5 Lessons from my Mother’s Life

From my last post, you will remember my Mom passed away last year. As the sharpest edges of mourning lessen even slightly, I’ve had some opportunity to reflect about my Mom and things I’ve learned from her. This post will likely grow over time as I have time and energy to look through the past in a meaningful way. Here is eight months worth of reflection.

Live your priorities

My Mom wanted everyone around her to reach their full potential, and she was willing to sacrifice to help. Sacrifice can take many forms. In some cases it was monetary. She and Dad didn’t always have the newest car. They bought new and drove it for 10+ years before trading in. However, she invested in my education. That was more important to her than creature comforts.

One very simple exercise we did in graduate school was to make a top 10 sort of list of what we valued most. Then we logged our activities for a week. It’s amazing that I wrote that exercising and reading was a big priority, but that I spent way more time watching TV than exercising or reading. We got rid of cable that month.

How you spend your time and money will show what you value more than what you say or think your priorities are. Don’t go through life fooling yourself.

Be courageous enough to give honest feedback and hold people accountable for their best

My Mom also sacrificed the “easy” path. She was willing to take on hard topics even when it would’ve been easier to let them slide. She held those she cared about accountable for their actions when they were against their stated goals. This is not to say she was an inscrutable nit-picker (although it sure felt like it when I was 18). She just wanted everyone to reach their full potential and where she had influence she would let you know if you were on or off that path.

My Mom had extremely high standards for me. I can remember when I dreaded going home with a “B” on a report card (and this means I faced a fair amount of dread). But, Mom knew what I was capable of, and she held me accountable for it.

This was also evidenced in making peace between those for whom she cared. I worked with my Dad in his electrical and general contracting business summers in high school. I wouldn’t take anything in the world for it now, but back then it was a rough go for me and my Dad. Sometimes we would argue, but usually about the time we pulled into the neighborhood we would reach a cease fire agreement so we wouldn’t get Mom involved. Mind you, we were still mad, but we thought we could fake Mom out. Um. Yeah. Right.

Typically, she was on to us in about 5 seconds. Dad and I tried to sweep things under the carpet, but she had none of that. We dealt with the core issue, and then peace and understanding were real.

In the work environment, I’ve observed and inherited staff and organizations that had done a lot of sweeping under the carpet. It was easier for a manager to ignore a problem and work around an individual than to address the challenge. I can’t and won’t claim 100% success rate with identifying and correcting this serious organizational problem, but I can say that I worked diligently at it and never turned a blind eye to an ongoing problem of which I became aware. From my experience, you can’t have a high performing team or organization if there is a lack of uniform expectations and accountability.

Praise people when they get it right, encourage them when they slip

This seems pretty obvious but is often overlooked. When people do right things, let them know it. It will give them the right kind of pride, and it will reinforce what success looks like. Many people slog through life attempting “success” without really knowing what it looks or feels like.

Show ’em. Tell ’em. Put the spotlight on it.

In a work or team environment, praising helps others see how things should be too. Again, be uniform, because uneven praise can give a sense of unfairness, and nobody likes that.

But all of us– the average and the excellent–will make a bad choice here or there or have a slump season. Encourage their way out of that. In the Sacred Hoops book by Phil Jackson, he discussed when a player missed a key shot, their teams philosophy was to give that player the ball more not less. If you goof something, then avoid it, there are some serious mental calculus happening that will create an artificial obstacle to success. If you are a parent, manager, or coach, then get your person in the game again quickly. If they were good enough to get hired or make the team, then they have the potential. If you’re a parent, then it’s your DNA and conditioning you are seeing before you.

My Mom always made it clear to me when I was doing something right, and I enjoyed that praise. When I fell short, there were consequences, but overall there was assistance getting back to a a right place.

Control what you can control, accept what you can’t

The above lessons are positive and places where my Mom got things mostly right in my opinion. Here we take a different turn, and look at where I saw my Mom struggle. Basically, my Mom for most of her life had the Serenity Prayer backwards. Here it is if you’ve never heard it:

God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
The courage to change the things I can,
And the wisdom to know the difference.

My Mom worried if a strange bruise might be leukemia; she never flew because she thought the plane would go down; she thought that a sniffle was pneumonia.

And yet…she didn’t exercise. She didn’t control her diet. She missed out on things and didn’t feel her best while she was alive

We went round and round about this. And, it’s pretty painful to write about this after she is gone, but if anyone can benefit from this perspective, it is worth my reflective pain. I can also proudly add that in the last couple of years of her life, she got this right.

