Archive | Learning

Surprising Lessons from the Herd – Part II


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In my previous post I alluded to learning lessons from my friends at Equistar Farm, lessons I’m applying in surprising ways. Here is Lesson Number Two:

Watch Your Feet (or Head)

Another thing I’ve been doing, off and on for the last year and a half, is working as a Job Coach for the Department of Rehabilitation. When clients with disabilities get new jobs and need additional training and on-the-job-support, the DoR provides a Job Coach to go to work with them.

So far I’ve worked in grocery stores and hardware stores, training and supporting Courtesy Clerks (aka Baggers), Carry Out/Attendants and Stockers. I’ve learned a lot in the process! (Please be nice to your Baggers – I had no idea how hard they work, and what they have to put up with.)

Right now I’m coaching a client who is helping to build out a new grocery store. There is a crew of about 25 stockers, cashiers and inventory management people on site, installing fixtures, putting up shelving and stocking shelves – plus the construction people who are finishing with painting, electrical work and bolting down shelving. There are scissor lifts and pallet jacks moving around, and people carrying boxes, ladders and big pieces of metal.

I get to wear a hard hat (along with everyone else), and boy, am I glad – there are a lot of moving parts and bodies. We all have to keep our awareness up, not only for who/what is coming toward us but what’s on the ground and who we’re headed for. One wrong move and someone could get skewered, squished or run over.

As I was moving through this bee hive of activity, I was reminded of moving through the herd in the pasture and how I have learned to keep my awareness up about which horses are where, how they’re interacting with each other, where they’re heading, and whether they know where I am. One of the first lessons I learned – the hard way – was Watch Your Feet… after I didn’t pay attention and got stepped on by a 1200 pound bay gelding named Jake. (I’m fine…now.) I quickly learned the importance of watching my feet – and their hooves (and their rear-ends and their ears and their tails and their locations and what directions they’re moving).

There’s a difference between being Aware and being Wary

Even more importantly, I learned there’s a difference between being Aware and being Wary. It would have been easy to say, “I’ll never put myself in that situation again!” Instead, I chose, and choose, to put myself in that situation again and again. But I’m smarter about it. I can protect myself by being aware and present without having to be wary and keep others at arm’s length.

And the student becomes the teacher

All of this flashed through my head in an instant as people and equipment moved around me and someone walked casually by with a steel beam over his shoulder. I shared it with my client.

“You know, I’ve been working with a herd of horses.” He looked at me sideways. “When I’m in the middle of a bunch of animals who don’t want to hurt me but are a lot bigger than me, I’ve learned to protect myself by paying attention to where they are and what they’re doing. This is a lot like that.” He thought about it for a second, then nodded, grinning. He got it, and thought that was pretty cool.

So did I.

So, learning to be safe with the herd has helped me to be safe with others. And helped teach them to be safe. And it’s made me a better Job Coach.

It occurs to me as I write this that both of these lessons – working with shoppers and with construction crews – are about Safety, about helping others to feel safe, and about being safe. Hmmm.

Never a dull moment, eh?

Watch your feet.


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Surprising Lessons from the Herd – Part I


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Working with horses has taught me a lot of lessons, but I never expected to apply them to working in Retail and on Construction Sites.

I started working with horses a year ago, after being introduced to Equine Guided Education (EGE) by the people and horses at Equistar Farm. The lessons I have learned about myself have had a profound impact on me. (One profound impact has led me to change the focus of my coaching and consulting, but I’ll tell you more about that later.) I want to tell you about two of the unexpected applications for lessons I’ve learned from being with the herd. Here’s the first:

Shoppers Are Prey Animals

While retooling my coaching/consulting practice, I took a part-time job in Retail. It was one of those things you (I) tell yourself (myself) you’ll (I’ll) never do, but keep in your (my) back pocket In Case of Emergency. Well, last Fall was the Case of Emergency, and I started working in a little clothing store – my first retail job since college. (And that’s a while ago.)

And, to my surprise, I’m having a blast.

The store managers put together a good team of people who work really well together (most of the time), and I love working with the customers (most of the time).

We are expected to greet every customer who comes in, to connect with them. There is a higher likelihood that a Visitor to the store will become a Customer if we connect with her. It makes sense, really; if a customer has a question, or is unfamiliar with our merchandise, or wants to try something on, or needs a second opinion, it’s easier to get help if she has a connection to someone. (I know I hate going into a store and being ignored.)

So I greet customers when they come in and try to at least acknowledge their presence and help them feel welcome.

Customers want to feel welcome, but they also need to feel safe. (I hate going into a store and being ignored, but I also hate going into a store and being pestered.)

