Archive for May, 2012

Just fix it

May 26, 2012 1 comment

“Just fix it”

That’s what my boss said to me, and then he hung up.

It was a Friday night back in 1990. I was pulling a solo night shift at the Alpha plant. It was 2:30 in the morning. My job was to monitor a process reaction throughout the night, and adjust operating parameters as needed to keep the reaction going smooth. And there I stood, watching the pressure on this reactor creep up. We knew pressure rise was typical, and I had a response protocol to follow. So I followed my protocol and…it didn’t work. The pressure kept going up. Bad things were starting to happen.

Bad things happen on the night shift

Three Mile Island, Chernobyl, Bhopal, Exxon Valdez. Bad stuff ALWAYS happens on the night shift; and there I was, right in the middle of it, alone.

So I made the call, “Boss, the pressure’s going up, what should I do?”

“Just fix it” *click*

You have to be realistic about these things. Sometimes help isn’t coming. Sometimes the only choice is fix it or fail.

So I fixed it. It wasn’t complicated, but it was definitely off-protocol. Clogged vent filter, isolate the line, re-route the exhaust, change the filter, restore the correct flow, and watch the pressure drop back to normal. The whole thing took about 15 minutes.

That’s the essence of self reliance: having the courage to respond and react with conviction when you’re all alone and you have no answers, no resources, and no support.

Link to to Emerson’s “Self Reliance” in right hand margin

Self reliance is what happens at the intersection of confidence, preparation and active engagement with the current situation. Self reliance is a form of personal risk management.

These practices can help you develop a greater sense of self-reliance:

  1. Be realistic. There is a good chance that things will not go according to plan.
  2. Know your business and obsess over your processes. Study and monitor constantly.
  3. Know what can go wrong and have a plan to fix it.
  4. Learn to recognize the signs that things are going astray.
  5. Mindful intent: make the decision to react before things go wrong. Visualize your response.

To spend your life planning for Black Swans is neurotic, but to cultivate the habit of mindful preparation, confidence, and awareness will help you deal when the world says “just fix it”.

Where in your life do you seek greater self reliance, and how are you going about that process?

How do you actively practice self reliance?



May 17, 2012 2 comments

Every town in America has a karate school. The little town in Colorado I used to live in had three different “martial arts academies”.

I’m a sucker for a good secret society and Karate schools can be cultish, so they had me at “Hello”.  I love the feeling of exclusivity, knowing something other people don’t, and the feeling that someone has my back. Karate gave me that for a few years; uniforms, ranks, special language, and best of all, the feeling that I could someday become a deadly…who knows what?  I jumped in head-first and swam there for about 4 years. I read everything about karate I could get my hands on; devoured every website, scoured book stores, talked it up with complete strangers.

Total. Obsession.

Then I stumbled onto 24 Fighting Chickens and got my head re-arranged. Rob Redmond reminded me over and over again that I really needed to think for myself. No matter how hard I tried I would never become a “Beautiful Japanese death machine”.

A few years later I was living in Baltimore and once again (for like the hundredth time) trying to get back in shape. The Tour de France was on and for some reason I thought if I just worked out hard enough I could become like Lance Armstrong. I was grinding it out in the gym every day, hammering the cardio. After about three months I had gained half a pound.

I turned to my pal Neubauer (an endless font of wisdom and bad temper) who referred me to Crossfit.   Greg Glassman started by defining “fitness” under a different set of rules, then laid out the process of getting there differently from anything I had ever heard. I was staggered to have some core beliefs swept to the curb in five minutes. I  had to throw everything I thought I knew about fitness and training out the window.

The point of all this is, we brainwash ourselves to accept and embrace notions we  find convenient.  It’s easy to test your virtue from a position of safety and comfort, surrounded by like-minded supporters. Most people never find the impetus or the courage to challenge their own values and beliefs.  It’s easy to manage a life of ignorance, bias, and preconceived notions.  It’s easy to maintain the status quo. And the easiest thing in the world is to let others do your thinking for you.

Critical Thinking is an important leadership skill. When we make this skill a habit, and master the art of thinking for ourselves, then we make space for real learning to happen.

