Getting on the same side of the table

The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People belong in the category of must read classics like How to Win Friends and Influence People. Covey outlines lessons that are important for everyone to internalize and it is a great starting point for leaders. The first time I read it, I listened to the audiobook, which Covey narrates himself. It’s a wonderful way to take in the lessons in the book because you can hear his emphasis at different points.

The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People are:

  1. Be proactive
  2. Begin with the end in mind
  3. Put first things first
  4. Think win/win
  5. Seek first to understand, then to be understood
  6. Synergize
  7. Sharpen the saw

But that list only barely touches the surface of the wisdom and life lessons outlined in the chapters devoted to each individual habit. For the purposes of this post, I want to focus on one that I found to be especially vital.

7HabitsIn the world of patient experience, we talk a lot about communication. Communication with the patient, with appropriate family members, and between clinicians caring for that patient is an area of opportunity for the industry. Covey talks about a deep communication practice in his chapter on habit 5, “Seek first to understand, then to be understood”.

In habit 5, Covey touches on several key concepts including, “Empathic listening,” “Diagnose before you prescribe,” and “Understanding and perception”. These skills require self-awareness and the ability to pause and reflect on our behavior.

In the section on “Diagnose before you prescribe,” Covey provides the example of an eye exam. He writes that the doctor does not just take off his glasses and say, “Use these, they’ve worked for me for years!” He takes the time to help the patient explain what they see and he fits the corrective lenses for them.

Too often, we do the opposite. I catch myself in this pattern of behavior too often. Just because something worked in a situation we faced, does not mean that the same strategy and tactics will work for another person with different skills and different life experiences. Taking the time to diagnose what is going on will help us be better leaders and better people.

My favorite part of habit 5 though is the section called, “Four Autobiographical Responses.” In this part of the book, Covey summarizes a hypothetical conversation between a parent and child who wants to drop out of school. Covey presents the same scenario in three different ways. In the first, the parent tries to guide the child by lecturing based on the parent’s own experience. In the second scenario, the reader sees the child’s impression of the conversation and how the child feels ignored and misunderstood.

In the final scenario, the parent asks the child the right questions, listens to understand and does not pass judgement or lecture. By being more open, slowing down, and learning what the child is going through, the parent learns that the child wants to drop out of school because of a recently diagnosed learning disability. By listening and interacting with the child in an empathetic way, the parent learns what is really behind the child’s desire to leave school.

What happens next in the story is remarkable. The parent and child begin to problem solve together. Covey calls this, “getting on the same side of the table.” This concept spoke to me. Lately, I have been trying to find as many ways as I can to “get on the same side of the table” with the people I serve.

Getting to the same side of the table means problem solving, having healthy discussion, and collaborating in a way that builds the relationship, not taxes it. The more we can be on the “same side of the table,” rather than debate or disagree to win an argument, the better the world can become.

KEY TAKEAWAY: The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People is a foundational book in practicing leadership. Habit 5 discusses how we can “get on the same side of the table” with other people by engaging in”Empathic listening”, “Diagnose before you prescribe”, and “Understanding and perception”.


The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People is available for purchase on Amazon for $30.00 (does not include Prime discount)

Can empathy be taught?

On May 29th, I spoke to the leaders at Adventist HealthCare at our semiannual Mission in Motion conference where patient experience was the theme of the day. As part of the plenary session I explained to our leaders why I am so passionate about the work of improving patient experience.

One of the reasons, I explained, was that last year, we touched nearly 80% of our community within 1-degree of separation. By one degree of separation, I am assuming that each employee and each patient has at least, on average, one other member of their household. For example, if we treated a mother, her experience in our care would have influence on her whole family. Imagine if we demonstrated kindness and compassion in a way that exceeded the patient’s expectations. If our team and our patients take those behaviors home, imagine the multiplier effect it could have of people leading by an example of deep kindness.the war for kindness

If you attended the Mission in Motion conference, you would promptly leave the plenary for a mandatory breakout session on selecting the right employees for the job. The session educated attendees on certain behaviors, like empathy, which lead to kindness and compassion that can’t be taught. If leaders do not follow a good process for hiring, it may hurt the whole group. This conventional wisdom is present in the literature around excellent service organizations, like the Ritz-Carlton, that deploy a rigorous hiring process to prevent “bad apples” from entering the bunch.

