The Meaning of Work in Different Cultures

(Most read article in the 6-year history of my blog)

Reflect for a moment on the meaning of work in different cultures and please join the discussion around the closing questions. Remember that within each culture there are exceptions to the general rule.

Also, if you have a different opinion to the one I expressed I would love to hear your point of view.

 Work in the USA

At your typical social occasion in the USA what is one of the first questions people ask you? Is it not “What do you do?” Have you thought for a moment why that is so? Why is it so important for others to know what job you have?

The answer to this question is at the heart of the culture of work in the United States.

“What do you do?” is really tantamount to asking, “What is your purpose? What is your identity?” “How important are you?” By the same token, if you are doing nothing or are unemployed you are nothing.

In addition, the position one has and the money one earns is a measure of how important one is. Money is a scorecard. I distinctly remember two people asking me in recent years“How much do you earn?” They did not want the total of my actual salary. They were just looking for a benchmark to see how we stacked up against each other in terms of importance and the pecking order of life.

Meaning of Work in the USA: Identity/Importance

 Work in Mexico

In Mexico (where we lived for 7 years), work is the means by which a person helps his or her family to get ahead; Mexicans work to advance the education of their children, advance their collective national aspirations, and above all to have time for their family and friends.

Work has such family implications to a Mexican that he/she expects the workplace to have a home-like atmosphere.

To many Mexicans more (time or money) is not better when it comes to working. On a recent visit to our Mexican doctor he decided to do our lab tests right there in his office. He said, “If I send them down the street to the lab I will have to wait until 3pm for the results. By that time I want to be home with my family”.

In Mexico when it comes to money, enough is more than enough. Recently I read of an international company that purchased a Mexican business. Before the acquisition the annual profits of the Mexican enterprise were $40 million. The new international board of directors now set the annual goal for the group as $70 million. The Mexicans leaders did not respond enthusiastically to this new goal. To them $40 million annual profit was quite enough.

(Comment: I was informed that this verdict about the place of work in the lives of Mexicans does not apply in all cases like in the industrialized Northern area of the country)

Meaning of Work in MexicoFor the family: With my family

Work in France

“In France, work takes a backseat to the pursuit of pleasure. If a job isn’t entertaining, most French workers would prefer unemployment” – French Psychiatrist Clotaire Rapaille

In France work is valued for the pleasure it provides the individual both in and out of the workplace. The French don’t see any point in spending 12 hours/day at the office; they will tell you that after six hours, you become increasingly unproductive. So, from the French point of view, why not focus on being highly productive for six hours and spend the rest of the time doing all the other things you enjoy? Some of the most emotional strikes occur when the government tries to institute longer working days. And then for the French there are the 6-week annual vacations (versus 2 weeks in the USA).

Meaning of Work in FranceFor Pleasure and Only Pleasure

Question for Discussion 

What is the meaning of work in your culture?

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The Pinocchio Syndrome – The Quest for Truth in the Age of Spin




Under current law, it is a crime for a private citizen to lie to a government official, but not for a government official to lie to the people – David M Fraser

What’s wrong with that statement?

You know the story. Pinocchio’s nose became longer the more lies he told.

We live in a post-truth society. With the epidemic of fake news, boldfaced lies on many fronts, “alternative facts”, and runaway fact denial, we soon will see some very long noses in our country

To be fair, lies are equal opportunity villains when it comes to political spin. Someone once said that politics was like window cleaning. The dirt always seems to be on the other side.

Despite this alarming trend from all sides of the political spectrum the key is to take care of our own noses by being vigilant advocates for the truth. We also need to fight spin with truth and not sink to the level of invectives.

If we don’t, imagine the long-term consequences if,

  • A CEO concocted facts in the annual report to the board of directors and shareholders.
  • An employee fudged a weekly review to a manager on the status of a project.
  • A parent lied to his/her children.
  • A President lied to the people.

Intuitively we know that we should judge others by the content of their character. Most folks dare not

  • Rationalize a lie as a bargaining tool or a communication ploy to make a strong point.
  • Allow the retribution impulse to replace the need for collaboration.
  • Use lies as a political tool to manipulate others.
  • Make up ‘news’ either to hurt someone or improve our ratings.

So how then do we return to the true north value of honesty?

Consider these two actions. We need,

  1. Constant vigilance against confirmation bias

Research warns us against confirmation bias. Here the trend is to gravitate uncritically towards pundits and studies that support our point of view. We need to be like the Dalai Lama who said, “If a scientific discovery contradicts my Buddhist beliefs, I will give up my belief.”

