Monday, September 15, 2014

Make Values a Primary Filter for Performance Evaluations

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This post is part of a series in which I'm analyzing the efforts of my organization to define and embrace core values through the six rules for doing so defined by Francois Nader, CEO of NPS Pharmaceuticals. For the series introduction, go here. For my comments on the first rule, go here. For my comments on the second rule, go here. For my comments on the third rule, go here. For my comments on the fourth rule, go here.

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Here's Nader's fifth rule, along with what he says about it in his HBR blog post:

Make values a primary filter for performance evaluations. There is no stronger lever for promoting a culture than tying adherence to its values to individual compensation. At NPS, the values evaluation and rating has a direct and significant impact on salary increases and both short- and long-term incentives. While recruitment errors happen, the performance evaluation highlights those shortcomings and gives the manager and the employee a chance to correct the situation. If the improvement plan fails to generate results, swift separation from the company is necessary. Even individuals on NPS’s leadership team who didn’t embrace our values had to go.

Like last week's rule on using your values as a filter in your hiring process, this is another recommendation that I entirely agree with. It is also something that I have done inside my organization. Our evaluations measure performance in three areas--completion of job responsibilities, achievement of strategic program objectives, and demonstration of our values and their associated behaviors.

But that third piece on our values remains the most elusive of the three.

It's the newest, after all. Although we have clearly stated our values and provided explicit examples of behaviors that demonstrate them, everyone in the organization--myself included--is still in the process of figuring out how we can live them. The behaviors are there to aid in this process, but I have been careful not to position them as the only way the values can be demonstrated. People should not be rewarded, in my opinion, merely for aping behaviors that will bring them higher compensation. Acting in that fashion, in fact, would be contrary to our values.

So what I have done instead is try to engage people in dialogue about the values and their connection to them. Here's what they mean, and here are some ways that that can be demonstrated, but undoubtedly, they can be demonstrated in dozens of other ways. When you reflect on your performance and conduct within the office, where do you see yourself acting in accordance with the values and where do you see areas in which you could bring your actions into closer alignment?

As I have previously written, these conversations have not always gone as well as I would have hoped. And as I reflect on it now, I have to wonder if the process of linking them to our performance evaluations hasn't been part of the problem. Keeping score and holding people accountable is important, but putting people in that position also elicits a natural and predictable response from them. They will claim the highest possible success and put things in the best possible light. Of course I embody our values in everything I do. That's what you're paying me for, right?

So I have begun to take a different tack. Rather than scaling rewards to the sheer number of values and behaviors a person demonstrates, our most recent performance evaluation was focused on each staff person identifying an area of focus within our values structure, describing actions they planned to take in order to better represent it, and visibly manifesting those actions in our office and in their interactions with others.

I feel like we're making better progress with this approach, but it has been slow going. Our evaluation process is on an annual cycle, with three formal sit-downs between supervisor and employee over that time span. In the context of measuring performance on job responsibilities and achievement of strategic program objectives, that time scale is about right. But in the context of demonstrating our values--however it is that we agree that will occur--more frequent focus and discussion may be necessary.

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This post was written by Eric Lanke, an association executive, blogger and author. For more information, visit www.ericlanke.blogspot.com, follow him on Twitter @ericlanke or contact him at eric.lanke@gmail.com.


Monday, September 8, 2014

Recruit People Who Naturally Are Inclined to Live Your Values

image source
This post is part of a series in which I'm analyzing the efforts of my organization to define and embrace core values through the six rules for doing so defined by Francois Nader, CEO of NPS Pharmaceuticals. For the series introduction, go here. For my comments on the first rule, go here. For my comments on the second rule, go here. For my comments on the third rule, go here.

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Here's Nader's fourth rule, along with what he says about it in his HBR blog post:

Recruit people who naturally are inclined to live your values. This does not mean recruiting clones! It simply means populating the workforce with individuals who naturally embrace the values and become role models. Cultural fit is as significant as technical ability. Again, a company’s culture is a choice, and different people find their fulfillment in different cultures. Just make sure you identify and retain those individuals who will flourish in yours. We integrate the assessment of candidates’ values in our interview process, check references accordingly, and rely significantly on referrals.

I agree entirely with this recommendation, and it is something that I have been focusing on in our hiring practices ever since we put our core values down on paper. I've shared them with potential candidates and asked them to comment on them. I've written and asked interview questions designed to explore their themes. I've asked references for examples of how candidates do or do not demonstrate them. I've used them as discussion points with my leadership team in making decisions between otherwise equally-qualified candidates.

But despite all these efforts, two factors have made this rule challenging to adopt fully in my organization.

First, we're small. We have twelve staff positions, and although we currently have two vacancies, that is not normally the case. As a result, hiring is an episodic practice, not a continuous one. It can be difficult to bring a new institutional focus to something you do only every once and a while. But more critically, we don't always have our pick of candidates. Our small size and the specialized function of our organization and its positions means that we often don't have dozens of interested and qualified candidates to pick from. Sometimes, there's only one (or less), and it's really difficult to let positions go unfilled while you wait for the perfect candidate to emerge.

