Archive for the ‘Failure’ Category

Unthinking Power and Authority

September 4, 2018

by Peter Zaballos

This past week my wife and I moved our youngest of four children to college – totally fun and a momentous occasion for the three of us, and the family as a whole. And it was an awkward, even painful learning moment for me in how easy it is for men to assume positional authority and ignore better input from women.

Image result for not being listened to

In this case, we were moving our son into a college outside New York, and wisely chose to fly there instead of doing the 14+ hour drive (which we have done one too many times with one of his older brothers and older sister). We landed at JFK and I picked up a rental car and headed to campus. I grew up in California and am definitely a product of that state’s car culture – I don’t mind driving at all, I kind of like it. And having spent 10 years living in Boston, I also have gotten completely comfortable in driving amidst the aggressive chaos that is northeast urban auto jostling.

I now travel with a phone case that plugs into the dashboard, so am good about getting our coordinates in Google and letting that take the load of getting us from starting point to destination. Early on Google had a disclaimer on their directions that said something like “do a reality check before following these instructions” and that is precisely where I ran afoul of getting us from where we started to where we needed to go.

My wife on the other hand is confidently old school. When we travel the first thing she grabs is a printed map. She is as awesome at orienting herself with a map as she is adept at using it to explore and get to the destination. We’ve taken some wonderful vacations where her annotated and highlighted paper map of where we went and what we explored is such a rich record of time well spent.

What made this drop off at college different from the other three is that my wife and son had been to the campus earlier in the year and spent a fair amount of time exploring it and getting to know it. And there was me with Google and at the wheel of the car striving to get us to where we needed to go from Google’s perspective. And that’s where the humbling learning moment for me started to take its slow motion trajectory.

As we got closer to the campus I was following Google and my wife was following her experience and astute sense of memory and direction. As we got to the campus I was trying to find what Google was telling me to look for, and my wife was telling me what she knew from experience and her sense of direction. I effectively ignored her until it was too late. And I can try and explain why “ignore” was not really ignore, but this is where it doesn’t matter what I feel or think, but what she does, because she is on the receiving end.

The analogy I will use here is as spot-on as it is uncomfortable. If a woman feels she has been harassed, it really doesn’t matter what the harasser feels or how they interpret the circumstances. The sole “owner” of that perspective is the one on the receiving end.

But what ended up happening was a fairly tense exchange that shut us both down in the moment. Her lingering frustration later caused her to have to speak up and effectively justify why she should have been listened to and considered. And me trying to justify my behavior around being focused on getting to the “destination.” – which in hindsight is ridiculous.

From her perspective she was put in the position of (a) having better information and (b) having her better information ignored and dismissed. Sound familiar women?

But at the time I had both position (I was the driver) and authority (google maps) – and we were conditioned that when we drove places it was my position and authority that made the final decisions. Nothing malicious here, but over time, it put me in the position of being the decider. And in this case, I sure was deciding. And my wife was sure feeling not listened to or considered.

At the time neither of us realized any of this. We both just shut down and simmered. Until we found the right parking lot, and our attention conveniently shifted to this wonderful day and our son’s new adventure at college. We avoided the fact that if I had been listening to her we would have been where we were supposed to be sooner, with less stress, and more focus on our son’s first day at college – which for she, me, and him was such a wonderful, wonderful moment to savor.

It wasn’t until much later that night, after we had flown back home and were on our way (with me driving) from the airport to our house. It was then my wife brought up the whole experience. And it was through the process of unpacking the issue that we both reached a point where we able to focus on how each of us felt, which is where the real conversation happened.

We talked about how we became conditioned to me being the driver over time and that there were a few ways to address this. One might be her driving more when we are together, especially when she knows the terrain more. Which is a good alternative, but to me feels a bit “brute force.” Switching the position and the authority. To me the real solution is creating the conditions where I listened to hear and she could feel heard. That’s the harder solution.

I take women’s equality seriously. Yet here I was, repeating a pattern of male behavior and causing my wife to repeat a pattern of feeling ignored or dismissed. It was pretty easy to respond so unthinkingly – isn’t that the opposite of thoughtfully?

And it made me consider how hard it is to create the conditions where these kind of conversations can take place. In most workplaces women don’t get that safe place to share their thoughts like this and be vulnerable. They just learn to deal with being dismissed and not heard. We have to be able to do better than this.

