Friday, February 26, 2010

Column: Scheming Narrowly

I did a number of presentations last week and have another one this week. If you know me personally or have seen me deliver a presentation, you know that I tend to be lively.

That liveliness is often the subject of conversation after my presentations. I have had people come down on both sides of the fence. In preparation for one speaking engagement I was told by a conference organizer not to talk about myself too much because people had mentioned that apparently I tend to do that. Ironically, after delivering that presentation I had my friend Bob Chartier tell me that the presentation was great, the only thing missing were my personal stories. When I told him that I was advised not to tell them, he replied: "Watch me and learn grasshopper, all I do is tell personal stories"; and that is exactly what he did, and the audience loved him for it. I loved him for it.

In my Scheming Virtuously talk I share a very personal story of renewal, and follow up with tactical advice on how others can be change agents while managing their reputation and relationships. At one point in the presentation I show this picture:

Once the picture is up I explain that while my outspokenness has led to a tremendous amount of opportunity, it has not been without cost. I have been asked to leave an organization (in government), many people think I am a hot dog of little substance, many others dismiss me as a wiener.

Being aware of the context within one operates, especially as an outspoken change agent, is paramount. Rather than explain it in great detail, I would like to share a snippet from an email exchange I had with a fellow public servant who attended my Scheming Virtuously presentation. Please note that I am sharing this without attribution and with permission. It was sent to me under the rather clever title of "Scheming Narrowly".

Email from ...

... I heard your SV talk at YMAGIN last week. A colleague and I have a comment to share. Your approach to creating a place of one's own is certainly impassioned, but it seems a bit narrow, which is to be expected since you're only one person! Certainly, finding/creating a sense of belonging in one's place of work is crucial to success and satisfaction and the public service can absolutely make this task more challenging than necessary.

But at the same time, I believe such 'places' can be created in a myriad of ways, not all of them 'noisy,' 'opportunistic,' or 'heroic.' Alternatives that come to mind are 'gentle,' collaborative,' and 'cooperative.' These three approaches, for instance, have been infinitely useful to me in my everyday life and work...

My response ...

Indeed my story is narrow in so much as it is only my story. What I lived was neither something that lent itself to gentle, collaborative nor cooperative approaches. The experience I lived was ruthless and depressing. That doesn't necessarily mean that I don't see your alternatives as viable and, when appropriate, use them. I purposefully position myself as an extreme voice because it tends to inspire people.

It gives people a sense that they can do something, that they needn't sit back, and that others have similar experiences. It also provides them the other end of the spectrum (from public servant atrophy to my over the top engagement) and may motivate them to move to some middle ground that they might have previously thought to be further off the deep end than they do now. I am able to present this more extreme viewpoint because I am more than happy to own it and live with the consequences. I don't purport to speak for everyone, and as I mentioned during the talk there are many people who hate me, who think I'm a hot dog, and otherwise discount me. The trick is understanding that in the context of the public service, a context where people are not necessarily encouraged to have and to articulate opinions (especially when they are lower on the food chain of the organization).

The Moral of the Story is...

Stepping up and being noticed in the government is often met with mixed reactions, a critical part of stepping up is realizing that as long as the system (or the culture) is an obstacle to speaking out there will continue to be a stigma against it. If you can understand that, suddenly being a "radical" doesn't seem so radical at all.

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