She didn’t die in a plane crash nor was the bruise leukemia. She died from a freak, out-of-the-blue autoimmune disease that attacked her lungs. She had no control over this. So, all that worry meant that she missed out on things and not controlling some things that would’ve given her a better quality of life while she was living.

There is a great Bible verse that hits this. Regardless of your religious background, there is wisdom here.

Teach us to number our days aright, that we may gain a heart of wisdom. 

Psalms 90:12

Life is in itself a mortal condition. Spend your life living it wisely rather than worrying about dieing.

Help others, but look after yourself too

My Mom lived to help my Dad and me shine, almost to a fault. Even now we discover little areas where Mom smoothed things over that we had no idea that she was doing and yet took for granted. Some may argue that this is part of being a mom and wife (and it’s an equally corresponding part of being a dad and a husband, but this post is about my Mom).

When I left high school and was a nascent adult, I thought my Mom was too much in my business. I, rather harshly, told her she needed a hobby, and it shouldn’t be me. Now that I have kids, I realize how silly that is. They will never be too old or too secure for me not to spend time worrying or caring about their lives. And, while I am an involved Dad and love my children more than I could have ever realized, it is my opinion– based on no fact– that a mother’s love is just different than a dad’s love. Not better or worse. Just different. So it’s easy to see how that selfless love could come at personal neglect.

My first comment about prioritizing lives and driving old cars to spend the money elsewhere is not what I’m talking about here. There is a level of personal investment that, again in my opinion, one should never give up. Continue finding areas to personally grow and where you can retain a sense of self.

As you feel that pride of accomplishment and reaching your own potential, it gives you energy to also give out to others. I must face the reality that, while my Mom helped me reach my potential, she never quite reached her full potential. When she was diagnosed with her condition of idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis, she took back some of her life. She dieted; she exercised; she bought new clothes; she went out and had fun. She faced her fear of the computer and got on Facebook. She learned to Skype (to see the grand kids). She lived well, and she would always say that 2010 was the best year of her life.

My Mom spent her life trying to give me the tools and opportunity to be the best person I could be, and I think she would be happy that she is still able to provide those tools even after she is gone. Thank you, Mom.


The Weakness Question

As I’ve mentioned, there have been just a few career opportunities in the past couple of months that intrigued me to the point of actually applying. As I’ve prepared for interviews, one of the questions I have tried to ready myself for is the “What’s your biggest weakness?”

What's YOUR biggest weakness?

A friend was asking questions to me in preparation for an interview today, and the weakness one came up. I spouted off my real, but practiced answer.

I am a big picture thinker, and that means for me that focusing on details require more effort than big picture thinking. To mitigate this, I write down reminders and lists and allocate specific time to focus on those lists.

I also make sure to build a team that has complementary competencies. I don’t want a group of people that thinks exactly like me. For me, I get someone who is very detail oriented so that we complement each other. The more experience I get, the more I see that getting diversity of thought, background, and perspective is key to making good decisions.


Manage your Energy Wisely!

The other thing is that I’ve heard the strengths/weakness defined differently than positive and negative aspects. Strengths are activities that give you energy when you do them, and weaknesses require energy to do. So, the trick is to know and plan your day so that you have the most energy to tackle your “weaknesses” and use your “strengths” activities to recover. Energy management.

That’s my answer. It’s 100% true. But as I was answering it, I had an epiphany.

My biggest weakness is the one that I don’t know about and don’t have a mitigation strategy for. Maybe it’s something that everyone knows but me. Maybe it’s something that’s undiscovered by everyone.

There’s not much I can do about the latter, but the former does actually have a mitigation strategy, at least as it comes to gaining awareness. I have to continually encourage feedback from those around me. I have to communicate that I’m willing to be vulnerable and appreciate learning ways that I can improve. Back in high school, in sports they used to call this “coachable.” My goal then is, of course, to be coachable for life and never get so rooted in protecting my ego that I am not willing to listen, learn, and improve.

I believe I’m ready for that question now.

Charles Atlas

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Innovation as a function of Trust


Miami University

Next semester I am teaching a brand new class on “Innovation and Disruptive Thinking” for Miami University, and I’ve been doing a bit of research on the topic to make sure that I hit the learning outcomes with which I think students who take the class should walk away. And, I’ve been fortunate enough to be interviewing for a few CIO positions at universities around the country where this topic inevitably comes up. If it doesn’t, then it’s a bit of a warning sign. The gist of this is that between research and personal reflection, much of my thought cycles over the past year or so have been revolving around IT, innovation, and change.

