Three Simple Ways To Write To A Better You



Working through a rough patch? Tangled in a tough problem? Stuck? One of the most powerful strategies to sort things out is literally at your fingertips.

Numerous social scientists, including Tim Wilson of the University of Virginia, James Pennebaker of the University of Texas and Robert Quinn of the University of Michigan, suggest that our narratives shape our outlook then our outlook shapes our behavior. Our behavior shapes just about everything under our control. These three social scientists, among others, believe that to change our outcomes, we start by changing our stories.

The first step is to get the narrative out of the running dialogue in our heads and into the light by writing it down. If you would like to try, the three exercises included below are a good place to start. There are simple ground rules:

1)   Find 20 to 30 minutes in a place where you will not be distracted or interrupted.
2)   Do the same exercise for a minimum of four consecutive days.
3)   Be honest.

That’s it! You don’t need to show your writing to anyone, don’t need to proof read, don’t need to buy anything. It doesn’t matter if you write or type. The only thing that matters is that you do the exercise consistently for four days. Ready? Read more.

Pennebaker Writing Exercise

James Pennebaker is a psychology professor at the University of Texas and a pioneer in  “Writing to Heal.” His research suggests that short-term focused writing provides benefits for those suffering trauma. His results include improved immune systems, better grades and clearer goals. Read more here. His basic instructions for working through nagging “stuff” follow.

Write about your problem in an uninterrupted fashion for at least 15 minutes a day for a minimum of four days.  Pennebaker suggests writing at the end of the day. Write in first person about something emotional or important, but deal with topics that you are able to handle right now. Write for yourself: no editing or sanitizing.

Wilson Best Possible Selves Exercise

Timothy Wilson is a psychology professor at the University of Virginia. He’s used the Best Possible Selves exercise with a set of students to determine its effect on outlook and optimism. Compared to a control group, the students who completed this exercise reported higher levels of satisfaction and optimism that lasted for weeks, and had significantly fewer visits to the University Health Center. Seem good to you?

Follow these instructions for four consecutive days. (Wilson also suggests evenings).

“Think about your life at a certain point in the future. Imagine that everything has gone as well as it possibly could. You have worked hard and succeeded at accomplishing all of your life goals. Write what you imagine and what you did to make it happen.”

Quinn Lift Exercise

Robert Quinn is an Organizational Behavior professor at the University of Michigan. He is a cogent thinker and prolific writer about creating positive organizations. In his book Lift, he defines “lift” as a psychological state in which we are 1) purpose centered 2) internally directed 3) other focused and 4) open to ways in which we can improve. Quinn makes the case that when we experience these states; we feel uplifted and lift others. In other words, lift begins with us.  Start by responding to the four questions below.

  1. What result do I want to create?
  2. What would my story be if I were living the values I expect of others?
  3. How do others feel about this situation? (Emphasis is on feelings of others.)
  4. What are three (or more) strategies I could use to accomplish my purpose for this situation?

personal development
I am reminded of the Buddhist proverb: When the student is ready, the teacher will appear.  My intuition tells me there is a reason why I was drawn to writing about writing today. I’m on the second day of the “Best Self” exercise; think it will help me sort out some near term uncertainty.

Have you tried writing to change your stories and your outcomes? What happened?



Wilson, T.D. (2011) Redirect: the Surprising New Science of Psychological Change. New York: Little, Brown and Company.

Quinn, R.W and Quinn, R.E. (2009). Lift: Becoming a Positive Force in Any Situation.

San Francisco: Berrett-Koehler

Time With an Old Friend



If old books are like old friends, then the book in the photo is a trusted and dear companion.  My copy of Managing Transitions: Making the Most of Change by William Bridges has been with me since 1991.  Its dog-eared pages, highlighted sections and margin notes are like a diary of change over the last 20 plus years.

