Journaling

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By my count, today is day 138 of the COVID-19 pandemic, or a little over four and a half months of social distancing. While my wife and I feel blessed to have a roof over our heads, jobs, our health, and a healthy new baby boy, that doesn’t mean the last 138 days have been easy. We miss our family, our friends, seeing people in our community regularly and, boy, what I would do for a night out at our favorite restaurant or to go to a ballgame.

With all of that said, there is one practice that I hope to keep when all of this is over and that’s journaling. Pretty much every evening, I have sat down and kept a journal and I have found that, despite the lack of normal activity, I have had a lot to say! I have already filled up 2 journals that I have previously started and stopped over the last decade and am on my third.

I find it therapeutic to get my thoughts down on paper, even if they are disorganized and incomplete. I do not put pressure on myself for it to be elegant prose or the next great novel, it just reflects what comes off the top of my mind and out of my pen. Journaling helps me reflect on and explore conversations I’ve had, think through problems, process things I am learning, and put events that are bothering me into a larger context.

Journaling also gives me a reference point for certain events. For example, without the journal, I doubt that I would have any memory of my son’s first 4 weeks of life. As those of you who are parents know, that time is a sleep-deprived blur. Not to mention that, because of the pandemic, it was just the three of us for that entire time.

Most of all, I have found that journaling gives me context. It is hard not to feel like every notable moment or decision is significant. However, I look back later and realize that I may have blown whatever was going on way out of proportion. Reading through it in a journal allows me to understand my thoughts and emotions so that when I am feeling those same thoughts or emotions in a similar context, I can put them into perspective, reminding myself how it turned out. I had this exact situation happen to me just this week, and by making the comparison, I was able to make myself feel better and better manage my emotions.

Seeing progress over time has been one of the best discoveries in keeping a journaling practice. I highly recommend it, especially if you are leading teams or you desire to engage in self-discovery. Happy journaling!

Journal of choice: Moleskine large soft cover lined notebook

Writing instrument of choice: Montblanc Meisterstück Platinum-Coated Classique Rollerball or my gift shop pen from the President Gerald Ford Museum

KEY TAKEAWAY: Journaling is a great way to collect your thoughts, especially during times of growth, change, or uncertainty.

Am I serving the group?

At work, I have been sharing with many teams lately about the concept of reflection as a reflex. The concept is about using what Viktor Frankl described in his book Man’s Search for Meaning as the space between stimulus and response. Stephen Covey also included this concept in The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People.

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At times in my career, I have found myself hesitating in meetings. Reflecting on it, I think I hesitate because of things like Automatic Negative Thoughts (ANTS), fear that what I say will sound obvious to the rest of the group, or that others in the room are smarter or more experienced than I am and I probably do not have anything of value to contribute. Is this something you struggle with too?

Over time, I have learned a quick “test” that has helped me and I hope will help you too.

Any time I hesitate to speak, I ask myself, “Will what I am about to say serve the group?”

This yes or no question gives me enough time to reflect without missing the germane part of the conversation and to make a decision on whether my comment will add value to the discussion. This question is also consistent with my personal definition of leadership and my desire to practice servant leadership. It gives me the confidence that even if my comment is controversial, it will be received in the right way because my motivation is service to the group.

I use this test in almost every meeting that I attend. It helps me to reflect in the moment and make sure that I am contributing at a high level. The test also keeps me centered. For example, the “test” prevents me from being too quiet or too dominant because my comments are always in pursuit of service to the group.

I hope you find value in this test as well and it helps you create better and more productive meetings.

KEY TAKEAWAY: Leaders can practice reflexion in most contexts, including meetings. Before you speak, simply asking yourself, “Will what I am about to say serve the group?” will give you the confidence to speak up and reflect the authenticity of your point of view.

 

Why I play golf

When I was 4 years old, my mother bought me a 7 iron. She used to take me for lessons at this beat up old driving range off of route 29 near Columbia, MD. I don’t remember much about the experience other than the rusted out old red jalopy car used for target practice at about 150 yards out. I couldn’t hit the ball that far, but remember aspiring one day to hit it.

