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#ThanksCOVID Part 3: From Foundations to Working Together
This is Part 3 of the #ThanksCOVID/BigNews series. In the first part, we discussed how the Academy made it clear we needed more help, and in the second part, we discussed the past and future of the Anchor.
In Part 2, I discussed that the Anchor created some tension about what were Anchors and what were regular posts, and this tension dovetailed into the tension I was feeling about my writing. The simplest way to say it is that, rolling into 2020, I was already thrashing about blogging here at PF, and the pandemic and the evolution of the Anchor only added to that thrashing. The simplest way of putting it is that I ended up not wanting to write for PF.
So how did I get to a place where I didn’t want to write at the blog I started? Backstory time.
I put a stake in the ground in 2018 about the importance of focusing on the foundations of our best work — the basic point of the post is that, as much as we Creative Giants love to talk about big ideas, grand strategies, and actualizing our dreams, how that happens comes from the not-sexy stuff around priority management, planning, time blocking, building habits, and so on. We too frequently want to fly over or hand wave this foundational work, but all along we’re not getting anywhere on the big stuff.
At that time, there was already a book-shaped hole in the business, but that focus on foundations in my work is what led to Start Finishing. I knew that I wanted to traditionally publish Start Finishing, so I also started focusing the broader brand on foundations so the link between Productive Flourishing and Start Finishing needed no explanation. During the same period, we were also getting a lot of lift with our Momentum Planners and it turned out that Productive Flourishing being focused on foundations served as a great platform for the planners.
The focused Productive Flourishing brand worked for Start Finishing. Check!
The focused brand worked for the Momentum Planners. Check!
The focused brand worked as a home for what I was working on every day with clients and as the owner-CEO of Productive Flourishing...
Houston, we have a problem.
What I’m Working on and What I’ve Been Writing about Are Divergent
Even before I drew that line in the sand about foundations, my work had shifted to strategy execution, team development, leadership development, and culture development. I was working with people to build great teams, which is actually my genius domain more than foundational topics. Foundations were my practice and growth edge; building great teams is what I was already masterful at, as I was going on 30 years of practice between all the leadership development programs I was in as a kid, Boy Scouts leadership and management positions, being an Army officer, and business management and advising.
My coaching roster ended up being split into three different segments. One segment of my clients were early-stage entrepreneurs wanting to get some lift and traction. Another segment of my clients were entrepreneurs and business owners wanting to build teams that could scale their impact and profit without working themselves to death. And the last segment were organizations and their leaders who wanted to build more connected, aligned, and high-performance teams.
In any given moment, the ratio of these clients can sway one way or the other, but, over longer views, it washes out to be roughly a third each. I’m a little heavier on org clients at the moment and a little lighter on early-stage entrepreneurs. As some of my early-stage clients grow, they’ll shift into the second group, but some great-fit early-stage clients will show up in the meantime.
For the last few years, this mix has worked really well for me. The solutions I stumble across or co-create in one segment often work well in other segments, but the context of the other segments may not present the right conditions to make the solution as obvious there. A somewhat simplistic narrative is that the speed and value-driven focus of my entrepreneur segments help break down ossification in my org clients, and the structures and rigor of my org clients help me think about the right level of structure for my entrepreneur clients. The people problems are largely the same — if you don’t think small entrepreneur teams are just as political as organizational teams, you haven’t worked in a small entrepreneur team or really seen what’s going on.
The problem, of course, is that the content that was needed to maintain the position of the focused Productive Flourishing brand is a lot different than the content that was falling out of my meetings and work with my clients and, alas, I wasn’t able to create and push foundations content, create and push content for teams, leaders, and clients, work with all of my clients, and lead and manage TeamPF.
Three things fuel my writing: feeling a high sense of need for the content, frustration, or wonder. Having one is sufficient to get words out of me, but the more the better. When I’m live with people, I sense the need for foundations content, which is why I can talk all day about foundations, but when I sit down in the morning to write, I don’t feel that need. While there are still many more puzzles to solve and things to wonder about as it relates to foundations, they don’t weigh as much to me as the things my clients and I are currently grappling with in our teams.
