When you give thanks, you grow


The results were clear: Higher levels of optimism, increased life satisfaction, and decreased negative feelings were all associated with students’ expressions of gratitude.
– Jeffrey Froh, Professor, Hofstra University

Recently, at dinner in our house, we went around the table and mentioned a few things we like about school, our work, our music lessons, our soccer practice, whatever…There aren’t any rules or expectations that we need to talk about loving math or writing, or commuting to work. The kids are free to say they like riding the bus or lunchtime, and I might mention an interesting discussion with someone at work. The point is simply to bring positive experiences, people, and moments to the forefront. And by retelling these experiences we reinforce them and associate these emotions with our work, school and learning experiences.

This kind of intentional thinking, reflection, and sharing of gratitude has demonstrated repeatedly in studies to be linked to helping individuals become socially effective communicators, proactive in building positive social interactions and developing higher levels of on-the-job, on-the-field, and in-the-classroom performance.

For example, Jeffrey Froh, Hofstra University, did this cool study in which he and his colleagues, tracked students in 11 classrooms, and divided them into three groups, asking them for just a few minutes each day to:

  • Group 1. write down things they were grateful for at home and school
  • Group 2. write down things they found to be a hassle and not fun (irritants)
  • Group 3. a control group they asked nothing of

The first group wrote things like: “My coach helped me out at baseball practice,” “My grandma is in good health, my family is still together, my family still loves each other, my brothers are healthy, and we have fun everyday,” and “I am grateful that my mom didn’t go crazy when I accidentally broke a patio table.”

After two weeks, the researchers measured their school performance and engagement from both their perspective and the perspective of their teachers. Essentially, they found these students to be happier (by their own account), having more friends, and more engaged in their work (by the teachers account), and…wait for it, they got better grades – better in comparison to their own previous performance. That’s after only two weeks. The researchers checked in three weeks later after the study was over and found the effects to be still present.

In a powerful follow up study, students were asked to write a letter to a benefactor that feel they may have never properly thanked. It could be a teacher, a coach, or a family friend. The kids worked on their letters three times a week, for two weeks, elaborating on their feelings, and being increasingly specific in their writing about what the benefactor did that they were grateful for. On the friday of the second week, the kids set up a meeting with the person to read the letter, out loud, to that person face-to-face.

According to Jeffrey Froh, “It was a hyperemotional exercise for them. Really, it was such an intense experience. Every time I reread those letters, I get choked up.” And the positive outlook, and heightened engagement was still present when the researchers checked in with the kids 2 months later.

Maybe you can’t easily get your kids to write a letter of gratitude to someone in their life. Here’s a small and simple trick I learned from Dr. Karen Reivich, author of The Optimistic Child. Simply finish these sentences:
• ―Someone who helped me get through a difficult time is _______
• ―Someone who helped me learn something important about myself is _______
• ―Someone with whom I can discuss the things that matter most to me is _______


Can’t hurt to ask

TaylorSwiftRecently Annie (then 6, now 7) and I were at the store picking out a card to for her to send to a friend. In the card display was a big section dedicated to Taylor Swift. We examined each card – Taylor Swift looking dreamy, sassy, alluring, or even defiant. Taylor can certainly strike a pose. I asked Annie to pick one.

“I can’t decide,” she said. Then, “Wait, what about that one!”

It was the display poster, the marquee advertising the Taylor Swift section of the greeting cards. “Well, that’s not for sale sweetie. It’s just the banner. You know, the poster for the Taylor Swift cards.”

Annie says, “Yeah. Can we get it?”

There was also a little sign saying the Taylor Swift card collection was being replaced in a few days. I shrugged, “Let’s ask.” I took the poster from the wall and Annie carried it to the checkout counter.

“I can’t find a price on this,” the clerk said. “Well yeah, it’s..ah…the display poster. But the sign says you are getting rid of the cards in a couple days. Can we have it?” The clerk frowned. “I need to talk to the manager.”

We waited and the manager arrived and looked at the poster. “I’m sorry but we don’t own those banners. The card company does. We can’t give them away.” I turned and saw Annie’s face squint in confusion. “But why not?” she asked.

For a second no one moved. Then the manager said, “Tell you what. If you give us your phone number, we’ll ask the card company and call you if they say you can have it.” I was pretty skeptical, but Annie’s face lit up and she carefully wrote down the phone number I said out loud.