I went to golf camps for a week at a time here and there growing up as well. I was never all that good but I enjoyed doing it. It’s where I learned to grip a club, the basics of putting, and to keep my head down to make contact.

But, when I was in college something clicked and I have Jeff Maynor to thank for it. Jeff is the golf pro at the University of Maryland. I got to know him when I served as Student Government President at Maryland. He was also my professor in a course I was fortunate to take called, “Golf for Business Majors.” During the course we spent time on the driving range, playing the course at UMD, and in the classroom learning the rules of golf and hearing from guest speakers.

Other than the extremely generous A- I got in the course, thanks to Jeff, there were also several things I learned from the class that have been some of the most practical advice I have ever gotten and use frequently in my career. I learned how to be a conscientious golfer, how to pick up pace of play when you’re not very good, and how to hit my driver. I also learned what to look for in other players and how to read certain behaviors on the golf course that could also translate to the boardroom.

Jonathan Golf

Me teeing off on the 10th hole at Norbeck Country Club. Playing in a charity tournament to benefit Miracle for Melanie in May of 2017

But the most powerful thing Jeff said to us was, “Golf is a metaphor for life.” As a 21 year old, I absolutely did not get it. In fact, I had no idea what he was talking about. Every year after though I never forgot that and I appreciated it more and more.

Golf is one of the only things I enjoy doing even though I know I am not very good at it. When I practice a lot, I shoot in the 90s (good golfers shoot 10 strokes better, in the 80s and really good in the low 70s). Usually though, I’m lucky to break 100. Golf is a very humbling game.

What keeps me coming back time and time again is that one good shot, the people I play with, and the humbling nature of a simple game.

One good shot

Every time I golf, no matter how badly I play, I always have a takeaway or experience that helps me in the next round. It may not even be a shot but more like something I notice, how I take care of my body, or something I learn. The odds are that in all that time on a golf course and from the sheer number of shots, something is going to go right, even randomly. That part, where things start to come together, is what makes golf so addictive. “If I could just do that every time,” is both the golfers blessing and delusion.

Similarly in life, I find that no matter how something went, I always try to be in a learning mode. I try to notice something new, implement something I read about, or learn more to try to mitigate something that did not go according to plan. I also find that there is always one thing that I can build on, even in a disaster, just like in a round of golf.

The people I play with

The people I play with make all the difference in a round of golf. For an 18-hole round of golf I get between 4 and 4 and a half hours to get to know someone. I prefer this much more than a networking event where we get 5 minutes together. I can learn a lot about another person, past the superficial, during a round of golf. I have had, over the years, groups of friends that golf together including Jeff, David, Andrew S, Andrew R, and Howard. Golf has helped me build and continue these relationships, which are very important to me.

A former boss gave me a compliment and a word of caution during a performance review. He told me that one of my strengths was building deep relationships and then he asked me how I thought that could be sustainable. I don’t have an answer to that yet, but I do know that golf hits my comfort zone much more than a quick meet and greet does because the group can get below the surface.

There are also the types of people you want to play golf with and absolutely don’t want to play golf with. Jeff Maynor gave us great advice that if you keep up with the pace of play, you can play with anyone. Similarly, there are some personality traits that work in basically any environment. Someone who slows everyone else down with slow pace of play is seen as selfish and an annoying golfer to play with, as is someone super negative, someone with a bad temper, or a cheater. These personalities obviously carry beyond the golf course.

It’s humbling

Here is the basic premise of golf: The player gets 14 clubs to move a ball into a hole in as few strokes as possible. The courses are laid out and don’t move during the round of play. You can use any information at your disposal including precise distances to almost every point on the course to complete the task. There is nobody blocking, no opponents playing defense, and no noise to distract you. You can use technology in your clubs, in the balls, and even on your clothing to help you accomplish this task.

Despite the simplicity and data-rich nature of the game, it is still one of the most difficult sports to play. There is also no “perfect round.” It’s impossible to get a hole-in-one on every hole. I’ve played with some really good golfers and even their rounds can look clunky, at best. They miss fairways, greens, hit trees, land in sand traps, and splash in the water hazards. On a golf course, “hazards” are, of course, strategically placed by the golf course architect to be exactly the distance the average ball travels from the previous point.