Second, we're trying to change our culture. To a certain degree, the values I'm hiring for are not the values currently embraced by the organization. A new employee, sold and selected based on the aspirational values we've defined, can enter an organization that is not fully living up to that promise. That creates friction on both sides of the relationship. The new employee wonders if they've made the right decision, and can feel like they are swimming upstream. And the existing staff questions the fit of the new employee, rejecting rather than embracing the different ways of thinking and doing the new employee represents. Rather than moving the organization closer to the values it believes it needs for success, the result can be more conflict and dysfunction.

Neither of these factors is a reason to abandon Nader's recommendation to recruit people who naturally are inclined to live your values, but they do create some additional complexity that a leader has to take into account. Since culture is a product of the people who make up an organization, in hiring, my focus has to remain on the organization we're trying to create, not necessarily the one that currently exists.

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This post was written by Eric Lanke, an association executive, blogger and author. For more information, visit www.ericlanke.blogspot.com, follow him on Twitter @ericlanke or contact him at eric.lanke@gmail.com.

Saturday, September 6, 2014

The Human Brain by Isaac Asimov

Picked this one up at my local library discarded book sale. Published in 1963, it’s seen some wear and tear since then. But given its subtitle--Its Capacities and Functions--I was mostly interested in seeing what stance the author would take on dualism. In other words, is consciousness one of the functions of the brain, or is consciousness something that exists apart from the brain? Asimov is a famously scientific writer, but he is writing here in 1963. How would such a subject be addressed?

Well, long story short, it wasn’t. At least not directly in any way I could find. The use of language seems to assume a decidedly dualist perspective, such as…

These two sets of visceral fibers, the preganglionic and the postganglionic, taken together with the ganglia themselves, make up that portion of the nervous system which is autonomous--or, not under the control of the will.

The will. Assumed to exist, but not explained. And…

To be aware of the environment, one must sense or perceive it.

One. Assuming there is an entity there to do the sensing. Maybe you think I’m nitpicking, but given all the dissecting of brain tissue and chemical substances that Asimov devotes most of the book to, isn’t it noteworthy to say no markings of consciousness are to be found in anything but the author’s assumptions?

Indeed, there are times when Asimov is quite transparent with the limitations of his then understanding of how the brain functions. In a long, opening section devoted to glands and their secretions, he says:

Yet what is it that thyroxine, tri-iodothyronine, and possible related compounds do to bring about such changes? What particular reaction or reactions do they stimulate in order to lift the entire level of metabolism? And how does iodine play a role? This is perhaps the most fascinating aspect of the problem, because no compound without iodine has any thyroid hormone activity whatever. Furthermore, there is no iodine in any compound present in our body except for the various forms of the thyroid hormone.

By now you should not be surprised at learning that there is no answer as yet to these questions.

I don’t know if medical science has been able to answer Asimov’s questions since he posed them in 1963, but it does show that he is willing to chase the knowledge of what the brain is and how it functions to the very limit of his understanding.

But not, evidently, when it comes to thinking philosophically about the self.

Asimov actually becomes somewhat moralizing near the end of the book, where he begins to compare to brain of the human to other brains in the animal kingdom.

Man strikes a happy medium, then. Any creature with a brain much larger than man’s has a body so huge that intelligence comparable to ours is impossible. Contrarily, any creature with a brain/body ratio much larger than ours has a brain so small in absolute size that intelligence comparable to ours is impossible.

Bold and striking statements, but dear Isaac--how can you possibly know these things? On what yardstick does one measure intelligence? Brain/body ratios? Size of the prefrontal cortex? Both have been examined and found wanting--but both remain seemingly common sense explanations for the apparent uniqueness of human intelligence.

Moreover, from Asimov’s perspective we can look at other natural phenomena and proclaim an enlightened understanding that no intelligence or will is actually there.

Because this alliance of purpose and response is so well known to us, we tend to read purpose into the action of other creatures that cannot possibly have modes of thought akin to ours. For example, in observing that a green plant will turn toward the light, and knowing that light is essential to the plant’s metabolism (so that receiving light contributes to its “well-being”), we are tempted to conclude that the plant turns to the light because it wants to, or because it likes the sensation, or because it is “hungry.” Actually this is not at all so. The plant (as nearly as we can tell) has no awareness of its action in any sense that can be considered even remotely human. Its action is developed through the same blind and slow evolutionary forces that molded its structure.

Yet, he seems reluctant to consider the processes from which the reactions of the plant grew almost certainly contain the genesis of our own. I say we are different in degree, not in kind, but Asimov seems intent on preserving the sharpest of distinctions between humans and the rest of the animal kingdom. His longest argument comes near the very end, when he tackles what he calls the “behaviorist stand.”