Because in those moments, the focus needs to be on how to get to the destination as efficiently as we can – whether a marketing campaign or an algorithm – and savor the moment of why we are all together, working on a common goal.

 

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There is no “career path,” just a network of relationships

March 30, 2018

And how you get from one adventure to the next

A few weeks ago I was asked to give a talk at the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater College of Business and Economics, on the subject of career paths. And the title of my talk was “There Is No Career Path.”

I wasn’t all that that creative. Steve Jobs made this point in his Stanford Commencement speech in 2011, six years before he died. His point was that a career path is only visible in hindsight. The “path” is produced by following your interests and talents. But I want to take that a step further.

My observation is that your career is a product of the relationships you develop along the way in your job along with following your interests and your talents. Notice I didn’t say college alumni networks. One of the points I made to the UWW students was I attended two of the top five universities in the world (Berkeley and MIT), and my alumni networks have produced zero jobs for me.

Networking

But the relationships I developed at LSI Logic, at C-Cube Microsystems, at RealNetworks, and as a venture capitalist at Frazier Technology Ventures have produced six incredible jobs, and have formed the foundation of my career.

When you unpack “relationships” there’s a lot to examine. For me, relationships are formed by establishing trust and credibility with the people you work with and for. And you do that by doing what you said you would do. By speaking your mind. By being honest. By acting with integrity. By being in a culture that aligns with your values.

Your network of relationships is fundamentally about about your personal brand.

That’s right, your personal brand is made up of the people you work with. How well you communicate to them. How well you support others. And that all involves . How you treat them. Those experiences, those memories persist. They’re your personal brand.

Finding the next adventure

And here I am, at another juncture where I am about to move to my next adventure. I left my role as CMO at SPS Commerce in early January, to return to Seattle. Family reasons draw us there, and I really wanted to get back to my roots – building category-creating technology companies.

And it’s this network of relationships that is guiding me. Which made me think of another set of conversations I’ve been having with folks I know – about how instrumental these relationships are to discovering your next adventure.

I’ve been employing the method that has propelled me to where I am now, and which I know will get me to where I want to be next. It involves four activities:

Hone your story – What this means is having clarity about what it is you want to do and what you’ve done to prepare you for this, and it’s being sober and humble about what you’re really good at. And finally, it’s about being compelling about why this next adventure is right for the role and for you – and for whoever it is you will work for.

“Your story” is what you say after you meet someone, you exchange pleasantries, and there’s a pause. You then tell the story. Why you’re there with them, why there is context, and you paint a picture of your future that they might be able to help you with.

Lots of conversations – This is the foundation of the process. This is where you start speaking to lots of people who might be able to help sharpen your focus, sharpen your story (you’ll be telling that to them), and who might know someone else who you might meet. But fundamentally you are asking someone to spend time with you. To help you.

It’s awesome your contact will meet with you, so be considerate of their time. Thank them. And make sure you see if there’s anything you can do to help them. It will make you feel less bashful about asking for feedback, or to be connected to someone else.

Considerate networking – Expect and insist on “double opt-in introductions” – this means the person connecting you someone needs to check with that person to confirm they’re interested BEFORE making the introduction . Only after that person agrees to be introduced, then expect the introduction. This means there’s mutual interest in the conversation.

This also introduces an obligation to responsiveness on your part. That means as soon as you see that email connecting you to the other party, respond promptly – before the other party has to. Your contact is doing you a favor, so demonstrate grace by making it easy for them for them to find a time and place to meet. And while you’re at it, be considerate of the person who made the introduction. In your reply, move that person to the bcc line of the email. That way they will see that the connection has been made, but they are not burdened with seeing the 7+ email exchanges that went into finding a date and place to meet.

Let go of the outcome – This is the hardest part. The only part of this process you can control is your ability to meet with people, tell your story, and explore where this all takes you. What it won’t do is provide a linear path to an awesome next role for you. But enough of these sincere conversations, where you’ve been considerate and forthcoming, will produce a conversation, at some point, that will point to a person or a role, that is exactly what you’re looking for.

It’s that simple. I can tell you every one of the awesome opportunities I am exploring right now have followed these four steps. And it has had nothing to do with where I went to school.

And like with you career – there is no deterministic path you can see stretching forward. Just a network of relationships guiding you down the road.