Proceed down memory lane starting with Chapter One: It Isn’t The Changes That Do You In. How many discussions have happened around this point that the change isn’t finished because a deadline has passed? There were the mergers, acquisitions, and divestitures, all eagerly led by true believers that the change would be over when the deadline came. Look at the first underline: Change is external. Transition is internal. I repeated it so many times that I could have made it into a tattoo.

On to the Neutral Zone chapters. The “Neutral Zone” is the period when the old ways don’t work anymore and the new ways don’t work yet. I wrote “day after deadline” to describe this phase on page 34. The neutral zone is a place where weaknesses emerge because the old compensating systems are gone. Frustration rises because 1) things are moving too fast or 2) things aren’t moving fast enough. It’s the place where people hang on to whatever their identities were because they don’t yet know what their identities are.

Next to a highlighted sentence on page 43: Capitalize on the opportunity the neutral zone provides to do things better.  Here’s one way I remember this concept during real change. My team was responsible for the creation of a combined training and organization development group to support a newly merged sales organization. Representatives of all three former organizations were on the team. Our first goal was to design a first line manager session. We got through all of the key decisions with remarkable swiftness: objectives, participants, content, and follow up engagement. What was the sticking point? The start time. It was a battle between the “come in Sunday night and roll up sleeves Monday morning” group and the “Start mid day Monday group.” Of course, this was a cover for the real issue. The real issue was “ We did it right and it’s my (our) job to prove it.”

It is during the gap between old and new that the organization’s systems of immunity are weak enough to allow new solutions to emerge.  After about a week of bickering, we decided the solution was to survey the participating clients. Their feedback broke through the clenched hands of both groups. Participants had a strong preference for a Thursday/Friday session and a near universal dislike for either a Sunday or a Monday start. All of the old organizations foisted their choice on the participants for years. The neutral zone forced us to consider a better option that was neither of the old choices. Don’t waste the neutral zone in trying to get back to where you were. Use it to get better. The great” start time debate” is a simple reminder of this principle.

Star next to the sentence on page 51: Beginnings are strange things. People want and fear them at the same time. The faces of leaders who sat with me discussing the people behind the names on their organization charts flash before me. How many times did we discuss “Purpose, Picture, Plan, Part?” It’s not whether we say it; it’s whether they get it. Everyone needs a personal message. You said it? Say it again. And again. How do you practice? What gets rewarded?

This trip down memory lane was occasioned by the opportunity I have this week to be certified to use the Bridges Transition Model with my clients. I am so excited, not only to learn something new but also to get the opportunity to use something that I know works.  The materials indicate that I’ll get a new book. That’s fine, but I’m keeping my old one. We’re good friends.


Bridges, William ( 1991). Managing Transitions: Making the Most of Change. Cambridge, MA: Persues Books.

Make Your Habits Your Allies


What would you do if you were unemployed, nearly broke and an emotional wreck? Where would you start to turn your life around? What would you do if you were named as an outsider head of a struggling company with employee upheaval, manager disengagement and on the verge of a stakeholder revolt? In both situations, there is not one thing wrong- there are many things wrong. And all are big things. Any one of these challenges left unattended could lead to your complete unraveling. Where would you start? If you were like people profiled in The Power of Habit (Duhigg, 2012), you would start by changing one cornerstone habit.

Your Personal Search Engine

Habits are like our brain’s search engine. Our subconscious doesn’t evaluate whether a habit is good or bad, it just gets the stimulus and offers up the response. Like Google, put in the stimulus and get back your top responses in behavior. This pattern is ubiquitous. Duhigg cites a Duke study that suggests 40% of our actions during a day are a result of habit. If true, it means that nearly half of the things we do each day are not a result of conscious, in the moment decisions, but pre programmed responses to stimulus.

