Can you effectively build half of a team?

I was recently invited to present a workshop for a group of pre-k aides in a local school district.  The Director of Staff Development explained that the aides are an integral part of the team, working side by side along with the classroom teacher each day with the district’s youngest students and asked me to present a three hour workshop on team building.  Having a five year old myself, I was instantly excited by the opportunity.  There was only one catch; the teachers would be across town attending a completely different training.

Image by bamakodaker via Flickr

My first instinct was to convince the Director to choose another topic.  How could I possibly effectively build a team with only half of the team in the room?

I couldn’t. Could I?

As I dug back through prior presentations, team building exercises, going as far back as college courses 15 years ago, I attempted to find a reference, article, even an icebreaker I could use when part of the team was on a bus headed toward a river somewhere in another county. And for four days straight, I hit wall after wall.

In the end, it was not in the workplace that I found my inspiration, but instead with prayer and my husband’s incessant obsession with ESPN. I know. I hate to admit it. Now I’ll never get him to turn it off.

Although my home is still reeling from the Cowboys’ demise, I’ll use football as an example.  Although the team spends a great deal of time practicing as a complete unit, running their playbook over and over, watching film, and preparing for upcoming opponents, the offense and defense both spend time practicing apart from the team as a whole. They are “a team within a team”, if you will. How many times during a typical game do you hear an announcer say, “That was an offensive breakdown.” or “That is something the defense has been working on all season.”   Cowboys’ fans watching this week heard it more than we care to remember.  The point is, there is the team as a whole, and that is important, but within that team there are groups of people crucial to its success.

This plan of attack allowed me to see the pre-k aides, not only as part of a team working with the teachers, but also as a team themselves.  It was amazing what this simple change of perspective did. First,  I completed the presentation, which I was starting to think of as an impossible task. But more importantly, it gave an identity to a group of people who often viewed themselves as invisible in the organization (think – long snapper).

The comment section of one of the evaluation forms read, “Thank you for letting us know we are visible.”  A traditional team building may not have accomplished this, since they would have probably seen themselves as a less important part of the team, a view paraprofessionals often hold.

Since commitment is one of the most important tenets of an effective team, the aides created their own mission statement, cementing in words their commitment to the organization and their efforts. The statement contained a measurable, tangible goal created and agreed upon by the group.

The second half of the morning focused on John Gottman’s four toxic communication behaviors and how to combat these behaviors. Learning to utilize these strategies helps one function in any relationship, be it their career, their marriage, with their children,or their bowling team.

My lesson learned was that team building doesn’t always mean the entire team must be sitting in the room, on the ropes course, or closing their eyes and falling backwards into each others’ arms.  Sometimes it is equally important to build the team within the team and sometimes the best team strategies are those that translate at work, home, and at play.

I would love to hear your thoughts. Have you had any similar team building experiences?

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January 20, 2010 at 1:56 am Leave a comment

The Hats We Wear

My Grandfather's Mining Helmet

My Grandfather's Mining Helmet

Every Thanksgiving my husband’s family descends upon his grandparent’s house to enjoy turkey, dressing, and quality time with family. The tiny house is filled with aunts and uncles, grandparents, and cousins, some of whom I’m not sure I’ve ever met before.

Inevitably between the wishbone and pumpkin pie someone will ask, “Now, Kristen,what is it you do again?”

“I’m in public relations. I wear many hats.”

This cliche, while tired, seems to work well in this situation, because generally speaking, it does not lead to many follow up questions, except perhaps, “Can you pass the yams?”

I would hazard to guess that most PR pros have been guilty of using this cliché more than once. I would also guess that not once has a cousin replied with the logical follow up question “What kind of hats? Ten gallon? Fedora? Top? Berets?”

Of course, when we say we wear many hats, we mean it metaphorically. When arsons are coming out of left field, we sound the alarm, put on our firefighter hat, and start putting out fires. When our organization is under attack, we rally the troops, put on our combat helmet and prepare for battle. When we land that good news story on the front page, be honest ladies (and sometimes men), we put on the tiara and celebrate. And some days you just put on your ratty old ball cap and do the grunt work that nobody else wants to do because it has to get done.