We drove home and I forgot all about it. But sure enough about ten days later, the drug store manager called and asked if we still wanted the poster. Within the hour, that Taylor Swift poster was hanging in my daughter’s bedroom.

Just because it doesn’t have a price tag doesn’t mean it’s not available. Can’t hurt to ask.

Taking the long view

fixitfredIn October of 2003 in Atlanta at a global company meeting, as the new CEO of Schering-Plough, Fred Hassan stood on stage before thousands of sales professionals from around the world and said:

If you are in a position of making a sale and doing something you are not comfortable with – something you won’t feel proud of later, or walking away, I want you to walk away. As your CEO I’m telling you to choose long-term trust and integrity over short-term gain.

He had only been named CEO in April of that same year. His philosophies and opinions were not yet well known throughout the organization. He also knew he was taking a risk in alienating some of the successful sales professionals who were making a killing on short-term transactional quarterly commissions checks. In addition to providing this message of integrity focus, he led the change of the commissions structure to incentivize longer term relationships with customers. He knew some salespeople would leave, and they did.

But something else happened. Starting in that spring of 2004, Schering Plough enjoyed over four years of double-digit growth. Then came 2008, and the growth ran dry for most everyone. Yet even during this period Schering-Plough continued to innovate and introduce new pharmaceuticals to the market, as well as continue to return consistent earnings for shareholders and community. Schering-Plough hired and retained those sales types who took the long view.

In our conversation, Fred put it this way, “People want to do something right and be a part of something bigger than themselves… I didn’t expect it, but I got a long standing ovation that day.”

Blue Monkey 22

coyote2As a family we ski quite a bit in the winter. We’re about two hours from Sugarloaf Mountain in Maine and the kids love it. A couple years ago, I would regularly launch off a series of ski jumps in the terrain park. It’s exhilarating. Drop down to approach the ramp, race up to the lip of the jump and sail high to a smooth landing on the downhill other side. Fifteen feet? Twenty? I probably exaggerate but it feels really far. If you get the speed right it’s smooth, easy and fun. I could do it all day. What a blast.

As a big treat, I attached a ski trip to a business obligation in Denver and took our boys Charlie (10) and WIll (8) out to Breckenridge, CO to see the big sky, ski the big mountains. We met some good friends living there and headed up to Summit County for a few days. On the first day of skiing, I was riding up the chairlift with my friend Greg, and as the lift was passing over the terrain park below, which included a series of substantial jumps, Greg remarked, “I’ve always thought that looks fun but I’m not sure I want to try it.”

What a setup. Of course I say, “Oh, it’s no problem. Just get the speed right and it’s easy. I’ll show you. I do it all the time.” I spend the rest of the chairlift ride talking about how the key is to commit to it. Own it.

We skied down to the jump and I positioned myself to attack it. Maybe it was oxygen deprivation at altitude or a function of being forty, but in that moment I recall being supremely confident. This was a piece of cake. I dropped in, gained speed, and sailed smoothly off the jump.

Too fast. I hit that way too hot. I soared far over the easy downhill landing zone, arms pinwheeling like Wile E Coyote stationary above open air. I hit hard. I still remember the fall, but the next few seconds are blurry. Evidently after fifteen seconds or so, I wobbled to my feet and turned to see Greg had skied down next to me. Eyes big, he gestured and said “Sit down!”

I sat down and a blink later a Patroller was in front of me looking at me closely, and asking, “Where are you from? What day of the week is it? What did you have for breakfast?” Stunned, I turned and looked blankly at Greg, “I have no idea what I had for breakfast.”

Next the Patroller says, “I want you to remember these three things, OK? Blue. Monkey. 22. Got it?”

And I’m thinking, “No way, he’s doing that thing to me!” I have friends who are EMTs, ski patrollers, field trauma experts, and I knew he was performing a concussion assessment on me. There is no way I’m going to blow this. Blue. Monkey. 22. Oh, I got this dialed.

He asked me a series of questions about my kid’s names, who the President was, and so on, and when he came back to the three things I definitely nailed it. But still he said, “We’re going to put you on the sled, give you some oxygen, and take you down.” At eleven thousand feet, I remember the oxygen felt really good.