Get Your MoJo Going

Habits also build momentum. Good habits generate behavior that gets positive responses, generating more positive stimulus. This explains what happened to one of the people profiled in The Power of Habit. Duhigg describes a woman at the end of her rope after a very bad patch in life. She was overweight, unemployed and nearly broke. In an attempt to motivate change, she set a goal to make the trip of a lifetime, which required her to be in good physical shape. She targeted one habit to start toward this goal: stop smoking. By focusing on changing one bad habit, she taught herself to reprogram other habits, too. When she stopped smoking, she had more ability to get in shape. She took up jogging. To keep up jogging, she had to positively change her eating, sleeping and time habits. She had more money so she changed her savings habits. The woman not only took her dream trip, but she had the confidence, and ability, to override old bad habits to go back to school and get a new job.

The same principle worked for Paul O’Neill when he was named the new CEO of Alcoa. He walked into a list of changes needed to restore employee relationships, customer relationships and profitability. What did he do? He focused on safety.  He set a goal of zero injuries and instilled one habit: all accidents must be reported within 24 hours with a plan to make sure the injury never happened again. What were the results? The union was encouraged because worker safety had been a critical issue they felt had been ignored. Leaders had to review lines of communication with their facilities.  Floor leaders had to be alert for safety issues and ask workers for ideas on better environments. By changing one habit, O’Neil set in force the mechanism to change a culture. What happened? Injuries declined, but so did costs because people needed to talk to each other about molten metal waste  (a leading cause of injuries) and faulty equipment that broke down and slowed production. Quality improved, along with customer satisfaction.

O’Neil  leveraged the power of habit by picking one thing that required everyone to re program bad habits into good ones. He summarized his strategy in a few words we could all take to heart:

“ I knew I had to change Alcoa. But you can’t order people to change. That’s not how the brain works. So I decided I was going to start by focusing on one thing. If I could disrupt habits around one thing, it would spread through the entire company.”

Paul O’Neil, former CEO of Alcoa, as quoted in the Power of Habit

Picking The Little Thing That Could Be A Big Thing

I reflected in my last blog post that I was going to keep old resolutions but change habits.  For me, 2013 starts with unmet goals related to my business, my development and my personal life. The one thing they all have in common is the need for more time. So, the cornerstone habit I’m going to focus on changing for 2013 is my use of time. I am going to change a habit to get up one hour earlier each day. That gives me 7 hours per week and 28 hours a month that can be devoted to achieving goals. Who knows what an extra 28 hours a week will do for my momentum?

You may think this is small. But that’s the thing about habits. It’s the small things that set the momentum for bigger things. The woman who stopped smoking found the secret to changing habits that changed her life. Paul O’Neil used a change of habits to convince a bunch of skeptics that they could work together.  The secret strength of habits is going for big outcomes, not big inputs.

What about you? What are the one or two habits you could change that could give you the momentum needed to achieve those dusty resolutions? Think of them and get ready. In the next post, you’ll read how habits can be changed.


References: Duhigg, Charles ( 2012). The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do In Life and In Business. New York: Random House.

Change Habits, Keep Resolutions


I‘m not going to make new resolutions for 2013. There are enough old ones still relevant to dust off and try again.  In fact, if anyone is looking for a resolution, I have enough lying around that I could give you a few.  Lose weight? Got that one. Get a better job?  Several options to chose from. Be Better Organized?  I can set you up. These are just a few of my many past resolutions available to be recycled.

It’s not that I fail to see the value in resolutions. In fact, setting goals (aka resolutions) is a critical part of the change process.  They provide a picture of success, set the boundaries for choices, and allow us to measure success.  Resolutions are so important that I’ll change my focus from making them to keeping them. This year, I’ll keep the same resolutions but change my habits

The Invisible Force

“There are these two young fish swimming along and they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way. The older fish nods at them and says, ‘Morning boys. How’s the water?’ And the two young fish swim on for a bit. Eventually, one of them looks over at the other and asks ‘What the hell is water?’ ”

David Foster Wallace as quoted in The Power of Habit 

The passage above is one of the best descriptions of the power of habits I’ve read.  Our habits, the automatic, subconscious decisions we make routinely, are our water. Frequently unexamined and often invisible to us, habits set the agenda for our behavior and ultimately our results. So, if we want change, start with habits.