We all have metaphorical hats that we swap off and on depending on the day, the hour, sometimes the minute.

However, in addition to all my metaphorical hats, I also keep one literal hat in my office that serves as my inspiration. The hat, or more accurately the mining helmet, belonged to my grandfather who worked in underground copper mines in Montana from the time he was 17 until he retired almost 50 years later. When my grandmother passed away two years ago I found the helmet in her attic.

It has been in my office ever since.

There are a few things you should know about both my grandfather and the helmet for you to understand why such an obscure object could serve as inspiration. My grandfather had an incredible work ethic. As you can imagine, winters in Montana are harsh and working in underground mines in those conditions is not easy. The shifts were long and the work was tedious. But my grandfather worked in difficult conditions for almost five decades to support his family. He was not one to complain, he was one to do his job.

It is hard to see from the picture, but there is a large crack down one side, which means that the helmet was used for its designed purpose. That means that at least once (and I suspect more than that) something substantial in size fell on my grandfather’s head causing the helmet to crack.

Something about this crack intrigues me. He didn’t get a new helmet. For whatever reason – sentimental or financial, he went back to work wearing the same helmet that had protected him from that accident. Perhaps it was his stubbornness that drove him back down into the mines wearing that same helmet with the crack down the side.

Perhaps it is that same stubbornness that drives us back into the field when we have taken a hit hard enough to rock us to our core. People often accuse me of being stubborn like it is a bad thing, and sometimes I suppose that it is. But sometimes I think a degree of stubbornness is required in a field that requires us to be firefighters, soldiers, advisers, janitors, counselors, and teachers.

People often ask about the helmet when they come into my office for the first time.

You have just read the long answer.

The short, but honest, answer I give is this; It reminds me that no matter how bad of a day I’m having, my job could always be worse. No one has to send a canary into my office first to see if I’m going to make it out alive today.

May 19, 2009 at 4:59 pm 3 comments

The Mommy Pull

Taffy Pulling
Image by renny67 via Flickr

I always knew there would be some sort of challenge that came along with being a working mother. I am a pretty smart girl who pays attention to the world around me and it doesn’t take super powers of observation to see that mothers who work full time jobs have logistical and emotional challenges to come to terms with.

Even without my amazing powers of observation, I had personal experience to go by. My mother worked as a professor at a college and helped my father run the grocery store that we owned. She always said that she didn’t work full time when we were growing up, and it was true that she didn’t have a traditional Monday – Friday 8-5 schedule, but looking back I feel confident that when you take those two jobs and add to them the responsibilities that came along with being a preacher’s wife, she worked far more than 40 hours a week.

So when my husband and I were expecting our first child, I had what I thought was a pretty good grasp on what it would be like to be a working mom. We were blessed that the school district I work for was in the process of constructing a day care center for the exclusive use of our employees. The center was only about a mile away from my office and would be complete by the time our daughter was a year old. For her first year, we were blessed to find a retired couple who watched her during the day. They were like surrogate grandparents and loved and spoiled her as such. Although I missed her, I never had to worry about her care and therefore, my work (although somewhat disrupted by having to pump breastmilk several times a day), resumed a mostly normal schedule.

Once she entered daycare, we were quickly introduced to the challenges that arise when your beautiful and intelligent little child is introduced into a room with several other, slightly less beautiful and much more snotty children who seem to live to cough, sneeze, and yes, even vomit on your little prince or princess. And while your angel would never be responsible for bringing a virus into the center, he or she is certainly sent home at the first sign of fever, three bumps lined up together that might look like a rash, or two diapers that seem too loose to be safe.

And so a frantic phone call from the day care sends you out of your office to pick up your angel and take the baby home (or to the doctor’s office) until he is symptom free for at least 24 hours. If your children are like mine, it seems that that immune systems can sense when you have important meetings, tests, or pitches that you can’t reschedule. I can’t remember a time that our little darlings got sick where Richie and I didn’t have a thing on our calendar. That would be too easy.

