Three Ways to Bring Historical Analysis to Your Community

OPENING | The Value of History

“History does not repeat itself, but it often rhymes.” – Mark Twain

A thorough analysis of the past might just be the best thing for your community’s future. Because great community-builders think like historians.

A recent article in the Harvard Business Review by John T. Seaman, Jr. and George David Smith (both historians) entitled “Your Company’s History as a Leadership Tool” argues that “[g]reat leaders…[d]on’t ignore history until the time comes to plan their organization’s next anniversary. And though they may not view themselves as historians, they find it useful to think and talk about the past – in the present and in living color.”

Seaman Jr. and Smith cite the simple and profound question with which Alfred D. Chandler prodded his Harvard Business School classes: “How can you know where you’re going if you don’t know where you’ve been?”

Truth!

And this is why you should incorporate history into the decisions that you make when striving to build positive communities at work, at school, and in your neighbourhood.

One of my favourite blogs, Active History, makes a business (don’t tell them I called their operation a business) from putting the present in context by thoroughly, interestingly and, from time to time, entertainingly analyzing the past. A recent article by Mark Sholdice even explores the history of history programs (specifically PhD programs) in the US and Canada. Further exploration of professional and academic networks (Sholdice’s work examines small groups of people working towards common ends and he is “fascinated by elites”) will allow Sholdice to provide important context into how “elite departments” groom leaders in the field.

As you bring historical analysis to your community (and you totally should), here are three things to consider:

1. The Place

Think of the last neighbourhood that you moved to. How did you come to understand its people, buildings, spaces, and culture? I imagine that you were more captivated by stories of the past (even if they were negative and, possibly, scary) than predictive planning for the future; moreover, the future possibilities are almost always defined by building off-of, or transforming, the history of a place. “To lead with a sense of history is not to be a slave to the past but, rather, to acknowledge its power,” argue Seaman Jr. and Smith. For example, whatever happens to Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside in the next 10 years will certainly incorporate the structure of the past. Yes, even the rotten and crumbling bits.

Jane’s Walk, a globally renowned pedestrian exploration of thousands of communities, is a fantastic example of how people can understand the history of their community in order to build – or transform – its strengths and weaknesses into a positive and productive place of the future.

2. The Values and Culture

It doesn’t matter if it’s a company, a school, a government, or a neighbourhood – when it comes to attracting top talent, people want to know that they’re part of something bigger than themselves. Folks want to have a clear idea of how to align their talents and interests with the work that needs to be done and the way to do it. As Seaman Jr. and Smith argue, “knowing the history of a group to which we belong…can help us see events, and ourselves, as part of a still unfolding story and of something larger than ourselves.”

Vancity Credit Union reached back through its history to build its current slogan, Make Good Money, as well as to create an important statement that I recently heard the company’s CEO, Tamara Vrooman, state during a panel discussion about banking on values (I’m paraphrasing): where and how we spend our money reflects our values as a community. From onboarding new employees to financing new enterprises, the idea that everyone involved in the Vancity community should Make Good Money offers a lot of clarity for members, employees and the co-operative’s leadership.

3. the Present (and Future) OF YOUR HISTORY

Any story based on historical analysis, however, has to match the present needs, interests and goals of a community. For example, highlighting the War of 1812 might not have been something that a critical mass of Canadians supported, especially when the federal government decided to pour millions of dollars into coins, commercials and displays while cutting funding for the National Archives. Remember, history needn’t be used just for anniversaries and needs to get to the deep, unifying truth of the past in order to inspire a future that resonates with a majority of people.

Apple’s recent move to bring elements of its manufacturing process back to North America offers a better example of how an organization can reach back into its compelling history to align future goals with current reality.

CLOSING | Tell Authentic Stories

When it comes to storytelling, I’m pretty good. And I believe that one of the key factors that makes me a craftsman in the field of yarn-spinning is my authenticity. Even when I exaggerate points that best fit my narrative, dismiss the stuff that doesn’t fit well, stretch data, and/or delve into the realm of selective revisionism, I am consistently genuine and ensure that the history I present gets to the deep truth of the community in question.

Note: by no means do I recommend my method as good academic historical practice; such efforts will not make you popular in peer reviewed journals!

