Archive for March, 2010

Welcome to the Discovery Newsletter

Thursday, March 4th, 2010

A new quarterly publication of Tom Finn Associates, Inc.

We’re offering articles, commentary, and resources for global leaders.  We’re in a global, 24/7 marketplace. What’s your capacity for pressure and cultural nuance?

We believe everybody’s a global leader today, and we think handling pressure and cultural challenge are the keys to being a good global leader.  If you are trying to lead anything today, whether personally or professionally, you’re likely to do so under pressure and fast pace, and you’re likely to need diverse customers and colleagues on board.

The Discovery newsletter and blog will provide clues to your potential in a global, diverse market. You’ll find commentary and resources directed at expanding YOU – increasing your influence in situations of chaos and your results in multicultural settings. You’ll see a theme: tapping the cultural, ancestral, and personal strengths already within you for greater impact.

Our newsletter will cover common questions and challenges raised by you and my customers – for example, a stellar leader who gets results but blows a gasket under pressure.

Our blog will tap into more current stories of the day that highlight our goal:  learning how to be the best global leader I can be, whether I am a manager with a workforce like the United Nations or a parent in a diverse neighborhood.  For example, maybe the arrest of Henry Louis Gates in the summer of 2009 has something to teach us all…

Explore…Expand…Evolve…Exchange…and have fun with us.


Leadership From Within

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The Cost of Pressure and Overload

Thursday, March 4th, 2010

“Pieces of one of my teeth fell out this week,” a CEO-friend told me.  “I haven’t had time to go to the dentist.”

That quote may be the poster boy announcing what everybody knew:  the deep impact of the rise of pressure and overload in today’s workplace.   His teeth are falling out, and he doesn’t have time to fix that?

The question is, “What vital operating parts of your organization may be falling out due to today’s frenzied workplace?”  And is anyone responsible for the success of the business doing anything about pressure and its effect on your business?

Runners up in the “I’m Overwhelmed” category of the American workplace abound:  12-hour work days, doing the work of three people, spans of control that are “out of control” (it is now routine, e.g., for Human Resource representatives to be expected to handle the HR needs of 750 or 1100, even 2000 people.)  A pharmaceutical executive sums up the now too-familiar landscape:  “My job feels like the perfect storm.”

The typical American employee is now quite aware of a pace and workload that has substantially cranked up since the 1990s.  People have complained about the “ratrace” for years – though the rats seem to be racing far faster, mentally and physically.  But here’s what’s not familiar:  realizing what the business costs of 24/7 pressure are, and creating some kind of effective response by CEOs and leadership development operations.

What is the cost of unrelenting demand on your company’s bottom line and on the people essential to your business success?  The answer to that is what our research at LIfeLine Consulting Services is starting to show.

The “Pressure Landscape”

For our purposes here, we accept that high pace and heavy overload have become part of the global nature of business.  Some are calling this pace “the new normal.”  But we are saying that it is past time to make crystal clear the consequences of being “fast,” and to give employees and leaders what we call the “challenge capacity” to remain vital amidst a tidal wave.

Without some shoring up of individual capacity for pressure, here is some of the business boomerang our customers are experiencing:

Lost Sales. An overwhelmed executive is too busy to respond to customers who want his product, so he loses the business.

Fewer Product and Service Offerings. Human and business resources too compromised elsewhere to come together to launch a new product line.

Fewer Creative Ideas. Less ability to differentiate your business.  Because people are always “doing,” many top people – those from whom your business requires their minds – say they are buried, with no time to develop transformational ideas.  “Thinking is the most important part of my job,” says a telecommunications executive, “and I have no time to think.”

As these examples show, the costs of overload to a business are severe, cutting the core of the bottom line:  sales, products, and future survival.  So how are organizations responding?

Managers and employees we talk to sum up the support for handling frenzy in two words they get from their leaders:

“Handle It”

Sometimes requests for resources are refused, even though the workload has just been upped by 50%.  Other times, organizational leaders say, “Sorry.  There’s nothing I can do.”  Needless to say, such responses aren’t “support.”

We believe that part of the reason for the “get over it” response is that companies don’t know how to respond.  They don’t see workplace demand slowing down, so what can they do?  We have an approach to answer that question.  We call it “LifeLine.”

Just as organizations see no options, employees contribute to this tendency to ignore the “pressure problem.” Having been told to “Handle It,” there’s nothing we can do, they repeat a different mantra, “Nobody wants to hear problems, and I don’t want to be seen as a problem.”