We went down to the patrol hut, Greg and the kids following. I got another look over, and some advice on how to behave. I suddenly felt pretty far from home, and when my son quietly teared up I felt embarrassed at being such a fool. Another Patroller came in and, after hearing my story, peered at me sagely and said, “The terrain park is a young man’s game.”

Blue Monkey 22 became code for “Do you really think you should do that? Maybe think it through first.” Lesson is: what works on the home court doesn’t always translate on the road. Or: with home in the rear view mirror, objects are closer than they appear.

It’s just another reason I stay off the jumps these days.

Start with Shared Values

If you work in a big company, with people around the world operating in different cultures, on different projects, with different skillsets and different world views, how can you create shared conviction and vision?

Don Vanthournout is the Chief Learning Officer of Accenture, a premier global management-services and advisory organization with more than 259,000 associates in almost fifty different countries around the world. Accenture is perhaps not unlike other multinational companies except that it has no clear headquarters. Accenture’s CEOs over the past few years have been based in Paris, Boston, Palo Alto, and Dallas. Its executives operate globally, and its associates are expected to adopt a nimble and global world view. They’re supposed to remain effective and adhere to the Accenture philosophy regardless of where they work. How can such a globally dispersed workforce, with no clear headquarters and a CEO with no nationalistic identity, have a strongly held, shared vision?

In October, 2011, I had an interview with Don Vanthournout. In that conversation, he explained that the company starts with a simple and clear set of values as its behavioral principles. Accenture ingrains these values in all associates, so regardless of where they are working in the world, the associates’ values and behavior are guided by them. As he put it,

we build core skills into our people on how we want them to collaborate and communicate with each other, how we want them to manage projects, but we’re never going to be able to guess every situation that might confront them. And so the why of why you spend so much time focusing on the value side of things is so that we can develop people who, when they’re thrown in that situation that they might not have been prepared explicitly for from a content standpoint, will from a contextual standpoint know how to operate in alignment with what Accenture values.

Next, according to Vanthouronout, Accenture operates under a principle of facilitating job mobility and growth. As the Chief Learning Officer, Vanthouronout knows people participate at their highest level of engagement and collaboration when they are doing work they love. When a position becomes tedious, he says, it’s time to look for growth opportunities. Accenture recognizes the need for constant development, and creates opportunities for them to fill that need. Vanthouronout’s recommendation is to start local—ask friends and colleagues for advice in developing oneself. He has found that the strongest professional developers trust the insight of their colleagues and take action to gain new and diverse skills.

When it comes to aspiration, those around us will understand and help place us in developing positions only if we voice our opinions and ideas about our own best career trajectory. Accenture has worked to build a culture in which managers are expected to identify and listen closely to the development aspirations of associates, with the recognition that those best placed will ultimately perform at their highest level and realize their greatest confidence.

The risk is in your head

freestyle-ski-tricksOur twelve year old son walked into the lunchroom at Sugarloaf ski resort a couple weeks ago and said quietly, “I learned how to do a 360.”

I said, “Awesome! That’s pretty cool. How did you learn that?” He said he just decided to do it. Within 24 hours our ten year old and his buddies were all spinning off jumps. Will admitted that the first time was scary but he knew he could do it. He just knew. What yesterday he thought was really risky, suddenly today wasn’t.

I learned something similar about mentally removing entrepreneurial risk from Harris Rosen, founder of Rosen Resorts. Anyone seeing him in the hallway of the Rosen Shingle Creek Hotel in Orlando, Florida, picking up bits of trash and straightening plants might mistake him for a custodian or perhaps a fastidious guest. Harris Rosen, founder and owner of Rosen Hotels and Resorts might just be the hardest working man in the business. In person he is quiet, thoughtful, and generous with his time. Well dressed, but never ostentatious, and in excellent health, Rosen swims most every day of the week to remain fit and alert.

Rosen says he purchased his first hotel in 1974, after being fired from a number of companies because he was told that he did not fit comfortably in their corporate structure. He decided it was best that he strike out on his own and has never looked back. With diligence, care, and an indefatigable work ethic, he has built remarkable hotel and resort properties in the Orlando area. Starting with a premonition in the 1970s that the Orlando area would become a much sought-after leisure and conference destination, he worked hard to develop and grow his hotel and resort company to cater to both the meeting and the leisure markets.