But, at the end of the day, it is just you out there, navigating the landscape. For some people, this makes golf especially frustrating and everyone handles that emotion differently. Most golfers are really out there playing against their minds.

To me, life is the same way. I find myself often competing with my own thoughts to determine whether or not something I want to do is possible. The landscape is the landscape, that’s reality, and it is very difficult to change. Life, like a golf course, is about how I choose to navigate it, work with it, and make it work to my strengths to get the job done. It may be an ugly process, but it is what, I believe, will make me successful.

Being on a golf course is one of my favorite places to be. Not only is it outside, beautifully landscaped, quiet, and peaceful, but also a place where I am fortunate to enjoy my time with old friends or making new friends. I appreciate the game as a metaphor for life and hope to continue to learn every time I get out there and hit ’em.

KEY TAKEAWAY: Golf can be a metaphor for life. It’s a great way to meet new people and keep in touch with old friends. Golf is humbling and requires skilled navigation and lots of practice and patience.

Book Review: The Last Word on Power

A mentor of mine once told me that, in his opinion, executives must re-invent themselves every seven years. It was not until recently that I truly understood what that meant.

Originally published in the mid-1990s, The Last Word on Power by Tracy Goss has deep ideas that leaders should consider. In the book, Goss explains a framework she calls, “executive re-invention.”

thelastwordonpowerThe framework is about how leaders can use self-reflection to free themselves from preconceived notions that hold them back. Goss suggests that if leaders are looking to transform the groups they lead, they must first transform themselves.

One of the more powerful ideas in the book is one Goss calls, “The Universal Human Paradigm.” The idea behind this concept is that humans believe that there is a way things “should” or “shouldn’t” be (p.77). In truth, this is a construct. Goss writes that there is really only the way things actually are. In other words, restricting judgment and accepting reality will allow leaders to accept the risk and reinvent themselves and change the world.

Goss describes the process for becoming aware of our own versions of “The Universal Human Paradigm,” and then how to reinvent oneself from that point. To free ourselves from, “The Universal Human Paradigm,” we must, “Die before going into battle.” Among the resources in this chapter is a rather dark story about Buckminster Fuller, a famous 20th century architect, and how he talked himself out of suicide to pursue the life he was too afraid to seek previously. Although this one anecdote may seem depressing, keep reading. In the steps that follow, Goss advice merits reflection and the work of going through the framework point by point.

The concepts in the book remind me a lot of stoic philosophy and how we can excel in life by accepting the world as it is.

The Last Word on Power is a dense and thought-provoking read. As I went through the book, I found myself believing in the concepts, although putting them into practice has been challenging. Like “The Universal Human Paradigm,” communities and organizations are filled with a set of paradigms and mental models that form its culture.

Unlike some of the other frameworks I have read about, this one I feel is particularly hard to implement in an existing culture, unless the change comes from the top leader of the organization. If the President or CEO undergoes a reinvention, then it can open the door for others to reinvent themselves as well. However, without that initial step, implementing the framework could come off as insubordinate, rude, or, at the bare minimum, strange.

The parts that stick with me from the book usually involve individuals going off and doing something they would rather do than work because their transition is so transformative, clear, and obvious. As someone who is engaged and happy in my current role, there are parts of the framework that feel like they either don’t apply or are unrealizable.

Still, the framework has many elements that can work for everyone. Acknowledgement that no matter how much we plan, the chances of achieving a life plan are low and knowing that our work will never feel complete are powerful to grapple with and reconcile.

The Last Word on Power is a worthwhile read. No matter where you are in an organization, exploring and working through the framework will be beneficial. This is also a great book to discuss with a learning partner because of its complexity.

KEY TAKEAWAY: According to the concepts in The Last Word on Power, re-invention starts with the work of inner personal reflection. Once we accept reality as it is, we can start to make changes in our lives to achieve important things for society. I recommend this book to explore the richness of the framework and to strive for implementation.