There is one device that companies do provide for the burned-out employee:  the vacation.  “Get away for a while – recharge.”  The solution to the workplace pressure is to get away from the workplace.  But vacations end (and now sometimes include packed Blackberrys and laptops).  Ever find yourself thinking, a week after you’re back from vacation, that vacation seems like it happened a year ago?

There has got to be a better way of dealing with 24/7 overload than a temporary fix.

Develop leaders’ threshold, or capacity.

We are suggewting a solution’that develops threshold for pressure and vitality while at work, instead of trying to escape that pressure.  We believe that in a business environment that has ratgheted up pace, responsibility!2C and skill reuuirements to a considerable degree in the past ten years, leaders neither have been trained to effectively manage workplace pressure nor individuals to cope, much less thrive.

The challenge is profound and unprecedented – therefore the solution must go beyond the ordinary.  Here’s one solution that does.   Focus on developing your leaders’ ability to handle pressure, because they will model for employees how to do the same.

And how do you increase those leaders’ capacity for overload?

You unveil and work with the aspects of a leader’s personal biography that both hold her back and enhance her potential to handle pressure.  We call this her LifeLine.

Through this newsletter and our blog entries, we will show how we work with leaders to develop their skills and capacity to handle the burden of heavy responsibility and unrelenting pace.  Here’s a preview of what you will hear about, a four-step approach to increasing one’s vitality and range of responses to a 24/7 marketplace:

  • Pressure Scenarios.  What are the situations that trigger pressure in a leader’s life?
  • Patterns.  What are the patterns that occur in those scenarios:  The patterns in the situation and in the leaders’ response.
  • Familiarity.  Are those patterns familiar to the leader?  Has he or she reacted in this way in other settings further back in his/her life?
  • Rescripting.  What are some shifts a leader might make in her response to pressure?

One of our customers called this approach “fast and deep.”  We think the answer to handling pressure has to be fast – if you are losing sales, ideas, new product offerings, much less teeth, then it’s high time for support of our leaders and employees.  And yes, the answer has to be deep, because the scale of pressure is deep.  Look for that depth in upcoming blogs and this ezine.

For consultation on LifeLine development for leaders, contact Tom Finn at 703-709-7947 or  See more about the LifeLine approach at

Curiosity Not Furiosity

Thursday, March 4th, 2010

How to Use 2009’s Big News Items about Race
to Solve Cross-Cultural Problems

2009 had its fair share of news items and bad publicity for organizations with different racial and ethnic groups among its customers and employees.  There were several instances where the cultural “clueless” dynamic was at play.

Here’s my wish for 2010:  that we replace denial with curiosity, not furiosity.

What do a swim club in suburban Philadelphia, the Cambridge police department, and an owner of a hotel in New Mexico have in common?

They all gave the same response to big news items involving them and members of other races.

Why should we care?  Because noticing the pattern in these responses is a great Discovery moment for leaders of multicultural customers and employees.  You can prevent and solve many cross-cultural conflicts by tuning in here.

Did you see these news items in 2009?

  • A swim club that had contracted with a Philadelphia camp for kids asked them not to return after they came on June 29.  The kids and the camp director said some swim club members said, “What are those black kids doing here?” and that members pulled their kids out of the pool when the camp kids came in.  The club said, “Allegations of racism are completely untrue,” citing overcrowding.
  • Remember Professor Henry Louis Gates returning from an overseas trip to his house, and the police coming and asking him to step outside his house?  There is much dispute over whether racial bias influenced the policeman, no doubt.  But what struck me most was that very early on, the head of the Cambridge Police Superior Officers Association said, “We…reject any suggestion that in this case or any other case that they’ve allowed a person’s race to direct their activities.”  So Mr. Dennis O’Connor, the Association’s President, assured us not only was race not involved in this case, but in “any other case” in Cambridge police history.
  • A new owner took over a hotel in New Mexico.  He decided to lay down some rules:  No more speaking in Spanish in his presence (he thought they were talking about him) and no more “Marcos.” Now it would be Mark – he ordered workers to anglicize their names.  The town and employees were upset, the hotel got picketed, and the AP, among others, picked up the story.  Mr. Whitten, the new owner, said, “It has nothing to do with racism. I’m not doing it for any reason other than for the satisfaction of my guests.”

You can pretty much bank on folks denying that race is involved when, well, race is involved.  Now, of course, in all of these cases, we can debate whether the motivation of the swim club, the policeman, and the owner is racial or not.  But after years of these disputes, aren’t you as tired as I am of that debate?