Even granted that the behaviorist stand is correct in principle and that all human behavior, however complex, can be brought down to a mechanical pattern of nerve cells (and hormones)* the further question arises as to whether it is useful to allow matters to rest there.

The asterisk leads one to the following footnote:

*Actually, it is difficult to deny this since nerves and hormones are the only physical-chemical mediators for behavior that we know of. Unless we postulate the existence of something beyond the physical-chemical (something like abstract “mind” or “soul”) we are reduced to finding the answer to even the highest human abilities somewhere among the cells of the nervous system or among the chemicals in the blood--exactly where we find the lowest.

I want to tackle this head-on. Why down? Why is explaining human behavior and action through natural, observable phenomena taking things down? Down from what? From something that exists only in our imagination? Do we talk about modern chemistry as reducing things down from the heights of the theory of the four elements--earth, air, fire and water? Using science to explain human behavior is not bringing anything down. It provides an explanation that is more complex that any based on the existence of the abstract “mind” or “soul.” It is not down. It is up.

But back to Asimov. I’m going to quote him at length, because I want to preserve as much as his argument as possible. In tackling the difference in kind that he believes humans possess, he makes the following analogy to material phase changes.

Briefly, as a change progresses there can come a point (sometimes quite a sharp one) where the outlook must change, where a difference in degree suddenly becomes the equivalent of a difference in kind. To take an analogy in the world of the physical sciences, let us consider ice. Its structure is pretty well understood on the molecular level. If ice is heated, the molecules vibrate more and more until at a certain temperature, the vibrations are energetic enough to overcome the intermolecular attractions. The molecules then lose their order and become randomly distributed; in a fashion, moreover, that changes randomly with time. There has been a “phase change”; the ice has melted and become water. The molecules in liquid water are like the molecules in ice and it is possible to work out a set of rules that will hold for the behavior of those molecules in both ice and water. The phase changes is so sharp, however, as to make it more useful to describe ice and water in different terms, to think of water in connections with other liquids and ice in connection with other solids.

I think this analogy is fatally flawed. There is no phase change in evolution, no place where you can zoom in and see one thing and one side and another thing on the other--except, perhaps, at the level of gene mutations. The reason we seem so different is because the other hominid species went extinct and the closest relatives we have left with are the chimps and bonobos. But what would the world look like if there were dozens of additional living species on our family tree, each exhibiting traits of intelligence and consciousness on a continuum with humans on one end and chimps on the other? Would we be so distinct then? Where would Asimov put his phase change then?

Eventually, Asimov, will almost concede this point, but let’s allow him to continue, using his analogy to explain the difference between man and the rest of the animal kingdom.

The concept of the phase change can also be used to answer the question of what fixes the gulf between man and all other creatures. Since it is not reason alone, it must be something more. A phase change must take place not at the moment when reason is introduced but at some time when reason passes a certain point of intensity. The point is, one might reasonably suppose, that at which reason becomes complex enough to allow abstraction; when it allows the establishment of symbols to stand for concepts, which in turn stand for collections of things or actions or qualities. The sound “table” represents not merely this table and that table, but a concept of “all table-like objects,” a concept that does not exist physically. The sound “table” is this an abstraction of an abstraction.

Once it is possible to conceive an abstraction and represent it by a sound, communication becomes possible at a level of complexity and meaningfulness far beyond that possible otherwise. As the motor areas of the brain develop to the point where a speech center exists, enough different sounds can be made, easily and surely, to supply each of a vast number of concepts with individual sounds. And there is enough room for memory units in a brain of such complexity to keep all the necessary associations of sound and concept firmly in mind.

It is speech, then, rather than reason alone that is the phase change, and that fixes the gulf between man and nonman. As I pointed out on page 246, the existence of speech means that the gathering of experience and the drawing of conclusions is no longer a function of the individual alone. Experience is shared and the tribe becomes wiser and more knowledgeable than any individual in it. Moreover, experience unites the tribe throughout time as well as throughout space. Each generation need no longer start from scratch, as must all other creatures. Human parents can pass on their experiences and wisdom to their children, not only by demonstration but by verbalized, conceptual explanation. Not only facts and techniques, but also thought and deduction can be passed on.

Perhaps the gulf between ourselves and the rest of living species might not seem so broad if we knew more about the various prehuman hominids, who might represent stages within that gap. Unfortunately we don’t. We do not actually know at what stage of development or in what species of hominid, the phase change took place.*

There it is. The glimmer of his own undoing when he speculates on the hominids. But he’s still clearly hanging his hat on the idea of the phase change--that something didn’t exist in one generation and suddenly it did in the next. It might be correct when discussing how ice turns into water, but it isn’t when discussing how species evolve. Because that’s where evolution happens. Not to individuals but to species, and the only way to think of change is to think of it as part of a never ending continuum. Will, intelligence, consciousness--they are no different from thousands of biological and anatomical attributes in the sense that all living creatures have them in some degree--some so little that they are not even recognizable to us as those factors--but all in some degree.