The Last Word on Power is available for purchase on Amazon for $16.99 (does not include Prime discount)

Remarks to new University of Maryland Executive MBA Cohort 19

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University of Maryland Executive MBA Class of 2018

I delivered the following remarks to the incoming Executive MBA class at the University of Maryland on Wednesday, January 23rd:

Good evening. My name is Jonathan Sachs and I am a proud double Terp and graduate of EMBA Cohort ’17. First, I would like to recognize my school family in attendance tonight also from EMBA Cohort 17: Chris Barron, Ahmed Majumder, honorary member Allison McLeod, and Andrew Malcolm. It is so good to see you guys, especially not sitting for 12-hours a day in the same room every-other weekend.

When Shelbi asked me to speak to you tonight, I was beyond honored. The EMBA experience at Maryland changed my life in amazing ways. I started the program about the same time I was beginning my first role in business operations, switching over from government affairs and lobbying.

Our professors, coaches and classmates, encouraged me to be bold and to be the kind of leader I aspired to be, not just be the same as everyone else. The business I was given to operate needed to be turned around and quick. We were hemorrhaging money, giving bad service, and the staff was suffering.

Thanks to what I learned on Friday and Saturday, I brought cutting edge ideas and content to my team on Mondays. We accomplished the turnaround and saved the business, recording 56% more revenue, 15% improvement in net margin, 20% improvement in customer reviews, extremely low staff turnover, and a record growth rate for a service line in the company – 31.6% growth based on a budget of 5.8% year over year. We were second in our company in raw dollars beating budget to an entity that was nearly 100 times our revenue.

None of that would have been possible without this program. 2 months after I graduated, I was promoted to a more senior role at work, but I want you to know that that is not even close to the value of this experience. In fact, it dwarfs in comparison to what I received – confidence, values, direction, character, and a thirst for knowledge.

I got there in part because of the content, professors, and the cohort. But, I also got there because graduates had given out some free advice and I took it. For example, Dan Cowens gave us some advice that he “accidentally” told his employer that class met every weekend instead of every-other weekend and never corrected his error (that was before our Business Ethics class, I guess).

Just to be clear, I told my employer that class was every other weekend, but to be successful in the program, I was going to not be in the office on Fridays for a while. That full day to do school work made a big difference for me. That was great advice! Thank you, Dan, where-ever you are.

So in the same spirit, I hope you will consider these three small pieces of advice, presented humbly. If you take them, I guarantee it will help and if you don’t take them, well you will fail out of the program in disgrace. It’s really that simple and totally up to you.

Looking back during residence week where you begin your journey today, I remember feeling raw, overwhelmed, and concerned about learning how to learn again, but focused. We were given an index card to write down our commitments for the remainder of the program. I wrote down these words: “do the work”. They were the most important three words of the program for me other than “Accounting cheat sheet”, “Google hangouts call”, or “Breakfast omelette bar” (that was for you, Chris).

So, advice #1: “Do the work”. You may not believe me, but other than your family, school should be your top priority, not work. You will only get this experience for the next 17 months. That’s nothing in terms of time. Work will always be there. Jump in to this experience with both feet, it will last a lot longer than that urgent deliverable due next week at work.

Do the reading. Since most of the learning in business school is case-based, you learn more from a better discussion where everyone has done the reading. So, do the reading.

Do the assignments. The professors are (usually) not just assigning you busy work. Assignments are a great opportunity to dig deeper into your organization for “academic purposes”. You won’t believe what people will tell you when they think it’s for school. I actually have gone back and read some of my old assignments, many of which inspired posts on my new website. So, do the assignments.

Do the group work. At first, you are going to hate it. Later, you will get used to it and probably hate it a little less. But, if you come into it assuming that it won’t go well, or that the other people in your group are idiots, or if they just listened to you, you would have gotten an A instead of an A minus, you’re setting up a self fulfilling prophecy.

Additionally, don’t commit to doing something and then never do it. Show up to the calls, put your webcam on so we know you’re there, nobody looks like Beyonce on that thing so it doesn’t matter, and be present. Your classmates will be at the same time much more forgiving than your professors and also much more demanding than them. So, do the group work.