When I greet a customer, sometimes we’ll strike up a conversation and quickly develop a rapport. But other times the conversation goes like this:

“Hi, welcome to ____ ! How are you today?”
“I’m just browsing.”

Funny, I didn’t know “browsing” was a condition, like “Fine” or “I’m doing great” or “I’m so hot, I’m glad it’s cool in here!”

At first I was tempted to say, “That’s not what I asked.” But I’ve been in their shoes – and I realized “I’m just browsing” IS a condition: They have PTSD – Post-Traumatic Shopping Disorder! So what I say instead is, “That’s cool; make yourself at home. My name is Sue if you need anything.”

That’s how I realized Shoppers are like prey animals. Like horses are prey animals. Wary of being pounced on and trapped.

So I started treating my customers like I treat my friends in the herd.

“She’s gone completely bonkers,” I hear you saying. But stay with me.

When I introduce myself to members of a herd, they don’t like it if I walk directly up to them and try to start interacting. They are immediately suspicious – it’s a little too much like being charged by a lion, or a wolf. It works much better to ease into it – approach, pause, check each other out, come closer. Non-threatening.

So after turning off a few shoppers, I started behaving like I was with the horses. Rather than walking right up to them and addressing them directly, I try to be busy with something else – straightening shirts on hangers, putting things away – but not too busy to notice them and say hi, making them feel important. I greet them warmly but casually: I see you and acknowledge you, but you’re not in my cross-hairs.

Funny thing, they respond to that.

Learning to help the horses feel safe with me has taught me about helping others feel safe.

The horses have taught me to be a better salesperson. And since I take the Service part of Customer Service very seriously, that means a lot to me.

Stay Tuned for Part II!


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The Defeat of Our Intuition


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This morning I watched John Bohannon’s TED talk, “Dance vs. powerpoint, a modest proposal.” It’s pretty fabulous. You can watch it here:

Cool, huh?

I don’t know if you caught it, but in the middle of his talk, one statement in particular caught my attention:

“This is the great pleasure of science: the defeat of our intuition through experimentation.”

I don’t know about you, but I hate it when my intuition is proved wrong. For a second, at least. And then…

That moment is a choice point. A choice between clinging to Being Right, and learning something. Exploring.

It can be really hard to let go of the security of Being Right, of that Beautiful Idea, and be willing to accept that there might be an even more beautiful idea. Or a less beautiful idea that is right.

I hate that.

And I love it.

We are Learners, as well as Teachers. Which means not only adding new knowledge, but often replacing knowledge. And it isn’t adding new knowledge that can be hard, but allowing the replacing of knowledge, allowing for the possibility of being wrong. The beauty of that is that once we (I) allow for the possibility of being wrong, we (I) allow the entry of the new idea.

Brene Brown talks about vulnerability and shame and it is those, the fear of them, that can keep us (me) from allowing the possibility of being wrong, allowing the defeat of our intuition. The desire to protect our (my) ego.

Which is where Curiosity comes in. “Hmm, what could work better?” I ask myself. “If this thing I was sure was true isn’t working, then what will work better?”

Sigh. It’s hard to know when to keep trying, and when to shift to a new approach. How long does one keep trying, applying persistence, before remembering “If you always do what you’ve always done you’ll always get what you always got?”

Perhaps we (I) have to trust our (my) intuition.

Ha! ‘Tis a puzzlement.


OK, I was just about to hit Publish when I had another thought.

It requires both. Trusting our (my) intuition and being open to new evidence. And this is where Community is important – having people to listen to, to bounce ideas off of. Which requires vulnerability (again), being willing to let my community see me be wrong, and change.

Maybe that’s an important part of the definition of Community: The people with whom it is safe to learn, to be wrong, to grow. And to be a part of that Community, I have to offer that safe place to them, too.

Anyone feel like dancing?

How Willing Are You to Be Caught Learning?


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This fairly innocuous question came up recently in discussion, and I admit it went in one ear and out the other until later.

How willing are you to be caught learning?

Whether facilitating a discussion or process, managing a project, or leading others in whatever capacity, we I want to look good. We I want to be respected. We I want to keep control of the situation.

At the same time, we are human. We learn new things all the time, which is part of how we got where we are. We even (gasp) make mistakes – which is (hopefully) one of the ways we learn.

The fact that we learn, or even that we make mistakes, isn’t the issue here. (It’s actually a whole other issue.)

The issue is contained in the language of the question:

How willing are you to be caught learning?

Mm hmm. That’s different.

To be caught learning.

Just the language suggests that we’re being caught in the act of something wrong, that someone has seen us doing something we shouldn’t, that the expectation is that we don’t do that.

Caught red-handed. Caught in the act.

You’re supposed to be the expert.

