What to Leave, and What to Take

“Leave the gun, take the cannoli.”
–From “The Godfather”

While browsing the website of executive coach Scott Eblin (@ScottEblin on Twitter), I encountered his book, “The Next Level: What Insiders Know About Executive Success.”  An item about his book caught my eye in particular: Moving successfully to the executive level requires knowing which behaviors and beliefs to let go, as well as which new ones to pick up. Interesting; it so happens my coach and I touched upon these in a related conversation regarding the topic of transitions.  As I wrote in a previous blog entry (see Feedback), Stage 5 in the lifecycle of a team or project is a time for reflection, to capture lessons learned, to celebrate, and to prepare for the transition to something new.  Since others reading this may be preparing for a transition as well (whether due to the completion of projects as in my case, or forced due to impending layoffs), I thought I’d share a framework for dealing with a transition.

In preparing for an upcoming transition, I see it as an opportunity to take inventory of the situation and my perspective of it.  As I hinted at earlier, I can take inventory of those things I wish to pick up and take with me, and those I wish to let go and leave behind.  I see this as a very thinking-oriented perspective.  That’s OK.  If you’ve followed my writings to this point, you realize that I have a feeling-oriented perspective as well, which I assert is quite appropriate for a transition.  So, let’s introduce how I feel about the transition, and take inventory of the situation in very simple terms: thrilled, and sad.  You can see where this is going…four quadrants consisting of combinations:

  • Quadrant 1: Things that I’m thrilled to pick up and take with me;
  • Quadrant 2: Things that I’m thrilled to let go and leave behind;
  • Quadrant 3: Things that I’m sad to let go and leave behind;
  • Quadrant 4: Things that I’m sad to pick up and take with me.

So, here is my inventory assessment, along with actions I can take.

Quadrant 1, Thrilled to Take With Me.  Through this assignment, I built new relationships with key allies and partners that will come into play in the future.  Also, the team achieved an important result that furthers the organization’s goals, and I can point towards my role in leading the team as being an element of that success.  Therefore, it’s the satisfaction of a job well done and the new relationships that I’ll be able to take with me and build upon for the future.  Perhaps others will benefit from the knowledge that lasting partnerships can be built from strategic planning assignments, so I’ll share this in a “lessons learned.”

Quadrant 2, Thrilled to Leave Behind.  The building that housed my team is, for a lack of a better description, somewhat substandard.  (My team would use stronger language, I’m sure.)  I’m not going to miss that building.  My condolences to the team, who will be staying there for the implementation phase of the project.  “At least the parking is close,” I tell them jokingly.  I’ll provide the feedback to the proper facility planners; perhaps something can be done about the building down the road.

Quadrant 3, Sad to Leave Behind.  This is easy: the daily camaraderie with the team.  They are wonderful people and I’m going to miss seeing them on a regular basis.  I can envision getting together with the team for an occasional lunch or happy hour.  Although this is not as good as the daily interaction, it will provide some measure of satisfaction.

Quadrant 4, Sad to Take With Me.  Unfortunately, this one is easy, too.  It’s the external support organization for my team, who will be the support organization for my next likely assignment.  This is going to be a challenge.

In thinking back to my time in NASA’s leadership development program, a phrase from one of the program’s executive coaches keeps coming to mind: “And therefore I’m going to do [X] about it.”  So, what am I going to do about finding a way to improve the level of support from an external support organization?

In conversing with my coach on this point and about my own continued development as a leader, the following came up: Why not join the support organization for a short temporary assignment to help them implement the necessary changes to transition from subpar to excellent?  To make a long story short, this assignment almost came to fruition; in the end, however, I chose not to accept it because the terms offered were not going to meet all my criteria.  Perhaps the universe was signaling to me an important message:

Don’t rush through Stage 5. Slow down, enjoy it, savor the moment, and relax.  When Stage 5 has run its course completely, the universe will signal that it is time to transition to Stage 1 of the next new assignment.

I should listen to the universe more often.

What experiences have you had, good and bad, with transitions?


“Feedback is the breakfast of champions.”
–Ken Blanchard







It’s been a quiet week.

The team and I are so close to the desired outcome – an approved strategy – that it is time to initiate Stage 5 in the lifecycle of a team: regeneration.  For the team, it is the ending of one phase and the starting of the next under new leadership.  For me, it is a time for reflection, to capture lessons learned, to celebrate (yay!), and to prepare for the transition to something new.  (See The Lifecycle.)

It has been my honor to work with this team for the last eight months.  We worked hard to achieve a strategy for our part of NASA’s mission operations that provides the best overall value to the Government in terms of maintaining safety, technical performance, and schedule while reducing costs to the American taxpayer. It was extremely important to me that the team arrive at a well thought-through outcome that all on the team would feel committed to implementing and that each of the members could live with. As the leader, I needed to balance all perspectives, ensure alignment of the team with the common goal, build the external coalitions and partnerships necessary to ensure success, and guide the team to the desired outcome in due course.