 

I’m done with Uber – The moral cost is too high

November 29, 2014

I was one one of Uber’s best fans – I must have recruited a dozen friends and colleagues to the service, because it fundamentally is just so much better than taxis or car services. Wonderfully inspired idea, and at the street level, brilliantly executed. I loved it.

And I use the past tense because I did love it. But not anymore. The trickle of moral lapses by Uber’s CEO, Travis Kalanick, have become a roaring torrent. Uber has an ethics problem, but most importantly it has an ethical leadership problem.

Peter Thiel summed it up succinctly: “Uber is the most ethically challenged company in Silicon Valley.”

Which is why the details of the plan to smear journalists who create unflattering views of the service pushed me to the point of being all done with the service.  So, on November 25 I sent my request to Uber to cancel my account, as “the moral cost to me of doing business with your firm is more than I can afford, and I have happily created my first accounts at Lyft and Curb.”

And in efficient Uber fashion, I received this confirmation of my account cancellation, which is sad. The service and drivers are great. But that’s not enough today. You have to believe in and trust the people at the top. And I can do neither with Uber the way it is being run right now. Travis – until you show some leadership and I won’t be back.Uber Cancellation

Personal Heroes

October 21, 2013

I have personal heroes – folks who have lived their lives in ways that give me inspiration and a vocabulary to name my own ambitions. People who are unafraid to say what they believe, regardless of what it will cost them.

David Walsh is one of my personal heroes

Few people outside of professional cycling know who this man is, but he’s the journalist who first suspected Lance Armstrong of cheating, and spent 13 years doing the difficult work of uncovering the evidence and speaking the truth. And he became the target of all Armstrong could throw at him.

This Sunday Times article says it all:

When Lance Armstrong won his first Tour de France in 1999, David Walsh wrote in The Sunday Times that he watched the race in sadness. Armstrong’s astonishing exploits, just three years after his successful battle with cancer, did not make sense to him. Rather than joining the unquestioning journalists who lauded the American’s achievements, Walsh called for an inquiry into the Tour de France in July 1999,….”

CTWThink about the context. In 1999 – the first year of Armstrong’s comeback – Walsh calls this out. And for the next 13 years  pretty much everyone else tells him he’s wrong. It costs him his job, professional and personal relationships. How lonely it must have been for him.

I’m not going to re-hash the whole Armstrong crime, but if you want to dig in, look here, and here, and here for a start. David’s books are “Seven Deadly Sins” and “From Lance to Landis”.

I am a huge cycling fan, and my family and I spent five  vacations in the French Alps to watch the race in person. In 2006 through a journalist friend, we struck up a dialogue with David to encourage him to write what became “From Lance to Landis” – his first english language book that laid out the evidence Armstrong was cheating.

David flew to France and spent the weekend with us. I was awestruck at the simplicity of his motivation: to expose a lie. It wasn’t personal, it was about values. This was a man of principle outraged at the crime he clearly saw but was incredibly inconvenient and unpopular to expose.

Over dinner long into the night, and then again at breakfast the next morning, the talk centered on the crime that was happening in plain sight. Incredibly we were sitting with him at that dinner when his phone rang – another journalist  calling him with the news that Floyd Landis had tested positive at the just completed Tour de France. Talk about being at ground-zero at a pivotal moment.

Looking back I can’t believe that weekend actually happened. What brought us together? I would like to think a sense of shared values.

This is a man whose humility, values, and sense of purpose we can all learn from. A true hero. I’ve got a few other people who serve this kind of inspiration, I’ll write about them later. For now, thank you, David.

My User Manual

October 12, 2013

A little over a year ago I started a new job, and a big component of my role was to help the company bring a lot of scale to their marketing, and bring a higher tempo and user focus to the company’s product development. This meant taking three groups of already high performing teams, and leading them into territories unfamiliar to them, while also helping them develop skills and capabilities new to many.

This is the kind of job that comes around in your career rarely. Tremendous, tremendous fun, and the best part is it’s only just beginning. We’re growing like crazy, and are about to enter that phase of the market where we have the right offering at the right time, and are about to see some pretty breathtaking expansion.

transparency

And I found myself explaining how I work, how I manage, and many of my core values as a manager, but also as a person. A lot.

So much of creating the opportunity for the rapid experimentation, fast failure, “iterate to excellence” team performance is based on how you work as a team, not what you work on as a team.

