Remember That Time…?

Remember that time your dad had a stroke

and you booked a flight so you could be with him in 22 hours
and you left your friends
and jumped a plane headed from
Jaipur to Mumbai to Newark to LA?
Remember how they wouldn’t let you into the airport at Jaipur?
How you had to wait until exactly 2 hours
before your flight to enter
but you knew every step towards that plane
made you feel closer to him than you did before…
Remember how you had to go through
not 1
not 2
not 3
but 4 security checkpoints?
Checkpoints that you put your bag through
and each time the screen just looked like his brain –
a jumbled mess of cables and blank spaces
and curious spots that, to the security was no big deal,
but to the doctors meant life and death.
Remember how you got to Mumbai
and bought some more gifts
and paused when you saw something he’d like?
Or would’ve liked?
or used to like?
How do you say that now?
Remember you tried to act like you were returning from every other trip
where everyone would have their hands out looking for a gift
even though you know noone will care now.
Not while he’s still ‘the V word’ as my mother said.
Remember how you finally got on the flight in Mumbai
and played it really cool
because you were one flight away from your own continent
and 20 hours from seeing your dad?
Remember how the flight attendants looked at you
when you popped the anxiety pill
that your prophetess  wife made you promise you’d get the subscription for
“You know, just in case.”
Remember how the pilots voice
went from informational to confrontational
as he recited these words “the flight’s cancelled”
and you were glad those pills were already in your system because
is fine to say in your head but not on a crowded flight of people
who seem fine to spend another day far from their families.
Remember how you could get no help.
Remember how your hands were trembling
when you were trying to find another flight.
Remember how you lied to your friends back in the states
that the wifi sucked so they could find one for you
because you were too far gone at that point to make
heads or tails out of itineraries.
Remember how good the thought of
chocolate cake and a beer sounded
and how they couldn’t serve you
because their machine didnt work
but how you found an ATM to get some rupees
because the thought of
chocolate cake and a beer
sounded too good right now to give up.
Remember that.
Remember the last words
your father said to you
“I’m proud of you son.”
Remember the big warm hug
and the kiss on the cheek
and the look on his face as you left.
He will remember that too. For all eternity.


A majority of my conversations with other kingmakers follow this same script.

Me: So what’s up?
Them: I’m having a tough time.
Me: So… what’s up?
Them: I have this idea.
Me: Uh huh.
Them: But my [boss, pastor, manager, CEO, director, board, committee, lunch lady] is stuck in the [70’s, 80’s, 90’s, 2013]. How do I get her to budge?
Me: What time is it? This could take a while…
Moving an idea through a process, whatever it is, is never easy.
And it shouldn’t be easy.
It shouldn’t be impossible, but whoever sits between you and the realization of your idea has been trusted to filter ideas for the org so that the good ones grow and the others die. And let me tell you – that’s a good thing. 
I realize there are managers and gatekeepers who leave a lot to be desired. We all have our horror stories about the one who was too controlling, too fearful, too old-school, too close to the CEO, who had no connection to the VP’s and on and on. But if you allow any of those excuses to be the thing that keeps your  idea from getting off the ground, then I’d say the system has done it’s job.
Ideas should be fought for, labored over and wrestled with. Ideas should keep you up late at night and wake you up early in the morning. Ideas should stumble out of your mouth when you’re talking about something non-related and should cause you to gloss over while you’re watching the big game because you can’t stop thinking about it. If you’re not at that level of distraction and panic with your ideas, then you’re wasting everyone’s time and the out of touch manager is the perfect obstacle to distract the clutter that are ideas lacking passion.
“But I have the passion. That’s why I’m here! So get off the soapbox and help me figure it out, Dex.”
The best tool in any kingmaker’s toolkit is what I call Up-fluence.
Up-Fluence: the ability to navigate processes, people and pitfalls and motivate others along the way
There are 6 strategies that I’ve observed in Up-fluencers who get ideas through the toughest of kept gates. These are
  1. Incremental Innovation
  2. Culture of Change
  3. Data
  4. Hug and Punch
  5. Honor
  6. Wait for Permission or Ask for Forgiveness
We’ll jump into these, but before we do, ask yourself this question:
Is this idea worth the hassle ?
If the answer is no, there’s no need to read any further.

Making It Up Along the Way

I took some improv classes with a friend a few years ago. I forget why, exactly, but it was an amazing experience. I still use many of the techniques today with my team. Sometimes it’s funny, but mostly it’s to get through situations that arise where I haven’t had the luxury of pre-thought.

Notice I said pre-thought, not preparation. The musicians and comedians who excel in improvisation may not think through the details their performance, but they are always prepared. Their minds are always on and they are brave enough to be flexible, generous and prepared to improvise.

Here are a few rules to improv that I use daily:

  • Yes/And – Many managers or collaborators need to hear a full idea before they’re comfortable jumping in. But any idea, any part of an idea, is an opportunity to catch a train that’s already on the tracks. Add to the idea in a way that helps lead the contributor to providing more information than you thought was there. Asking leading questions is a great way to pull more out of them, then add your own details. Soon, you’ll have an idea you’re both excited about.
  • Pick A Character – Sometimes the missing piece is context. When you’re curious who this idea is targeting, pick a character and be them. How would a single mom react? What would a college student say? How would dad react? You can provide context by picking a character and hearing the pitch. It’s also a great way to endear yourself to your teammates. Or just look like a jackass.
  • Listening – The key to improv isn’t always being ready to talk. It always being available to listen. Get out of the office, dump the email and cut your meetings down. With your extra time, sit in the same space and peek over the shoulders of the people with the ideas. You’d be surprised what they’re willing, and trying, to say.
  • Props – Not the Carrot Top kinda props. Encouragement. Many ideas are like chicks being hatched. They need a little encouragement to get out of the shell. Even if the idea isn’t going to fly, acknowledging the effort and letting people know that you’re fostering a culture of idea generation goes a long way.

You may never make it to Second City, but you can make it up along the way. There is a way to improvise and be authentic at the same time. Preparation is the key.

What’s Your Cutting Fluid?

Maybe you’ve seen a CNC machine transforming a block of metal into custom rims, robotic arms or works of art. CNC machines are comprised of a lot of parts; the big arm moves the head that houses the bit that whittles away the material sliver by sliver.

That constant work of metal versus metal creates friction and generates an enormous amount of heat. So engineers added another part to the machine. Cutting fluid.

Cutting fluid creates an environment where friction can happen. It keeps all the moving parts cool enough for the real work to happen. Without cutting fluid, the machine parts would easily overheat and no work would be done.

As a part of a team of leaders, heat and friction should be expected. There should be a healthy desire to disturb, unearth, evaluate and refine. But in the midst of all that, what keeps the idea machine from overheating and destroying itself in the process?

Culture is the cutting fluid of any organization. It’s the way that hard work and heavy lifting gets done without disastrous results of hurt feelings, fatigue and disrespect.

Culture makes the tough choices easier to swallow.

Culture makes long hours make sense.

Culture makes opposing views not equate to opposition.

Any place where collaboration happens, the cutting fluid of a healthy culture is essential. So what is the path to a healthy culture? Here’s a short list of things that anyone can do to help pave the way.

  • Critique never becomes critical.
  • Failure isn’t fatal.
  • Laugh louder than you argue.
  • Welcome disagreement. Avoid being disagreeable.
  • Challenges are met with encouragement.
  • Be real about your shortcomings.
  • Be humble with your strengths.

What is your cutting fluid? How do you keep collaboration and the challenge of leading others positive, optimistic and in the context of a healthy culture? Figure this out and you will be able to do the tough stuff without it all blowing up in your face.