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Thought Spot: A Level Up

March 23rd, 2011


“We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them.”
           – Albert Einstein

 “I don’t pretend we have all the answers. But the questions are certainly worth thinking about.”
           – Sir Arthur C. Clarke


When I returned to Boston after three years in Latin America, I was an adjunct professor in a business school. I learned a great deal from my experiences in the classroom. 

But my learning curve started in the parking lot.

It was a late afternoon and I was weaving between the rows of cars to my class, clutching my notes and a much-needed coffee when a voice interrupted my thoughts.

“Festina lente,” a man called out to me. “Make haste slowly. Or are you just making haste?”

He was tall and wide and wore a scuffed leather satchel strapped across one shoulder. The top of his head was hairless, compensated for by the full curls of a brown-gray beard at his chin. What struck me most were his eyes – piercing, kind and oddly cheerful, all at the same time.

Who was this giant of a guy quoting Latin and climbing out of a Honda Civic with a license plate that spelled DOUBT? Hm. Not a business school type.

“English department – teaching an evening film course this semester.” Michael introduced himself and explained agreeably. “This building has better classrooms for screenings.”

As I discovered over the course of that semester, conversations with Michael were free-ranging, somewhat unsettling, thought-provoking exchanges that combined an extraordinary range of interests with his obvious love of discourse. I’d heard that in faculty meetings he was often the one who redirected discussions that were veering into unproductive territory by raising a question that made others stop and think, or rethink.

One afternoon in the faculty dining room Michael cut in front of me as I pushed my tray toward the cashier.

“We’re having a few friends over for our monthly dinner party next Friday and Rachel and I thought you might like to come.” He paid the cashier for his apple and handed me a card with a mirthful smile playing in his eyes. “We meet at 6:00 and sit for dinner at 6:30. Here’s our address. Be seeing you.”   

It’s probably dinner with his colleagues from the English department, I thought. I hoped I wouldn’t have to feign an in-depth knowledge of symbolism in Faulkner or reach into the dim and dusty recesses of my undergraduate exposure to the classics just to get through dinner.

At 6:00 on the appointed Friday I presented myself at a brick and ivy-covered, 1920’s-era apartment building in Cambridge, off Mass Ave.

Michael opened the door, a pressed white shirt replacing his customary and slightly rumpled corduroy jacket with suede elbow patches. Strains of a Mahler symphony wafted into the hallway. His significant other, Rachel, greeted me warmly as she lit the candles on a table set for 10 diners.

Seven other dinner guests were already there. None were from the English department. Good. No trivia questions on Greek tragedy tonight.

At precisely 6:30, Michael invited us to take our seats. To my left was an architect who had grown up in the Middle East. On my right was a freelance reporter for a Boston newspaper who was writing a crime novel.

As the evening progressed I watched Michael raise questions on politics, art, pop culture, movies, music, history and a myriad of other topics for guests to consider whenever there was a natural lull in the one-to-one conversations. Then he’d quietly lean back in his chair, enjoying his guests enjoying themselves.

He did not dominate or force the conversation. He simply set the stage for an engaging dialogue between people with both common and uncommon views.

I left that evening re-energized by this meeting of minds. 

None of us exchanged business cards.  No one networked. We just shared a meal and ideas that were a level up from our day-to-day thinking.

All of us, all of our clubs, face issues and opportunities. Working through one of my own recently reminded me of Michael’s dinner parties and how thinking one or two levels up from the day-to-day is where a meeting of minds, ideas and peace is possible -whether we’re socializing, working on our Rotary clubs or helping others through our Rotary service.

Watching Michael that night, I understood why he had a reputation for turning around contentious debates. He knew how to bring the dialogue up a level or two.  

It takes practice, and not everyone, including me, is always comfortable with the role. Especially when a meeting of minds seems challenging. But someone has to start, and each of us can begin by asking the questions that make us stop and think, a level up.

Going Portfolio

March 17th, 2011


In his book Great Work, Great Career, Stephen Covey describes Charles Handy, the Irish oil executive-turned-academic-turned-social and organizational philosopher and author, waking up one morning and deciding that this was the day he was Going Portfolio.  That pivotal morning marked the moment when Handy’s full time, professional attention would no longer be devoted to one prescribed job in one organization.  Handy himself became the professional he has described in his books and lectures: the portfolio careerist.

In many respects, consulting is the ultimate portfolio career.  At its results-enabling best, consulting combines a Renaissance Person’s broad expertise with fluid engagement in overlapping business and buyer communities.  Both Covey and Handy suggest that all professionals, regardless of their job description or employer, are eventually moving into an increasingly portfolio-based business environment.

It’s not just individuals that are affected by a portfolio business environment.  What about the business units and departments in a company?  How do they Go Portfolio?

Deciding to Go Portfolio, it seems to me, is only the first step.  The greatest gains are arguably in managing what’s in the portfolio once you’ve gone there. Particularly for a unit in a company.  When a business unit identifies a previously undefined market segment, it’s on its way to Going Portfolio. The sales team who understands that they may need to revise their business development strategy, and the sales skills that go with it, is beginning to manage its portfolio. When we figure out how to first sustain and then shift our focus from one element of our portfolio to another, as opposed to multi-tasking, we are actively managing our portfolio for both results and personal satisfaction.

In this dynamic business environment, we are all going portfolio.  And since our skills and the community/clients/customers we serve with them are in a constantly fluctuating balance, we’re also responsible for managing our portfolios. 

What’s in your portfolio?