Such humility and openness potentially protects us against untruth. It also helps us step back and consider the reliability of the sources of our information. For instance, a report by a Pulitzer prize-winning investigative journalist is more likely to deal in facts that some private news website.

  1. Courage to speak to the truth of a position

It is difficult to speak up in the face of lies or a strong statement that seeks to manipulate us. With everything from death threats to other forms of retribution, many dissidents adopt the attitude “When they go low, we go away”. However retreating from the battle for truth insures the continuance of the mistruth. We should never underestimate the power of the protest any person.  We witnessed to power of “we the people” in the recent Women’s March.

Remember Rosa Parks.

We are in for a long and challenging season where truth will be assaulted on many fronts. Topics under the ‘truth’ microscope  include global warming, the place of torture, civil rights, the right of every qualified citizen to vote, and our place in the international community. Each topic will require an honest and unbiased look at the data, the use of critical thought, examining our conscience, and us having the courage to speak out and act with courage.

The challenge I give myself is “Each day, how can I advocate for the truth?

Why is the veracity of our information so important in the light of the fact that, according to Charles J Sykes of the NY Times, “The battle over truth is now central to our politics”?




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Beyond A One-Trick Pony – Problem Solving That Works


In our highly complex world it is quite natural for us to crave simple quick-fix solutions. But as a result we may oversimplify the remedy for human problems with slogans like,

“Just say no” – which supposedly was the solution to drug addiction.

“Give us our country back” – the purported political answer to a complex immigration challenge. This is at times a veiled way of saying, “make America white again” (As if it was always white.)

The problem with such seemingly clear solutions is that they don’t usually work.

 For instance, a person addicted to drugs cannot “just say no”. They take the drug that eventually takes them. You cannot “will” your way out of an addiction.

Even if we stopped immigration to the USA today there are still more brown babies being born that white babies. We cannot legislate ourselves out of the need to balance identity with diversity.

In all instances the proponents of such views are like a pony with one trick or practitioner with one solution. Granted each may have part of the solution to the problem for some people some of the time. But not to all people all of the time.

Ultimately a single solution approach can reduce us to simplistic thinking, lead to an aversion for objective facts, and leave a huge block of the population in the lurch.

So beware of those who proclaim “all you need is!”

 Living Beyond the Simplistic

Learning a more comprehensive approach to our problems implies that we,

  • Recognize the depth of our addiction to quick answers

This has been named the “bumper sticker” syndrome. Just examine any of the social media outlets that are filled with such slogans.

  • Realize that there are evidence-based solutions

Consider some of life’s thorniest problems like the reasons for personal happiness. Scientific evidence indicates that those that making a meaningful contribution to the common good and who have healthy social networks are the people most likely to be happy.

  • Acknowledge the complexity of most of the challenges we face.

For example, healthy living comes from more than just jogging and eating well. Nor is health just based on case studies from the longevity of a few outliers like Jack Lalanne.

  • Learn to tolerate ambiguity

Here we need to live the questions rather than just having the answers. A sign of maturity is the capacity to live gracefully in the face of ambiguity. Let’s face it, most of life falls into the gray zone.

  • Pay the price of bucking the “one solution” system.

One does not win popularity contests or enhance one’s marketing campaign by subscribing to points 1-4. Imagine telling your boss that the quick answer she wants is not immediately available but you need time for a deeper root cause analysis.

  • Balance our rapid analytic thinking with slower more deliberate thought

At times we need to slow down before we move ahead. This includes unconscious processes as sometimes revealed in dreams. Note also how many problems find solutions when you are not working on them or while you are jogging.

  • Adopt a multi-modal diverse approach to dealing with challenges

Broadening your horizons in your search for knowledge must include the examination of philosophy, theology, literature, the arts, the quiet of nature, exposure to other cultures, and other disciplines/positions outside of your own. Be willing to change your position in the light of new and more compelling data.

Instead of having a pony that only manages to pull off one trick, expand the range of capabilities that go outside of your as well as the pony’s comfort zone.




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The Headhunter Called – Then What?

You are on the job-recruiter’s radar.

Since you are a high-potential and talented employee he/she has probably called to gauge your interest in another job at another company. The deal may even be sweetened with offers of more money, a better location, or a more advanced position. Did you pursue the offer or not return the call?

I have been through this scenario with hundreds of my clients over the years. I apply the traffic light test in helping my clients make the decision about staying or moving. So for you, is the light green (investigate or pursue the offer), amber (consider it more carefully), or red (reject it outright)?