I mentioned this to my wife in a text message while on a train headed to work, and she pointed me to an interview with a CEO about his “user manual” – a one page document that lays out how anyone in the company can easily understand how to work with him. I LOVED it. A combination of approaches, philosophy, and personal values.

By the time I got off the train I had a complete draft of my User Manual. Check it out, I’m on v4.0

By the time I’d plugged in at the office I published it to  everyone on my teams via Chatter, as well as my counterparts on the exec team and a bunch of others I work with frequently.

Folks on my team appreciated the transparency, and it’s made it so much easier to engage with other teams and get to a place of trust and performance that much more quickly.

But the best part was for me. Any time you have to be intentional about something, and write it down, you learn something about yourself.

Dealing with equality, invisibility

November 10, 2009

In the past two weeks I’ve had a series of conversations with friends and colleagues about women in the technology workforce, provoked by of all things, water pollution.  The commonality being we’ve moved past the point where the problem is what is visible, and where we’re now facing the challenge of what you can’t see.

Here’s the water pollution angle:  A week or so ago I heard an interview with Charles Duhigg of the NY Times about how the cleanliness of the nation’s water supply is perhaps at greater risk than it’s ever been.  More so than back in the ‘70s, where the pollution was severe: rivers that caught fire, bore multi-colored hues of industrial waste, had detritus floating in them.

Today’s water pollution is microscopic, requiring sophisticated filtering that’s too expensive for water utilities to install.  Charles suggested the most practicable solution is for people to filter their own water, and take personal responsibility to ensure it’s clean and safe. 

So here’s where women in the technology workforce comes in.  Much visible change has happened.  Women are in the workforce, and are increasingly taking leadership positions.  Just not enough.  And what is the right number?  I have no idea, I’d like to think it’s the number that exists when everyone selected for a job is done so on the basis of merit.  The whole point is that it’s the product of an ongoing balancing act. 

I have faith that women’s pay will increase as more and more compensation and performance review processes are made transparent.  But unless they are listened to as equals, then all the process in the world still won’t address this fundamental form of discrimination, affecting the information that feeds performance reviews.  Will women ever get to parity unless their ideas are considered on an equal basis as men’s?

In the technology sector, ideas are what fuels business, so unless women’s ideas are given the same consideration as men’s, they will suffer when it comes time for reviews, and that will affect their compensation.  It won’t address why the women make $0.77 compared to every $1 their male counterparts make, but it won’t hurt.

So, who’s responsible to fix this?   We all are, and we fix it in the moment, calling it out and challenging it in the moment, when it happens. 

I was involved as a member of the board of a public-private entity where we were trying to determine the site of a new facility.  We’d spent weeks and weeks trying to figure out how to secure a really great site, and were running into all sorts of problems.  It was getting frustrating, and I made a suggestion about putting it in a less attractive, but more pragmatic location, which we quickly agreed to do. 

A female staff member pulled me aside after the meeting to thank me, saying she’d been making the same suggestion for weeks, but her superiors hadn’t listened to her.  I can tell you my suggestion was not all that insightful or magnificently made, but I was the male and it was listened to.

Rather than call this out, I spoke to her separately.  I was concerned about creating conflict between her and her superior.  So I let her know I realized how frustrated she must have been to not be listened to, and that at least I saw this.  How will the other male members of this board know how to listen differently if they aren’t shown where they haven’t done so?  I didn’t correct this in the moment, and in doing so I failed the woman who thanked me. 

And this is where the water analogy comes back.  The way to deal with this is to take personal responsibility, and to make what is invisible, visible. 

It is as much women’s responsibility to be louder and less convenient as it is men’s responsibilities to listen more actively.  In either case, everyone has an obligation to call out inequality when they see it.  And it won’t be convenient. 

That’s where I screwed up, and won’t do that again.

A sizable share of the readers of my blog are women.  What’s your experience?

Startup advice brilliance

October 21, 2009

A friend pointed me to a superb summary of advice for startups, specifically calling out the ways that advice can be flawed, along with some perceptive insights into how to identify advice that’s actionable and useful.  The post is by Eric Reis, and is appropriately titled The 10 Ways Startup Advice is Flawed

Eric’s pov is appropriately snarky, and at a macro level he calls out various ways that being lucky and being smart are frequently confused with each other.  Snarkiness aside, the really valuable point he makes is how important it is to be a critical thinker, in general.  The value of making your own assessment of the information you’re consuming, and not just accepting it.

