Harvest Timing, an Excerpt from “Fully Human”

Autumn Grapes 640x504

As you may or may not know, I wear a couple of hats in addition to coach and consultant.  One of the hats I like to don is that of poet.  I have written and published an entire collection of poetry. “Fully Human” depicts moments of life illuminating what it means to be human in our times. These rich and poetic metaphors have been wonderfully received by clients in health care, mental health and education where I have used my work to help people explore life’s challenges and moments of grace. Geoffrey Bellman, well-known local leadership author says in the book’s endorsements, “You reach into and through the shadows and death in its many forms. Many people will find solace in your words about suffering meaninglessness…and those that don’t should! You coax the meaning out of the darkness with a knowing voice.”

Following is a season-appropriate excerpt from my collection.  “Fully Human” is available for purchase on my website.  Enjoy!

Harvest Timing

The apples are gathered in now
And it was a good crop.

The last of the raspberries
Mould on the canes,
A few tomatoes linger
In hopes of one more sunny day.

It’s been a good garden this year.
I’ve spent more time than ever
Weeding beds, mowing, trimming;
I even attacked the blackberries
And morning glory vines.

Weeks ago I noticed progress in
My cleaning out, but yesterday
I saw these last ones
Have not given up.

New vines, even in September,
Creep back into the walks,
Set off new shoots into the Rhododendrons.

Now I see life in a mix of ripe fruit
And work that isn’t done.
Come Spring, I’ll hit the vines again
And feel I’ve made more progress –
Once more cutting back the over growth
Pulling up the morning glory
secretly invading the vegetables.
Every year I cut them back,
And they in turn grow more.

Life, then, is as much about
The weeds as it is about the fruit.

As ministers, stewards of the garden,
We weed and prune,
Sometimes getting what we want.

The cuttings, handled well,
Turn to compost for growing
More sweet fruit.

Written by Samuel P. Magill

Talking with Sled Dogs – Leading from Behind (The Conclusion)

Sled Dogs in Snow

Continued from September 27th

Even careful preparation can’t account for mishaps along the way

Our plan had been for me to turn at the first trail junction and stop until I saw Will’s headlamp. So, I turned, called to the lead dog, Sakani, and collected on the relationship she and I had built skijoring: she stopped quickly. I planted the snow anchor, and keeping one hand on the sled (never, never let go of the sled) looked for Will.

I saw his light and stepped back on the runners. Then leaned over to pull the anchor and called to the lead. Silence. Nothing happened. I starred in disbelieve. The dogs were gone. Gone! My mind raced. Then recalling Will’s advice to say a little as possible and never get excited, I called twice to Sakani, to stop. My headlamp illuminated four pairs of red eyes looking back at me. Stay, Sakani, Stay.

Will came around the corner expecting me to be moving and nearly ran me down. He stopped. I said in a quiet sort of way: “We have a problem”. He, too, starred in disbelief.

Invention is paramount for issue resolution

Now here is where plans don’t count. Relationship and communication and staying connected and inventing are the way out. Will asked me to stand in front of his team: they are so loyal to him that they were likely to follow him forward. He approached my team since they knew him better than they did me. When he got to them (Sakani had stayed as I asked.) he first straightened them out – to get the antagonists on the team separated – then called me.

Quietly, slowly, I walked on the trail until I got to Sakani. Then I stepped off the trail up to my knees in unpacked snow and lead Sakani back to the sled. Again, invention mattered. If the team started to run, we were dead. The four of them were much stronger than Will and I. I picked Sakani’s front feet up so that she hopped her way back to the sled. It neutralized her strength and is the method for getting the dogs from kennel to truck – but it’s not generally used on the trail. The others followed her as I made a wide circle to avoid fights. Once back at the sled, we made the same circle again to get pointed back down the trail and found out what had happened – an old rope with a broken knot.

Review of the event

The sequence in this breakdown is important.

  1. I saw and acknowledged that something unexpected had happened.
  2. I called on my relationship with the lead.
  3. I stayed calm and quiet so to not introduce more trouble. No arm waving allowed.
  4. I called on the available expertise.
  5. As a team, we invented a solution one step at a time. We did not sit down and plan it abstractly. All of it was in action. If the action worked, we kept going, if not, we made up a new step.
  6. There was no blame anywhere.
  7. Once resolved, we got moving on the primary commitment – running.

The rest of the trip consisted of checking turns on the route, building my and Sakani’s ability to communicate about turns and enjoying the ride. Back at the truck, my job again became the steward: water, praise and a warm box on the truck for each dog.

What I learned from the sled dogs

So, what does this adventure have to do with coaching and leading based on stewardship, relationships, and faith in human organizations? If stewardship is choosing service over self-interest, then the simple acts of tending the needs of the team must be the beginning and the end. No fancy program or set of principles or strategies can replace them. Some of the acts are spoken, some are in silence. Many would be called menial.