(Reject the offer)

While many find it flattering that another organization wants to recruit them they are adamant that, for one reason or another, this is not the right time for a move. An executive I know in the high-tech industry received a potential offer from a competing company. They offered him twice his current salary with a significantly higher position in their organization.

He decided to reject the headhunter’s offer for an interview because he

·     Valued his boss’ investment in his career

·     Was making a significant contribution to his organization

·     Cherished the network of peers that he had built up over the years

·     Did not want to disrupt his family that was happily rooted in the community

·     Examined the culture of the other organization and decided that the grass was not greener in the other field

If you are in this category you are very fortunate.


(The dilemma – You don’t know)

I come from the generation where loyalty to one’s organization is of paramount importance. However, the old social contract that your organization has your back and expects loyalty in return has changed. It is now more common that employees are likely to have several different jobs, be laid off in a recession or organizational restructure, or start their own business before they retire.

The problem with being in the amber mode is that it can keep you off balance emotionally. I know that some consultants tell people “If you have a plan B it shows your lack of focus and commitment to Plan A.” I disagree somewhat with this position. However, I counsel people to keep their primary focus on the job at hand and add, “Treat the next possible job as you would a lifeboat on a ship. You don’t plan to take your cruise in the lifeboat but will need it in an emergency.”

So don’t be afraid of asking the question “Should I go or stay?” But don’t distract yourself unnecessarily with other job offers.


(Decide to leave)

Your job environment needs to become quite toxic for you to decide to move. There has to be a confluence of factors like workplace discrimination (e.g. sexism), an abusing shout and scream or command and control culture, a ceiling placed on your potential advancement, or the mission of the organization changing to where your talents are no longer prized as they once were. All this triggers a possible move.

There are broader issues that may precipitate a move. You may want to

·     Have a healthier and simpler lifestyle

·     Expand your capabilities

·     Work in another culture

·     Deal with family crisis like an aging/sick relative

·     Earn more money

·     Have an opportunity to expanded or change your career

Before you jump ship, check to see if some of these needs can be met by your present employer in another function, location, or with expanded job opportunities, experience, and training. If the light remains red, move on.

What color is the traffic light at the intersection in your life?

How have you managed this decision?

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Beyond Productivity to Fruitfulness

Do you feel that you are being pushed to your physical and psychological limits by time pressures and the sheer volume of work?

Consider this.

The numbers are in. In American business the hours employees spend at the office have gone up.

So, with an increase in the number of hours worked each year, Americans must be more productive than ever, right?

Wrong! According to the US Department of Labor-Bureau of Labor Statistics there was only a slight increase in productivity in the last few decades. And the productivity increase has been attributed to advances in technology, especially the internet as well as the fact that business is doing more with less.

Nonetheless, American business still operates under the belief that:

“The more hours employees work, the more productive they are.” 

 In addition, as we will see, business also (falsely) assumes that: 

 “The faster employees work, the more they accomplish,” and “The more employees are paid, the more motivated they are to be productive.”

Based on the increase in productivity in relation to the significant increase in hours worked, we may conclude—at least on this point—that we were wrong on what makes employees productive. Now what? Certainly not push harder. Unfortunately, that’s what corporate culture is continuing to do. Damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead. It’s no wonder that employees are feeling pressure.

Consider a typical employee’s work situation. He or she grinds out twelve-hour days, with up to two-hour commutes, and less than three weeks vacation per year. Moreover, with the advent electronic devices and social networking capabilities, the distinction between personal and business time has become blurred. So where do we go from here? How can we restore employees so they feel inspired rather than used up?

First, we need to question our beliefs about productivity.

Next, we need to look deeper to discover what really motivates employees to be productive.

Finally, we need to know how an employees’ deeper needs relate to the quality of the work they produce.

Consider the belief “The more hours employees work the more productive they are.” It is common knowledge that most people who are rested and healthy can work at optimal levels for six to seven hours a day. Occasionally, in a burst of energy or inspiration, employees can perform optimally for an additional two or three hours. Then they need to rest.

We also need to have a life outside of work. It may seem a surprise to learn that many employees would forgo a salary increase (with a longer work day) for time off for themselves and their family.

A study conducted by the International Labor Organization concluded that employees “would happily accept lower incomes in exchange for working fewer hours.”