But note how Asimov ended that paragraph with another asterisk. Here’s where that one leads:

*If it is true that dolphins have a faculty of speech as complex as that of man, then we are not necessarily the only species to have passed the phase change. The environment of the ocean is so different from that of land, however, that the consequences of the phase change would be vastly different. A dolphin might have a man-level mind, but in the viscous and light-absorbing medium of sea water a dolphin is condemned to the flipper and to a dependence on sound rather than vision. Man is not man by mind alone, but by mind plus eye plus hand, and if all three are taken into consideration we remain the only species this side of the phase change.

I find Asimov’s use of the word “condemned” to be very revealing. The dolphin may have a man-level mind, but it is still nothing like us because it doesn't have the things that we value or to which we owe our development. In other words, let’s first create a category--which is completely arbitrary but to which only man can belong--and then use that category to assert and reassure ourselves that we are unique and superior to everything else that doesn't fit into that category. And who created that category again? By the same logic, a dolphin could create a category for big-brained animals that swim in the ocean and breathe through holes on the top of their heads, call that their phase change, and exclude the rest of creation from their elite club.

Because here’s the essential question. What creates consciousness? Asimov doesn't know. He found it nowhere in his detailed dissection of the human brain. He conjectures that it comes from the things that are uniquely human, but he doesn't know this, and nor do we know it today. To the best of our understanding, consciousness is an emergent property of life, and by that definition, every living thing has it in some measure. There is no phase change. Just a long, unbroken continuum of stimulus response and cognitive awareness. They are not, apparently, different things, but ends of the same spectrum.

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This post was written by Eric Lanke, an association executive, blogger and author. For more information, visit www.ericlanke.blogspot.com, follow him on Twitter @ericlanke or contact him at eric.lanke@gmail.com.

Monday, September 1, 2014

Teach People What the Values Mean

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This post is part of a series in which I'm analyzing the efforts of my organization to define and embrace core values through the six rules for doing so defined by Francois Nader, CEO of NPS Pharmaceuticals. For the series introduction, go here. For my comments on the first rule, go here. For my comments on the second rule, go here.

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Here's Nader's third rule, along with what he says about it in his HBR blog post:

Teach people what the values mean. This must come from the top. My senior executives and I made our values the language of leadership. They were embedded in how we worked and communicated at every level. Credibility is truly at the core of building a values-driven culture.

Time for some painful honesty here. I have not done this as well as I should. What I have done is ask our staff people to look at our values (and their associated behaviors) and to identify the things that they do that support them, and at least one area where they could make some conscious improvements. And I've done this along with them, thinking that I was leading by example. But Nader's comment on making your values your "language of leadership" makes me realize that I should be doing something more.

I think my attitude so far has been that our values are, and always will be, a work-in-progress. As I've already described, our values are aspirational--traits that not all of us already embody, but which we all agree we must better embody if our organization is going to be successful. And I think this mindset has allowed me to put my focus on our values on a kind of backburner, deriving satisfaction from incremental advancement rather than wholesale adoption.

But this has probably sent the wrong message. Even with values that are aspirational in nature--and perhaps especially so--people in the organization must see that they are taken seriously, and that the leaders are working just a diligently as anyone to embrace them.

In fact, looking ahead to Nader's next three rules, I see that they are all premised on this foundational idea. The leadership team in any organization that wants to create a values-driven culture must not only embody the values that have been identified, they must quickly come to equate leadership with allegiance to the values. And they must clearly communicate that throughout the organization in both words and actions.

Looking again at my organization's core values:

LEADERSHIP
We lead the organization in creating new value for our members.

ENTHUSIASM
We are excited about growing as individuals and about growing the organization.

INTEGRITY
We act with honesty and professionalism in all our relationships.

TEAMWORK
We work together to deliver exceptional service.

I see things I do well and things I do not so well. I see things I do behind closed doors and things I do openly in front of everyone. And looking out across my leadership team and the rest of the people in my organization, I see the same patterns.

We have spent a lot of time defining our values and talking one-on-one about how individuals are or are not living up to them. What we haven't done as well as we should is put them front and center in our environment of intentional actions and begin the messy work of demonstrating how they can ideally be applied. That, I'm sure Nader would agree, is the best of all possible ways to teach people what they really mean.

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This post was written by Eric Lanke, an association executive, blogger and author. For more information, visit www.ericlanke.blogspot.com, follow him on Twitter @ericlanke or contact him at eric.lanke@gmail.com.

Monday, August 25, 2014

Don't Post Plaques on the Wall Declaring the Values

image source
This post is part of a series in which I'm analyzing the efforts of my organization to define and embrace core values through the six rules for doing so defined by Francois Nader, CEO of NPS Pharmaceuticals. For the series introduction, go here. For my comments on the first rule, go here.