So, how did I do?

Since returning to Houston after completing NASA’s leadership development program two years ago, I have been striving to further develop my leadership abilities.  Specifically, I have been targeting my openness, sharing of myself, and transparency.  Leading this team gave me the opportunity to try, observe and reflect, and try again.  As the first step in Stage 5, I asked the team for feedback on how I did via an anonymous survey.

This is the feedback I received from the six members of the team, based upon a set of questions I provided.

1. How much did I push a particular agenda that was not in keeping with our shared goal? (5 – very little   1 –  very much)

  • 5 – 4 votes      66.67 %
  • 4 – 1 vote        16.67 %
  • 2 – 1 vote        16.67 %

2. How well did I facilitate others “catching up” so all could see the same vision? (5 – very well  1 – very poorly)

  • 5 – 4 votes      66.67 %
  • 4 – 1 vote      16.67 %
  • 3 – 1 vote       16.67 %

3. How well did I listen and not disengage, even when others didn’t see things the way I do? (5 – very well  1 – very poorly)

  • 5 – 3 votes     50.00 %
  • 4 – 3 votes     50.00 %

4.  How well did I handle feedback and critiquing of my own product; not getting defensive and saying, “you just don’t understand”? (5 – very well  1 – very poorly)

  • 5 – 4 votes      66.67 %
  • 4 – 1 vote        16.67 %
  • 2 – 1  vote       16.67 %

5. How much patience in process did I demonstrate? (5 – very much  1 – very little)

  • 5 – 4 votes      66.67 %
  • 4 – 1 vote        16.67 %
  • 3 – 1 vote        16.67 %

6. How well did I share my motivations and reasoning, thus giving transparency to my values? (5 – very well  1 – very little)

  • 5 – 4 votes      66.67 %
  • 3 – 1 vote        16.67 %
  • 2 – 1 vote        16.67 %

I was touched that the majority of the team members thought so highly of my performance in each of the areas.  That affirms for me that I’m on the right track.  Part of me notes the 3 and 2 votes (no 1’s, at least!) and says, “I still have room for improvement”; a small part of me says “you can’t please everybody all of the time.”

Frankly, I’ll take these scores along with an approved strategy any day of the week.

In the big picture, we achieved our intended outcome as a team.  I developed further as a leader.  I’m leaving behind a true team ready to implement the strategy we built together under different leadership.  It’s a win-win-win.

As for my immediate future, I’ll be in Stage 5 for a number of weeks.  I’ve been compiling a set of lessons learned which I’ll be using in debriefs in the coming weeks.  I’ve written a lot of blog entries over the last eight months, so I have plenty of material to review and assess for my next developments in leadership.  Meanwhile, along with the rest of the space community, I’ll be awaiting the results and impacts from the Augustine Committee, the outcome of which may be a factor in determining my next assignment.  That will come in due course.  Right now…


Ask for Directions

“Why do I ask for directions? Because I hate wasting time.”
–Harrison Ford

One item I read this morning, and an event from later in the day, connected in a way that I would not have predicted at the start of the day.  Here’s what happened.

Today was the first briefing of the team’s revised strategy under the new set of guidance we received following the original briefing two weeks ago.  The team worked hard to put together the new plan on a very short timetable.  The briefing today was, well, amazingly brief and smooth.  Yet at the end I was asked a question that I didn’t expect – one that I was not prepared to answer.  It bothered me deeply that I didn’t have an answer to what was a critical and fundamental question: “How are you going to do [X]?”  Why was it fundamental?  For that, I need to take you back earlier in the day.

This morning was quite calm.  The team felt prepared, as did I.  The briefing was not until 1:30 PM, so I had some time on my hands which I used to catch up on reading.  One item I read was a recent blog entry by executive coach Scott Eblin entitled, “How to Influence Your New Boss, Part II.” In it he provided three tips for anyone who wants to influence a new boss, which I summarize here:

1) Ask for Directions. In particular, ask your boss this question:  “If we were to be completely successful on this project, what would you expect to see six months or a year from now?”

2) Ask How Your Boss Wants to be Kept in the Loop. When you get a new boss, ask her how she wants to be kept informed and how often.

3) Put Yourself in Your Boss’s Shoes. Do this by asking yourself the questions following questions:  What am I thinking? How am I feeling?  What do I want?

Nice!  Without realizing it, I asked these fundamental questions when I started this project eight months ago.  The answers I got, which I’ll call The Boss’s Expectations, were considerations in the creation of the original strategic approach we briefed in DC two weeks ago.