Here’s what I would call a Discovery moment:  if you are a leader or organization dealing with whether an incident or performance or a denial of a promotion relates to race, or gender, or another cultural or diversity dimension:  Don’t debate!  Don’t try to figure out who’s right.

Say “Hmm, let me think about that.”  Or better yet, “Hmm, tell me more.  How are you seeing the situation?”

This not only makes you more thoughtful and considerate, it gives you time to think.  And furthermore:  it will knock the socks off the person who is speaking to you.  Why?  Because they are likely used to years of these debates, too, and they are probably just waiting to dismiss you when you say, “This has nothing to do with race.”

At home, you can argue these kinds of things till the cows come home if you like.  But as a leader of diverse customers, your job is to expand and serve your customer base, not to drive them off.  As a leader of diverse employees, your job is to motivate them, not alienate them.  In both cases, you want to understand the perspective of your customer and your employee.  If you don’t, in today’s world, you can put your business at risk, as Mr. Whitten, the hotel owner, later admitted:  “What kind of fool or idiot or poor businessman would I be to orchestrate this whole crazy thing that’s costed (sic) me a lot of time, money and aggravation?”

And as I point out in my book, Are You Clueless?, we all have our own cultural background, but I believe we are all essentially clueless to the backgrounds of those whose cultures are different from us.  That would argue, I would say, for a bit of humility as to whether race, gender, disability, or any other cultural dimension is influencing a situation.

So for 2010:  how about a little cultural curiosity rather than furiosity?

For more suggestions on cultural conflict and leading a diverse workforce, go to this page, where you can order the book, or find other tips throughout the site.

An Economist is Painting My House

Thursday, March 4th, 2010

What if you kept finding those quarters on the street, or kept winning those door prize contests?  Not once, but it kept happening.  Wouldn’t it be great to keep finding treasure?

I keep finding talent – unused talent.  In one more personal news flash that I’m not sure is clamoring out to anyone else but me, another highly qualified immigrant is “making it” by popping up in a place where those qualifications are underutilized and hidden.  A Peruvian economist and his systems engineer brother are painting and repairing my house.

And people just like them may be in your workplace.

Add Victor and Cesar to the Salvadoran business trainer sweeping the gym floor, the former deputy police chief landscaping a neighbor’s yard, the South American phlebotomist working at Staples, the Indian computer specialist selling women’s clothes, and the Guatemalan janitor at one of our most prestigious universities who had a business and managed people in his country.

Is anybody else noticing this phenomenon?  That is, that there are highly educated and trained people right under our noses who could contribute a whole lot more to our bottom lines and missions.

Are We Clueless?

I think we might be, but the bigger question is:  what could our businesses and agencies gain if we “clued in”?

Talent. We did focus groups at that hot shot university, and the janitor impressed me as much or more than the department heads.  His demeanor was perfect for someone who could lead and manage well – calm, strategic, and positive.  One of his ideas:  the university should inventory everyone’s skills – including the janitors – to find out the gold they had in a workforce they were already paying.  Not a bad idea in a down economy when you can’t afford to hire.

More and Better Ideas. The advantages of diversity for idea generation and results have been proven.* These folks bring us fresh perspective from having led people or solved complex problems in other countries.  And they’ve got a direct connection to their countrymen who are a growing segment of our employees and customers!

Unexpected Help. You might start talking to the people making salads in your restaurant, the janitors in your building, the tellers, the landscapers.  Think about it:  how does the role they are in influence how you approach these folks?  I’m finding some very bright folks –  better said wise folks –  pushing a broom.

We’re in a multicultural world – whether you’re in Dubuque or Dubai.  If your business is slow, or your ideas are stale, why not take a look around – right under your nose.  Do you have some leaders or some creative thoughts among employees whose talents are perhaps hidden by their roles or their language difference?

I can’t help thinking you might.  I’m meeting these folks all the time.

Let me know what happens.



*See the book The Difference, by Scott Page

Be Valuable Like Steven Strasburg

Thursday, March 4th, 2010

Steven Strasburg’s knee buckled recently, and that provoked major panic and concern from the people he worked for, writers, and a crowd of adorers.  He caught his foot in some grass and crumpled.

Wouldn’t it be great if your boss or the agency Secretary or, as in this case, the owner of your company, made sure you were ok to carry out your job if your group’s numbers buckled or your motivation buckled or your mind buckled from the stress of a 24/7 workplace?

