The Energy of Ensembles

Last Sunday at my church the men’s chorus and the women’s chorus joined to sing a complicated medley of old gospel tunes, ending on a chord of voices that nearly knocked the stained glass out of the windows and the folks in the balcony out of their pews. The joy of singing this song, which I compared to white-water rafting (and a couple of times I nearly fell out of the raft), reminded me of the energy of being in an ensemble.

My coaching business is a solo practice and while I am a member of many “teams,” including the Ambassadors Club at the Wheaton Chamber of Commerce, a band and chorus at church and the board of directors of the National Speakers Association of Illinois, I operate mostly as a single unit. When I go to the office, unless I bring my dog Peanut, I’m there by myself. No water-cooler banter, no one to distract me from the work at hand. I do have an office mate across the hall and we occasionally stop to catch up between our respective clients but for the most part, I’m alone until I meet with clients or head off to a meeting. For someone like me who enjoys being with people, this sometimes can prove to be a challenge. That’s why I couldn’t stop thinking about our combined choirs’ performance. Here are just a few of my observations about the benefits of being in an ensemble:

  • People are working together toward a common goal. In the case of our medley, which was not an easy piece of music, we had to rehearse together. Dan Keck, our irrepressible music director who leads the men’s chorus, worked patiently with the women on learning our parts. We knew we had to pull off the song by the next week, so there was a pleasant pressure to get the vocal parts worked out and we all gave up time we otherwise would have spent on our families, our work or other commitments related to self to practice the piece together.
  • The sum is greater than the parts of the whole. Did I get that right? Singing a solo, or even a duet or trio, is fun but when you put all those men’s and women’s voices together, you get an amazing sound that you could never get alone. I like to say that good music “rearranges your molecules,” and that last note of our song certainly did just that.
  • The “you” disappears and you become a “we.” As fascinating as we may find ourselves, sometimes it’s exhausting to be us. Being in an ensemble means you set aside your focus on self, your issues and concerns, to work with others on the task at hand. Being a “we” has a completely different agenda and it can provide relief from that circular logic that often comes from working by ourselves.

Whether you’re working on a team or working by yourself, I think it’s important to recognize the power of being in a group. For those of you who work in corporations and get frustrated with the need to always negotiate, and sometimes capitulate, perhaps you can take a new look at the value of being part of a team. And for those of you who, like me, work primarily in solitude, you may want to look for ways to engage in ensembles to tap into that energy source. Whether it’s sitting together with other Chamber members, working on a project or an event, or adding your voice to a mighty chorus, there’s a singular joy in working with others.

[Photo: Dan Keck leads the Men’s Chorus at Gary United Methodist Church, Wheaton, IL.]

My Heart Overfloweth

Today is Valentine’s Day, and I’m thinking of all the people I love. I start with my family–my husband Bill, my adult children Kitty and Will, and all the parents, brothers, sisters, in-laws, cousins and extended family who have surrounded us. While today is spun as a romantic holiday, I prefer to think of Valentine’s Day as a time to contemplate, celebrate and communicate about love with all the people in our lives.

Last night my heart overfloweth as I watched my friend and fellow speaker Steve Beck volunteer his time as one of our guest faculty at the National Speakers Association of Illinois (NSA-IL)’s Speakers Academy. Steve is one of many NSA-IL members who have so generously donated their time and talent to share about the experience of being a professional speaker with students in our Speakers Academy, a training program for aspiring speakers. But perhaps because Steve was my Co-Dean in the program for several years, or because he now serves as our chapter president, or maybe just because Steve is Steve, I was moved to tears by his contribution.

Steve shared about losing his brother in Vietnam when Steve was 15. He said that before his brother left for Vietnam, his mother promised to pray for his brother every day–a ridiculous promise, he thought. Steve remembered coming home as a young teenager to see his mother praying the rosary and asking him to join her. Reluctantly, he did. Now as an adult, and as a successful business man and professional speaker, Steve uses prayer to jump start his day. Prayer, meditation and affirmations are part of his morning ritual, as much a requirement as his first cup of coffee. He shared his own “12-step program” with us, a list of daily affirmations, and he encouraged us to write some of our own in the handout he shared. Oh, and another thing–he makes his bed every day. Every. Day.

