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


ALA Annual Conference 2012: Learning, Leading, Engaging, and Transforming

June 23, 2012

If you were in the right room but weren’t paying attention yesterday at the American Library Association (ALA) Annual Conference here in Anaheim, you easily could have missed one of the best examples I’ve ever seen of experiential and transformative learning and leadership in action.

The set-up was simple. Members of ALA staff, along with members of ALA’s Training, Orientation, and Leadership Development Committee (TOLD) and incoming ALA president Maureen Sullivan, worked together seamlessly to deliver the association’s annual orientation session for volunteers who will be serving as chairs of ALA committees for the next 12 months. The traditional set-up for the session, according to those familiar with it, has been for the incoming president to offer a few words of welcome and then leave others to conduct the session.

Sullivan, as the association’s lead volunteer for 2012-2013, suggested a different model for this year’s offering. And program organizers immediately agreed, she noted at the beginning of the session as an example of how change can sometimes easily be implemented. The standard “orientation” became a “strategic leadership meeting.” We were active participants in determining how we all will work together and with others during the next 12 months. And, by time we left that room three and a half hours later, we had not only become familiar with what was expected of each of us as volunteers, leaders, and potential facilitators of change within an association we very much love and admire, we had been reminded by a master trainer-leader-consultant/change agent that the first step in being effective is believing that we can be effective in the roles we choose to play.

Because I’ve known Sullivan for several years and have had a few opportunities to work with her and see her in action, I wasn’t surprised by any of this. When she facilitated a two-day conference for students who had not yet completed their graduate-level work to enter the library workforce, she completely inspired those participants—and her work has paid off as we’ve seen several of those conference attendees begin working their way into management positions with libraries across the country. And when I was struggling with a less-than-satisfying educational experience, Sullivan was there not only as a willing and sympathetic set of ears, she was among a small and cherished group of people who helped me find a way to turn a bad situation into something full of potential—and tremendous results.

So as I sat with other incoming ALA committee chairs yesterday; was engaged by the energy, dedication, and inspiration that Sullivan, author-consultant-presenter Eli Mina (101 Boardroom Problems [and How to Solve Them]) provided; and saw how my volunteer efforts might effectively make a difference in further supporting ALA and all it serves, I realized how lucky I was to be in that particular windowless room—with the most spectacular view of what a few involved people can accomplish under the tutelage of a trainer-leader-consultant who sets the best example possible through her own efforts as an association volunteer.

Others may have been enjoying quality time by a pool. Or preparing to visit the conference exhibits hall. Or tweeting wonderful (or snarky) observations about the conference. Or frantically trying to decide which sessions they wanted to attend and which ones they reluctantly will miss. Or trying to acquire another ribbon to attach to their conference badges. And I have to admit I hope to make time for all of those activities myself.

But being in that room, with that group of people, with that level of inspiration, reminded me once again of the absolute pleasures and rewards we find through volunteering to support those causes that appeal to us. We all know that it’s easy to make commitments. Set high standards and goals for ourselves, and encourage others to set high standards and goals they believe they too can achieve. And then, with the best of intentions, return to our day-to-day work and lose sight of the essential elements of what we set out to do. This, however, is an opportunity where I don’t think that’s going to happen.

It’s completely possible that the association will, a year from now, look exactly as it does today; and the average member will continue to pay dues, attend conferences, complain about bureaucracy, and wonder why nothing ever changes. But those of us inspired by Sullivan certainly hope that won’t be the case. And if we’re effective in reaching out to foster an even greater sense of engagement than already exists within ALA—remembering to listen and to act—we may actually have a report card well worth taking home when the time for our final exam as learner-leader/change agents is administered a year from now.

N.B.: Sharon Morris and I, on Sunday, June 24, 2012, will be facilitating a 90-minute workshop on how to engage workplace learners and others in libraries. The session, under the auspices of the ALA Learning Round Table, begins at 10:30 am at the ALA Annual Conference here in Anaheim, in Convention Center Room 203B. Hope you’ll join us for what promises to be an engaging discussion.


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