Concern happens; that is, when you are considered valuable.

And Steven Strasburg is $15.1 million valuable.  Steven left San Diego State University in 2009 to be hired as a pitcher by the Washington Nationals baseball team for a contract worth $15.1 mill.  There is a lot of future staked on Steven Strasburg – future wins, future fans, and future dollars from those fans.

Most of us bemoan the salaries paid to athletes – that’s old news.  Why not turn that around.  How could I be valuable like Steven Strasburg?

OK, so maybe the $15.1 isn’t happening anytime soon.  But with a lot of our nerves jangling about whether our jobs will hold or whether there is a job out there for me, it seems like a good time to demonstrate value.  Steven has, at times, a 100 mph fastball.  The potential use of that speed makes him elite – a $15 million dollar man.  What is our equivalent?  What is the 100 mph fastball that we offer our employer, a potential employer, or a customer?

Here are some things that are valuable.  I say they are valuable because when I get them as a customer, I want them and appreciate them.

Be Distinct.  A few years ago, I was in competition for a consulting contract for a health care system.  For some reason, I was tired of putting the same old proposed ideas out there.   It was an opportunity to help them improve the cultural competence of their employees.  What would stand out, what would be different?  I proposed a cultural “mystery shopping” assessment, where we would test their employees on cultural challenges, just like mystery shoppers test the responses of retail employees.  In fact, we even did a little testing before they decided and showed them some real live issues they were confronting.  I’m convinced that idea was the big reason we got that contract.  No one had done it.

How can you distinguish yourself in a substantive way?  Are you tired of how you act in meetings, or how you run them?  Could you bring in outside opinions in some way – customers, constituents, kids?  How about altering how you communicate verbally or in writing so that you really stand out?  (For tips on that, check out a book called Pop by Sam Horn, or go to Sam’s website at

Initiate.  I know.  You’ve got too much to do.  (See the article on “The Cost of Pressure and Overload” in this issue.)  But that is the issue that can subtly make our value stand out less.  All of us are so into doing and accomplishing that we are hard-pressed to be strategic in our thinking and proactive in our action.  But thinking strategically, and then initiating, is a great way to really demonstrate value.

A colleague complains in a way similar to so many leaders I’ve talked to in the past:  “Why do I have to remind people to initiate?  I don’t understand why I can’t get people to think things through.  It seems so obvious to me; for example, when we have a proposal.  Our folks are waiting for their customers to ask them to do things.  I want people to understand what the customer wants and add value by presenting options to meet those needs.”

Initiation doesn’t have to mean large amounts of time on new projects that add to your pile.  It can simply mean thinking about the implications of a job to be done or a proposal or presentation and demonstrating that you have thought things through by presenting alternatives.

Take a Load Off.  I have the best accountant!  Whenever I call her after stressing out about some complicated tax calculation or figuring out that, if I sell my books in 50 states, that I have to fill out state tax forms in each state (yes, it’s true!), I call expecting to plunge into hours of complexity and drudgery.  Invariably, she says something like, “Oh, that’s easy.”  (Use that phrase.  I love hearing it, don’t you?)  “I can do this and this, and it won’t take long at all (that second clause is a good one to use, too, especially when I’m paying her by the hour).”

And she’s got another really good one, too.  “I’ll take care of that.”

When she says that, I love the feeling I get so much that I’ve started using the phrase  “would you like me to take care of that” with my customers.  I have to believe my customers love it as much as I do when Linda says it to me.

In a global, frenzied workplace, what better way to demonstrate your value than by relieving somebody – your boss, the prospective employer, a project manager?

Now, I do hear the voices out there saying, “How am I going to initiate and take care of other’s needs when my plate is already full?”  I get that.  It’s a totally understandable reaction.

I’m suggesting an attitude of being valuable.  Of course you will balance this with your to-dos and pick times that are appropriate to initiate.  But how does Linda do it?  How does Sam Horn do it?  If you do check Sam’s website, you’ll see she’s found many ways to “be distinct” and thus create her 100 mph fastball that makes her a valued, sought-after speaker and advisor.

Being distinct.  Initiating.  Taking a load off someone else.  Wouldn’t you want a person who innovates, thinks through, and follows through?  Maybe you wouldn’t pay them $15 million, but you’d want someone like that working for you, consulting to you, managing you, or working with you, wouldn’t you?  Maybe you’d even make sure their knee was ok.