From his very first property—a Quality Inn—to his most recent luxury hotel, Rosen has sustained a remarkable curiosity, which enables him to remain vigilant about changes in the marketplace and to adjust his strategy accordingly. In an interview, Rosen talked to me about the importance of marrying hard work with risk-taking:

How do you teach someone to take a risk? For those of us who do on occasion take risks, you must first convince yourself that everything will turn out OK because you will do whatever it takes to ensure its success. For instance, if you don’t have the money to fly to New York, New Jersey, and Massachusetts to meet with potential clients, you hitchhike.I think the message is…first have a dream, don’t give up, and always be honest and respectful—and work harder than anyone else, to ensure success.

Of course I stopped launching off jumps a couple years ago. Way too risky.

Keys to effective swift-starting teams

pilotsNext time you’re standing at the gate waiting to get on a flight and the crew shows up, watch how they interact with each other. It will tell you a lot about how effective as a team they are going to be up in the sky shortly.

Mary Waller, a researcher at York University in Toronto, has been studying swift-starting teams – and flight crews in particular. Swift-starting teams of experts are everywhere – TV news crews comprised of journalists, camera, lighting, audio, and transmission engineers who come together to cover a media event. The doctors, nurses, technicians in hospitals who assemble for a ER shift to work together. Or the engineers that may run a nuclear power plant. In many cases these teams are comprised of highly-specialized professionals who assemble as a team for a specific job or task, and sometimes have little or no prior interaction with each other.

Specifically members of swift-forming experts teams are:

  • competent and familiar with their complex work environments
  • working quickly under situations of very evident time pressure
  • have a stable role on the team but ad hoc team membership
  • have complex, interdependent tasks that rely on interactions with team mates during the performance to yield coordinated execution of well-trained skills.

It turns out that how they interact with one another during just the first 15-20 minutes is highly predictive of how they will perform as a team for the duration of the job. The reason is that interaction patterns are established early in these relationships, and those patterns usually persist throughout the job.

Key #1: simple and consistent communication

Waller and her colleagues tracked each piece of dialogue uttered and identified the patterns in which they develop. For example, “Input the coordinates” is a command. “We have good weather today” is an observation. “Maybe we should ask tower control” is a suggestion and “What should our heading be?” is an inquiry…and so on to include disagreement, humor, anger or small-talk, etc. What they discovered is that patterns of interaction often emerge quickly and persist throughout the relationship. And the highest-performing teams established those patterns early, keep them simple, consistent, and reciprocal and balanced with one another. The lowest-performing teams had greater variety of conversational patterns, more unique communication patterns, and members who showed lack of reliance on other team members.

Key #2: short and targeted communication

While big locker room pep-talks or command-center speeches look good on television (think Ed Harris playing flight director Gene Kranz in Apollo 13), they aren’t terribly effective in driving team excellence. The most effective teams kept their communication short, precise and targeted to a specific task or job sequence.

Key #3: balanced communication

In the study, the researchers measured what they called “reciprocity.” That is, to what extent the team members relied on each other and balanced the participation of communication, as well as the reliance on one another for information and expertise. For example, if a team member showed “mono-actor” behavior of asking and answering their own questions, they showed less reliance, and less reciprocity on other team members. As a result, their study showed an overall decreased team performance when team members showed a lack of reliance on others and lack of reciprocity of expertise.

Here’s an interesting twist in the study. The researchers hypothesized that any “mono-acting” behavior (when someone asks and answers their own questions) would be on that part of the pilot currently in control. They thought that the person with command of the airplane would be the one offering the least reciprocity. Nope, it was the PNF (pilot not flying), who lacked control of the plane who exhibited the greatest amount of mono-acting behavior – in other words, was the least team player.

The best swift-forming teams of experts keep their communication simple, targeted and balanced.

No one can innovate alone

barnraisingThink of some of the most iconic ancient innovations: the wheel, the arrowhead, pottery. In each case some one knew how to make such a thing, because they were mentored by some one before them knowledgeable in the craft. Each learned a skill which enabled them to replicate a thing of value, hone their skills, and ideally advance the technology to a higher state – perhaps make the wheel lighter, the pottery more resilient to persistent heat.