If working longer hours is not the answer to increased productivity, then what about working faster? This belief was challenged by psychologist Guy Claxton in his book

Hare Brain, Tortoise Mind: How Intelligence Increases When You Think Less

Claxton summarized research which strongly indicates that some problems are better solved by slower paced, intuitive thinking which originates from the unconscious mind rather than the fast-paced, analytical, “meet-the-deadline” thinking with which we are all more familiar. This finding flies in the face of prevailing business practices which demand fast, logical thinking as the way to solve business problems.

Contrary to popular belief, at times we need to learn how to slow down our thinking rather than speed it up.  This is especially true, Claxton argues, for the development of complex and original ideas.

Generally, in what people are looking for in a job,

  • they consistently ranked not pay but interest in the job
  • the sheer pleasure of working
  • the opportunity for collaboration through group decision making well above financial compensation.

So, if employees are not more productive when they work longer and do not accomplish more when they work faster, what drives people to work at their best?

First, it needs to be emphasized that productivity, obviously, is a good thing. If companies were not productive, as measured by a healthy financial base, we would all be out of work. However, that said, productivity should not be the only way of viewing our relationship to work. Consider the words of Henry Ford:

 “Business must be run for a profit….else it will die. But when anyone tries to run a business solely for a profit…then also the business must die, for it no longer has a reason for existence.

What is the reason for the existence of a business if it is not just for profit? The answer is to be found within the true assets of every business, its people, and their deeper needs—the need to be not simply productive, but fruitful.

What Does it Mean to be Fruitful?

The heart of fruitfulness is that one’s work flows from the essence of oneself to the essence of the other. The quality of the relationship assumes, what philosopher Martin Buber calls, an I-thou relationship rather than an I-it relationship:

I do this because of who I am in my inner self and I show reverence for who you are in your essence (I-thou).”

In contrast, the attitude of the I-it relationship is “I do this to gain something from you, regardless of your needs.”

 Once we focus on the notion of fruitfulness, and all that it entails, we begin to think differently about what it means to optimize employee performance as well as the nature of our work relationships. But how does fruitfulness differ from productivity?

The ‘fruit’ in fruitfulness refers to a product that flows from the life or essence of a tree. Productivity, in contrast, often comes from outside the person, from the employer trying to coax or even manipulate better performance with some quid pro quo arrangement; for example, “Work more or harder and I’ll pay you more.”

In the end, we don’t motivate people; rather, they have to find it within themselves. In short, people are more motivated by a good job that does the following: expands one’s mind and skills (content/creativity), involves individual initiative (choice), provides the chance to work on a team committed to the same task (collaboration), has value to others or the world (meaning), and sparks the desire to make a difference in the world (contribution).

As human beings, we have a deep need to express our uniqueness and talents in the work we do.  The ancient philosophers viewed three aspects of persons that need to be expressed in their work: nous (mind), psyche (the instincts and emotions), and pneuma (spirit).

According to this model, fruitful people are those who effectively engage all three levels in their work. Like the wheels of a car needing to be in balance to insure a smooth ride, these three aspects of being need to be in balance for healthy living and fruitful work.

Let’s consider each of these three aspects of fruitfulness, in turn:

The nous (mind) is the rational part of our humanity. It is that part of our being that is inspired by the content of our job and the opportunity to choose our mission at work. We love for our minds to be engaged, expanded, and challenged in accomplishing this mission. It is this capacity that makes sure we think before we act, consider the consequences of our actions, and ask questions such as “Is this the most prudent course of action?”

Nous operates best when there is a program of lifelong education. Nous is stimulated by curiosity and makes a habit of seeing the world with a different set of eyes (creativity). It has a need for solitude (hence the stress that results when one is constantly interrupted), and cannot always be rushed (it needs time for quiet reflection).  Finally, nous thrives in a climate of dialogue where people are willing to learn from each other through collaboration.

The psyche—instincts and emotions –  is the often unconscious part of our nature which also needs to be engaged and expresses itself as a passion for our work. The sheer excitement about the job and the opportunity to collaborate with others drives us through discouragement and obstacles to accomplish far more than we realize possible. It is also that intuitive part of us that knows something to be true even if we can’t exactly put it into words.  The psyche recognizes that work is an art as well as a science.

The pneuma (spirit) of the person, often neglected or disregarded, is a capacity of humanity that causes us to reach for principles and a power deep within and beyond ourselves. We can also describe the pneuma as the ethical force behind the “golden rule”—that force which shapes character. What exactly is this character factor? It can best be described as people who operate by a ‘higher’ principle—beyond self-interest and ego-gratification—a commitment to a set of values which some view as transcendent.