You’re supposed to know what you’re doing.

We’re not paying you to learn at our expense.

And yet…

Leading, in whatever capacity, is a bit like parenting. Ideally we are modeling the behaviors we want people to learn and engage in. Instead of “Do as I say, not as I do,” the ideal is “Do as I do.”

Do we lose our authority when we are “caught” learning? Or do we strengthen and deepen it?

Much depends on the expectations of the group (and how we manage them), our own expectations, and the rules of engagement.

Much also depends on how we handle the situation:

Do we acknowledge the learning, even admitting to having been wrong? Or do we try to cover up the learning in some way?

Covering up the learning can be very dangerous, because it sends nefarious (and untrue) messages that I Am Never Wrong, I Have Nothing Else To Learn, It Isn’t Safe to admit to not being perfect or not knowing everything (so you shouldn’t admit it either), or There Are Different Rules For You And Me, and so on. It also raises the question in the minds of others, If You’re Not Being Honest About This, What Else Are You Not Being Honest About?

We can lose more credibility by being “caught” learning and being dishonest about it than by being honest about being wrong or learning something new.

So, is the solution to avoid being caught learning? Or to be transparent about learning and being willing to change our minds and directions?

I propose that the answer is to be visible and transparent about learning. This can be done without surrendering authority; in fact it can strengthen the respect people have for us and serve as a learning opportunity for all of us (even if it is a humbling one).

What do you think? What are your assumptions and expectations about leadership – your own or others’? What are the pressures that can make it difficult to effectively lead by example?

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Image by renjith krishnan / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Management Lessons from My Cats – Part I


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Note: I wrote this in April, and just realized I never posted it. Shame on me!

One of my cats, Abby, is sick. She developed a nasty abscess on her behind that had to be cleaned out surgically, and now she has to wear a satellite dish for 12 days until the stitches come out. (We are currently on Day Four.) And she has to live in the bedroom during that time, since my other cat will try to lick her and there is no satellite dish for that. So both cats are unhappy, and I’m a wreck. But my sister said, “You should get some great blog posts from this!”

Hmm.

I’m thinking… give me a minute…

There are a lot of things to be grateful for:

  • I am less of a wreck than I was four years ago when my other cat (Rocket) got sick. That was only a year after my husband died, and I remember sitting in the car, sobbing and thinking, “What is wrong with me? I was a calm, capable Caregiver, and now I’m a wreck over a cat?” (Of course, I forgot at the time about the mornings this Caregiver stood in the shower, sobbing.) So progress is measured in strange ways.
  • The antibiotics come in liquid form, thank God, so I don’t have to pill her. (Pilling Rocket was a Nightmare. The Nightmare on Rose Street.) I just have to pry her mouth open, jam an eyedropper in and squeeze before she shifts. (While she has a satellite dish on her head and without ripping the stitches on her cute little behind. That’s all.)
  • When I miss, she licks the droplets off of her face and the inside of the satellite dish, so she must not mind the taste. (Update: She won’t eat food with the medicine mixed in, so she must mind the taste after all.)
  • Abby has figured out how to eat and get to her water dish (after I figured out how to wedge them so her dishes wouldn’t move when she bulldozed into them).
  • She has, therefore, been using the cat box. I never thought I’d be grateful for having to scoop out a cat box.
  • There are moments of warped humor, such as when I brought Abby home and she started walking the perimeter of the bedroom like a Blind Cave Tetra in a new aquarium, and she kept walking into things. The satellite dish would get caught on things as she walked by, over and over again. It reminded me of the old Saturday Night Live episodes when Gilda Radner played an autistic girl who kept walking into things. I don’t know if Abby did it because she just didn’t know her new boundaries yet, or because she couldn’t feel her whiskers, or she was trying to knock the thing off of her head, but it was all I could do to not laugh. (Cats hate being laughed at.)

Don’t Give Up – the Management Lessons are Coming

There are also some lessons and reminders:

  • I don’t know how parents do it. I have so much respect for my mom and all the parents I know. I bow before Your Greatness.
  • I have learned how to spell “abscess.”
  • Just because I don’t know how to do something (like give Abby her medicine) doesn’t mean I’m a failure as a parent/caregiver. It’s just another thing I have to learn. Hmm. That kind of applies to everything, doesn’t it?
  • Giving cats medicine is like terminating people: The more you do it, the better you get at it, but it’s not something you ever want to get any practice at. (I actually learned that about terminating people when I was a recruiter, and then later as a manager. But this was an ironic reminder.)

That last one is true for most difficult conversations. Avoidance doesn’t help. Rehearsing helps, and it’s best not to rehearse by yourself. It is OK to ask for help and practice with someone you can trust, who is appropriate for what might be a confidential situation. And it’s easier than practicing pilling a cat.