Uh oh.  (You can probably see where this is going.)

Flash forward to my uncomfortable moment of today.  “How are you going to do [X]?” was tied directly to the most important element of the answer to, “If we were to be completely successful on this project…”  I realized that in leading the revisions to our strategy, I was so focused on moving the team forward quickly that I didn’t take the time to double check against The Boss’s Expectations.  Therefore, I felt unprepared for the question when it came up today.

If you’ve gathered it, I’m big on preparation.  Conversely, I hate not being prepared.  Call it my Boy Scout background, or my time in Mission Control, whatever – I hate not being prepared.  Part of being a leader is asking the right questions at the right time.  The time was right since our new strategy was ready.  I already had the questions, since they were given to me eight months ago.  Therefore, this one was a freebie, yet I somehow did not think to recheck against The Boss’s Expectations.  I also place high importance in appearing as a competent leader in the eyes of the boss, so that when I’m finished with my upcoming assignment, I’ll be considered for another key leadership role.  Yeah, when I write that it appears silly to be concerned about something like that, yet that very thought was flashing through my mind today.

When the question was asked today, I certainly didn’t want to give an impromptu response (a BS answer is worse than no answer – another lesson learned from Mission Control), so I turned to one of my experts who provided an answer.  Afterwards, I consulted with a number of people and reflected on the question, and felt better on how we handled the situation in real time.  My feelings that I was unprepared or incompetent relative to The Boss’s Expectations were an overreaction.  The strategic plan is sound.

So, what did I learn today?

Again I learned that I set high expectations for myself.  Writing this entry is helping me realize that I was being too hard on myself today.  I also have a great team, and what more can a leader want?

As a reference for the future, I’ll keep this in mind: when changing course, check against the facts and expectations established in the beginning.  It’s good preparation, and common sense.

Setting aside the self evaluation, today’s events reaffirm for me that the universe is connected in interesting and amazing ways.  Who would have thought that a blog article I read first thing this morning would have a bearing on the day’s events?  Some may call this a coincidence, and that’s fine.  I see deeper meaning in the connection – that it reveals something about how the universe works.  The connections of one event to another, and of one person with another, tell me that we have an important role to play in the unfolding of the universe through our choices and participation.  How magnificent is that!

Chinese Whispers

“A bad word whispered will echo a hundred miles.”
–Chinese Proverb






You’re familiar with this game.  The player at the beginning thinks of a phrase, and whispers it as quietly as possible to his neighbor. The neighbor then passes on the message to the next player. The passing continues until it reaches the player at the end of the line, who calls out the message he or she received.  Most of the time, the final message bears no resemblance to the original.

Unknowingly I started a game this past week. Over lunch this week one of my teammates said that he heard second-hand from someone who said we bombed the previous week in DC, and that the original source was my last blog post.  (See Can Failure Lead to Success?)

Interesting.  A Chinese whisper.  One of the hazards of putting myself out there, I suppose.

I looked through my last blog post and noted one word that could have started the game: fail.  Perhaps the message got decoded and interpreted as “the team failed” which further got interpreted and passed as “the team bombed”.  Much as in a Chinese whisper, the output message bore no resemblance to the original message. It is in fact the opposite, as  I wrote in my last blog post: the team actually shined in DC.

As I have written previously, the team is working in a rather challenging environment of uncertainty and ambiguity over the future direction of human space flight: between the end of shuttle, no space policy as of yet from the Obama administration, and at present unknown recommendations and impacts from the Augustine Committee. From a leadership standpoint I’ve been charting a course for the team in this environment, and it has been a challenge.  I also see that in my messaging the initial condition needs careful crafting in order to ensure the integrity of the message as it travels the hallways.

Where I felt I failed was in delivering an approved strategy on the timetable I established at the outset.  I had a conversation this week with my leadership about that point and was assured that in their eyes, we’re still on course.  Perhaps my timetable was unrealistic, especially in light of the current environment of uncertainty and ambiguity.  So, if there was a failure here, it was one of not meeting my ambitious expectations, not in the result or in the outcome we seek.

I also reflected further on what I could have done differently. One item came to mind – push harder to build partnerships and coalitions with key decision-makers and allies, and not let the reluctance or resistance of others outside the team dissuade me from that objective. Although partnerships and coalitions would not have resolved all the ambiguities in the current environment, it might have led to getting the revised guidance sooner.  In fact, that is one of the items we are now doing – expanding our network of allies on multiple fronts.  This approach ought to help ensure success.

What did I learn this week?  That a message as it propagates can get altered to the opposite in original meaning.  I also learned that the initial conditions – in the choice of words – can exacerbate that condition.  I also learned that no matter what, I will continue to put myself out there, to share my experiences and thoughts so that others may benefit – and so that I might learn in return.