How Habits Happen

The first step in changing habits is to understand how we create them in the first place. Charles Duhigg (2012) in The Power of Habit provides an excellent description in a book that makes very interesting reading.

Habits are created because our brain looks for ways to save effort. When we do things routinely, our brain stores the steps into “chunks.” Try to remember learning something for the first time, like your commute to work. The first few times, you paid great attention to the directions, the traffic patterns or the train schedule. It required attention and energy you didn’t have later for other things. Reflect on how quickly your commute became routine. The next time you go to work, you won’t even think about it. You’ll know the time to leave, the route to take, or where you sit on the train with little conscious thought. Your commute has become your water.

Your brain has turned your commute routine into a habit, without you making a conscious decision about whether you wanted this habit or not. This is a good thing.  Mental energy every day is finite. Once it’s depleted, it’s gone until restored.  Do you want to use it figuring out what roads you take to work or on new challenges once you get there? Probably the latter. So, our brains are wired to help us out by being efficient.  This efficiency becomes a habit.

The paradox about habits is that they are easy to create but hard to change. Old habits won’t get me, or you, to new places, no matter how staunch the resolutions. My 2013 resolution is to start new habits to help me reach old goals. Intrigued? Follow me to see how I do.


Duhigg, Charles (2012). The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business. New York: Random House.

It’s Alive! Organizational Change In Real Time


My former colleague and current friend, Nadine Pearce, forwarded a remarkable find. Autodesk mapped the impact of three types of change on their organization over a four year period: 1) when an employee joined 2) when an employee left and 3) when an employee changed managers. Watch this!


This amazing depiction prompts three questions:

For individuals: How can you refresh your organizational network to develop relevant relationships?

For team leaders:  How can you refresh or recreate a team structure to reflect the current organization?

For organizations: How do your talent management and incentive systems enable success, given the pace of change?

Once again, you’ve given me much to think about, Nadine. Thank you!

From Here to There: Actions to Become a More Transformational Leader


This post is part 2 of a 2 part series.  To read Part 1, click here: What Kind of a Leader Are You?

Our questions about becoming a more transformational leader are often more about how than why. We don’t experience transformational leaders around us. We have too much to do and not enough time to do it. At the end of the day, its results, not people, that matter. As asked in part 1 of this series, how can we be a Mandela in an organization full of Napoleons? This post will offer five ideas to help anyone who wants to be a more transformational leader move closer to this goal. It’s built on the premise, offered by Patterson, et al (2008) in Influencer- The Power to Change Anything that the odds for successful change come down to two questions: 1) Is it worth it? 2) Can I do it?

If you can’t answer the first question, Is it worth it?, affirmatively, stop reading here. Your first decision must be that you see enough value in becoming a different type of leader that you will at least try. It can’t matter that you are the only one. It can’t matter that your boss isn’t like this. It can’t matter that it’s hard. You must decide that it’s worth it to be a Mandela surrounded by Napoleons, just like the real Mandela.

Assuming that you are still with me, move to the second question, Can I do it? Yes, you can. Patterson, et al reminds us that “much of will is skill” and “much of prowess is practice.” The five ideas below are by no means exhaustive. They represent starting points.  They build skills that make it easier to lead differently. The more you do them, the better you’ll get.  Even if you doubt you can be great, just try to get better.

1. Have a Personal and Powerful Vision
If you’re thinking:  I knew she was going to write this – you’re right. Big transformations start with big ideas.  Ideas that excite, compel, energize. Washington didn’t organize a group of rag tag farmers to take on the most powerful military of its time “just because.” He had a vision of independent colonies working together to create a new nation.  Nelson Mandela’s vision of a post apartheid South Africa helped him endure 19 years of prison with his dignity intact. Your personal vision of what’s possible for you, your organization and your team is the engine of transformation. You think something about your purpose anyway. Why not think big?