Management lessons come from funny places. I wonder, What are some surprising lessons you’ve learned? What are some surprising sources of those lessons?

Note: It’s now six months later and, although the 12 days turned into three weeks, Abby and Rocket and I all recovered.

Bird Brains -or- How Do Birds (and People) Learn?


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My office looks out upon a patio garden that is twice as large as this room, and I spend a good deal of time here working – and contemplating the garden. The patio is enclosed by a six-foot privacy fence and shaded by a heritage Valley Oak. Over the years I have transformed (or more accurately, continually transform) it from an ivy-ridden rectangle filled with oak leaves and acorns to a miniature secret garden and wildlife sanctuary.

Two of my favorite features (which also drive me crazy) are a fountain and a bird feeder. The fountain I built several years ago from a large ceramic pot, and the bird feeder (and a separate hummingbird feeder) hang from a nearby post.

The fountain is a favorite with the birds, but it occasionally stymies them. The goldfinches were the first to figure out how to use it as a water source, landing on the spout and having a drink. The current spout also provides a spot where they can stand in the running water and cool their heels, which they often do in the summertime.

For more than a year I watched other small birds watch the goldfinches but never make the leap to perching on and drinking from the spout themselves. It wasn’t until last Spring that I saw various house finches and chickadees making the same use of it.

This morning a house finch visited who is apparently new to the neighborhood. A female (or juvenile) who may just be finishing molting, she has little tufts on her head that mimic a horned owl, giving her a slightly disheveled look. She landed on the edge of the fountain and spent a good part of the morning looking longingly at the stream of water coming from the spout. She hopped about on the edge, eyeing the stream, peering down at the water in the bowl, and flinching as water droplets would bounce up at her. She made numerous attempts to lean forward to drink from the bowl, but it was a big stretch and she often had trouble keeping her balance.

How Do Birds Learn?

Meanwhile, a male house finch, glorious with his red head and back, swooped down from the bird feeder, landed on the spout, and had a good long drink. Tufts watched him with her head cocked, and even hopped up and fluttered in the air while she watched. The male flew back to the bird feeder, but Tufts remained on the edge of the fountain, eyed the spout, and then continued reaching down for a drink. A few minutes later, the male came back for another drink. He clearly said something to her and looked at her while he drank. Tufts again watched him intently but again, after he flew away, she returned to stretching down, almost beyond her reach, to drink from the bowl.

How many times, I wondered, would she have to watch him before making the attempt herself? Just then, Tufts leapt off of the edge and into the bowl – and into the water. Much to her apparent surprise, she got rather wet. She flew up to the fence and shook herself off, and I swear I could see her frowning in contemplation. She hopped over to the bird feeder and munched for a few minutes, then flew back to the edge of the fountain – and hopped down into the water again. This time she hopped back up onto the edge, preened, stretched, and looked quite satisfied with herself.

Was her initial hop into the water an attempt to get at drink? Was it an unsuccessful attempt to land on the spout, or was it an end run? Was it her intention to take a bath, or was that just a serendipitous outcome? I’ve been sitting here for about two hours, and I haven’t yet seen her land on the spout. I have only watched her observing another bird drinking from the spout two times; how many times will she have to see it before she is willing to try it?

Maybe she will decide that the method favored by most other birds just isn’t for her. Maybe she thinks she is a much larger bird. (I have watched robins and blue jays drink from the edge of the fountain, but for them reaching the water is not such a stretch.) I have also seen other birds – hummingbirds and goldfinches – fly into the stream of water to get a bath. But I have never before watched a bird intentionally dunk itself in the water for a bath. Does she just not get it? Or is she afraid to try something new?

How Do People Learn?

How many times do we have to see someone do something before we work up the confidence to try it ourselves? How often do we fail at the attempt – or try an alternative – and end up accomplishing something entirely unexpected? And, how often does someone who has accomplished an act consciously demonstrate it for others, encouraging them to give it a try? How many times will they be willing to demonstrate until the student works up the courage to try – or courageously fails until finally succeeds? Certainly, being willing to live at the edge of chaos makes a difference.

* * *

Meanwhile, I am watching a goldfinch pull bits of cotton wool for nesting materials from the erstwhile suet feeder. She pulls and pulls and pulls, until she has a beakful that is nearly too large for her to take away. “Silly bird,” I thought, “why don’t you just make multiple trips?” Then I had to laugh at myself, thinking of all the times I have tried to carry more bags of groceries than I should, simply because I didn’t want to make multiple trips from the car to the house and I was fixated on what seemed to be the simplest solution.

In some ways, we’re not so different from the birds.

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