In pneuma, people sense a calling being expressed in their work. They often have a clear-eyed vision of their goals based on this calling. They draw on a power beyond the self of nous and psyche for inspiration and creativity. They express their calling to make a difference for good in the lives of others (contribution). The consequence of such expression is to give one’s life meaning.

What then are the signs of a fruitful person, engaged at all three levels: nous, psyche, and pneuma?

Maybe this is best answered by a series of statements about our work. We are fruitful in our work when we can say ‘true’ to the following:

In the area of nous (the mind)

  • There are ample opportunities for intellectual growth and development.
  • There is a continual quest for intellectual or professional mastery
  • My opinions are valued and taken into account.
  • My curiosity is continually stimulated.
  • Creativity is encouraged and rewarded.
  • I am encouraged to come up with new ideas.
  • I have uninterrupted time to think deeply about challenges.
  • I have a clear career development plan.
  • I know (or, I am willing to learn) what it takes to get the job done.
  • I am continually learning in the work I do.

In the area of psyche (the instincts and emotions)

  • I take time and attend to deep personal relationships.
  • I value time for reflection.
  • I like working with my colleagues and clients or customers.
  • I am grateful to be a part of a team or a collaborative effort.
  • I am seldom bored at work.
  • The work environment is exciting.
  • I feel joy at work.
  • I am gratified that my contributions are recognized.
  • I share in the benefits and gratification of corporate success.
  • I am loyal to my company and our clients or customers.
  • I am proud of what I do.

In the area of pneuma (the spirit)

  • Business is conducted by the Golden Rule.
  • My values and that of the company are mostly in harmony.
  • I am of service to others.
  • I am making a contribution to society as a whole.
  • I draw strength from the highest aspects of myself or from a transcendent source.
  • I have a deep sense of meaning or calling in the work that I do.
  • I am energized by my spiritual principles and practices.
  • My personal calling finds expression in our corporate mission.
  • I have reverence for the environment.

As you begin to imagine possibilities of fruitfulness, plan and act towards that end, you will experience the ‘flow’ where you enjoy the job for itself and not just the pay. A new energy will fill you where work hours will fly by.  Your self-consciousness and fear of failure will evaporate. Is this just a fanciful dream? On the contrary, it is the experience of all who enjoy a life of fruitfulness.



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What’s In Me For It?

What is your giving quotient (GQ)?

An executive friend of mine was exploring new career opportunities within his current organization. Many of his friends were encouraging him to ask for what he wanted. I told him “What you want is only half of the story. You need to also ask your boss how your skills and interests will best benefit the company”.

I remember once asking a new groom on the eve of his marriage ceremony “What’s in you for this marriage?”  The question took him by surprise because he had been preoccupied with a cost/benefit analysis of that big life event.

So then how do we keep our focus on what we give and not just what we get?

We let go of attachment

In a recent team-building exercise I commented to a group of senior executives “instead of asking what your team is giving to you ask what you can give back to other members in your regional group”.

Legendary NBA coach Phil Jackson of Chicago Bulls and LA Lakers fame talks about the importance of giving in his book “Sacred Hoops”. When he started coaching the Bulls he had a team of super stars like Pippen and Jordan. But the team was not consistently winning championship titles. One of Jackson’s first tasks was to sell the team on the virtue and practice of being less selfish. He told them in effect, “The name of the team is on the front of the jersey. Your name is on the back.”

Try tightly grasping a coin in your hand and at the same time attempt to pick up some new object with that hand. Impossible right? So too, we restrict our capacity to relish life by grasping onto relationships and things.

Poet Robert Blake wrote

He who binds himself to a Joy

Does the winged life destroy;

He who kisses the Joy as it flies,

Lives in Eternity’s sunrise.

We live with gratitude for what we have

Occasionally we find ourselves astonished at the goodness of life. Most of the time, however, we wander through life with little gratitude.  We fail to notice the beauty of the countryside or the kindness of others. We can spend most of our reflective time focusing on the past and especially the future without truly being in the present.  As John Lennon cogently noted in one of his songs:  “Life is what happens to you while you’re making other plans.”

Yesterday I heard from a friend who is living with a family member with Alzheimer’s. As he talked about the difficulties of living with a person with this disease I felt both a surge of compassion for him as well as gratitude that I have so much.

Life seems to fly by the older I get. I cannot stop that flight and make time stand still, go back to the good old days, or stop the pace of progress. I can stop to kiss the joy that flies by, savor the moment, and live as fully as I can in the present.

