Sunday, August 11, 2013

New Blog Location

Beginning today (August 11, 2013) my current weekly blog posts will be hosted on my new firm website. Please visit (and bookmark) the new address Ken Byler's Blog.

Older post (prior to 2013) will continue to be hosted here.

Sunday, August 4, 2013

Number 42

This weekend I enjoyed viewing the film 42, a biographical sports movie about the life of Jackie Robinson. As major league baseball’s first African-American player who debuted with the Brooklyn Dodgers in1947, Robinson endured a seemingly endless string of racial slurs, hostile crowd reactions, intentional knockdown pitches, and even death threats. He managed to overcome these challenges without losing his temper and eventually won the respect of teammates, opposing players, and skeptical fans through his talents as a baseball player.

While the movie includes some historical inaccuracies, it is a mostly authentic depiction of this remarkable athlete and even more impressive person. Leaders can learn a number of valuable lessons from how Robinson conducted his life with dignity, courage, and authenticity.

Many of us have never experienced prejudice or bias like Robinson yet we can emulate his determined spirit and refusal to yield when we face our own obstacles. Robinson benefited from an equally resolute team executive, Branch Rickey, whose decision to elevate the profile of African-American baseball players transformed the future direction of America’s national pastime.

Robinson used his talents and skills on the field to change people’s hearts and minds. He was daring and quick when running the bases, a solid fielder at a position (first base)  that he had to learn how to play, and a gifted hitter. Leaders who take time to identify and hone their own competencies are more likely to earn the respect of those they serve and interact with.

Baseball is a team sport and Robinson faced the reality that many of his new Dodger teammates didn’t want to take the field with him. The tension of a divided clubhouse mirrors many of the situations found in today’s stressful workplace environments. Leaders who model acceptance and trust can disarm these volatile situations.

One person’s exceptional character and disciplined display of remarkable talent changed how a nation viewed segregation and certainly influenced the future for all African-American athletes. Robinson’s legacy was honored in 1997 when he became the first pro athlete in any sport to have his jersey number “42” universally retired by every major league baseball team.

The leadership lessons of Jackie Robinson remind us that personal integrity and determined talent make a formidable pair. We may never know the scope of our influence or how one unkind word or deed can change the course of a life or career. This week, as you face decisions and make choices, consider establishing your own “Number 42” legacy, even if you don’t have a jersey to retire.

Sunday, July 28, 2013

Cracking the Case


In 1968 a disheveled homicide detective with the Los Angeles Police Department made his first appearance as a television show character. Columbo, played by actor Peter Falk, quickly became one of my favorite sleuths. Each week viewers observed a perpetrator committing their crime as the show opened. Then we would settle in to watch Columbo go about cracking the case.

He was especially fond of asking questions that seemed irrelevant or annoyed the guilty party, who was doing his or her best to maintain an air of innocence. Columbo was particularly observant and very meticulous with details of the crime. Yet, his unkempt hair, rumpled trench coat, pungent cigar, and frequently malfunctioning 1959 Peugeot 403 convertible gave the appearance of an absent-minded buffoon.

Today’s leaders could learn a few lessons from Columbo, sans the dress, the smoking, and the car. Here was a detective who took the same evidence available to his colleagues and framed it in new ways. He regularly revisited the crime scene to notice details he may have overlooked initially or to test his theories about what had taken place. Columbo always maintained an air of respect and humility as he went about his work, even when the potential suspects were arrogant and dismissive of his approach.

Like a detective, leaders are often faced with daunting problems and challenges. Sometimes it is tempting to simply blame others for what is wrong, to distance oneself from the situation and act as though you want to help but there are just too many obstacles getting in the way. Or you might focus your energy on fixing what is wrong without examining all the evidence, or reframing the situation, to see it with a different set of eyes.

A more effective approach could be to pose better questions by focusing on what is already working and considering how to do more of that. This process may actually create the energy and spark the creativity required to address a problem in a new way. If leaders model humility and respect during these conversations the team, the customer, or the employees may voice concerns and ideas that otherwise would have remained unspoken. These revelations could hold the key to real solutions.

One of Columbo’s favorite ploys was to subject the unsuspecting culprit to a series of mundane questions, turn to leave the room, and then pause to ask “one more thing.” It was often this final pointed question that gleaned substantive information to solve his case. Leaders would do well to design their own vital questions; intentional enquiries of themselves, and their team. Your ability to crack the case depends on it.