2. Ask What Before How
What is a remarkable little four-letter word that engages others to expand ideas. It expresses your interest in possibilities before settling into a solution. If you want more ideas and fewer excuses, ask what questions before how questions. Add more “What’s possible?” and “What’s next?” questions to engage others. You may find not only a better idea, but also a solution you don’t have to “sell” because others are already on board.

3. Be Positive
A positive outlook is more than self-help happy talk. Research suggests its value to change agents. Dan Gilbert, psychologist and researcher from Harvard University, concludes that we humans are wired to imagine our futures as positive. You don’t need his research, though. When was the last time you were motivated to change because you wanted something worse? Paint a positive view of the future, and mean it, to engage the imaginations of others.

4. Replace Judgment With Empathy
If you do nothing else, assume good intent. Assume the people around you are doing the best they know how. They are rationale actors developing a solution in their best interests. Negative judgments give otherwise good people self-permission to rationalize harmful actions toward others. We allow ourselves to discard ideas from those we deem incompetent. We dismiss others we judge to be wrong. Instead, wonder What causes them to think this solution works? when faced with a problem or disagreement.  See if your reflections generate more empathy than evaluation. More importantly, notice that you get closer to win-win solutions faster with more empathy than judgment.

5. Develop Recovery Strategies
Even with a deep commitment to lead differently, a change will be bumpy. Stress may challenge your resolve. It can be lonely to be different. Progress can be slow.  Something as simple as a bad habit can bring you back to old behavior. Patterson, et al reminds us that missteps are part of all change. That’s why they urge us to plan recovery strategies in advance.  Recovery strategies give us an alternative to throwing up our hands and giving up when we slide. For those of us who want to shift from transactional to transformational leaders, this may be identifying a mentor to help through the rough patches. It could be promising our self that we’ll start over the next day no matter what. Develop what works for you, but have your list handy. Don’t beat yourself up when you need it, but rather appreciate your foresight.

These are not the only five ideas to begin a shift to a transformational leader. I’d love to understand what works for you. We could build a collection of ideas any leader can adopt in any organization without extra resources or special skills.

With diligence, you’ll find that transformational leadership is worth it and you can do it. And like the leadership giants you admire, you can inspire others to lead like you.


Patterson, K., Grenny, J., Maxfield, D. McMillan, R., Switzler, A. (2008). Influencer: The Power to Change Anything. New York: McGraw Hill.

What Kind of a Leader Are You?


What’s your leadership legacy? If you’re like many people, you aspire to be catalyst for positive change in people and organizations.  You describe actions like bringing people together, creating a shared vision and mobilizing change efforts. Great things are to be accomplished under your leadership. In Boy Scout terms, you hope to leave things better than you found them.

Many people claim to prefer a transformational leadership approach as described above. James MacGregor Burns (2003) popularized the term in his classic book Transforming Leadership. A flawed definition is that transformational leaders create change. This simple explanation fails to differentiate transformational leaders from the many others who create change.  It misses the key point that transformational leaders inspire others to create change. Because transformational leaders inspire change through personal engagement, generating possibilities, creating a shared vision, empowerment and support – the change is sustained by the many instead of the few. It is big, substantial and lasts long after the leader is gone. Gandhi, Nelson Mandela, Franklin D. Roosevelt, Martin Luther King and Mikhail Gorbachev are excellent examples of transformational leaders. Use them, and the profound changes they inspired, for encouragement the next time you think the change you are asked to lead in your organization is just too hard.

OK, you may think, I’m on board. Wouldn’t mind being the next Gandhi like leader of my organization.  But I don’t see it in the way we work. Our leaders are more like Napoleon. We preserve the state, conquer market share, consolidate power and, above all, instill order and accountability. Our organizational bourgeoisie teach the young to obey the culture and one day they will rule the unit. Intimidation is our most common change strategy; Rebellions are not tolerated.  I don’t see how the “power to the people” approach is going to work here. I’ll stick with my Gant chart timelines and seven steps to produce the culture change we’ve been ordered to have by year-end. 