Enter Stanford University psychologist Jamil Zaki, who presents a compelling challenge to the notion that empathy is not a learned trait. In his recently published book, The War for Kindness: Building Empathy in a Fractured World, Zaki describes how his work and research can help people become more empathetic.

Zaki describes his childhood living in parallel worlds after his parents divorced. He described this experience as an “empathy gym,” noticing how two people could have completely different and yet totally valid views of life. He has created a similar type of course at Stanford, sending students to various exercises and experiential learning environments to build their empathy muscles. While the work is rigorous and difficult, he has shown results.

Further, Zaki shows his work in a way that builds trust in the research. At the end of the book, he takes the reader through each study mentioned, chapter by chapter, and rates the quality of the research on a 5-point scale. While some of the research is yet to be validated, it is certainly interesting, controversial at times, and quite progressive.

The initial set up of the book is quite dense, describing several research studies, as well as a general orientation to historical notions on empathy. It was worth the dense crash course to get to the stories and real world examples of building empathy. Zaki takes us through experiments in using literature to stop recidivism, truly understanding “compassion fatigue” in hospitals, and positive and negative impacts of technology on empathy.

The War for Kindness has many implications. It is a helpful roadmap for how we can be more kind, compassionate, and empathetic as a society. It has challenged my thinking on hiring in health care. While I still strongly believe that systems and processes help protect the team and enhance service, I now believe that a motivated candidate can be taught how to empathize. I also believe that we must coach motivated caregivers to have empathy in a way that does not cause burnout or eventually result in emotional numbness towards patients.

I have already bought copies of this book to give away to friends and colleagues, because it is powerful, hopeful, and challenges assumptions about how we can repair our seemingly broken world. It is surely worth the read not only if you lead people, but if you are interested in making society a better place (this should be everyone!).

KEY TAKEWAY: Can empathy be taught? Jamil Zaki in The War for Kindness argues that it can be. The implications in healthcare mean that our team members would benefit from a culture that has built in systems to train people on demonstrating empathetic concern for patients. This is a must-read book.


The War for Kindness is available for purchase on Amazon for $27.00 (does not include Prime discount).

Presenting information Exceptionally

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The cartoon above is from the New Yorker and it is one of my favorites. For those of us whose days are spent in the Microsoft Office suite of applications, we know that “death by powerpoint” can feel all too real.

We have all seen the seemingly endless bullets and presenters reading off their slides as if we are illiterate. I have experienced countless presentations, especially at conferences, that are graphically busy or unreadable (my biggest pet peeve is the “Sorry, you probably can’t read this”), presentations that drag on, or do not reach a clear conclusion. Powerpoint has been so misused that some organizations have taken deliberate steps away from it, including the US Military in 2010 and Amazon who banned it for executive presentations in 2018.

I would argue that powerpoint is actually an important presentation tool, but only if used correctly. Organizations that use it well have developed a set of rules that keep the audience’s attention and helps to form a narrative. TED Talks, the popular and informative non-profit series of presentations encourages speakers to use powerpoint as a visual aid – no bullets. Many of the talks accomplish the goal of “spreading ideas” often because of the images on their slides.

By way of a quick example, On his show Last Week Tonight, John Oliver presents on a complex topic every week, using a presentation style where the “slides” he shows add to his narrative. During this current season of the show, he presented on Robocalls. Oliver used images and graphics that can be used in a powerpoint type presentation.

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There is no reason why we cannot present information like John Oliver. Oliver, like many other compelling speakers, uses age-old techniques that work to not only present information, but, more importantly, have the audience remember and internalize the message.

Thats where Five Stars: The Communication Secrets to Get From Good to Great by Carmine Gallo is most helpful. In his book, Gallo discusses age old techniques dating back to Aristotle that detail how to deliver information in a compelling and memorable way.

51rO+WElUrL._SX327_BO1,204,203,200_Before I talk about some of the book content, it is important to note that this book is focused on presenting information in a way that customers understand. He references many different case studies, including one in healthcare, discussing excellent communicators and how they use presentation to create 5-star customer experiences. While there are tricks and tips in this book, they come at the end after he discusses the cultures of organizations whose team members consistently and reliably communicate with their customers in a service-oriented way.