I especially liked his point #6: Maybe the thing they did used to work, but it doesn’t anymore

I think about that a lot in my own context.  I was at RealNetworks back when it truly was pioneering this new phenomena of sending audio and video over the internet, and we owned that market.  In public we said we had 85%+ share of the market, but in reality it was closer to 95% for a good long time.

We called the shots, named the prices, dictated terms.  We muscled into and out of markets we cared about, aligned ourselves with titans of the technology landscape.

And then Microsoft showed up and we fought them tooth and nail.  It was a hard and ugly fight, which they eventually won (once they started paying attention).

Well, they won, sort of.  It was epic, and in a start-up kind of way, it was epic fun.  I remember picking a big fight with the Windows Media team on an internet media list-serve, where I’d just published some user research showing how people preferred our new video to Windows Media’s.

And Microsoft’s head of a/v technology posted to the list, accusing us of fluffing up the research, and he included a three page outline of the ways you could falsify/skew consumer surveys.  And it was so much fun to respond to the list , asking “how was it that Microsoft knew of so many ways to distort research?”

But I digress.

We each became so obsessed with each other we quit paying attention to what Macromedia was doing with Flash and what Apple was doing with the tight coupling of iTunes and the iPod.  So, while we were both wrestling in the mud pit, Apple and Macromedia left the building and started more interesting and lucrative businesses elsewhere.  And until that point the thing we did at RealNetworks really did used to work.

Eric’s “ten ways” are simple and insightful.  The hard part is putting them into action, in the moment.  My experience at RealNetworks is valuable to the startups I work with and talk to if and only if both of us are cognizant of its context.  And it takes discipline and a good dose of humility to walk the talk Eric is alluding to.

I know there’s a ton of stuff I did that was a product of luck and timing, and a lot that was a result of deliberate hard work and applied intelligence.  The hard part is being honest enough with myself to examine where those boundary lines are, to strip out the specific circumstantial knowledge from the generalized, truly durable knowledge.

So, let’s all get a good laugh out of Eric’s list, but also remember how hard it is to actually do what he’s suggesting.

Performance and an opportunity to explore it

October 2, 2009

The underpinning principle of this blog is “meaningful failure”, and what you can learn when you examine this critical juncture of where you fail and embrace what you can learn through that failure.

I’ve been seeking out others who share this interest, and last year I discovered Ross Bentley who runs a consulting business, Bentley Performance Systems, that focuses on improving performance for executives and interestingly, professional race car drivers.  That latter constituency intrigued me.  Failure on a race track has specific tangible implications that failure in business does not:  bent metal, physical harm, or worse.

Ross spends his time working with his clients on very personal elements of improving performance, along with more straightforward tools and techniques of planning and analysis.  His focus on who you are as a person I find interesting, the examination about what emotionally or psychologically may be holding someone back from achieving their potential is an area like failure where people are less comfortable speaking plainly and openly.

In the case of the racers and the executives the conversation goes in the same direction:  how can you best prepare yourself to be constantly improving, learning from success and failure?  He engages them in relevant and specific conversations focused on getting them to do to what they do differently and better.

And after this discussion, examination, and hard work the racers go to the track and the CEOs go to their offices.  In both cases they’re in environments where the information is flowing by, fast, and they need to make decisions and situation assessments rapidly.  And each ends up with a quantifiable data set telling them how well they performed: lap times & finish order, income statements & balance sheets.

Ross and I got together yesterday so he could share a research project he’s starting called Performance in the Workplace. He wants to to better understand how executives assess their own performance, and what affects their performance over time.

The research is nice and simple:  he’s asking them to fill out a short survey, once a week, and tell him how well they feel they’ve performed, and why.  You can participate in the project by signing up here.

What I like about his approach is that he’s not defining “performance” for the participants.  He’s letting them define it for themselves.  When he first told me about this my reaction was “that’s pretty subjective, why not quantify performance with metrics”?”.  But then I realized, that really misses the point.  When you’re trying to help people do better every day, metrics are the product of your performance, not the measure of it.

We run businesses based on a set of milestones, KPIs (key performance indicators) – “dashboards” – and these are important measures of the recent past.  And they’re critical – I’ve written about why a well documented operating plan and the corresponding assumptions are essential to managing your business.

But executives spend their days making decisions, asking questions, analyzing and assessing – and of course this results in metric-based results.  But not in the moment.  How do you assess the effectiveness of your performance while you’re making those decisions, asking those questions, digging into those numbers?