Two things. First, you are not alone in your assessment. Many also take a dim view of being transformational leaders, even though they say it’s their preferred choice. Second, good luck on that culture change. You probably will drag people through the seven steps right on schedule. And, you’ll keep dragging them, because it’s your change, not theirs. When you stop, they’ll stop. That is, assuming they start. Check my blog post Want Change? Build Leaders, Not Process for more.

So, smarty pants, what am I supposed to do? How can I lead like Mandela in a group of Napoleons?  How I wish I could answer this question at all, much less in a 500-word blog post. But I will try, or at least try to show you a place to start. If you are curious, check out on my next blog post.


Burns, J.M. ( 2003). Transforming Leadership.  New York: Grove Press.



Want Change? Build Leaders, Not Process


It’s two months after a major organizational change effort that affected your job. Which change leader described below might have increased your personal commitment to the change – your personal buy in and willingness to make it work-at this critical stage?

1. Leader A followed carefully planned change management steps. She presented an urgent business case for change and expressed her vision for the future. A guiding coalition was created to lead change. Teams were directed to create the new processes/practices within guidelines. Communications shared the always-good news of progress. The organizational celebrated when the change was completed on time, thus deemed a success.

2. Leader B has a passionate commitment to a shared future vision.  She views change as an effort to achieve this shared vision. She trusts empowered associates to make the vision come alive through the right decisions about their work.  Her high levels of personal credibility are a result of authentic interest in associate well-being and investment in their success. Conflict is acknowledged as an opportunity to learn instead of blame. She doesn’t follow anything but her leadership values and principles. Change isn’t celebrated because it’s “over,” but because it’s a regular result of individual and team innovation.

Commitment to Change Depends Upon the Leader, Not the Process

If you believe that your personal commitment to change- your buy in to make it work- is more likely to be enhanced under Leader B, you share the same conclusion reached in a wide ranging study involving 393 employees involved in change efforts across 30 organizations. The researchers, David Herold, Donald, Fedor, Steven Caldwell and Yi Lui, concluded that transformational leadership qualities, Leader B qualities, had a higher impact on the individual choice to buy in to change than “change management” practices adopted by transactional leaders like Leader A.  It also concludes:

  • Transactional leaders that followed change management steps got achieved better commitment results than transactional leaders who did not. So, some leaders really need change management steps to produce any success with change.
  • Transformational leaders who adopted change management behavior achieved improved commitment because of their credibility and authenticity. These leaders got results because of their personal equity more than their process.

Transaction Vs. Transformation

Leader A approaches change as a transaction. It is something to be done unto others.There is a business case for change presented to associates. This leader believes if associates are told, they will understand. There is a vision, but it is a vision of completing the change. There is empowerment, teams of people who develop a solution until it is approved by the leader. There are tasks and timeless. When these are done, the change is done. Everyone will do what he or she is supposed to do.

Leader B approaches change as they approach leadership. It is something done with others. There is a business case for change, created with associates. They understand it because they produced it. There is a vision, but it is a vision of the future. Associates envision a dynamic organization constantly in change because it is alive and growing.  Empowerment is expressed in teams of people who feel personal accountability for decisions because they will do what they create. There are tasks and timelines. When these are done, the change begins. Associates work differently; unanticipated problems arise or extra support is needed. It’s at this point when the importance of personal commitment to change makes the difference between success and failure. Committed associates are more likely make the choice to try to make it work instead of finding reasons why it won’t.

Invest In Lasting Change

I wonder if many concepts of “change” are old artifacts. Many assume that we still live in static states that get unfrozen, moved to something new and refrozen.  Under this concept, change is another transaction to be managed. It’s delivered by a series of leadership steps and models. Organizations invest in “change management” capabilities because of a belief that if more people know the steps, more can produce change.