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Here's Nader's second rule, along with what he says about it in his HBR blog post:

Don’t post plaques on the wall declaring the values. Mounting your values on a wall can trivialize them and give the false impression that they have been already achieved by decree. Values have to be internalized and lived and cannot be an object on a wall. Building a culture with values that everyone embraces requires leading by example, interpersonal communication, and permanent attention.

Boy, do I agree with him that values cannot just be an object on a wall. And the idea that values can be "achieved by decree" is the all-too-frequent reality that almost soured me on the whole project of defining core values for my own organization. From my point of view, the only values worth identifying are the ones your organization is still trying to achieve.

But I'm not sure that the values shouldn't be put on the wall. Perhaps not engraved on a plaque, but certainly written on a white board, and maybe painted as a kind of mural, especially if everyone on the team wields a paintbrush.

Because values--especially values that are intentionally defined as those the organization is still working to embody--have to be ever present if people are going to remember and focus on them. Leading by example is critical, but even leaders need to be reminded of aspirational values if they are going to do more than talk the talk.

In my own organization we've struggled with this. Right after defining our values, we didn't get any plaques made and we didn't paint any words on the wall, but we did put our values up on the screen during every one of our weekly staff meetings. The plan was to start every meeting off with a moment or two of reflection, and an opportunity for anyone to cite an example of how one of their co-workers had embodied one of the values in the past week. Initially, some people tried, but it felt forced, and after a while we stopped doing it.

And, as a result, we stopped reminding ourselves of the things we were supposed to be working on. Some of us, I think, kept working on them in the unrecognized landscapes of our own minds, but some forgot about them, dunked, as we all are, in the deep pool of tasks and expectations that drive our behaviors.

So putting your values in some visible place (bulletin boards, perhaps, or computer screensavers) is a very good idea. As long as everyone understands that they are not there because they have been achieved, but because we need to achieve them.

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This post was written by Eric Lanke, an association executive, blogger and author. For more information, visit www.ericlanke.blogspot.com, follow him on Twitter @ericlanke or contact him at eric.lanke@gmail.com.


Saturday, August 23, 2014

My Antonia by Willa Cather

This is the last time I’m going to read My Antonia—at least for a while. Last time I read it, I thought I would read it over and over again, like I was doing with Moby-Dick, but I’ve decided to let this one drift into past memory for a while, the same way I have with Melville’s whale.

There’s a story that Antonia tells in the middle of the book. It’s about a tramp that comes out of nowhere while she is working on Ole Iverson’s farm.

“After a while I see a man coming across the stubble, and when he got close I see it was a tramp. His toes stuck out of his shoes, and he hadn’t shaved for a long while, and his eyes was awful red and wild, like he had some sickness. He comes right up and begins to talk like he knows me already. He says: ‘The ponds in this country is done got so low a man couldn’t drownd himself in one of ‘em.’”

He wants to kill himself, but Antonia doesn’t take him seriously—thinks he is just crazy—but when Iverson puts him to work something terrible happens.

“He cut bands all right for a few minutes, and then, Mrs. Harling, he waved his hand to me and jumped head-first right into the thrashing machine after the wheat.

“I began to scream, and the men run to stop the horses, but the belt had sucked him down, and by the time they got her stopped he was all beat and cut to pieces. He was wedged in so tight it was a hard job to get him out, and the machine ain’t never worked right since.”


No one knew who he was. After getting his body out of the machine they searched it.

“They couldn’t find no letters nor nothing on him; nothing but an old penknife in his pocket and the wishbone of a chicken wrapped up in a piece of paper, and some poetry.”

“Some poetry?” we exclaimed.

“I remember,” said Frances. “It was ‘The Old Oaken Bucket,’ cut out of a newspaper and nearly worn out. Ole Iverson brought it into the office and showed it to me.”

“Now, wasn’t that strange, Miss Frances?” Tony asked thoughtfully. “What would anybody want to kill themselves in summer for? I thrashing time, too! It’s nice everywhere then.”


The Old Oaken Bucket is a poem by Samuel Woodworth about the fond recollections we have for scenes of our childhood—a theme Cather adopts for My Antonia. And how poignantly strange is it that Antonia herself can’t understand why anyone would kill themselves in summer—oblivious at that age of the regrets adults often have for their youths, even when her own father took his own life—years before in the dead of winter—for many of the same reasons.

I've read My Antonia three times--the first time as an audiobook, and the other two times in the silence of my own thoughts. It made a deep impression on me each time. Here's what I wrote in my journal after that first experience.