So, remember #1: do the work.

Advice #2: Set up cohort norms. You are going to be together in a big group in that same room for a long time. All told over the duration of program, it’s close to 34 complete 24 hour days in that room. Trust me, it’s a lot of sitting, I have the chiropractor bills to prove it.

Despite getting the advice from the alumni speaker at our residence week to put together norms, our cohort never did it. Not pushing for us to follow through on developing our norms is my biggest regret in the program.

Norms define the way a group conducts itself. Norms are important so that everyone can get the best learning. This is done by establishing at the on-set what is acceptable and unacceptable to the group. Some may seem silly like what’s the protocol if you’re running late to class, do we keep same seats, or how to engage in the class discussion when it is obvious to everyone that you haven’t done the reading, but you still want to talk.

Others will be incredibly sensitive, but far more important like how to engage respectfully on subjects that come up in discussion such as race, gender, ethnicity, politics and religion. Norms can also protect the learning outcomes of the group by preserving the voice of the less dominant and more accommodating members, who may often have the best ideas to help the group learn.

Not only will cohort norms make school more enjoyable, but it’s important to get the skill for creating them. The best leaders help create the ground rules for their teams and make sure they are followed.

Don’t woos out from the norms conversation. Often the ones who will make the biggest fuss about it are the ones who need the norms the most. Nobody is going to want to stay late on a Friday or Saturday to have the conversation, but it’s critical.

So, remember, Advice #2: Establish cohort norms.

Advice #3: Struggle. I know what you’re thinking right now. Done! Yeah, that one was easy. You should have seen what it was like getting out of bed this morning.

That’s not what I am talking about.

What I mean is that you’re in school, so you are not expected to have all the answers. For example, you’re going to work with an executive coach. The first thing they are going to do is show you a mirror, through the assessments. That mirror reveals how you perceive yourself versus how you are perceived by others. For some of us, that was an eye opening conversation and it can bring up many feelings. Please advance into that conversation, don’t retreat from it. Struggle with this learning, don’t brush it aside. It’s really important.

Trust me in that the harder something is not only in this experience, but in life, the more important it tends to be, especially in the realm of self-reflection. Struggle in this area will build your character and core values.

In the book, The Road to Character by David Brooks, a repeated theme, which was a comfort to me in my own pursuit of developing a strong character, was struggle.

Personally, I often struggle with decisions, practices and questions that show my character. In my own reflection on these moments, I am extremely self-critical. Why am I struggling? Why isn’t this obvious to me? The leaders and change makers that I look up to and read about seem to have an innate inner-compass. Where is mine? I have one but why is it failing me here?

The book taught me, if nothing else, to embrace this struggle. The same people who I look up to had to go through situations and events that built their character. The people Brooks describes fell down frequently in their pursuit of a character to serve others. They made lots of mis-steps, had their own vices, and often made the same mistakes repeatedly. It isn’t easy to develop character. You have to struggle, learn, and make mistakes.

As Brooks writes in the introduction to the book, “It was a cultural and intellectual tradition, the “crooked timber” tradition, that emphasized our own brokenness. It was a tradition that demanded humility in the face of our own limitations. But it was also a tradition that held that each of us has the power to confront our own weaknesses, tackle our own sins, and that in the course of this confrontation with ourselves we build character” (Brooks, 2015).

You’re not going to always be correct or in the right during this experience. Sometimes, you are going to fall down. Own it and struggle with it. The next 17 months can build your character as much as it can your knowledge of business. While most of us try to run away from struggle or unpleasantness, you’re going to jump right into it and be better for it. Right?

So remember, Advice #3: Struggle.

So in conclusion, if you “do the work”, create cohort norms, and struggle, you are going to get every drop out of this program. While you are in school, life will go on (I married the love of my life, Sheryl, last March), so don’t miss out on those experiences too. The EMBA at Maryland has been life changing for me and I am eternally grateful for it. I look forward to learning about all the great that you will do.

Thank you, happy learning and GO TERPS!