My favorite anecdote on this point is one about  theonline shoe sales giant Zappos CEO Tony Hsieh (pronounced SHAY). Hsieh believes in training customer service team members to present well, but that is not done by scripting them. To demonstrate how customer friendly the staff has been trained to be, he would call the Zappos customer service line in front of reports and ask a random question like, “can I order a pizza?”. The staff would then help the customer in any way they can, which in this case was to help them order a pizza.

With a supportive culture that engages and empowers, the tactics are simpler to learn and implement to create 5-star outcomes and are contained in this book. Those tactics include using compelling visual aids, crafting a story using the three-act-play narrative structure, and including credibility (ethos), emotion (pathos), and logic (logos) to keep your audience engaged and following along. Gallo also discusses how most compelling stories are presented in about 10 minutes or less.

At its foundation, a presentation, whether to a group or one on one is a form of a social contract. The presenter will offer the listener new information and hold their attention while doing so. In exchange, the listener will take their time to listen to the presenters ideas and engage with them. Presenters often take that for granted, but should not.

KEY TAKEAWAY: Presenting information, when done well, is a powerful tool for leaders who want to shape a culture of good communicators. Good presentations use stories as well as the credibility of the speaker, emotion, and logic to make its points and engage the audience. 


Five Stars is available for purchase on Amazon for $27.99 (does not include Prime discount).

Book Review: Trillion Dollar Coach

Google alumni Eric Schmidt, Jonathan Rosenberg and Alan Eagle wrote Trillion Dollar Coach as a tribute to their late friend and coach, Bill Campbell. In the book, Campbell is memorialized as a larger than life personality, with a role in helping to shape leadership and business strategy for companies like Apple, Intuit, and Google.

Campbell, a former football player and coach for the football team at Columbia University, ended up in Silicon Valley in the 1980s and became the Vice President of Sales and Marketing for Apple. After his experience at apple, he went on to lead several companies, including Intuit. Later in life, Bill Campbell became a confidant and coach for some of Silicon Valley’s titans, such as Steve Jobs, Ben Horowitz, and Sheryl Sandberg.

TrillionDollarCoachThe book is filled with Campbell’s wisdom as a business veteran, successful leader, and a warm and principled person. To begin, the book shares an account of Campbell’s funeral, which was attended by a wide range of Bill’s friends including his regular golf caddie at his home in Mexico, as well as Silicon Valley’s most well-known tech leaders. Campbell was known for his hugs, treating everybody the same, and his community building opportunities, like the annual Super Bowl trip, which he endowed in his will.

Campbell had all the characteristics of a good coach: brutal honesty, wisdom, complete confidentiality, loyalty, and accessibility, to name just a few. He imparted lessons to already extremely successful people in values-based leadership, how to run an impactful meeting, putting the team first, and achieving organizational and product alignment.

To get access to more of Campbell’s rich wisdom, you are going to have to buy the book, which I recommend partly because of the lessons within it and partly because coaching is an often overlooked, but necessary quality, for the most successful leaders.

If you think about it, leaders of companies play the role of a coach. In many businesses, the front-line, customer-facing staff and product developers are not in management roles. Like a sports coach, who plays the game through the players, management is almost always in the role of working to deliver a product or service through the employees. Reading this book will help give leaders insight over how to coach employees towards success.

Coaching is also not just the role of the leaders, including the CEO, but also a resource that leaders, especially CEOs, should invest in for themselves. Campbell was an outside eye, an adviser, almost like an organizational doctor, who could diagnose problems and work through solutions with the CEO. Often, leadership at the top of an organization can be lonely and isolating. Having a coach can help the CEO improve and be exposed to things he may not otherwise see.

To understand this point in greater detail, I recommend you watch Atul Gawande’s 2017 TED Talk on coaching. Gawande, a world-class surgeon, learned a lot about improving his surgery technique when he hired a coach. He believes that coaching is essential to becoming great in any field.

If Steve Jobs needed a coach, all of us probably do as well. I am sure many readers of this book will feel as I do, that it would have been a rare privilege to get to meet Campbell before he passed away. May his memory continue to be for a blessing.