As the children get older and stop chewing on each other’s toys, you seem to finally start catching a break, except that, in one crazy moment, usually after your child has gone to bed and your husband had given you two glasses of wine, you decide it’s time to start trying to have another baby. And alas, it begins again. And now, you have two small bundles of germs just tempting you to bring them outside of the house so that they can catch the latest virus and then immediately pass it along to their sibling. What used to keep you out of work for 2 days now keeps you out for an entire week in a sequence that goes something like this. Child one is sick on Monday and Tuesday. You take both children to school on Wednesday, but get a call at 10:14 a.m. telling you that child 2 has a fever and you will need to pick her up. You are now home with child two all day Wednesday and Thursday. By Friday, both children are feeling better and can go to school, but you have the fever, cough, and are vomiting, just for good measure.

Friday is the day you are supposed to have the client meeting that was originally scheduled for Tuesday, but that you changed because your baby was sick and your husband could cover Monday and Wednesday, but not Tuesday. So now you have the choice of taking two times the recommended dosage of Dayquil and pressing through the meeting with your client and hoping they don’t get close enough to smell the “sick” on you. Or you can trust your assistant with the meeting even though she has only been working for you for six months, and during that time, you have been out of the office with sick children at least seven times. Or, you can call the client, explain that you have caught the bug from your child, hoping that they have children and will understand and reschedule for next week instead of calling your competitor.

This is the part of being a working mom I did not anticipate. I didn’t anticipate the guilt I would feel for my children because I wasn’t spending enough time with them, especially if they are sick, and the guilt I would feel if I did spend time with my children because then I wasn’t spending enough time in the office.

I also didn’t anticipate being so tired at the end of the day that I would give in and let my kids watch a movie (okay two movies) because I was just too wiped out to get on the floor and play with My Little Ponies. I wasn’t going to be one of those moms, until I found out what it was like to actually be a mom.

When my four (and a half) year old hugs me at the end of the day and tells me that I’m the best mommy she’s ever had, I consider myself lucky that I am the only mommy she has ever had. I sometimes wonder if she had a mommy who could give her more undivided attention if she would love that mommy more.

But mostly, I consider myself lucky. I am pulled in many directions, but right now, it is still working. I attribute our families success to incredible family support, starting most importantly with my husband. We also have support from my in-laws and my brother and his family. Without this support structure, I don’t know how I could stand as a working mom. Sometimes I wonder how I stand even with the support.

Being a working mom must be kind of like salt water taffy. Although you start out as something small, you are pulled and stretched in every direction. It doesn’t look possible that you could stretch so far without breaking, but you do. And the end result is something very sweet and full of flavor and because it’s been stretched, there is a lot to go around.

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May 6, 2009 at 5:54 am Leave a comment

A Whole New World

Journey to the Center of the Earth

Journey to the Center of the Earth

When I was five my brother and I decided to try to dig our way to China. We were smart kids so we realized that in order to make it to China, we would first have to break ground in the front yard next to the tether ball poll then dig down through the top layer of soil, then the clay, and then through the center of the Earth, which we knew was filled with molten lava, large man eating lizards, mountains erupting with flames, and many other untold dangers that no sane human (much less a five and seven year old) would subject themselves to. This world, inside the center of the Earth, was different than the safe and comfortable world that my brother and I lived in every day and we knew that we would have to prepare ourselves if we were going to survive. So with our shovels in our hand we did what any competent explorer would do when faced with this type of peril – we wrapped ourselves in tinfoil.

In today’s constantly changing communication’s culture, I find myself in a similar situation, only instead of navigating through lava and lizards I am trying to make my way through Twitter and Facebook. This time my ultimate destination is not China, it is a successful communication strategy. Instead of digging through the center of the Earth I have to dig through the world of social media, which for me is just as strange and unfamiliar.

In a somewhat different twist, numerous explorers before me have successfully navigated through this unfamiliar territory, which should probably make me feel better, but for some reason only serves to make me more nervous. It’s as if I’m looking at people standing on the edge of a volcano and saying, “Come on in, the lava’s fine.” In theory I understand that talking to people who have gone there before me and successfully come out on the other side should make me feel more secure. A trail has been blazed; I’m not in it alone; It can be done; blah, blah, blah. Instead I feel overwhelmed and under equipped. I feel like I have showed up at a black tie party wearing Daisy Dukes and a tube top.