Perhaps a better investment to produce organizational change capabilities is to invest in producing transformational leaders. It’s leaders, not steps, that can inspire affective commitment to change. Develop leaders who view change as something created because of people, not in spite of them. Leaders who do not wait for an initiative to lead through shared vision, empowerment and personal credibility. Leaders who understand that change happens when associates decide to stay invested instead of check out.

If you want greater organizational change capability, focus on transformational leaders.


Herald, D.M., Fedor, D.B., Caldwell, S., Lui, Yi. ( 2008). Effects of Transformational and Change Leadership on Employee Commitment to Change: A Multilevel Study. Journal of Applied Psychology, vol. 93, no.2 pp. 346-357.

It’s Never Too Late to Start Over



The company was a giant in its industry.  It began in 1886 as a symbol of  ingenuity when an entrepreneur saw an “office writing” machine demonstrated at a Centennial Exhibition and decided that he could build a better one. So, Alexander Brown approached two brothers, Lyman and Willard Smith, to design and produce a “newfangled writing machine.” Thus, the “Smith Premier Typewriting Company” was born.

Smith Typewriters soon became one of the most popular pieces of office equipment because of the insight and innovation of the Smith Brothers. It’s because of them we have a standard keyboard today where keys can do double duty through a shift key. We can read text as we produce it thanks to the Smith brothers’ insight that the ribbon should face away from, not towards, the typist. After business losses due to the 1929 market crash, they recovered after introducing a portable machine to be used anywhere. In 1955, Smith Corona introduced the first electronic typewriter that accelerated production with less effort on the keys.  It wasn’t done innovating yet. Smith Corona introduced one of the first Word Processors in the 1980’s, and led the word processing marketing in 1989.  Its word processors introduced us to features we use today, such as spell checker and grammar checker.

In 1990, a Smith Corona marketing executive declared that the industry was in a transition between “word processors and typewriters.” Even though it launched a line of personal computers, Smith Corona believed there would be a strong role for typewriters and word processors as personal computers were too expensive and complicated to use. In hindsight, clinging to the typewriter and word processing market was a fatally bad bet.  One hundred and nine years after Alexander Brown approached the Smith Brothers with his idea for a writing machine, Smith Corona stopped making typewriters and declared bankruptcy in 1995. It has re emerged as a thermal label maker.

When Success is an Obstacle to Change

In its prime, Smith Corona was a success by any measure. It dominated an industry that it began. It produced great products. It innovated.  It was focused. It adjusted its business through a great depression and two World Wars; clearly it knew how to cope with crisis. While I don’t know the entire story of Smith Corona, I can’t help but wonder. Was its success a barrier to the changes it needed to survive?

Smith Corona imagined itself as late as 1990 as a typewriter company. And, it was a damn good typewriter company. From what’s written, the leaders of Smith Corona did not imagine that it could disappear because the need for typewriters would disappear. Smith Corona had to let go of its greatest success to keep itself successful. For whatever reason, it could not.

The White Sheet of Paper Exercise

In his book What To Ask the Person In the Mirror, Robert Kaplan challenges organizational leaders to regularly test alignment to its vision and purpose. He argues,  “Crises have long roots.” It’s not only unnecessary, but also reckless, to wait until a crisis appears to make the adjustments an organization needs to survive.

One alternative Kaplan suggests is to test organizational strategy and alignment in the midst of success, not in imminent danger. Consider a white sheet of paper approach to your organization, starting with the fundamental question: If we started this business today, how would we do it?

What products or services would we offer? To whom?  In what places or regions?

How would we be organized? Who would we hire? What partners would we develop?

What would we need to start doing or stop doing?

Why would people want to work for us and with us?

The white sheet of paper exercise demands deep introspection and perhaps difficult answers. These are the kinds of questions that are easy to avoid when everything is going well.  However, success gives the cover to make any changes necessary while change is possible. The same questions are impossible to avoid in a crisis, when the options may be fewer and resources scarcer.