My Antonia by Willa Cather. I didn’t read this one. It’s an audiobook I took out from the library and listened to while I was driving back and forth from work. I liked it a lot. I’m tempted to buy it so I can put it on my shelf. I started out not sure if I was going to like the story, but I did. It grew on me in a way I would not have predicted. And the prose, the prose is like an unknown Van Gogh tucked away in someone’s attic. An absolute treasure. Guess what I like best about the story. How sad it was. Not overtly sad, not get out the Kleenexes and have a good cry sad. But subtly sad, sad just below the surface like some deep hidden current in a black river. The recollections of world-weary Jim Burden who, as a boy, had gone to live with his grandparents on the Nebraska prairie, and had met an immigrant girl named Antonia who comes to embody everything that is honest and real through his interactions with her over the span of several decades. He loves her, says so himself, but never romantically, and you can sense the unspoken regret in his first person narrative. This is a book very much about the lives people lead, the choices they make, and how their relationships with those who happen to be around them help to shape their understanding of who they are and what life means. It makes your heart ache. I want to read it again.

It took more than two years, but when I finally got around to reading it for the second time, I couldn't stop underlining that remarkable prose.

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I sat down in the middle of the garden, where snakes could scarcely approach unseen, and leaned my back against a warm yellow pumpkin. There was some ground-cherry bushes growing along the furrows, full of fruit. I turned back the papery triangular sheaths that protected the berries and ate a few. All about me giant grasshoppers, twice as big as any I had ever seen, were doing acrobatic feats among the dried vines. The gophers scurried up and down the ploughed ground. There in the sheltered draw-bottom the wind did not blow very hard, but I could hear it singing its humming tune up on the level, and I could see the tall grasses wave. The earth was warm under me, and warm as I crumbled it through my fingers. Queer little red bugs came out and moved in slow squadrons around me. Their backs were polished vermilion, with black spots. I kept as still as I could. Nothing happened. I did not expect anything to happen. I was something that lay under the sun and felt it, like the pumpkins, and I did not want to be anything more. I was entirely happy. Perhaps we feel like that when we die and become part of something entire, whether it is sun and air, or goodness and knowledge. At any rate, that is happiness; to be dissolved into something complete and great. When it comes to one, it comes as naturally as sleep.

This comes early in the book, shortly after Jim arrives in Nebraska, and I think it sets the tone for a lot of his experiences on the prairie. He grows up, goes to exciting places and does important things as a young man, but he doesn’t seem happy later, at least not happy like he is laying here in his grandmother’s garden.

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That afternoon Fuchs told me story after story: about the Black Tiger Mine, and about violent deaths and casual buryings, and the queer fancies of dying men. You never really knew a man, he said, until you saw him die. Most men were game, and went without a grudge.

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The Black Hawk boys looked forward to marrying Black Hawk girls, and living in a brand-new little house with best chairs that must not be sat upon, and hand-painted china that must not be used. But sometimes a young fellow would look up from his ledge, or out through the grating of his father’s bank, and let his eyes follow Lena Lingard, as she passed the window with her slow, undulating walk, or Tiny Soderball, tripping by in her short skirt and striped stockings.

Cather’s prose is filled with little tidbits like this, combining story with homily in a way that is unobtrusive and clean. She’s really good and telling truth with her fiction.

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One could hang about the drugstore, and listen to the old men who sat there every evening, talking politics and telling raw stories. One could go to the cigar factory and chat with the old German who raised canaries for sale, and look at his stuffed birds. But whatever you began with him, the talk went back to taxidermy. There was the depot, of course; I often went down to see the night train come in, and afterward sat awhile with the disconsolate telegrapher who was always hoping to be transferred to Omaha or Denver, ‘where there was some life.’ He was sure to bring out his pictures of actresses and dancers. He got them with cigarette coupons, and nearly smoked himself to death to possess these desired forms and faces. For a change, one could talk to the station agent; but he was another malcontent; spent all his spare time writing letters to officials requesting a transfer. He wanted to get back to Wyoming where he could go trout-fishing on Sundays. He used to say ‘there was nothing in life for him but trout streams,’ ever since he’d lost his twins.

Willa Cather was someone who understood loneliness.

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These were the distractions I had to choose from. There were no other lights burning downtown after nine o’clock. On starlight nights I used to pace up and down those long, cold streets, scowling at the little, sleeping houses on either side, with their storm-windows and covered back porches. They were flimsy shelters, most of them poorly built of light wood, with spindle porch-posts horribly mutilated by the turning-lathe. Yet for all their frailness, how much jealousy and envy and unhappiness some of them managed to contain! The life that went on in them seemed to me made up of evasions and negations; shifts to save cooking, to save washing and cleaning, devices to propitiate the tongue of gossip. This guarded mode of existence was like living under a tyranny. People’s speech, their voices, their very glances, became furtive and repressed. Every individual taste, every natural appetite, was bridled by caution. The people asleep in those houses, I thought, tried to live like the mice in their own kitchens; to make no noise, to leave no trace, to slip over the surface of things in the dark. The growing piles of ashes and cinders in the back yards were the only evidence that the wasteful, consuming process of life went on at all. On Tuesday nights the Owl Club danced; then there was a little stir in the streets, and here and there one could see a lighted window until midnight. But the next night all was dark again.