It is not that I don’t want to change or that I don’t believe that the change is necessary. It is not that I fear change. In fact, I have thought about it a lot over recent months and I have a hard time describing my feelings. This is particularly difficult since I am married to a self proclaimed social media evangelist who works in the same profession as I do (@vedo). Over the past 18 months he has embraced the social media movement, not only in his job, but he has started consulting to help others learn how to effectively use the tools in their organizations. As he has been moving forward, I have been standing still.

I have blamed the resistance on my lack of time, on my new baby (while I resisted, my husband posted the information all over his Twitter and Facebook accounts), on health issues, and trouble at work. But I have come to realize that I was just not ready to start digging because I knew that if I did it would require me to face some fire that I was not yet ready to face. But the truth is, this new world is a reality for all of us, whether we are professional communicators targeting a specific audience or grandparents trying to stay in touch.

Most of you have already braved this new frontier, but in case there are any of you hanging on with shovels in hand I say –

Bring on the tinfoil.

May 4, 2009 at 8:21 pm 1 comment

Stupid is a Six Letter Word

Gary Baseman Dunce
Image by Laughing Squid via Flickr

A few months ago I was on the phone with one of my bosses.  As occasionally happens, I was working from home after hours and was sitting on the floor with my kids and trying to hold a somewhat intelligent conversation about the cost analysis of air conditioning on school buses while keeping small objects out of my eight-month old son’s mouth.  About ten minutes  in, I uttered a sentence sounding something like this, “Well that was just stupid.”

To which my four (and a half) year old replied, “Mommy, stupid is a bad word.”

Since that incident I have been called out by my daughter about a dozen times for using the word stupid. Her pre-kindergarten chastising has made me realize how often I use that word to refer to people, events, family members, and especially my job.  Her response remains consistent. “Mommy, stupid is a bad word.”

Yesterday I traveled to Austin to conduct a communications training for the Texas Association for School Nutrition.  The participants included directors of child nutrition for public school districts across the state of Texas.  One of the directors asked me what she could do to change the perception of her department since she felt like they were the “gum on people’s shoe.”

This is an excellent question and one that applies not only to cafeterias, but also to classrooms, corporations, health care institutions, families and individuals.  The first thing that any organization or individual can do to change public perception is to stop the negative talk.  We are our own worst enemy in this respect.  One of my superintendents told me once that the biggest problem in public education is public educators.  We get frustrated about what is going on and talk negatively about our students, our peers, and our administrators around the dinner table and at the grocery store.  The problem is, if we aren’t talking about the great things happening in our organization, how do we expect anyone else to do it for us?

We are also guilty of allowing others to talk negatively about our organizations.  How often have you heard someone bashing your organization or your peers and not stepped in?  I know that I am guilty and I am the PR professional.  Whether the bashing is based on factual or erroneous information, we may not correct them because we are embarrassed, because we don’t have correct information, or because we just don’t want to get involved.  Whatever the case, our silence indicates agreement and that perpetuates the negative image.

Our tenancy is to blame the mainstream media for running only negative stories, and I am not trying to release them of all accountability.  But we hold much more power in our spheres of influence and the conversations we hold each day.

I challenged the child nutrition directors to come up with three positive facts about their districts and to have those on hand at all times.  Any time they had a chance, I asked them to share one of those three positive facts with the people in their sphere of influence.  When they were tempted to say something negative, I asked them to replace that thought with one of these three key facts.  When they heard someone talking negatively about their program, they could challenge those negative remarks with one or two of these positive goings on.

Just through this brief exercise I immediately learned somethings about our district.  For instance, I learned that:

  • We have had perfect health inspection scores at all of our campuses.
  • We have no fryers anywhere in our district.  Everything (including the chicken fried steak and the french fries) are baked.  Our menus have a higher nutritional value that almost everything that you would serve at home.
  • All of our child nutrition staff have to be certified and trained every year.