Relationships begin before the adventure and are the basis for success. They are all there is to call on when plans come unknotted. They are strengthened by making requests and not pushing it. (When I was cutting the dogs’ toenails, I let them walk away when they wanted to, then called them back. When they’d had enough of my clumsiness, we stopped for the time being). Unless relationships have choice for all the parties, they are a dictatorship.

Faith in each other and our ability to figure out what to do next provides a foundation for venturing into the unknown. Each time we make a change, take on a new project, or have a meeting is a venture into unknown territory. Since there is no guarantee, it is an act of faith.

When we call to the team we are making an invitation. If they don’t accept it, we must start once again by doing the simple tending. I’m very clear that humans and dogs aren’t the same and business is not exactly the same as going for a sled ride, but don’t we sometimes make assumptions about our relationships with people that even a dog wouldn’t accept?

Planning for perfection cannot replace strong relationships

As for “flawless”, in my experience planning for perfection is a formula for falling short. Strong relationships between skilled partners and exercising faith in each other over and over during action are as close to flawlessness as we’re going to get – or need to be.

This article was written by Samuel P. Magill and was originally printed in Flawless Consulting Field Guide and Companion by Peter Block

Coaching Practices for Executive Teams

Business Meeting Discussion

Executives are very smart people. They are typically experts in the subject matter of their organizations and they take their work and time seriously.  The good ones work very hard and are not easily swayed by others’ opinions. Consequently, the use of an outside facilitator or consultant to work with the executive team is often resisted. In my view, the resistance makes sense. Far too many consultants fall into the trap of challenging the executives’ expertise and some tell the executives what to do. Sometimes it works. My approach is different.

Create a conversation.

In my 28 years of working with leadership groups, I’ve learned that my job is simply to create the conversations that will allow them to get work done better than they can without me. I work closely with the executives before their meetings to find out things like:

What is the most important thing to accomplish?

How do they normally work together?

What lead up to considering a consultant / facilitator / executive coach?

What are their usual frustrations with meetings?

What would add enough value to the meeting to warrant paying for my services?

There are many more questions dealing with the right sequence of work, the areas likely to produce conflicts, the clarity of executives’ roles, the dynamics of executive interaction with the next level of management and with the organization, the pace of the meeting, the agenda, and so on. Also important: what is my relationship and role relative to the most senior person in the room. What I want is a partnership that enhances their existing capabilities.

Observe and reflect.

Learn while doing real work. The most important thing I teach is how to observe your own dynamics. When executives learn to observe and reflect on what is happening in their meetings in real time, they gain control over their own processes. My job is to help them learn how to do that. When it is appropriate to offer a leadership theory to help broaden or organize thinking, I’ll provide it. If I don’t know what to do, I’ll go find out.

Learn what is unique to your executive team.

There are enough similarities between senior leaders across organizations that my experience with the following groups has given me a good start in preparing to work with you:

Senior Leaders of Navy Undersea Warfare Engineering and Maintenance, Keyport, Washington Leaders in this division became concerned with schedule slides and wanted help to increase accountability among their employees. They have been discovering that a new level of cooperative relationships and task management is needed to allow the existing commitment to excellent to be displayed. My task has evolved to coaching the senior team more than consulting.

The executives and 100 person leadership team of Boeing Computer and Support Services. While this group no longer exists in the old form (1988 to 1996) it was exciting to work with cutting edge computer science experts, software engineers and the airplane manufacturing environment. There were times they did not agree with each other!

Executives of the American Association of Family Physicians and the American Board of Family Medicine. Physicians are not easily persuaded by others’ ideas or by people who are not physicians. This work required setting up new conversations and getting out of the way while holding them to their agreed purpose.

Executives of the Boeing Employees’ Credit Union. These smart, dedicated people run both a disciplined financial organization and a fast paced customer service program. Decisions have implications for a lot of people – just as each meeting they hold.

Executives of Multicare Health Systems, Tacoma. The combination of medicine, finance, information systems, physical plant and the lives of patients makes leaders like these the most challenged of all executives. My work was to help them align the vision and certain process improvements while involving 1200 employees. They received an award for their work.

Executives of Port Blakely Properties, Seattle. Repeated engagements have allowed me to shift from simply a facilitator to a real time coach for this dynamic, multi-faceted company.

Senior leaders of the Washington State Department of Health (Secretary of Health). Over a period of several years, I helped them find the trees in a quickly changing forest. A big part of my job was to help them slow down enough to think. I was told that when I was room, at the table,  their dynamics changed for the better.

Working with an outside consultant is good practice.

Schedule a meeting with an executive coach, preferably in person, also by telephone. By the end of an hour you will have a good assessment of whether the coach will fit with you and your executives.