This has got to be one of the best paragraphs I have ever read. How many times have I done the same thing? Looking at the little houses on the side of the road and wondering what kind of life went on inside them? Repulsed by the meanness of it, but at the same time anxious for the fellowship that comes with understanding the world of another living being. I’ll lose it. I always do. I spend nights typing lines like this out, but they pass into the forgotten realm of the past as easily as if I hadn’t. Is this why I used to read Moby-Dick over and over again? And is it why I decided to start reading My Antonia over and over again?

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I walked home from the Opera House alone. As I passed the Methodist Church, I saw three white figures ahead of me, pacing up and down under the arching maple trees, where the moonlight filtered through the lush June foliage. They hurried toward me; they were waiting for me—Lena and Tony and Anna Hansen.

‘Oh, Jim, it was splendid!’ Tony was breathing hard, as she always did when her feelings outran her language. ‘There ain’t a lawyer in Black Hawk could make a speech like that. I just stopped your grandpa and said so to him. He won’t tell you, but he told us he was awful surprised himself, didn’t he, girls?’

Lena sidled up to me and said teasingly, ‘What made you so solemn? I thought you were scared. I was sure you’d forget.’

Anna spoke wistfully.

‘It must make you very happy, Jim, to have fine thoughts like that in your mind all the time, and to have words to put them in. I always wanted to go to school, you know.’

‘Oh, I just sat there and wished my papa could hear you! Jim’ — Antonia took hold of my coat lapels — ‘there was something in your speech that made me think so about my papa!’

‘I thought about your papa when I wrote my speech, Tony.’ I said. ‘I dedicated it to him.’

She threw her arms around me, and her dear face was all wet with tears.

I stood watching their white dresses glimmer smaller and smaller down the sidewalk as they went away. I have had no other success that pulled at my heartstrings like that one.

Jim is graduating from law school and he gave a commencement address. He is already seeing Antonia infrequently, and he soon will be leaving and not returning for a long time, if ever. Yet they share this connection, this connection through language and shared memory and tragedy. Anna speculates that it must be wonderful, having fine thoughts like that in your mind all the time, and having the words to put them in. It is. And that’s why people like Cather write novels, isn’t it?

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I propped my book open and stared listlessly at the page of the ‘Georgics’ where to-morrow’s lesson began. It opened with the melancholy reflection that, in the lives of mortals, the best days are the first to flee. ‘Optima dies…prima figut.’ I turned back to the beginning of the third book, which we had read in class that morning. ‘Primus ego in patriam mecum…deducam Musas;’ ‘for I shall be the first, if I live, to bring the Muse into my country.’ Cleric had explained to us that ‘patria’ here meant, not a nation or even a province, but the little rural neighbourhood on the Mincio where the poet was born. This was not a boast, but a hope, at once bold and devoutly humble, that he might bring the Muse (but lately come to Italy from her cloudy Grecian mountains), not to the capital, the palatial Romana, but to his own little ‘country;’ to his father’s fields, ‘sloping down to the river and to the old beech trees with broken tops.’

Cleric said he thought Virgil, when he was dying at Brindisi, must have remembered that passage. After he had faced the bitter fact that he was to leave the ‘Aeneid’ unfinished, and had decreed that the great canvas, crowded with figures of gods and men, should be burned rather than survive him unperfected, that his mind must have gone back to the perfect utterance of the ‘Georgics,’ where the pen was fitted to the matter as the plough is to the furrow; and he must have said to himself, with the thankfulness of a good man, ‘I was the first to bring the Muse into my country.’

I can’t be the only one who sees some autobiography here from Cather. Virgil’s Italy is Cather’s Nebraska.

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‘Do you know, Antonia, since I’ve been away, I think of you more often than of anyone else in this part of the world. I’d have liked to have you for a sweetheart, or a wife, or my mother or my sister—anything that a woman can be to a man. The idea of you is part of my mind; you influence my likes and dislikes, all my tastes, hundreds of times when I don’t realize it. You really are a part of me.’

She turned her bright, believing eyes to me, and the tears came up in them slowly, ‘How can it be like that, when you know so many people, and when I’ve disappointed you so? Ain’t it wonderful, Jim, how much people can mean to each other? I’m so glad we had each other when we were little. I can’t wait till my little girl’s old enough to tell her about all the things we used to do. You’ll always remember me when you think about old times, won’t you? And I guess everybody thinks about old times, even the happiest people.’

Ain’t it wonderful, Jim, how much people can mean to each other? It seems to me that this is a good summation of the book’s theme. People can mean a great deal to each other, and it is wonderful when they do. Wonderful and sad all at the same time.

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This was the road over which Antonia and I came on that night when we got off the train at Black Hawk and were bedded down in the straw, wondering children, being taken we knew not whither. I had only to close my eyes to hear the rumbling of the wagons in the dark, and to be again overcome by that obliterating strangeness. The feelings of that night were so near that I could reach out and touch them with my hand. I had the sense of coming home to myself, and of having found out what a little circle man’s experience is. For Antonia and for me, this had been the road of Destiny; had taken us to those early accidents of fortune which predetermined for us all that we can ever be. Now I understood that the same road was to bring us together again. Whatever we had missed, we possessed together the precious, the incommunicable past.