We give back where we can

In the “What’s in it for me?” generation I ask myself from time to time “What have I given lately?”  

The question “What’s in me for it?” takes us off the automatic pilot of self-seeking. It pushes us from a self to an other focus and from an extrinsic to an intrinsic motivation. The deep satisfaction that comes form giving back to a community,  mentoring others, and being mindful of the impact of our kind words throughout the day can be a source of deep fulfillment as well as encouragement to others.


What’s in you for others?

Please share the fulfillment you have found in increasing your GQ

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Three Practices of Highly Effective Leaders

Co-author Roger Hoffmann

Global CTO and Country Manager, Philippines for US Auto Parts Network

“We now accept the fact that learning is a lifelong process of keeping abreast of change. And the most pressing task is to teach people how to learn” ~ Peter Drucker

Highly effective leaders and organizations have three basic practices as seen in what they learn, do, and teach. Returning to and mastering these basic principles makes all the difference between a good and great leader.

Each behavior is a dynamic process dependent on the other. The success of one sets the stage for the success of the other. Like a three-legged stool each component needs to be robust for the whole to succeed.

Practice #1 – “Here’s what I learned today”

A great leader is a lifelong learner with a highly teachable disposition. He/she demonstrates strong correlation between continuous improvement and long-term success. This involves a willingness to expand his/her awareness and engagement in the pursuit of organizational and professional objectives.

Because yesterday’s skills are not good enough for both the present as well as the future, leaders need to continually master their ever-developing craft, choose to become a lifelong students, stay engaged with other practitioners, join online interest groups, participate in meet-ups and conferences, contribute our knowledge, and join the debate around best practices.

When it comes to high preforming teams, continuous learning doesn’t happen by accident.  It must become an intentional and measureable part of the culture via deliberate planning and support from senior leadership. As a result, every employee needs to

  • Identify a development area
  • Seek out the manager’s input and feedback
  • Solicit support in expanding job-based skills
  • Identify a coach or mentor who can help in the development of these capabilities.

Great learners are curious about everything including the world of their peers in other domains. Learning about other functions, appreciating the challenges and opportunities they are facing, and finding ways to support them sets the stage for learning through collaboration. Such cross training sets the stage for effective future C-suite leadership.

Practice #2 – “What I learned today, I did today”

Most learning comes from focused doing. One successful manager would end meetings with the question “Who is going to do what by when?” In so doing she illustrated the principle that “A strategy without action is a fantasy”

Present priorities for leadership effectiveness necessitate that we operate autonomously without requiring constant external direction.  It is imperative that we create our own work by identifying opportunities to improve instead of simply waiting to be told what to do.  We need to take the initiative and have a bias towards action.  Chance favors those with a prepared mind, so effective leaders seek it out instead of waiting for it to be delivered to them on a silver platter.

Practice # 3 – “To reinforce learning something, I teach it”

We often read of a leader who retires and has not passed on his/her domain knowledge. This person should have built up a leadership bench. In this passing on of the baton or succession planning the leader would have chosen and groomed a replacement and moved on without incurring any risk to the business.

There’s an approach to technical design called “high availability” or HA which eliminates single points of failure in a system, always specifying at least two components so that if one fails, the other can take over.  Organizations should follow this strategy by cross training so that all essential functions have a primary, secondary and emergency role.

As a leader do you,

  • Identify your right hand people and start training them to do your job?
  • Ensure all critical business functions supported by your team have no single points of failure?

The show must go on even if someone is out sick, on vacation, or retires.

Case Study

Constant innovation and forward thinking is required in an age of global competition. Resting on one’s laurels is never a smart strategy to stay ahead of the competition.

Many case studies, like that of Kodak, reveal the peril of assuming that a dominant position within an industry or one’s profession will remain unchallenged. Kodak ignored the discovery of digital photography by some of its employees (It did not learn). In the end competitors adopted this photographic innovation and Kodak’s film-based business model was replaced. (It failed to innovate or do).

Companies, global industries, empires and even entire civilizations have learned this lesson the hard way.





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Quit or Stay? A Tough Career Choice

We have all faced the dilemma of quitting or staying in our jobs.

Years ago the NY Times did a series on people who for some reason or another resigned their job and moved on. One example was a very senior corporate attorney who resigned his position and moved from a major city to a small town in the country. There he opened a law office and worked an eight hour a day job that gave him ample time for the rest of his life. As a result he had time to go fishing with his son (something he had missed with his own father) as well as regaining his health and sanity.