That is good stuff.  You have good stuff to say about your organization, your family, and yourself.  I challenge you to write it down and to keep it with you so that the next time you are tempted to say someone or something is stupid, you have something else to say instead.

My daugther keeps me in check by reminding me that although stupid may not be a four letter word, sometimes a six letter word can do even more damage.

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February 21, 2009 at 6:24 pm 1 comment

Communicating Recession

As someone with a degree in communication studies, I have never pretended to have a deep understanding of economics.  In fact, I freely admit to being the type of person who has not balanced my checkbook since the invention of on-line banking.   However, I have become increasingly fascinated with the communication surrounding the turmoil in the economy.

Whether in the mainstream media, presidential debates, around the dinner table, or at the water cooler, you cannot avoid talk about the economy and it seems no matter who you are talking to, the news is all bad.

While driving to my parents’ house in Burleson, TX on Christmas Day I passed this sign that said, “Sorry Not Hiring.”  The sign was posted outside of a natural gas well.  We live in North Texas, and for those of you who are not familiar with the area, the business of drilling natural gas is good business.  In fact, it is one of the reasons that our local economy has been somewhat sheltered from the slumping economy.

At first I was taken aback by the sign.  Why would this company feel it was necessary to advertise that it was not hiring?  The large gray sign seemed to echo the sentiment that everyone was feeling; the outlook is bleak, hope is gone, and there are no jobs.

But here is the thing; here in our area, the outlook doesn’t seem so bad, there is some hope, and people are hiring.

I work for a school district about 45 miles north of where that sign is posted.  About three weeks ago I went on a tour of a large manufacturing company that our district plans to partner with as part of our new career technology school.  Their vice president of manufacturing was explaining to us that over 50% of their employees are within two years of retirement and that they cannot find enough qualified employees to hire as their replacements.

Qualified employees must have a high school diploma or GED and the ability to read instructions in English.

Starting pay is over $10/hour.

They have other positions for people with two year and four year degrees that start at $17/hour.

I understand that things are tough.  I understand that real people are losing their jobs and that real families are losing their homes.

But I don’t understand how relentless talk about instability in the markets is going to make the markets more stable.  It is human nature that fear breeds fear and both political parties and the mainstream media have been preying on people’s fears. If we continue to communicate ideas like “no one is hiring,” we may very well make people give up their job search in favor of a welfare line.

As our family and friends got together this holiday season the stories around the tables were the same.  Everyone agreed that times were hard and that we were all blessed.  We might know someone (or know of someone) down the road who had lost their job or had to sell their home, but none of our families were directly affected.

Which brought me back to the big gray sign and led me to this question; Are we communicating the recession as it occurs or did we communicate the recession before it occurred?

It is no secret that the presidential election was the biggest story of 2008, if not the decade.  With that election came a lot of talk about the economy.  With the mortgage crisis looming it was only a matter of time before the economy took center stage.  However, I’m not sure anyone knew that it would get so bad so quickly.  Once the sub-prime mortgage market slid out of control and the Wall Street started slipping, the auto makers were not far behind.

We certainly have no way of knowing for sure, but I wonder if the stock market would have become so volatile if, “Are we headed for a recession?” wouldn’t have been the top story on the news every night during those highly watched broadcasts leading up to the election.  I’m sure that if you ask an economist there is a lot more to it, but from a casual by-stander a lot of people play the market with their heart (just ask my mom who buys and sells stock based on which food her cat likes best).

As I pondered the big gray sign I thought about circumstances that might lead that company to post the sign.  Maybe they had a lot of openings one week, had filled them all quickly, and were tired of telling people there were no more openings.  The sign would be a way to save them a good deal of time.  However, in this economy, that is not what people like me would assume when driving by.  That is why I think we all have a responsibility to watch how we communicate during this economy.  Although our intention may be to communicate something specific (not hiring) to our organization or target audience, it may have a larger impact on our community.