This is the last paragraph of the novel, and pretty good one as last paragraphs go. It again stresses the formative bond Jim and Antonia shared, and makes it clear those early experiences shaped them both in ways neither of them could ever master. How much of this is true? Are we forever shaped by what we experience and the people we meet when we are young? I think of my own youth, and how so many connections to it have been severed. If Cather is correct, what does that mean for me? Jim had Anotnia, the idea of Antonia, as part of his mind, influencing his likes and dislikes even when he didn’t realize it. Who is part of my mind, and will I ever see them again? Do I even want to? Is that another idea for a novel? A childhood unconnected to an Antonia or the idea she represents, and the adult that grows from it, searching and forever not finding that missing part of himself?

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This post was written by Eric Lanke, an association executive, blogger and author. For more information, visit www.ericlanke.blogspot.com, follow him on Twitter @ericlanke or contact him at eric.lanke@gmail.com.

Monday, August 18, 2014

Define the Values in Simple, Sixth-Grade Language

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This post is part of a series in which I'm analyzing the efforts of my organization to define and embrace core values through the rules for doing so defined by Francois Nader, CEO of NPS Pharmaceuticals. For the full introduction, go here.

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Here's Nader's first rule again, along with what he says about it in his HBR blog post:

Define the values in simple, sixth-grade language. Words mean different things to different people. Therefore, it is important that the words used to define the values be simple, clear, and easily understood by the constituents and are not jargon. This leaves no room for creative (mis)interpretation of the values and avoids using words that have different meanings or can’t be translated in other languages.

This one I think we did a pretty good job with. As I revealed and described in greater detail here, the four core values of our organization are:

LEADERSHIP
We lead the organization in creating new value for our members.

ENTHUSIASM
We are excited about growing as individuals and about growing the organization.

INTEGRITY
We act with honesty and professionalism in all our relationships.

TEAMWORK
We work together to deliver exceptional service.

Simple, straightforward language. Reflecting back on what could possibly be misunderstood or misinterpreted, the only phrase that probably needs greater clarification is "creating new value for our members." Everything else, I think, is comprised of words and phrases that are intended to mean exactly what their dictionary definitions say. No jargon or hidden messages here.

Additionally, remember that we also defined a series of behavior statements to go with each of our core values. These were intended to be observable actions by which everyone in the organization could see and understand that the person exhibiting them was living up to the intent of the core value. This adds an extra layer of definition, intended to avoid confusion and misunderstandings, but certainly some of these statements stray from Nader's guidance about sixth-grade language.

Here, for example, is the list of behaviors that goes with Leadership:

1. We are concise and articulate in our speech and writing.
2. We minimize complexity, and look for efficiencies that can be shared across the organization.
3. We bring purpose and understanding to complex and uncertain environments.
4. We engage others in iterative processes that result in higher levels of value and engagement.
5. We think strategically, make wise decisions despite ambiguity, and act with intention.
6. We challenge prevailing assumptions, suggest better approaches, and create new ideas that prove useful.
7. We exhibit a bias towards action, and avoid analysis-paralysis.
8. We take smart risks, learn from our mistakes, and share lessons with others.


Some of these seem straightforward; at least to me. But others, I admit, probably need even further definition if they are to be universally understood by everyone in our organization. We bring purpose and understanding to complex and uncertain environments, for example, is one that some people have asked about. Here's my interpretation: When things are confused and uncertain, members of our staff should consistently display the leadership that is necessary to bring clarity and understanding about what is trying to be accomplished. Not just among ourselves, but especially with our members, volunteers, and Board members. How one does that is intentionally left open to experimentation and interpretation, but that is the outcome the behavior statement is directed toward.

The fact that this hasn't been clear to everyone (along with many of the other behavior statements) makes me wonder if Nader wouldn't suggest that I rewrite the behavior statements to make them easier for a sixth-grader to understand. For our Leadership value, that would result in a very different list:

1. Be brief and precise.
2. Keep it simple; and do more with less.
3. Show people the way.
4. Engage others in each new attempt to succeed.
5. Think about the big picture.
6. Try new things and keep what works.
7. When uncertain, act.
8. Take risks, and share your mistakes.

Which list is better? Although there are some nuances from the first list that have been eliminated in the second, the second list is clearly more memorable, and more likely, I think, to result in a unified understanding among a diverse group of people. We may still argue about how to do these things, but the intent of each statement is much more accessible.

Looks like I have some rewriting to do.

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This post was written by Eric Lanke, an association executive, blogger and author. For more information, visit www.ericlanke.blogspot.com, follow him on Twitter @ericlanke or contact him at eric.lanke@gmail.com.