When we find ourselves with the urge to quit what do we do?


After the reality check of a cost/benefit analysis about our work we choose to stay. We make adjustments to our job like reaffirming our priorities that can make the job fulfilling once again.

Most people I know, including myself, love the work they do. It is deeply satisfying to make a difference in one’s organization, contribute to the common good, be at the table where innovative strategy is being formulated, and gratifying to be a part of development of the lives and careers of others. Such people say, “You mean they pay me to do this?”

Others don’t quit because of the “golden handcuffs”. The latter could be retirement benefits they lose if they leave, the mortgage to pay, kids to put through college, and the price of pulling up one’s roots. Furthermore, it is not worth resigning over a boss we do not like because there are frequent managerial changes.


There are a number of sound reasons why people would move from their present job. These include,

  • The pressures of the job are compromising our wider life

When a person is sleep deprived because of the chronic work crises their efficiency goes down, their lives are shortened, and families are compromised. When such stressors are out of our control leaving the situation may be our best option.

  • There really is a glass ceiling

Some organizations really do not accommodate the ambitions of their employees. Women and minorities do encounter a glass corporate ceiling. In Japan, for example, many women have left corporate life with its male dominated culture to launch out into their own businesses. No matter how much these women “leaned into” their power, the political and cultural realities severely restricted their career progress.

  • There are actually better career opportunities elsewhere.

We are often warned that the “grass is not greener in another field”. However, this is not necessarily true. Multitudes of people have found better opportunities elsewhere. Even after they were downsized.

  • There is a whole different life calling us.

A couple of my friends had an epiphany one day as they reflected on the downside of their high-pressure job in the high tech industry. They asked themselves, “Why are we doing this to ourselves?” The action they took resulted in paradigm shift on how they lived their lives. They cashed in their investments and began a spiritual journey that took them all around the world. This action gave them new opportunities to use their gifts and serve others.


Where am I on this quit/stay question?

How can a radical change bring me new opportunities?


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Avoiding Cultural Gaffes – A Case Study

Doing the culturally appropriate thing in our home country doesn’t always work in other cultures. Unless we understand this fact we fall into the “Ugly American” trap.

When we travel (or live) in another culture there are cultural rules that we need to learn and follow. These rules of interaction, when observed, make our communications flow easily and open the possibility of making deeper connections with others.

If these rules are violated, however, awkward moments ensue and the possibility of a successful communication or business transaction can suddenly come to a screeching halt.

Case Study

We were  on vacation in a mountain town in Mexico eating lunch in a local restaurant. A North American woman walked into the restaurant with a large vase of flowers. We discovered later that she was setting up for a cocktail event at the restaurant; the restaurant owner (Mexican) was standing behind the bar. The American marched into the restaurant, obviously annoyed, and turned aggressively to the Mexican.

American: “Did you get my email?”

Mexican: Responded with silence and avoided eye contact.

American: “I emailed you on Tuesday [3 days ago] because I wanted you to have the tables set when I arrived.”

Mexican: Does not respond.

American: [voice is getting louder]: “DID you get my email on Tuesday?”

Mexican: [now agitated, avoids eye contact with the American while brushing away imaginary crumbs off the bar counter.] Then, after a few more seconds of silence, he says in a quiet voice, “Yes.”

American: “Then why didn’t you answer? I needed the tables set.”

Mexican: Responds again with silence.

American: “Can you have someone set up the tables now?”

Mexican: “Yes, we’ll set them up in 15 minutes after the birthday party in the room you are using has ended.”

After the interaction, we asked the North American where she was from and how long she had lived in that town. She said she was the United States and had lived there for 10 years. She should have known better.


  • What went wrong in this conversation?
  • How could she have achieved her objective (of having the tables ready) without producing awkwardness and avoidance from the Mexican owner?

She was out of sync with the Mexican culture because she did not modify her behavior so as to,

  1. Show respect for social protocol: The American neglected starting the interaction with a greeting. In the formal Mexican culture, when two people encounter each other, they always begin: “Hola, buenos dias. Como estas?” Following that, each conversant asks some polite questions or comments about family, the weather, how business is going, before launching into the business at hand. The “bottom line” in Mexico is primarily about first establishing good will and relationships.
  1. Work to save face. The Mexican was embarrassed by the public nature of the confrontation. Everyone in the restaurant heard that he had not responded to the email. If the shoe were on the other foot, as a Mexican, he would not blame others like the American woman did. He would diffuse the situation by taking the blame himself.
  1. Communicate indirectly when making requests. The Mexican use of the subjunctive which indicates e.g. “with your permission/if you are able, can you….?”The power goes to the person you are asking, not the person making the demands. As a Mexican one does not make demands or assert power with one’s requests.
  1. Avoid conflict wherever possible. Mexicans have some difficulty in saying “No.” They work hard to please others so they tell you what you want to hear. They feel that their saying no will disappoint you. They would prefer to accommodate but sometimes they know they cannot.