According to Seaman Jr. and Smith, audiences are notoriously skeptical and can “sniff out the inauthentic” when presented an idea by a charismatic, yet irresponsible, leader. The historians discuss the idea of “truthful mythology”, and such a thing must be at the core of the thoughtful and interesting historical analysis that you present to your community in order to inspire positive change for the future.

Thinking about – and learning from – the past might just be your most powerful leadership tool. Employees that ‘get’ the past will likely understand a future build off the history of a place and its people. And, hey, if you are interested in analyzing the history of your community, well, two-thirds of this blogs Editorial staff have a background in history.

Your move, Internet.

Masthead photo courtesy of josef.stuefer’s photostream / Flickr creative commons

Five Attributes of Awesome Risk-Takers

Being comfortable with risk is pretty rare these days. Whether we’re transitioning from school to work, trying to move from one job to the next, pitching a new idea to the boss, or making a romantic move on a long-time friend, risk puts our confidence, money, reputation, and even our community on the line.

Risky business is known as scary business. But it shouldn’t be.

John in a beautiful arbutus tree (both human and tree are recovered and doing just fine)

Last weekend I was on Salt Spring Island celebrating my mom’s 60th birthday. During one of our hikes I decided to climb a tree. And then I came up with the idea to jump from the tree, swing on a branch, and land safely on the ground. The conversation with my dad went like this:

JOHN [in tree, gesturing confidently]: “So, I’m going to jump from the tree, swing on that branch and then land on the ground over there.”

DAD: “Don’t do it. The branch is dead and it won’t hold you. You will impale yourself on the rocks. Don’t do it.”

JOHN [jumps]

Lying on my back – impaled on the rocks, just like my dad said – looking up at the sky and my concerned/incredulous wife and parents, I smiled and reflected on my failure, knowing that the next time I attempted such a maneuver success would be achieved because I learned from my mistake. But don’t just take my word for it. Other thinkers, like Historian Engineer Henry Petroski, have opinions about the relationship between failure and success, too. According to an article in the Huffington Post by Ben Michaelis, Petroski argues that “limited failure early in your working life can be immensely helpful to your career trajectory. The takeaway message is that if you are not failing you are not trying.”

The world needs more risk takers, which is nicely evidenced by this Fast Company article that features the travel company Kayak – their Chief Technology Officer, Paul English, has this to say about their culture of innovation: “Everything we do encourages fast decision-making and risk-taking. We don’t do design by committee, and we disable large meetings here. We reward risk-taking and speed, even when it fails!”

Sure, my falling out of a tree is a silly example of risk when compared to some of the other things I’ve done (moving across the country for university, being friends with men from Halifax, studying History at graduate school, going to East Africa when I’m allergic to the Sun, pitching a service learning program to a business school, telling people I love them without certainty of reciprocity), but it is nonetheless an illustrative example of what I’m talking about.

With this in mind, here are five things that you need to know about being a professional risk-taker.

1. Be authentic. Following a risk I took and a failure I experienced, my past boss and current mentor said this to me: “When you make a mistake and fail you will always be okay because you are genuine and authentic. People know that you are doing things for the right reasons and have the best of intentions, never selfish ones.” When you genuinely have your community’s goals at heart then risk – and the failure that often comes with it – becomes more acceptable.

2. Jump in with both feet. A former student and current friend, David Singh, just left a great job in Deloitte’s Consulting group to join Kira Talent. This guy doesn’t know how to not go all-in, as he’s already wearing the value proposition of this awesome interviewing start-up on his sleeve.

Kym Banguis (shop.herrohachi.com) jumped in with both feet. The only problem was that she jumped off of a moving scooter. #risktaking

3. Take responsibility for your success (and failure). Managing risk can also involve simple experiences, as demonstrated by my former colleague and current friend, Holly Langland, who inspires teams with pop-fresh dance moves: “I was first on the dance floor at the xmas party on Friday. What this says about me is that I don’t hesitate to lead the way when needed…or I just don’t mind looking bad!” Regardless of how she looks, Holly owns it.

4. Have an eraser. Risk-takers need to have a long memory, for those who forget the past are doomed to repeat it. That being said, it’s important to reflect on risks-gone-wrong and then erase them. As her tone-setting speech to ring-in the New Year (“September” is what people outside of Higher Education call this time of the year), my boss read us this awesome letter from everyone’s favourite holiday cop storyteller, John McClane Stuart McLean. The letter ends with this gem: “Don’t mind mistakes. The mistakes are how you learn. You have an eraser. Go ahead make the messes. Then … clean them up. Try again.”