KEY TAKEAWAY: Coaching is a core competency for successful leaders. The right coach can help a leader achieve greatness by showing them dynamics in the organization that they may not otherwise see. A leader who coaches their team members can open up incredible potential in the entire organization.


Trillion Dollar Coach is being released today and is available for purchase on Amazon for $28.99 (does not include Prime discount).

Leaving a legacy in a role with no job description: The Gatekeepers and the Chiefs of Staff to the President

The Gatekeepers by Chris Whipple is an enjoyable read all about the role of the Chief of Staff to the President of the United States and the men (so far only men have served in the role) who have held the title.

The President’s Chief of Staff is a peculiar, non-elected and non-Senate confirmed role and its definition is wholly dependent on how the President and his Chief of Staff craft it intentionally or by inertia. The amorphous nature of the role is part of what makes it so unique and extremely personality-dependent, which gives depth to both the stories and the characters in the book.

The GatekeepersThe Gatekeepers is filled with many excellent anecdotes that give the reader an insider’s view into the workings of the White House during different administrations. For example, Donald Regan, President Reagan’s second Chief of Staff was not long for the job after hanging up on the First Lady.

Each Chief of Staff defines the job a little bit differently such as using different analogies or nicknames; a CEO and COO, Chairman of the Board and CEO, spokes of a wheel, reality therapist, heat shield, or the Secretary of S**t. But, what they all had in common was a seemingly impossible job, with no clear job description, that serves at the pleasure of the most powerful person in the country.

There are descriptions of the men who performed the job exceptionally, such as H.R. Haldeman (Nixon), Vice President Dick Cheney (Ford), James A. Baker III (Reagan and Bush 41), and Leon Panetta (Clinton). They all approached the job humbly, taking advice from many past Chiefs of Staff and studying the role. They had a plan coming in and clarified their role with the President, the Cabinet, and other advisors. Finally, they were all able to play both good cop and bad cop when needed.

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There are also descriptions of the lackluster Chiefs of Staff, such as Hamilton Jordan (Carter), Donald Regan (Reagan), and John Sununu (Bush 41). These men approached the job arrogantly, had oversized egos, couldn’t manage, some became the subject of scandal and did not generally treat people in and out of the White House well or fairly.

Other than just being an enjoyable, interesting, and provoking read, The Gatekeepers has been on my mind for two other reasons: 1) The emphasis on the structure, or lack there of, of the role and 2) The beyond-partisan bond that the Chiefs of Staff share with each other.

In my current role, I am the first full time executive leader of patient experience for our health care system. I frequently think about structure and foundation of the position in order to make sure the role is successful well beyond my tenure.

The book describes how H.R. Haldeman’s “staff system” was the foundational structure for every Chief of Staff that followed his tenure. The great Chiefs of Staff who followed like Cheney, Baker, and Panetta used Haldeman’s system as a starting point and tailored the role to the current administration from there. Haldeman also correctly identified that his main job was to protect the President’s most important asset: his time.

My goal is to create a similar approach and program that serves as a solid foundation for getting the job done today and in the future. I work tirelessly to read and research, as Haldeman did, to make sure that I am setting up patient experience at the organization for success in the future. I still have more work to do, but I believe it is critical work in starting a new function, no matter what the size or the scope of the organization.

The Chiefs of Staff are a bit like a fraternity and usually get together at the beginning of a new administration. This bi-partisan group shares wisdom with the incoming Chief of Staff and shares their experience and answers any questions. Meeting past Chiefs provides an opportunity for a new person in the role is indispensable, especially because the job description is so malleable. The humble Chiefs understand this dynamic and take the advice seriously. It seems that the current Chief of Staff can always call any of the others for guidance or advice.

Not only a great read, The Gatekeepers contains many good lessons in leadership and “followership”, helping an executive leader accomplish their goals. It is a great read for anyone interested in politics, business, or organizational development.

KEY TAKEAWAY: In a role without a real job description, relationships, structure, and adaptation are essential. Further, understanding your role in relation to a CEO when you are in the senior leadership of an organization involves humility, keeping your ego in check, and establishing and following clear rules for communication, preserving everyones most important asset: their time.


The Gatekeepers is available for purchase on Amazon for $17.00 (does not include Prime discount)