I can’t help but wonder about the eager entrepreneur who built an industry around a machine he saw at an exposition. How did Alexander Brown and the Smith Brothers think about their company at its start?  Would the Smith Corona story have ended differently if its leaders had the courage to challenge what it meant to produce “a newfangled writing machine” at the height of its success? What can the rest of us learn from their story?


Kaplan, R.S. (2011). What to Ask The Person in the Mirror: Critical Questions for Becoming a More Effective Leader and Reaching Your Potential. Boston: Harvard Business School Press.


Keep Calm and Carry On


What would you do with your last three weeks on earth? If you knew the date certain for your departure, how would you spend your remaining time?  Would your answers change if you knew it was not only your last three weeks, but also the last three weeks of earth? Everyone, everywhere is in on the last big send off.

These questions are explored in a new movie Seeking a Friend for the End of The World.  The film illustrates deep insights into human nature, because it strips us down to who we really are when we think there is little left to gain or lose. It caused me to reflect on our behavior in difficult times, with challenges far less final.

“Normal” has a strong gravitational pull

Even with the certainty of three weeks of Earth left, people wanted to maintain “normal.” Not only did they go to work, they had staff meetings.  Police officers ticketed speeders. Domestic help showed up on Wednesday. The friendly wait staff at the franchise food place sang “Happy Birthday.” As any of you who have tried to institutionalize organizational change know, the allure of “normal” is a powerful barrier to change.

The pull of “normal” can squash a true value of disruption: Innovation. As Jeremy Gutsche, author of Exploiting Chaos, reminds us, “normal never returns.” Once disruption has happened, things never return to the way they were. They settle and we figure them out. Or, the brilliant   see possibilities to create something better out of the destruction of the past. They follow Albert Einstein’s rule: “In the middle of difficulty lies opportunity.”

Our values always show up

With nothing left to lose and nothing to gain that’s going to last, characters in the movie were stripped bare to reveal what was really important to them.  The hedonists indulged, the selfish took, the cowardly ran (to where?), the diligent worked, and the caring cared. There was no one left to impress, no one left to manage. In the end, who they were was who they were.

It seems to me that values also show up in our extreme times, when there is the most to gain or the most to lose. Or, when there are no rules except self-governing ones. If I were ever in the situations to make hiring decisions again, understanding someone’s values would be the most important information I could get. The Motives, Values and Preferences Report from Hogan Leadership Series Forecast would be a requirement. I can figure out how to leverage strengths. I can figure out how to develop or mitigate weaknesses.  But what governs someone’s behavior when they think nothing matters is everything that matters to me.

Find More Gratitude and Joy

It’s no surprise that there was little joy on Earth with three weeks left; except among the hedonists. But what did surprise me was the extent of misery and bitterness people held onto until the end. In one scene, a character is asked how she’ll spend her remaining two weeks. She revealed her plans to drive across country to tell her stepfather to “F” off. Really? You both have two weeks left and you’ll spend them so the last words he hears from you are “F” off? Have you ever heard of “let it go?” Aside from this extreme example, there was only one character with an authentic sense of joy in the end. But, you’ll have to see the movie to know who and why.

It doesn’t take any more chaos than a bad day to show our propensity to focus on the negative and miss the joy in each day. (And yes, I resemble this remark.) Think of what we tell people about a bad day. We recount in detail the incompetence, laziness, selfishness and general cluelessness that diminished our brilliance. But seldom do we recall the smile and hug from a loved one, the extra mile effort of a co-worker, encouragement from a friend, and the contributions of strangers that make our productivity possible. And, the fact that we’re here to describe our day in lurid detail. We forget about that, too.

The film reminded me of how I did not want to end, by recounting every misdeed done to me. Maybe that’s good practice for ending each day, too.


Gutsche, Jeremy (2011). Exploiting Chaos: 150 Ways to Spark Innovation During Times of Change. Self Published.

Hogan Leadership Forecast Series information