Steve Beck Leave Your Funk at the DoorIt’s no surprise that Steve has written a series of books, the first of which was entitled How to Have a Great Day Every Day, followed by Leave Your Funk at the Door. These irrepressible titles reflect the message Steve had for our Speakers Academy participants, a message that aligns so perfectly with Valentine’s Day: it’s up to us to discover every day the miracles we have in our lives. And most of those miracles have something to do with the people we love. No, let me rephrase that: those miracles have EVERYTHING to do with the people we love.

Steve, I love you, man. You bring a new energy to our NSA-IL chapter that nurtures and sustains us, an enthusiasm that’s helping our speaker community grow, attracted by love. The many lives you’ve touched as President, Co-Dean and now as guest faculty for our Speakers Academy program, are too numerous to mention. Happy Valentine’s Day, my friend.

 

[Masthead photo: “Arizona Valentine, A Heart of Ten Roses,” 2011, oil on canvas by artist Dyana Hesson, Mesa, AZ; taken at Sky Harbor Airport, Phoenix, AZ]

Management 101 Revealed at Downton Abbey

When I first heard the buzz about “Downton Abbey,” a popular Masterpiece Theatre series, I wondered what all the fuss was about. Then I watched it–and watched it some more. Now I can’t wait until the stroke of midnight following the show on Sunday night because on Monday, it’s available online on PBS (we don’t have cable). For a while I was so smitten with the series that I tried to get my family to call me “M’Lady.” Alas, to no avail.

I’m not the only one who studies the show from another perspective, observing the relationships between the upstairs and downstairs characters for their lessons in leadership. Mark McKenna Little, a financial advisor who blogs regularly at “Mark McKenna Little’s Advisor PACT (TM) Blog” has written an insightful post “The Downton Abbey Service Model for Trusted Advisors.” In it, he confesses his own addiction to the series and profiles the people on the estate as employees within an organization which, in essence, they are. He also highlights a phrase that had caught my own ear after watching the show consistently: the staff, including the maids, the butlers, the footmen and valets, describe themselves as “in service.” That’s their vocation, their calling–to be “in service” to the aristocracy. With some exceptions (the nefarious Thomas comes to mind), the downstairs characters are dedicated to serving the Crawley family with commitment and devotion. Mr. McKenna Little delightfully dubs the domestic service staff “The Deliverables Team” and, indeed, that is their mission: to deliver. Whether it’s an elaborate picnic in the woods or the nightly meal with all its courses, the domestic staff/Deliverables Team are behind the scenes, making it all happen at the ring of a bell.

Mr. McKenna Little and I agree that those of us in the professional services field–financial advising, speaking, coaching, or any other type of service business–would do well to follow this Downton Abbey Service Model. The model as described in his blogpost delineates the keys to its success: an accepted team leader, process, high standards and accountability, integrity and, most importantly, an overriding theme that says “I’ll take care of it, M’Lord.” That last principle, the not-to-worry-I’ve-got-it-handled message, is summed up by Mr. McKenna Little as a single, overriding success principle: “Service is an attitude, not a process.”

Recently I spoke in Phoenix to the Summit Study Group, a collection of talented wealth management advisors who have formed a mastermind group to share best practices and hold each other accountable for their success. My topic? “The Joys of Strategic Planning.”  Many of these accomplished professionals already have some sort of plan in place and for some it was a new model. I outlined the simple model I use, emphasizing that all good plans start with a mission and a goal: To be of serviceFor financial planners, it may be to help their clients build the wealth that will give them financial freedom. For a speaker, it may be to inspire and motivate her audience to action so they can have a life they love. And for a coach, it’s providing the structure and support for clients to accomplish their own big dreams. At the heart of any professional services business is the goal to make a difference. And we can only do this by being “in service.”