Disrupt yourself.

Thanks Boss

May 8, 2012 6 comments

Bob Sutton once said, “Bosses Matter”.

No doubt Bob, considering how much of our lives we spend with these characters. Funny thing though, I don’t remember a lot of people saying, “my boss is so great”. Not all of my boss-memories are good either. There is much I’d like to forget, mostly because I’m embarrassed about how much I deserved the treatment I got. But to say most of those relationships were hard would be copping to my own responsibility. Better to ask what did I learn? In 25 years I’ve had 22 bosses, as best I can recollect, and every boss has taught me some important lesson or helped me on my way. No  easy lessons, but they never are.  So this is the part where I say thanks Boss, I wouldn’t be here today without you.


Rene Komoda – You were my first boss after college. I had no clue what I was doing and you knew it. So you got me on the steep learning curve. Your message was like the Nike commercial, “just do it”. It was just the right advice then, and it still is. Thanks.

Cathy Kroskey – You were easy to get along with, but only when the work was getting done. Straight talk, no bullshit. You gave me my first promotion and my first raise; that first taste of what might be possible. Thanks.

John David – Rarely have I come across someone so interested in helping other people. Thanks for leading by example and for teaching me the ropes on my first manufacturing job.

Phil Rayburg – You were a tough boss Phil, but a great teacher. You taught me self-reliance by insisting that I figure it out, listen to the data, and own the outcomes. This is the best professional advice I ever received, and it continues to define my outlook on work life, private life, and leadership. Thanks.

Bob Harker – Before we worked together you had the reputation as being the toughest assignment in the company, so of course I asked to be assigned to you. You consistently set the bar higher than I thought I could jump. But I jumped anyway, and it was worth it. Thanks.

Luis Bloise – Professionalism and integrity; until I heard you say it these were only words in a book. You were the first person to ever talk to me about these important concepts. We joked around a lot, but never, ever about professionalism and integrity. Thanks.

Dave Tillett – I only reported to you for a few months, after our little biotech in Boulder was bought-up. You were the only person who actively encouraged me to move to LA. Thanks for sending me to finishing school in California, I learned so much while I was there.

Jay Rohrbach – We didn’t see eye to eye on most things. But in spite of it, you had the uncanny good sense to assign me to the MGDF project. I still count that project as one of the best memories of my career. Thanks.

Bruce Waters – You taught me the difference between managing & leading, and introduced me to Warren Bennis. You were another great example of integrity and professional bearing. It was really fun hanging out too. Thanks.

Bob Harker, part 2 – Thanks for giving me a chance to operate in a whole different career arena. The second time around was even better than the first.

Preston Brown – You taught me everything I know about ERP, integrated systems thinking, materials management, and logistics. This became a launching point for so many other opportunities. Thanks.

Deb Long – You bought me enough time to get out of town when I was about to be lynched. Thanks.

Greg Sherwood – You gave me all the freedom I asked for and left me alone to get it done. You trusted me and that mattered a lot. Thanks.

Pam Pierson – We only spent 2 months together, but you recognized my enthusiasm and rewarded it. Thanks.

Kent Hoffman – You were the first boss that ever really let me off the leash. I’d been waiting almost 20 years for that chance to run with the ball. I ran like hell and it felt so good! Thanks.

Vlad Mikijanic – Thanks for taking a chance on me when I really needed someone to take a chance on me.

Syed Abidi – You also took some chances on me and then trusted me to work directly with our clients and regulators. Best of all, you were (and still are) always willing to spend time with me whenever I ask. Thanks.

Rob Haslam – You taught me the regulatory language of the rest of the world. You listened and encouraged; I learned and practiced. And we won. Thanks.

Tony Horton – Thanks for affirming most of the things I believed in, and for calling bullshit on the stuff I am wrong about.

It’s likely I’ll never see most of my former bosses again, although I’d count myself lucky if I do.  It’s also likely that most of my bosses will never even read this. That doesn’t matter;  each one gave me experience, exposure, and opportunity. It was never easy, but it wasn’t supposed to be. Thanks Boss.

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