to Solve Them]

July 24, 2012

Reading Eli Mina’s 101 Boardroom Problems [and How to Solve Them] leaves us with the impression that he has seen it all. Or, if he hasn’t, that he has the wonderful breadth and depth of experience to help us see the challenges of leadership so we can recognize and resolve them when we are running meetings.

Mina—a clear, concise, and thoughtful writer whose decades of consulting experience makes him a valuable resource for any trainer-teacher-learner serving as a leader within an organization—leads us through the sort of structural overview of organizations that help us anticipate and prevent problems effectively. He also, through his 101 brief case studies with summaries of potential damage and recommended interventions, takes us where we need to be with the best teaching-training technique we know: effective storytelling.

The structure of the book itself makes it an essential primer and refresher for anyone conducting business through meetings. From start to finish, in 10 chapters, he takes us through a variety of situations beginning with faulty direction and governance/structural issues within organizations; explores situations involving ethical and procedural issues; provides scenarios and solutions involving problematic board members, ineffective board chairs, and dysfunctional boards; then circles back to the larger picture with chapters on unproductive board meetings, flawed interactions with management, and flawed interactions with the communities we serve.

There’s a gentle spirit at play throughout this book: “Consider this thought,” he counsels us in his introduction. “Never attribute to malice what can be attributed to misunderstandings, a lack of knowledge, or systemic weaknesses. Even if you are certain that someone is acting maliciously, it is more productive to examine the systemic deficiencies that may be the root causes of a specific Boardroom problem. Only then can lasting solutions be found.”

Which is not to say that Mina can’t and won’t be blunt in his advice when the situation merits it. Faced with digressions that threaten to derail the decision-making process, Mina suggests that we be direct and use phrases along the lines of “‘Can we please get back to the agenda?’ or ‘We need to focus on the core issue…’” rather than trying to spare participants’ feelings to the detriment of a group’s ability to accomplish what it needs to accomplish.

The real value of the book is that it’s driven by a clearly-defined philosophy: “An effective Board generates quality decisions, together, and within a reasonable amount of time,” Mina proposes in words that can serve us well in any meeting, not just the board meetings which are the focus of his book. And he consistently guides us through the process of implementing that philosophy by returning to the need for openness and transparency in the way we conduct business; reminding us that mediocrity and dysfunctional or unethical behavior has no place in our decision-making process; and insisting that impediments to effective decision-making need to be addressed rather than ignored.

A particularly interesting and helpful remark is offered in the context of meetings where participants are seen—or see themselves—as representing a particular constituency’s point of view and therefore feel compelled to vote as directed by members of that constituency: “When it comes to voting, Board members should vote with the organization’s interests placed ahead of any other interests, even if their constituent units expressed a strong desire that they vote differently or even ordered them to do so,” he writes.

It’s through this level of advice that Mina provides the strongest guidance to any of us involved in accepting leadership roles within the organizations we agree to serve. He is, at once, reminding us that leaders listen to those they represent as well as to others who presumably have the best interests of the organizations in mind, weigh all pertinent information, and ultimately vote in a manner consistent with an organization’s mission, vision, and value statements; its goals and objectives; and the needs of those it exists to serve. We may not win re-election or reappointment during fractious times, but at least we know we met our greatest responsibility: to put the interests of the organization and its constituents at the forefront of our thoughts each time we act to meet the responsibilities with which we’ve been entrusted.

Next: Mark Samuel on Making Ourselves Indispensible


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