We’ve been somewhat spoiled to Silicon Valley’s “next big thing” version of innovation with the big reveal, an IPO, and venture capitalists, and certainly that is a gigantic part of what innovation means, but it’s not the sole definition. My world has some of the big new things, but it’s the daily small innovations that are more powerful and frequent. It’s the piece of duct tape you use to wrap around a rake handle so you won’t get a blister (adaptation); or it’s using a muffin pan upside down to make cookie cups (new use) (http://lifehac.kr/quGfrD). It’s when you get frustrated with a daily annoyance and either actually take care of it or think about ways you would take care of it if you could.

This sort of innovation usually occurs near to where the problem or frustration lives by the person being frustrated or by someone observing continual frustration with “fresh eyes.” If you’re going about your work and have some web based program (eg, a finance program) that takes you four steps to accomplish a task and you could envision how it could be done in two, this is innovation. If you’re at home, go ahead and put the duct tape on the rake. You probably don’t need me for that, but if you’re at work and have an idea that requires or could use some help from IT, what do you do? (My first advice is to write that idea down–moments of brilliance are fleeting!)

I think a lot of what you do depends on our relationship. “Our relationship” meaning the culture I’ve instilled within my organization from top to bottom. Are my basic services stable? When they aren’t, am I transparent on the cause, the mitigation, and the steps to prevent it from happening again? Do I involve people in guiding how resources are used? Do I find ways to frustrate you with bureaucracy? Am I better at saying “no” than trying to help you accomplish your goal? Do I confuse strategy with process? (a topic of a future blog post, I promise!) Am I open to feedback and do I take take criticism  non-defensively? (By the way, that’s criticism not flogging–there is a difference) In general, do my actions match the words I’m saying? We all know the grand words written on the wall that describes the vision and values, but do we all live it?

(An aside: If you’re a leader within your organization, can you answer the vision/values/mission question succinctly? Can your direct reports? If the answer is not yes–with allowance for some drift–then you have some work to do on your vision/values. Clarity of purpose is critical to being successful.)

Of course, we live in a world of limited resources and there are regulatory requirements that prevent some good ideas from happening, but for the overwhelming majority of the time, I think we in IT should be helping advance the cause of our clients. To do this we need to develop a trust relationship with people. IT can be a strategic enabler, but you’re not going to want to dream with me if you don’t trust me or question my competency on basic matters. And, by me, again I mean top to bottom of the organization. The lowest common denominator will define the trust in most cases. And, I would say the converse is true as well. I need to be able to trust you too!

As I understand your goals, there are those moments where “the next big thing” could be appropriate. Part of my job is to stay up to date and have the IT organization stay up to date, with industry trends, peer directions. If you marry this understanding of trends with the relationship and understanding we’ve developed over time, then you have a powerful reaction that can occur. Client need can be met with an technical possibilities. Steve Jobs said something to the effect that sometimes people don’t know what they want until they see it. For me, this is all about knowing and understanding your audience and constituency.

Where the big central group may not be able to move as quickly, can we facilitate and encourage innovating and trying new things with local IT staff? Once we reach a point where it is appropriate to deploy an innovation–the new big thing or a process change–across the university, can we work together to minimize impact? It’s about being able to cede areas of control to my constituency and manage through consensus and influence. Trust and communication are the two main vehicles that will make this possible.

To do justice to the discussion, I really need to talk about how mining conflict is critical to successful implementation of an innovation is; the role of failure as a component of success; and the general process of organizational change. But, those are other topics for other days.

My perspective is based on the belief that my role as a leader is to help foster an environment where innovation can occur, implement it where possible, and most importantly help people through the change process as their lives are disrupted. So much of my job now deals with broad organizational changes that becoming a competent change leader is critical to any chance of success. In many cases, we don’t fear the end state, we fear the transition. One of the thing that has been helpful to me is to be able to see the big picture and then help others see it, feel it, and taste the vision of what the future could be like. The beginning, middle, and end of this journey from innovation to implementation is all based on the trust relationship. It’s my job to set the culture where this flourishes, and making sure my actions and words are in alignment.

Just in case you’re wondering, here is my personal mission. Ask me about it any time.

creating a healthy environment where others can reach their full potential to excel at life and contribute positively to humanity.

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