In effective cross-cultural communication we adapt to others. We do not expect them to do things our way. We know that we can never fully behave like Mexicans nor can we perfectly mirror what they consider appropriate behavior.

But we can learn culture-appropriate behavior and do our best to show respect to our hosts.

What are your thoughts on this case study?

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My Purpose in Life Is?

Is there just one purpose for our lives? And where does this idea come from in the first place?

Here is a partial answer. We have,

1.  Some stellar talent or ability that others view as our great contribution to life. My hair stylist told me last week that she was born to do hair. She was emphasizing that she loved her job, was naturally good at it, and, at a deeper level, that it gave meaning to her life. It is quite easy then to say that this was her purpose in life. Maybe people have told you, “You are a born artist” or “You are destined to become a CEO”

2.  A drive to find meaning for our lives. As humans we attempt to ferret out meaning in just about everything we do. Usually we hone in on a career or a compelling passion to express ourselves. We look for one focus to help us make a good choice and define our purpose.

But do we, like my hairstylist born to do hair, view our purpose as one thing? Just as the acorn is destined to become an oak, do the seeds of our calling clearly emerge as one thing?

Here are some problems and challenges about viewing our lives through the prism of one fixed purpose.

1.   We risk becoming reductionistic.

We live in a shrink it down culture. We reduce complex issueto their simplest terms in order to wrap our minds around them. So we hear people saying, “Oh you are an introvert or a depressive or born to be an artist”. As if one adjective, personality category, or professional identity can capture the essence of a person. We are far more complex than that.

How can we reduce the wonders of the universe to one star or even galaxy? How can we boil down a person’s achievement or personal skills or passion to one manifestation of the self? Such reductionism violates the mystery of our person and makes our life’s journey too simplistic.

2.   We can never predict the future.

When I was in my 20’s I would never have dreamed up the configuration of my present life. I was a boy living in a backwater small town in a country then called Rhodesia, limited by my cultural and religious heritage. Breaking frame and immigrating to the USA, training to be a psychologist, leaving the religious heritage of my childhood, having a child who was disabled, marrying Kris, having a global consulting business, embracing new friends, and moving to Mexico have influenced my evolution in ways I would never have dreamed possible. Was this what I would have predicted for myself in late middle age? In no way, shape, or form.

As with any journey we can plan on and imagine our destination. However, all the guidebooks can never prepare us for the surprises and challenges that we will actually experience when we are there. And so,

3.  We cannot reduce the journey of a life to one goal.

The other day I met a staff person at the FedEx store that had an obvious passion for design. In fact I mentioned to her “You have the design gene in you.” She agreed with me and mentioned that she had been enrolled in a school of design but had to drop out for unstated reasons. Will she ever go back to that path? I don’t know. However, does that mean it’s the end of the line for her finding a calling in the years ahead? Who knows where the stream of her life will flow? She was obviously a multi-talented person. A whole journey lies ahead of her full of mystery and adventure.

So too you may have imagined one goal for your career and relationships. You invested all your energy and hopes into that quest. But life happened and you were knocked off course. So is that it for you? No more options? Well if you were destined to do or be one thing you are out of luck. You are then destined to live on the bench and never get back in the game.

The truth is that there are many options for our lives as we position ourselves to open up to new possibilities. But we only discover this truth when,

So if the notion of “one thing for our lives” is unworkable here are some preliminary ideas on how we can experience a sense of purpose in life.

How to Experience a Sense of Purpose

1.  Remain flexible and learn to improvise. Surrender the illusion of control.

2.  Realize that there is more to you (mystery) than you can begin to realize.

3.  Develop a sense that you are attached to something larger than yourself especially by serving the common good and being a part of the oneness of all.

4.  Demonstrate kindness to others and the self on a daily basis.

5.  Listen to and live according to the prompting and poetry of the soul.

6.  Embrace the adventure of life in whatever way it presents itself to us.

7.  Be as fully present as we can be with others and ourselves.

How would you describe your purpose?

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