5. Be playful and have fun with it! My Frientor (friend + mentor = Frientor), Rodney Payne, eloquently summarized how approaching life with playfulness is an important part of approaching risk: “Teaching myself to kiteboarding when it was really unsafe has taught me everything I know about calculated risk. You need to be comfortable with risk in order to innovate.”

Failure is a part of life. You know this. Being comfortable with and open to failure, which will happen, is the kind of common sense that is not common practice. So, by starting small (talking on the phone to a prospective romantic partner or professional employer instead of texting them) or going big (jumping out of a tree twice the size of the one I swung from and/or starting your own business), think about how you will bring positive and calculated risk to your community today.

Masthead photo courtesy of Frank Wuestefeld’s photostream on Flickr

Three Tips for Overcoming Mediocre Presenting

John public speaking

Everybody fails. Sometimes we do so spectacularly and sometimes we simply don’t reach our potential; I experienced the latter sort of failure on Saturday when I gave what can only be described as a mediocre presentation – the audience probably thought “it was fine”.

For me, though, giving a presentation that is “fine” just isn’t good enough.

Talking in front of people is totally my thing. I am absolutely in my element when building and delivering awesome presentations, workshops, keynote speeches, and wedding toasts. So, when my five minute talk about career options for UBC engineers fell short, I deconstructed the experience and reminded myself of three simple steps that I will absolutely take to make sure it never happens again.

1. Be prepared and keep it simple. For this particular presentation, I strived to do too much. My preparation was more of a copy-and-paste from an existing workshop than a truly unique creation– this being said, I did add some relevant data. This backfired and things got complicated -what should have been a clear and concise message got lost in too many ideas in too little time.

2. Know your teammates, your audience, and your surroundings. It is not uncommon for me to present as part of a group, which was the case on Saturday. When you’re part of a team, it’s important to know who is saying what and how much time each person has to speak. By packing so much information into my presentation I had to speed through my slides to finish on time. I also didn’t focus enough on what the audience (parents of future UBC students) wanted from the presentation: career outcomes for engineering graduates. My presentation had some great stuff, but in the context of what was a really, really jam-packed day for parents and kids, it was just too much; and the great data got lost in my attempt to be inspiring. Finally, the room was a big, hollow place, and I chose to speak without a microphone and was later told that my voice sounded “tinny” in the space. Had I better known my surroundings and tested the facilities beforehand (which every great presenter knows is essential) this would not have been a problem.

3. Perfect practice makes perfect. A wise and very talented speaker once told me that it’s not enough to prepare by reading your slides; you need to practice the same way that you want to present, which should be awesomely and within the allotted time.

So there it is. When preparing to give a presentation remember that fewer slides will help you stay organized (plan to spend two minutes on each slide), that you need to know the look, feel and sound of the room, and that practicing your presentation exactly how you want to see it delivered will do much for realizing your potential in front of audiences that you want to influence, engage and inspire. This is common sense, but wasn’t common practice for me last Saturday.

And sure, these tips apply specifically to presentations. And they can absolutely be applied to anything in which you want to realize your version of success.

Masthead photo courtesy of timtom.ch’s photostream on Flickr

Awesome photo of me emceeing a wedding courtesy of my main man Jamie Reid

Three Reasons Why Panda Bears Are Horrible Role Models

Aka Hige – Flickr Creative Commons

Panda bears are the poster-animals for numerous conservation causes and luck-based Chinese philosophies. Yet these malnourished creatures are not adaptable to their changing surroundings. So, here is an argument to stop celebrating these overrated beasts.

Every day we hear stories and see images that our global economy/marketplace/village is changing at hyper speed. University students will wind up working in a job that didn’t exist when they started school. Fast Company is writing interesting articles about GenFlux leading teams within the chaos of our modern world. Popular media and memes change faster than Survivor “stars” and Lady Gaga’s hair colour. Organizations merge, expand and downsize. Units are eliminated or integrate with others. Change is the only certainty. Shift happens.