Keep this in mind as you communicate with your employees in the upcoming months.  Take every opportunity to communicate positive information about the economy such as job growth, increased sales, promotions, etc.  Maintain an upbeat atmosphere in the office.  People tend to be discouraged and overwhelmed.  The news media is showing mostly negative news right now.  Take this opportunity to be the positive force in your employees’ day.  They will be glad you were hiring.

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January 4, 2009 at 5:34 am Leave a comment

24 Hours On the Floor

it's easy to see the health care system spiraling out of control when you have 24 hours to lie on the floor

Pick almost any day and you can find someone who is willing to talk about the broken health care system in this country. This year it was particularly easy with several people trying to win a seat in the White House.  When we get bills that we consider excessive for tests we don’t understand or spend too much time on hold with people we find rude at insurance companies who tell us they won’t pay for tests we are sure we need, we believe the system is broken.  We have a hard time finding people who disagree with us.  And yet, we have a harder time finding anyone who can tell us how to fix it.

Like most families, our family makes numerous trips to various doctors throughout the year.  With two children in daycare we have our share of colds, ear infections, stomach bugs, and various and assorted viral infections.  Fortunately we have insurance that allows us to make a trip to the doctor for a mere $25 co-pay, even on nights or weekends.  A recent battle with the stomach flu that left our four-year old daughter dehydrated and sent us to the emergency room did cost us a$100 co-pay, but was well worth the peace of mind and the prescription that stopped the vomiting.

Contrast my family with my husband’s family one generation removed.  Last week, just three days before Christmas we got a call from his father’s aunt.  It seemed that his father’s cousin was fading fast and they were calling in the family to say their last good-byes.  It wasn’t until after his funeral that his mother filled us in on the circumstances surrounding his death.

Angel* had contracted Hepatits several years ago.  This diagnosis had caused his health to suffer. Angel moved in with his father to help take care of him, since his health was also very poor.  Over the years his health continued to deteriorate, eventually causing him to have to stop working.

Because he couldn’t work, he had no insurance.

Because he had no insurance, he couldn’t go do the doctor.

Because he couldn’t go to the doctor, he just kept getting more sick.

That brings us to the week before Christmas when Angel fell.

Angel’s dad called his ex-wife to let her know that Angel had fallen and was very sick.  She said she didn’t think she could get him out of the house and since none of them had insurance, they couldn’t afford to call an ambulance.  Angel’s dad said “Ok.” and hung up the phone.

Twenty-four hours later Angel’s mom called back to check up on her son.  He was still in the same place.  Lying on the floor of his father house.  Dying.

She called her daughter and asked her to meet  her at the house.

They met at the house and stood in the living room trying to find a way to get Angel to the hospital.  Angel’s sister tried to convince her mom that they needed to call the fire department to come help them.  Angel’s mother was still insistent that they didn’t have any money for an ambulance so they would have to find a way to get him out of the house and into the car by themselves.  The main problem was that Angel’s father was very ill and nearly blind and so he couldn’t help them move him.  Angel’s sister sent her mother into the kitchen to talk things over with her father.

While they were talking, she called 9-1-1.

When the fire department arrived, they checked Angel’s vitals and quickly determined that he needed to be transported to the hospital by ambulance immediately. Even in the midst of this stark diagnosis, Angel’s mother still hesitated to call for an ambulance, saying that none of them had insurance or the money to pay the bill.

The firemen said the cost of the ambulance would be on them.

The fireman called for an ambulance.

Angel made it to the hospital.

He died less than 24 hours later.

He was 59.

My family is only one generation removed from this cousin. And while you and I cannot even begin to imagine letting a loved one lie on the floor dying for 24 hours because we can’t afford to pay the hospital bill, I would bet that most of you have a cousin, an aunt, or a grandparent in your family that can identify with this story.  Think about this.  Not only is my husband only one generation removed from this cousin, we only live 15 miles from them and nobody called us to ask us for help.

That is how broken the system is.

I don’t know how to fix the system.

All I know is that when a mother will let her son lie on the floor dying for 24 hours because she can’t afford to call 9-1-1 fixing health care needs to be  more than talking points for an election debate.

* Names have been changed.

December 29, 2008 at 12:10 am 2 comments

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