Sunday, July 21, 2013

A Family Affair

The “Byler Bash” is how my biological family describes our biennial gatherings that take place the third weekend of July at a mountain retreat in central Pennsylvania. Like any reunion, we eat together and spend time catching up on all the many happenings in our busy lives. Since we live in different parts of the state and country it usually isn’t possible for every family member to attend, but we enjoy the company of everyone who does show up.

In recent years the senior members of our clan, the sons of Tom and Ada Byler, have been shrinking in number. This weekend my dad, who passed away last November, was fondly remembered, and his older brother wasn’t well enough to make the trip. That left one remaining brother and two daughters-in-law to represent the second generation (another aunt was unable to attend).
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As I reflect on why these reunions have become so important to me I continue to be drawn to one word “heritage.” Every family has traditions—ours is good food and even better singing. We always spend some part of the weekend raising our voices in a-cappella, four-part harmony. The men usually share a few choral numbers especially written for male voices as well. It’s a special part of our heritage.

This weekend we also took some dedicated time to share family stories with each other. It didn’t take long for the room to buzz with conversation featuring memories of grandpa and grandma, uncles and aunts, and time spent with cousins while growing up. One story recalled how generous our grandfather was when selling corn or hay (it was always the best of his inventory) and how his baskets of apples always overflowed. These insights also contribute to the heritage our family enjoys.

Many times throughout the weekend laughter permeated the rooms of our lodge as we recalled humorous moments from the past or enjoyed new ones from the current conversations. I also observed more intimate exchanges that reflect how much we care for each other and long to deepen those relationships. It was an unexpected joy to watch third and fourth generation family members (some of them quite young) being introduced for the first time and soon happily visiting or playing together.

As one of many leaders in this clan, I am committed to keeping this family heritage vibrant and meaningful. That may mean sacrificing some personal time to plan the logistics of a future gathering. It will require booking time on my own busy professional and personal calendar to attend the next reunion. Mostly it will involve sharing this family’s stories and memories with the younger generation. It’s a labor of love that I’m only too happy to fulfill.

If you are reading this post, and enjoy your own family reunions, please share your heritage memories. As I am more aware each time my family gathers, our time is limited to leave a legacy that others will want to carry on.

Sunday, July 14, 2013

Waiting Patiently

The topic of waiting has been a subject for several of my blog posts over the years. It emerged again this week because of a conversation with a young father from my church who is battling leukemia and has been in the hospital the past 27 days. In a recent conversation he shared how difficult it has been to wait, especially for test results. That prompted me to revisit some of my previous prose and edit them for this week's reflections.

Patience is probably not one of my virtues. I’m guessing that I share this affliction with many of my clients and colleagues. It seems that “patience as a virtue” doesn’t resonate very well when expectations for results and action are used to measure success for today’s business leaders. Our need for instant gratification is fast becoming part of our society’s DNA as future leaders are fed a steady diet of sound bites, Instant Messages, and access to overwhelming volumes of information in shorter spans of time.

 When leaders are faced with hard times or personal challenges the prospect of waiting takes on new meaning. Confidence begins to wane, decision-making can become reactive, and depression may paralyze our ability to see any signs of hope. These “personal pits” become lonely retreats where desperation and fear reign supreme.

The writers of the Biblical Psalms often echo these sentiments in poetic prose. The depth of despair, pain, and suffering ring with prophetic truth centuries after the words were first given voice. One Psalm offers hope for those persons, including leaders, mired in their personal “waiting game”. Attributed to David, the Hebrew king, its message offers a sharp contrast to our typical approach to waiting. “I waited patiently for the Lord; he inclined to me and heard my cry,” writes David in Psalm 40:1.

Waited patiently? What does patience have to do with anything? I want my situation to change right now, not a year from now. Endurance and persistence aren’t leadership qualities; they’re something that only an athlete can appreciate.

The text also offers another startling revelation, the writer is expecting God to act, to hear and respond to his cry for help. In the depths of a hard time in his life the Psalmist anticipates that God will do something when he is ready. There is a quiet comfort in knowing that the waiting game will be rewarded. In the verses that follow, the poem offers a vivid and joyful account of rescue and restoration. A leader’s confidence is renewed and his future is secure.

Today’s leaders, including myself, have much to learn about this level of trust in the face of adversity. Most of us don’t really know or understand real suffering. We take so much for granted, including the incredible freedom, wealth, and privilege that are ours to enjoy. Our unwillingness to wait is symptomatic of a deeper need, the need to trust someone other than ourselves. Perhaps the lesson we all must learn about waiting begins with crying out for help.