Adaptability is crucial for success (career, community, family). People who are flexible with how the world is changing will lead its future as opposed to forever playing catch-up because they live in the past (are you listening, Republicans?). When it comes to building community, embracing change and nimbly adapting to life’s shifts are incredibly important – even necessary.

Which is why panda bears are horrible role models for everyone everywhere. Including you.

Here’s why:

1. They hate sex. “Male pandas suffer from a chronic lack of sex drive – more than 60 per cent show no sexual desire at all in captivity, and only a tenth of them will mate naturally,” says The Independent’s Clifford Coonan. “Zookeepers have even resorted to using videos of mating pairs in the hope that “panda porn” will help the bears get frisky, although scientists say the films don’t have much effect.” Unreal. This becomes even more infuriating when you examine the animals’ eating habits and state of their youngsters.

2. They are totally useless for the first six months of their lives. Polar bear cubs leave their ice caves when they are three months old, walk for dozens/hundreds of kilometres to find food, don’t find any because of climate change and adapt by fighting walruses or armed folk from Churchill, Manitoba. Panda bear cubs are blind for the first10-20 days of their lives. They can’t walk, hunt or function before they’re three months old. Sure, they’re cute, but so are kittens, which, as it turns out, are more ferocious and adaptable than panda bears.

3. They refuse to adapt. While the Internet insists on proving me wrong (thanks for nothing, The BBC, National Geographic and ilovepandas.org), I’m pretty confident that Planet Earth’s David Attenborough told me that panda bears mostly eat bamboo (it is allegedly 99 per cent of their diet), even though their bellies are designed to digest meat, just like the stomach of any good carnivore. Their refusal to consume non-bamboo-based-foods is mostly to blame for their low sex drive and weakling children and, with the erosion of this food supply in China and beyond, it seems startling that pandas don’t incorporate other food (meat, berries, garbage, etc.) into their diet, like tigers, penguins and grizzly bears. Penguins, on the other hand, are outstanding adapters – they can live on the beaches of South Africa or the freezing ice fields of Antarctica. It’s penguins that should bee on the World Wildlife Fund’s posters and calendars, not panda bears.

So, if you’re taking professional cues from panda bears, stop. It’s both weird (seriously, they’re bears) and counterproductive (you need to be adaptable and should also enjoy the physical act of love) for building positive and thriving communities at home and at work.

Get adaptable. Get flexible. And get comfortable with change. Because so much more is coming.

Developing Successful Storytellers

Support A Good Book Drive and build a library of children’s books for East Vancouver literacy program the Writers’ Exchange.

This is a story about stories and storytelling. Its purpose is to inspire you to, first, give a copy of your favourite children’s book to a kid and, second, support A Good Book Drive if you live in Vancouver. Why? Because stories are the most powerful communications tool that we, as humans, have at our disposal.

“How do we get people to act on our idea? We tell stories.” This is a line from the first chapter of Made to Stick by Chip and Dan Heath, a must-read for teachers, communicators, marketers, leaders, and pretty much anyone who wants to get their ideas across in an effective and inspiring way.

In a nutshell – or some kind of stickier legume – here are the Heath Brothers’ six principles for SUCCESsful ideas:

SIMPLICITY – To strip an idea down to its core, we must be masters of exclusion.

UNEXPECTEDNESS – We need to violate people’s expectations. We need to be counterintuitive.

CONCRETENESS – We must explain our ideas in terms of human actions, in terms of sensory information.

CREDIBILITY – We need ways to help people test our ideas for themselves – a “try before you buy” philosophy for the world of ideas.

EMOTIONS We make people feel something.

STORIES –  Research shows that mentally rehearsing a situation helps us perform better when we encounter that situation in the physical environment. Similarly, hearing stories acts as a kind of mental flight simulator, preparing us to respond more quickly and effectively.

Like I said, storytelling means the ability to influence, and stories are not only the preferred idea-delivery-mechanism of the Heath Brothers, but are also at the centre of Andy Goodman’s belief that “stories are the single most powerful communications tool” that we have available to us. Check out his very free and very awesome PDF “Why Bad Presentations Happen to Good Causes” to learn more about incorporating storytelling into what you do.

In the broadest professional sense, recent research by the American Management Association, the Canadian Association of Career Educators and Employers, and several North American universities has found that the top competency employers look for when they hire talent is communication: they want to know that you can speak and write effectively, persuasively and with good grammar and syntax.