I think Ross is onto an interesting topic here.  What causes you to feel you’re performing well one day, and not so well the next?  Will the act of self-assessing performance help you, in and of itself, to become more effective and cause you to be closer to the top of your game?

I’m going to participate, because in my business, at best I get monthly or quarterly metrics from my companies in terms of valuations I can apply to rates of return – on paper – and it takes years to get to the point where you can convert the paper value to cash or stock you can sell for cash.  Daily performance is not at all quantifiable with metrics, but matters oh so much.

I’m sure I can learn something from this, and am eager to see how what he finds.

Truth is relative and changes with perspective

June 4, 2009

My post about ambiguity and alignment provoked some really interesting comments, which I wanted to circle back to.  One comment in particular got my attention

It was an observation that truth is relative and it changes with perspective.  At a certain level that makes sense to me.  Truth can seem to be defined by the winners of the battles, by the dominant doctrine, by the loudest voice. 

The person commenting also observed that because of the relative nature of truth “good people can make poor choices at the crossroads.”

And this brought me to realizing that not only is truth relative, it quickly gets intertwined with morality.

In startup companies I think this is super important.  We’re battling the dominant doctrine of the market, striving to fight or become the loudest voice, working so hard to win.  And we’re doing so under enormous, constant pressure.  Keeping hold of what you believe is true and right can be difficult when it seems like survival is the order of the day, every day.

So you might find yourself in an environment where the pressure is explicit and relentless to place your company’s interests ahead of your customer’s, or your investors.  What is true then?  Well, the Entellium duo felt it was true that if they missed their revenue forecast they’d be fired, and made some really poor choices at that crossroad.  The truth was certainly relative for them.

But the more I talked to my friends about this “truth is relative” conundrum, the more I seemed to be saying there is no real truth.  I was explaining it away.  And it shocked me.  My initial reaction was that the last place you want to go is to say there is no absolute truth.  But actually the more I think about it that’s where I do end up.  The truth in your daily life is completely relative, it’s not absolute.  Except that what it’s relative to is what’s true to you.

When I was at LSI Logic in the early days as a product manager I remember going on a sales call at the end of the quarter to help a salesperson close a huge deal.  We found ourselves seated across from the purchasing manager, who was the wife of the founder,  reviewing the terms of our proposal only to hear her ask for a gift.  She said “I’d like a Gucci purse”.  I heard it as a non-sequitur.  Maybe her birthday was around the corner.  I tried to keep the conversation moving, but it quickly dawned on me that the gift was separating us from this order.I looked over at the salesperson, and we exchanged nervous, and puzzled looks.   

The salesperson and I ended the conversation as quickly as we could, got up and left, I called my boss (using my spiffy “car phone”) and relayed what had happened.  I was in a turbulent state of mind.  We needed this order, and I just made the call to walk away from it.  He was disappointed, really disappoint we lost the deal but supported the decision to walk.  I was relieved to be in a company where we shared this same sense of right and wrong.

I’ve told this story a lot, to me it’s a pure ethics example – it’s the one I put on my business school applications (they all had a question like “Describe an ethical dilemma you’ve encountered and how you handled it”). 

Except I’ve repeated it to people I have first hand experience with and know to be people of solid integrity and had them say “Hmmm…not sure if I wouldn’t have just gotten the purse, and the order.”  And it made me realize I made my choice based on my personal “truths” and these people would have made different choices for their own.  And each of us would have felt like the choice was aligned with our morals.

Another friend told me this topic sent her to look up the meaning of “moral relativism” – that moral/ethical propositions are measured relative to their circumstances.  More important, that only personal subjective morality expresses true authenticity.  Your personal sense of truth = the authentic you.  The other person looking back at you in the mirror.

That means you have to know that person in the mirror really well to remove the ambiguity in what happens at the crossroads.  You need to have an intimate and unabashed knowledge of what you yourself believe to be true about yourself.  If you lack that, well the easier it will be for you to be seduced by or succumb to the loud voices, the accepted doctrines, the winners of the battles.

The collateral damage of a missed opportunity

May 21, 2009

Sometimes life just steps right in and provides an illustration of a key principle, almost as if on cue. My apologies for the length of this, but the topic merits it.