Sunday, July 7, 2013

Compelling Communication

This past week marked the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg. It has been a busy week in this small borough in the heart of Adams County Pennsylvania where thousands of civil war reenactors and more than 150,000 visitors celebrated the sesquicentennial event. The battle that raged in the farmland around this now peaceful town claimed over 51,000 casualties and is considered the turning point in our nation’s civil war.
The conflict took place over three bloody days in July 1863 but it is a two minute speech delivered by President Abraham Lincoln in November of that same year that is often what we remember best about Gettysburg. The speech was intended to commemorate the event at the dedication of a new national cemetery. Lincoln had less than two weeks to prepare his remarks. According to historians he finished his draft of the speech on the morning he would deliver it.

Lincoln’s address is remarkable for several reasons. First, he was able to summarize his thoughts into a very brief set of remarks. Every word and phase seems measured to deliver maximum clarity and impact. Few leaders today are known for brevity of speech. Perhaps that is why so few orations deliver the intended results. When a leader is forced to filter their instructions, intentions, or aspirations the essence of the message is easier to remember and share with others.

His thoughts acknowledge the grief and loss of a battle weary nation, yet they also call attention to the unfinished work that remained. The war would not end for another two years and Lincoln needed the citizens to move beyond their justifiable mourning so that freedom would prevail. Leaders who use their communication to clearly show the gaps between current reality and future opportunity will be more effective in their efforts to inspire those they lead.

Lincoln’s speech includes the famous line, “resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain.” His words were intended to spur people into action, to continue the war effort until the job was completed. Leaders often fail to deliver this specific “call to action” in their communication, opting instead for fuzzy instructions and ambiguous plans.

I don’t imagine many leaders can craft a speech like Lincoln’s and that’s not really my point. What I do wish for are more leaders who will incorporate Lincoln’s approach to the Gettysburg address, the techniques that made it so effective. They are summarized here. Keep your thoughts short, create a clear gap between where things are and where they could be, and have a compelling reason to change the current direction or continue the fight onward.

Being persuasive is a communication tool every leader needs. What’s keeping you from learning how to do it and use it?

Sunday, June 30, 2013

Lessons from Summer Jobs

It’s that time of the year when those high school and college students lucky enough to find work are toiling at a summer job. Hopefully their experience will result in more than just some extra spending money or savings for college. Many of us who remember our first summer job will find it formed habits and opinions that may still be impacting our lives at work today.

Since I spent many of my growing up years living on a farm, my summer jobs included the usual array of chores but there are three particular tasks that remain embedded in my memory as especially challenging. One was picking stone in the fields each spring after the soil had been turned and tilled. It was thankless, monotonous work, often performed in the heat of the day. Another was cutting thistles by hand in the pasture fields where they seemed to sprout as fast as we could remove them.

But the most memorable summer job on the farm involved moving irrigation pipes. It’s hard to describe the scene, but imagine a muddy corn field lined with rows of wet stalks from an overnight or early morning shower provided by the sprinklers. Because the pipes only covered a certain number of rows they were moved across the field each morning so the watering was evenly distributed for maximum effect. Unlike today’s systems that tend to be elevated on frames outfitted with wheels, everything we did involved manual labor.

The pipes were aluminum but, when filled with water, were quite heavy to lift. So each section of 16 foot long pipe was unlatched and emptied of its contents before being lifted overhead and carried through the mud and wet corn rows to the spot where it would reside when the pump was turned on again. As you might imagine by the end of this process I was soaked and muddied from head to toe and exhausted from lugging the pipes across the fields. The only benefit from this job was how cool it all felt on a hot day.

These summer jobs, regardless of how menial they now seem, taught me a number of worthwhile life lessons. I learned perseverance as those stones seemed to reappear every spring planting season, a trait that continues to serve me well when I encounter challenges in my business. I also practiced patience, as these jobs all helped me to tolerate difficult situations knowing the end result would include a level of satisfaction and a paycheck to spend or save. Finally, I experienced the joy that work brings when it is done well and shared with people you enjoy spending time with.

My experiences with summer jobs is probably not unique. Many of our initial encounters in the workplace are spent doing less than desirable tasks. I can only wish that today’s crop of young people are open to learning some life lessons through whatever challenging endeavors they will face. I wonder if they will also view their paycheck as just a bonus?