Personal Development

What You Can Control Is ...

Our 5th Annual Summer Book Review!

June 2009

In today's challenging economic environment, it is so easy to feel out of control, so easy to see yourself as a victim instead of a victor, a loser and not a winner. The stock market has only recently returned to where it started 2009 — and remains well below last year's level. Economic recovery remains tenuous, at best. The job market looks to be 12 months away from being "better." Regardless of whether you're employed, underemployed, unemployed, or retired, there's plenty of uncontrollables to go around. And, as the number and level of uncontrollables increases, so does stress, fear, and instability.

What is the one thing you can control? This might surprise you, because the answer is staring you...right in the mirror. The only thing you can control is you — and the most important tool in controlling yourself is your mind.

This year's book choices are all "inwardly focused" — because what goes on inside us is truly all we CAN control. With some practice and focus, perhaps the insights in these books will help you change the way you look at things, and bring you a higher level of calm, hope, and stability.

Rules of Thumb: 52 Truths For Winning at Business without Losing Your Self

— by Alan M. Webber

Cover to the book Rules of Thumb: 52 Truths For Winning at Business without Losing Your Self by Alan M. Weber There is much to love about this book! The author was previously an urban planner for the City of Portland, managing editor of Harvard Business Review, and cofounding editor of Fast Company magazine. Alan is a creative thinker and a talented writer, who has distilled his life experiences into 52 "rules of thumb" — short essays of 3 to 4 pages each, beginning with a description of the experience and continuing with a "So What" section evaluating the experience and sharing the "lessons learned." Some which I especially enjoyed include:

  • Rule #10 — A Good Question Beats a Good Answer. "Questions are how we learn" Alan writes, and then goes on to describe questions as "dangerous," "liberating," "useful," and "how we avoid disasters" by avoiding groupthink.
  • Rule #18 — Knowing It Ain't the Same As Doing It. If this statement fits your organization — "If your company is like most, good talkers get taken more seriously than real doers." — then you know problems loom, because "thinking has replaced doing." Beware.
  • Rule #26 — The Soft Stuff Is the Hard Stuff. While the Balanced Scorecard management technique is not mentioned in this article, four sentences really sum up its essence — "Investing in people gets you a better team. A better team builds a better culture. A better culture makes for a more productive organization. That's what generates stronger, more sustainable financial results." And the reason the Balanced Scorecard was developed? To offset a focus on short-term, lagging, financial measures because "numbers are easy and people are hard. We can control numbers but not people." What many executives and managers fail to realize — people are not only costs, they are also doers of activities delivering value to customers and clients, and yielding financial results.
  • Rule #43 — Don't Confuse Credentials with Talent. This section shares a wonderful thought experiment posed by Warren Buffett, which should be required reading for anyone who might ever have to hire someone.
  • Rule #45 — Failure Isn't Failing. Failure Is Failing to Try. Ask yourself questions to clarify your aspirations, then run your answers against the author's advice: "Answers to those questions don't come to those who play it safe. Those who play it safe aren't likely to ask those questions. And while playing it safe may appear to prevent failure, in reality it guarantees it."

Control your interpretation of events — look for lessons to be learned, both now and for the long-term.


Orbiting the Giant Hairball: A Corporate Fool's Guide to Surviving with Grace

— by Gordon MacKenzie

Cover to the book Orbiting the Giant Hairball: A Corporate Fool's Guide to Surviving with Grace by Gordon MacKenzieOkay, let's say you're stuck working for a company with an entrenched "way of doing things" and you don't quite fit that particular "way." What do you do? Gordon MacKenzie worked for 30 years in various divisions of Hallmark, the greeting card company, and came up with his own original, counter-intuitive approach to maintaining his sanity and uniqueness. The Hairball is a company's culture and procedures, and you can either be:

  • Hypnotized by the Hairball and "reduced to nothing more than part of the headcount" (page 53), or
  • Dedicated to a "delicate balance, resisting the hypnotic spell of an organization's culture and, at the same time, remaining committed from the heart to the personally relevant goals of the organization." (page 53)

Achieving and maintaining this delicate balance is "Orbit, the only place where you can tap into your one-of-a-kind magic, your genius, your limitless creativity."

I absolutely love books like this — where a beautiful soul pours itself into words and illustrations, laid out with the self-confidence of someone who knows when it makes sense to use gridlines and when they stifle creativity, who asks grade schoolers "How many artists are there in the room?" and is saddened to see fewer and fewer hands go up each grade level because conformity is valued more than creativity, who subversively plots a career through a large company by following his bliss, and who gives the reader the nudge to do the same and follow him into Orbit.

Control your spirit — follow your bliss! Keep this small, fun, colorful, offbeat, engaging book within easy reach, and grab it whenever your spirit needs a recharge.

AdaptAbility: How To Survive Change You Didn't Ask For

— by M.J. Ryan

Cover to the book AdaptAbility: How To Survive Change You Didn't Ask For by M.J. RyanThis book has something for everyone! While M.J. states in the book she does not view herself as especially creative, I disagree — she is a craftsperson who has woven together many personal and client stories, insights, and memorable quotes, all centered around the theme of "how to become more adaptable." Among those which stuck with me:

  • We react more quickly and forcefully to threats versus pleasures — this is hard-wired into us for survival, and she quotes another author who explains "your brain is like Velcro for negative experiences and Teflon for positive ones...this built-in bias puts a negative spin on the world and intensifies our stress and reactivity." (page 22).
  • In the section Cultivate Your Witness Self, the author reports on research showing meditation actually changes the electrical and chemical activity in your brain, and thus changes its structure, "strengthening connections from the thoughtful prefrontal lobes to the fear- and anxiety-generating amygdala" — which allows our response to events to change from automatic to rational.
  • Seek Information Outside Your Box describes the results of an experiment where fish were raised in a little tank put inside a larger tank. The smaller tank was eventually removed. The outcome? "The fish continued to swim in the same small configuration, despite being in the larger tank." Are you expanding your sources of information?
  • When coping with change, remember this — "Part of being human means we can't go through life without life going through us, and as it does, it tends to rip, bend, and fold. The good news is that every time we go through something challenging, we develop strengths and awareness we didn't have before." (page 120). As bending and folding strengthens and forms metal, these actions strengthen and form us.
  • Perhaps my favorite section is If You're Not Stretching, You're Probably Missing Something, because it includes several memorable thoughts perfectly reflecting my experience in running my own firm — including having to retool the firm and its personnel several times to meet changing market needs.
    • "The name of the game is staying relevant, and the life cycle of relevancy is getting shorter and shorter."
    • "Rather than seeing safety as a wonderful thing we should strive for, we need to view it as a warning sign that we're coasting on past learning, rather than paying attention to what we need to take on next."

Control how you adapt and respond to change — read this book and take its lessons to heart.

How To Be A Great Coach: 24 Lessons for Turning on the Productivity of EVERY Employee

— by by Marshall C. Cook

Cover to the book How To Be A Great Coach: 24 Lessons for Turning on the Productivity of EVERY Employee by Marshall C. CookIf you want to deep dive into a book on coaching, this is not the book for you — rather, its goal is to help a manager recognize the small, subtle — but significant — differences in words, attitude, and approach which distinguishes a manager from a coach. And once you see these differences, it becomes easier to make these shifts. Several memorable ones are:

  • Coach for conformity Celebrate the differences — This one is really hard for me (just ask my staff...), but the author's advice is true — "You can motivate them. You can direct their energies. You can teach them, lead them, and guide them. But, you can't really control them. You shouldn't try. You shouldn't even want to." Because technology changes so rapidly, and my staff know their areas so deeply, I cannot really control them — so I do my best to describe the parameters and desired outcome of a project, and then let go and trust them to use their skills to follow my guidance and produce business results.
  • Lecture the masses Coach one-on-one — A coaching analogy naturally brings up sports images — for example, a stirring halftime speech in the locker room. But the workplace equivalent of coaching seems more the humble practice field, and less the big-time stadium. And the author's advice reflects this — "You do your most effective teaching and motivating one-on-one, face-to-face, without raising your voice." I work best with an employee when I am right by her side, seeing what she's doing, understanding what she's trying to achieve, and sharing her frustration when things don't work — that's when I get to ask questions and share advice geared specifically to this person, this issue, this time.
  • Provide all the answers Solve problems together — This is especially true for problems affecting multiple persons because, as the number of people increases, nuances and implications increase almost exponentially. If you're like me, you want to solve problems yourself — it's faster and easier that way, right? Not if you consider the rework time required — "Would you rather spend the time creating the solution or scrambling to fix all those 'solutions' that didn't work?" This section includes an easy-to-follow process to help solve problems together.

And, yes, the strikethrough is actually part of the section title! This book is one in the "Mighty Manager" series, which includes The Sales Success Handbook, my "Recommended Resource" for the February 2007 "Todd's Results" page. (See www.toddherman.com/toddsresults_2007.html.)

Control how you work with those around you — you and they will feel better for it!


Bonus book: Take Charge of Your Mind: Core Skills to Enhance Your Performance, Well-Being, and Integrity at Work

— by Paul Hannam and John Selby

Cover to the book Take Charge of Your Mind: Core Skills to Enhance Your Performance, Well-Being, and Integrity at Work by Paul Hannam and John SelbyEvery economy has its tools. The Industrial Revolution had the steam engine, the Information Revolution had the computer, and today's Knowledge Economy has...well, you. People, the most valuable assets of a company, walk out the door every day and take their most valuable asset with them — their mind.

When I first got this book, I assumed it was about skills to increase the functioning of the brain — but as I began reading the book, I quickly saw this was not the case. Simply stated, this is a book on secular meditation — not meditation from a religious or philosophical viewpoint, but reflecting everyday life. The authors make a compelling case for daily meditation of 10 or more minutes, plus mini-meditations throughout the day.

I'll admit, I was skeptical when I first tried the authors' advice — until it worked. I experienced the increased mental and emotional performance touted in the book — by being more connected with myself, I do have clearer thoughts, more stable emotions (an especially big benefit these days!), and most positive feelings. All you need do is be still, concentrate on your breathing, and progress through a series of focus phrases, such as "I accept everyone at work, just as they are," "I feel connected to my inner source of wisdom," and "I am here to serve, to prosper — and to enjoy myself."

The bulk of the book guides you to quickly apply its concepts, introducing and explaining each focus phrase, which build to form the complete mental "workout." The phrases can be used as part of a "full-mind workout" or applied to:

  • Specific situations — for example, showing empathy (chapter 4) or getting creative (chapter 6).
  • Specific opportunities — for example, in meetings (page 209) or relaxing after work (page 212).
  • Specific themes — for example, the need for immediate relief and better feelings (page 216).

A great book — as long as you use it, and not just read it.

Control your mind — get it to listen to you, tell it what you want it to do, and then experience the benefits of greater confidence, empathy, self-esteem, and creativity.


All of these are great books! Give each one a try, and maybe you'll agree with me. Whatever you do, once you find a great book, buy a bunch and give them to your favorite clients and colleagues — they will thank you!

Enjoy,

Todd L. Herman

Todd L. Herman

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