Fun fact: as a young professional, it is more detrimental to your career to consistently spell things wrong on Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, and your blog than it is to have pictures of you drinking.

So, knowing how to understand, create and tell stories is possibly the most important thing for human beings to harness in order to realize their potential, which is why you should help kids from inner-city schools in Vancouver achieve their storytelling potential by supporting A Good Book Drive. And if Vancouver isn’t home, well, there are programs like this one in your community, too. And if there isn’t such a program, start one.

The need for literacy programs in inner-city Vancouver is evident; schools designated as “inner-city” are located in communities where crime rates are high, and a large percentage of the population has low education levels and receives income assistance. The children growing up in these neighbourhoods and attending inner-city schools are struggling with reading and writing.

A Good Book Drive is an annual book drive in Vancouver sharing children’s books and stories with a new generation of readers. It is a project from the non-profit storytelling organization Rain City Chronicles and this year the campaign will support Vancouver’s Writers’ Exchange.

The Writers’ Exchange is the only program in Vancouver where children work with volunteer mentors and professional writers to boost their literacy skills and self-esteem through free homework help, dedicated reading time and creative writing projects. The Writer’s Exchange is a project of Tides Canada Initiatives, a nationally registered charity.

To learn more and receive updates on A Good Book Drive please visit:

agoodbookdrive.com
facebook.com/agoodbookdrive
@agoodbookdrive
@agoodbookdrive 

For more information about A Good Book Drive please contact:
Lizzy Karp
agoodbookdrive@gmail.com
604.910.2807

For more information about the Writers’ Exchange please contact:
Sarah Maitland
smaitland@vancouverWE.com
778.888.5498
vancouverWE.com

Sport and Community Leadership

The Vancouver Whitecaps FC is leading positive change in Vancouver. We predict the club’s ideas, commitments and positive role modeling will soon send ripples throughout the worlds of sport, wellness and community. We look forward to measuring the myriad ways that Vancouver’s newest professional sporting club reaches its potentiality – on the pitch as well as in the community.

As part of their club vision, the Whitecaps are committed to being a significant community asset. For the past year, the club has been championing the Vancouver Street Soccer League through a unique partnership with the DTES community sport association. In addition to frequent ticket giveaways, practices with Whitecaps FC men and women’s teams and the recent nomination of VSSL President Alan Bates as their community MVP, the team has also looked to grow its roots within the youth soccer community. A recent example was their free community clinic at UBC where the Whitecaps invited over 100 students from Hastings Elementary and U-Hill Elementary for a coaching session with Carl Valentine (‘Caps Legend and current Booster), Jay DeMerit (the club’s Captain), and Russell Teibert (one of the club’s Canadian stars).

A new study by Griffith University’s School of Business will explore the relationship between new sporting clubs and the communities they impact by investigating “the benefits gained in terms of the fan base they will stimulate as well as the well-being of the communities they enter” and will aim to “identify ways to maximise both outcomes.” [Editor’s note: please take note of our outstanding quotations and credit-giving, Margaret Wente!].

A study by Up2Us of American professional sports leagues and the philanthropy that they deliver for communities, suggests that “‘team-based philanthropy’ centers around the following five categories: Funding; Signatures and Seats; Free Marketing; Team/Player Involvement; and Use of Space.” The report recommends that professional clubs go beyond providing hand-picked organizations with free tickets, signed merchandise and field space by truly inspiring and investing in their communities, even if it’s for transparently self-serving reasons.

For example, a team might address the challenge of youth health, wellness and fitness by, say, contributing to the construction and management a giant Soccer Training Centre that will provide access to youth in the Lower Mainland (and beyond), but will also provide an incubator for future Whitecaps FC talent. Another example from the report is a recommendation for clubs to not award grants to single community teams or local nonprofits, but to challenge these community-based organizations to develop campaigns or programs as part of a competition, where the winning organization would receive something cool (e.g. taco night with Jay DeMerit!) from the professional team.

In addition to Vancouver Whitecaps FC, here are some randomly-selected North American pro-sports clubs (and one very tall man) that are doing cool things:

What do you think of how sport clubs give and how such engagement helps communities realize their potential?