For those of you who have read my bio, you know that I work in Seattle but commute from a small town in the Midwest. There’s a separate blog post needed to explain why, but the town I live in is small enough for us to know everyone, and be very actively involved in our community.

Last week someone at our high school wrote racist comments, a death threat, and the names of a number of the black students at the school on a stall door in one of the boy’s bathrooms. No ambiguity here. Horrible, fundamentally unacceptable, reprehensible thoughts. Scary too.

How the school responded to this presents a crystal-clear example of how ambiguity + fear of failure = colossal missed opportunity for a community and for its students. And it offers a heartbreaking follow-up to my post last week about ambiguity and alignment of your principles and ethics.

Here’s what happened:

  • A death threat naming six of the high school’s black students was discovered on a bathroom stall door at around 2:30 pm last Thursday.

Here’s what was done:

  • The six students were pulled from class that same day by the administration, informed of this, asked if they knew of anyone who might have done this.
  • The next day the police department was pulled into this, and spent the day at the school investigating the incident.
  • This same day – the day after the discovery – the administration met with the six children’s parents.
  • A letter was finally sent home to students this past Tuesday, identifying this as a student safety issue, and stating that “racist or threatening behavior will not be tolerated.” You can see it here.

Here’s the issue. With one exception, what they did wasn’t wrong, it just could have been a whole lot righter. And bolder. And more educational, for everyone.

The one thing they did wrong? Waiting until the following day to tell the parents. My heart goes out to the parents of those six children when those kids came home and told them what had happened at school that day. How alone they all must have felt. I don’t need to dwell on the tragedy here, the local Fox affiliate got there way before me.

So, the police got called in to investigate, and a letter went out to the students and parents. A safety issue. My daughter summed this up well by saying it screamed ‘this is not our fault.’ I was profoundly let down, feeling decisions were guided by a desire not to fail, not to make a mistake, and to minimize the visibility of this incident.

Retreating to this being primarily a safety issue is a red herring. This is unequivocally a racism issue. And it’s not about the high school. It’s about the entire community. Whoever wrote these threats does not live at the high school. Any one of us may be running into this kid on a ball field, in a supermarket, anywhere. The school provided the medium for the expression, but those racist thoughts leave the school ground at 3:05 and go somewhere.

The school administration got the whole visibility opportunity wrong. They claimed raising visibility would satisfy “that person’s need to do it and maybe there is more that will happen.” Huh? I can’t think of a better way to ensure this doesn’t happen again than getting the entire school and community to get out in public, now, and express their opposition to this kind of behavior.

And “out in public” is where the six students and their families need to feel supported, and safe. These six children and their families should feel comfortable knowing more than the school and the police are looking out for them. Worse, time matters here, a lot. These children and their families needed that support the moment this was discovered. Importantly, the opportunity for members of the community to show their support in a timely manner was also taken away too.

What if the actions were guided by a fear of not succeeding? Success is not about catching whoever it is who wrote the graffiti. It’s about demonstrating unambiguous intolerance to racism, in the school system and community as a whole.

How could this have been handled differently?

  • They could have held a school-wide assembly to inform the students not of the threat as much as of the intolerance of racism. Of the vigilance to eradicate it.
  • They could have called a joint City Council-School Board emergency public meeting to shine a bright light on these two institutions’ intolerance to racism and vigilance to eradicate it.
  • They could have held a community-wide rally to ensure no one missed an opportunity to show support for these children and their families.

Hiding this or minimizing its visibility means that if whoever it is who made these threats is never caught, then he or she or they will have won. Even if caught, the legal process will be conducted in rooms, in buildings, away from the community.

What a spectacular opportunity to bring the community together and shine a big, bright light on this. And what a colossally great learning opportunity, missed. My daughter is taking a “Race, Prejudice, and Intolerance” class in that very school, right now. Holy cow, why not get the entire student body in on a real-time lesson. How many people can say they’ve taken part in an anti-racism activity, as a student, in their own school?

And that list I came up with about how this could have been handled differently? It can all still be done too.

And this isn’t personal or about the people involved. It’s about the direction they chose. I know the school principal and many of the school administration and teachers. These are smart, caring, very hardworking people. People that make you proud that they do what they do to provide a great education for our kids. That’s why it’s so heartbreaking to witness the straightforward, sensible path that produced this missed opportunity.

A fear of failure produced this. Nothing done wrong, but plenty of collateral damage, and six students, their families, and the community poorer for the experience.