But who knows how to craft a camera, or a computer mouse, or a compact fluorescent bulb? Indeed, no one does. Because each of these (and many more) current technological artifacts are concoctions of ideas. A point-and-click camera is (as Matt Ridley puts it) a confection of ideas – silicon, microchips, plastics, lenses, batteries, various refined metals! – all mashed together performing a feat of alchemy that represents a camera as we know it. To take snapshots at our children’s birthdays.

The battery alone is an astonishing marvel. And what individual knows how to make a battery? Well, no one person does. It takes far more than a village. From the miners digging for nickel to the offshore rig operators extracting oil to refine into plastics that are carried in trucks and ships around the world, it takes fractions of mindshare from millions of humans to produce a camera as we know it.

The point is: since it’s nigh impossible to claim credit for singular innovation, we’re at our best when we recognize the deep contributions of all in the value chain which precedes – and follows – whatever we contribute to. The most innovative leaders know how to harness available technology, envision potential future, and enlist others into action.

What it really takes

Imagine a race in which you don’t know what you will have to do, where or how long the course is, or even when it will end. Imagine that once you sign up for this race, you are immediately told, repeatedly, to quit before you even start. You are warned you might die, and even if you don’t, you don’t have what it takes anyway to finish so you shouldn’t even bother showing up.

During the course of the “race” which has no finish line, you may be asked to dig up a tree stump with your bare hands and then drag it 10 miles to the top of a mountain, where you will be greeted by someone who asks you to memorize passages of the bible. You then drag the tree stump back down the mountain 6 miles somewhere else and recite the lines. If you get it wrong you hike six miles back to memorize it until you get it right. After 36 hours of no sleep, you may be asked to count out exactly 5000 pennies, only to have them thrown in an icy pond. Your next task is to retrieve them.

During the race you are constantly berated by race organizers who tell you to quit. And you have no idea where the finish line is until they tell you it’s over. It’s called The Spartan Death Race (www.youmaydie.com). The 2012 version lasted three days. Less than 15% finished. Intelligence may be the least of the discerning factors in finishing. Grit may be the biggest.

Why do some people accomplish more than others of equal intelligence? This was the question Angela Duckworth and her colleagues posed when embarking on a study in 2004 to measure people’s level of “grit.” Surveying the available research regarding traits beyond intelligence that contribute to success, Duckworth and her colleagues found it lacking in the specific area regarding the influence of possessing this quality, which they defined as follows:

We define grit as perseverance and passion for long-term goals. Grit entails working strenuously toward challenges, maintaining effort and interest over years despite failure, adversity, and plateaus in progress. The gritty individual approaches achievement as a marathon; his or her advantage is stamina.

Basically, Duckworth identified grit as the combination of two distinct characteristics: consistency of task, and perseverance through adversity.

The researchers initiated their own study to develop something they call the “Grit Scale.” After generating a series of questions intended to measure “grittiness,” (for example, “I have overcome setbacks to conquer an important challenge,” “I finish whatever I begin”), the researchers set up a questionnaire on their website, www.authentichappiness.com. Their results reveal higher levels of grit correlate with higher levels of education. The results also showed that grit tends to increase with age. Those individuals with high levels of grit also tend to have fewer career changes. Yet more surprisingly, those identified as possessing high levels of grit often had high grades in school yet scored more poorly on Standard Achievement Tests, suggesting that, despite lower scholastic aptitude, their perseverance and tenacity yielded stronger overall academic results.

The study gets even more interesting when the researchers decided to apply their Grit Scale to the 2004 incoming class of the United States Military Academy at West Point. Just getting into West Point is famously difficult. Entrance requires a nomination from a member of Congress or from the Department of Army. Once accepted, each entering cadet is evaluated on the Whole Candidate Score, which takes into consideration school grade-point average, Scholastic Aptitude Test results, physical fitness, class rank, and evidence of demonstrated leadership ability.

This comprehensive evaluation process for those applying to the academy is necessary to help the academy predict not only the graduation rate, but also the likelihood that entering freshman will finish an arduous summer entrance session known as “Beast Barracks,” or more simply “Beast.” Nearly 100 percent of the freshman cadets also took the Grit Scale test in 2004, and its results proved to be a better predictor of whether or not a cadet would survive Beast Barracks than the military’s own sophisticated and complexly designed evaluation tests.

It is grit—perserverence and passion for long-term goals, plus a willingness to remain tenacious in the face of adversity—that leads to deep expertise and mastery necessary to propel innovation