Archive for January, 2011

>Paddling the boat upstream – finding the special contribution YOU can make


I learnt something important today, about myself, and validated one of my recommended processes at the same time.

I had a session with one of my favourite clients. Mary-Ruth Mendel is the founder and chair of The Australian Literacy and Numeracy Foundation, a growing and successful NFP delivering much-needed services that teach marginalised Australians to read and write.

Mary-Ruth had been processing things in her head over Xmas and New Year, and had come up with a picture in her head of where she thought the organisation was right now – in a boat being paddled upstream, through some rapids, until it could get to calmer waters. She knew who was paddling the boat now, and what kind of paddlers they were. She also knew that there were not enough paddlers to get the boat safely to where it needed to go. What she didn’t know was what kind of paddlers she needed to get into the boat.

I have been through more corporate restructures than I care to remember, successful or otherwise. I’ve heard innumerable formulations of job titles. I know that neither structures nor titles are worth much without intention behind them.

The useful discussion we were able to have centred firstly around the need to identify what kind of skills the organisation was going to need over the next 2-3 years to achieve its mission – what kind of paddlers. We then talked about various executive structures that were used in the corporate world, what the executives did, and what they might be called – where the paddlers would sit in the boat to get the most effective forward movement from their blades driving through the water.

I’ve blogged before about the power of debriefing (, and we debriefed our session when we were finished, using that methodology. What had been helpful, Mary-Ruth told me in the debrief, was for me to “translate” the picture in her head, expressed through her language, into lingo that would be more compatible with successfully recruiting the right people into the organisation’s executive team. She also saw how the roles of the current executives, the people now paddling the boat, could be clarified and agreed upon. I was able to do this, she said, because I was “bilingual.”

I have thought about the concept of being a “translator” before, but it has been in the context of making complex legal language and structuring more easily understood by non-lawyers.

Now, I am indebted to Mary-Ruth for highlighting the potential for a wider view of translation, and the value of being sufficiently bilingual to bring some of the experience and the lore of the corporate world into the not-for-profit sector.

More importantly, it confirmed for me that part of the Law of Dharma which says “find the special contribution that YOU can make”. You may not always realise what that special contribution is, and some external perspective can help you to find it.

Finally it reinforced the power of debriefing to extract lessons from any situation. The bilingual concept would not have emerged without Mary-Ruth and I asking ourselves that simple question: “What worked really well from what we just did?”

>The KPIs that really matter – Arthur’s 3 daily touch points


Some bits of wisdom you hear just seem to stick, mostly because of their sheer simplicity and their statement of what should be bleeding obvious. But also, I think, because of the sincerity and humility with which you hear them imparted. I’ll never forget one especially sage piece from my old mate Arthur Neely, which went, as best I can recall it, like this:

“When I’m driving home from work, or at the end of the day, I like to check on 3 things. Have I done:

  • Something I have to do?
  • Something I want to do?
  • Something for someone else?”

I like Arthur’s review process because it makes me look across 3 different areas, and it doesn’t set the bar unrealistically high. It doesn’t ask, for instance: “Did I do EVERYTHING I had to do today?” It doesn’t require me to be up there with St Mary McKillop; it just asks for one altruistic action. And it validates a criterion which I might not otherwise net feel entitled to rank – it’s okay to do something for myself.

Basically, Arthur’s 3 criteria are all eminently achievable on any given day, without any superhuman, above-and-beyond effort. I know that I don’t tick all 3 boxes every day, but what do you reckon it would be like if most of us could insert those 3 ticks, even 50 per cent of the time?

Before committing his wisdom to the blogosphere, I checked in with Arthur, and he said this:

“To put some context around it, I had found that when I had reached a management/leadership position in my career there were no daily measures available to check yourself against. In my earlier career there were always some daily KPIs or deliverables that tended to keep me focused and provide some sense of achievement.

“I needed something simple to check into on a daily basis; ” Improving Shareholder Value” just didn’t do it for me.

“So those three little touch points worked for me, and still do.

“As a by-product I also found that they grounded me as a leader, particularly when the shit was hitting the fan as it always does from time to time.”

So if you want to spend a few minutes at the end of your day in a high pay-off activity, try Arthur’s 3 touch points.

(I snapped this while doing something I wanted to do – walking through the bush early one morning.)

>Five moments of reverence – seeing the sacred in things


I had an impulse, triggered by something I can’t now recall, to think about flashes of beauty in my life. A few things popped immediately into my head, and others gathered over a couple of weeks. In the middle of that process, Stephanie Dowrick’s new book “Seeking the Sacred” came out. One of her foundations in the book is the search for what she calls “reverence”:

  • “a way of being that allows us to know awe, gratitude, delight and trust”, and
  • “perceiving a sacred, transcendental or holy dimension to life”.

And maybe what I was really recording, given the power of the images recalled, were moments of reverence. Here are 5 of those moments.


When the conditions are just right, with a soft offshore breeze blowing, you paddle your surfboard out and burst through a wave and the early morning sun, still low and sparkly in the eastern sky, throws its prismatic magic at the spray surrounding you. A rainbow orbits your head, out one ear and into the other, a perfect circle. Then winks away, leaving you enraptured.


Three or maybe four times a year, a portentious constellation lines up when a slender crescent moon and a bright Venus rise together, with Venus dangling below the moon’s segment like a pearl pendant. The two brightest things in the sky fleetingly in tandem. That portent hung in the early night sky as the ferry skidded its way from Aegina to Athens and the taste of charcoal grilled octopus and ouzo lingered in my mouth.

Standing high, looking out

There’s a look-out where I can stand, with nothing above me and everything below me. A 180 degree horizon with a 90 degree canopy above. The trees in front of me are tall and tufty, but as I look down on the more distant ones they are soft and pillowy like the ripples on a doona. Ridges stretch away in origami folds. The big sky always moving, distinct shadows fluttering over the sward of tree tops. The vast segment my view commands gives me a proprietorial feeling: the massif of Mt Solitary I can almost own.


I sat on the balcony of an ancient house perched high on the hillside in a medieval village in Haute Provence, with a wide patch of sky in front of me and a tumbledown chimney punctuating the space. The early summer dusk was just descending, and brought with it hundreds of swallows. The ones like little jet fighters with swept back wings and V-forked tails. They wheeled and darted, silhouetted black against the sky. Banked and turned, rushed past each other. Zipped high, then stalled and fell and swooped back up. Were they chasing insects in the evening air? I couldn’t see any. I think maybe their aeronautics were being performed just because they could; just flying with their avian joie de vivre.


Doing a bit of renovation and replacing some daggy old quad-mould with fancy heritage skirting boards –a big gap along one wall needed to be patched. I bought a couple of new cypress floor boards to rip down to the right width for the patch. As soon as the saw blade bit into the wood, it released a rich nostalgic aroma, the intense woody-sweet smell from the pine. That smell kicked in a bevy of emotions: the accompanying scent of creation with wood; the long-forgotten memory of playing war-games with my 10 year old mates in the new houses they were building over the road from my childhood home when (in 1963) all new houses had cypress floors and building sites weren’t locked up; the joint effort with dad and my brother Peter and me laying the cypress boards in the holiday house, when we were teenagers and the dent you made in the board with the hammer when you missed the nail was still called a “two bob bit”. One momentary smell, many moments of subsequent reverence.

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