I’ll watch “Downton Abbey” with a new eye, thanks to Mr. McKenna Little and his perspective of the Deliverables Team. And instead of feeling a wave of pity for those who appear to be indentured servants, I’ll think about my own service attitude and how that applies to my relationship with my clients. I’ll practice the art of making it all happen, meeting my clients’ expectations with that aura of effortless ease managed by the Deliverables Team.

Now, if I can just get my family to address me as “M’Lady.”

Swimming in Choices

We are swimming in choices. That can be a good thing–in fact, I named my business CHOICES Worldwide in order to emphasize the power of choice in our businesses and careers. The freedom to choose our vocations based on our unique gifts, talents and abilities is an awesome right and responsibility.

But the choices I’m talking about here are the overwhelming ones we experience in today’s marketplace. Think of your last visit to Home Depot: did you get dizzy just walking down the aisle? And if you’re out of your usual milieu, as I am at Home Depot, the multitude of options for things that I a) don’t know what they are and b) wouldn’t know how to use even if I did know what they were is mind-blowing. Even in an environment I understand, like Target, I can get that same sense of overload. Look at the toothpaste shelves–so many choices! Teeth-whitening, tartar-fighting, fluroride, sensitive teeth, mint, regular… sometimes I just grab one and run.

The abundance of choices and our freedom to choose may be overrated, according to Sheena Iyengar, a prominent social psychologist at Columbia Business School and the author of The Art of Choosing (Twelve, 2010). Dr. Iyengar and her colleagues have done research on the cultural implications of choice, why people make the decisions they make and what drives us to choose. Whether we’re choosing among toothpastes or making more sobering choices related to our careers, we overstate the role of choice in our lives.

In an interview from “Knowledge@Wharton,” Dr. Iyengar shares why a multitude of choices don’t always bring us what we want. “It turns out that we don’t always recognize our preferences even though our choices are supposed to be in line with them,” she says, citing research she’s done at the University of Pennsylvania. When asking seniors what they wanted in a job at three different intervals, the students changed their answers along the way. In the end, the correlation between what they said they wanted at the beginning of the experiment and what they got when they graduated in May was “utterly non-significant.” And the people who remembered what they originally said they wanted were less satisfied with the job offers they had accepted. “Maybe there is some truth to [what our grandmothers told us, that] happiness doesn’t come from getting what you want, but wanting what you got,” Dr. Iyengar says.

The pursuit of the American dream is based on some assumptions—that our choices are limitless, more is better and choices affirm our individuality and freedom. But the work shared by Dr. Iyengar challenges these assumptions. She cites instances where, given too many options among financial products, employee participation in a 401(K) plan dropped 15%. Overwhelmed by options and exhausted by the volume of choices we make in our lives, we become disengaged. And this can have a powerful impact on us, not just as consumers baffled by 24 varieties of toothpaste but also in our role as business leaders.

Past research has shown that employees report greater job satisfaction when given a high degree of choice. A recent article, “Tiptoeing Toward Freedom” in Columbia Business School’s “Ideas at Work” blog, reported that Dr. Iyengar and graduate student Roy Chua conducted experiments to test how giving employees autonomy and decision-making latitude can impact their perceptions of managers as leaders. Those leaders who offered their employees limited (my emphasis) choices—“some options, but not too many”—were seen as more effective. Too many choices, however, gave employees the perception that their leaders were not as competent or conscientious.

In this high-tech, 24/7 world, it’s easy to get overwhelmed by all the choices we have to make. Whether you’re thinking about what’s next for you in your career or choosing from a menu, save your brainpower for the choices that matter. And when it comes to toothpaste, grab a box and run.

Note: Some parts of this blog were originally written for and published in the First Illinois Healthcare Financial Management Association (HFMA) Chapter newsletter, First Illinois Speaks.