So, largely speaking, there’s been a mismatch between what’s been needed from me to fuel the focused Productive Flourishing brand and the work I do day in and day out. I want to be clear here that it’s not that I think the foundations work is less than or beneath me — I say this because many folks who are in the team and org space often explicitly say or implicitly project that — but that finding the spark is harder in the times of day I have open for writing. I’ve learned that the best time for me to write foundations posts is in the afternoon or evening after I’ve had the conversations about them — since I don’t have to find the spark.
But I wouldn’t be real with you if I made my writing tensions just about professional content.
Not Writing About Politics and Race Has Stifled Me
It would take forever to fully unpack this one, and, by forever, I mean many posts in a series that’s already pushing the limits of the attention y’all are already sharing with us. :)
Even before Donald Trump’s presidency, I was grappling with how much I wanted to talk in public about politics and race. My decision at the time of Ferguson, after a few hard lessons learned, was that I wasn’t going to do much public writing about politics and race. 90% of the time, it ended up in one of four places:
getting high fives from people who already agreed with me
never-ending conversations with people who were never going to agree with me or change their perspectives
cool “agree to disagree” standoffs
lots of requests for me to write and explain more
If I wrote publicly, one post would often get all four.
Thing is, there’s neither a finite nor infinite game with political or race education topics for me. I don’t want to be a political pundit, amateur or professional, and I don’t want to be a public professional race educator. Much of my work in team- and culture-building centers on diversity, equity, and inclusion, but I’m not a DEI specialist and will pull in folks like the Adaway Group, the Center for Equity and Inclusion, or Willie Jackson when it goes deep into that since that’s their chosen body of work. When the George Floyd moments pop up, I’m usually trying to process it and heal myself, my team, friends, community, and clients — doing the unpaid, unappreciated emotional labor of engaging with the larger public isn’t something I’m up for.
This “what am I up for?” question is something Black people (and BIPOC at large) have to deal with on a daily basis in the best of times, but it’s been much more intense and accelerated under the Trump administration. Being Black and having persistent content up on the web that touches on race and politics means that you can get pulled into the “what am I up for?” internal conversation about stuff you wrote months or years ago on top of what you’re up for today. Hell, you get pulled into it about stuff other people wrote and did as people want to get your take on it and to see what you think.
Additionally, it’s important for us BIPOC to have spaces where we don’t have to decide if we’re up for dealing with political or race topics. We’re always processing what’s going on, but sometimes we just want to get to work and do our thing. A little acknowledgment that stuff is going on is usually nice and let’s get it. Whatever’s going on is taking enough of our attention already; centering it as the Thing we must focus on in a public room with people who are just waking up and don’t realize we’ve been doing this for decades is rarely helpful for us. So, since it’s important for us BIPOC to have that space, and I get to choose what type of space we create, I’ve decided to create that space here at Productive Flourishing.
This, of course, puts me in a position where some Black people wish I would say a lot more since I’m a Black man with a platform and lots of white people wish I would say a lot more because I’m a good explanatory writer with a unique lived experience. I’ve thus far chosen to do the work offline, in limited contexts, or on the boards I serve on, and it’ll probably stay that way — but if and as things change for me, I may change my mind.
What this means, though, is that when the absurdly normal and recurring moments happen out in the world, I may not be able to write other stuff because my creative and emotional energies are tied up in dealing with whatever has popped up in the ways I do engage with them. It may also mean that we adjust our editorial schedule to make some breathing room for whatever’s going on, much like we did in June. And given when things actually hit me, I may be taking some recovery and recentering time months after something happened.
I’m telling you this not to apologize, but to give context.
Returning to Our Full Breadth of Topics
When I started PF back in 2007, we had a much broader range of topics, with management, leadership, systems change, and organizational dynamics being a pretty consistent theme. It’s what I was living at the time in a different way and my content strategy at the time was essentially “write about what’s fresh, fascinating, frustrating, or useful.” I was teaching philosophy students, teaching junior leaders, and in intense experiential leadership learning labs, and as I’ve said so many times, the true genesis of so much of my writing is conversations with other people.
Over the last five to seven years, I’ve been teaching and coaching entrepreneurs, small business owners, executives, and accidental leaders, but those conversations didn’t flow into posts nearly to the degree that they would if I turned off the focus filter that I’ve had. Another filter I put on was that talking about how we were building our team, how we work, and what we’re challenged by was off limits. There was never an explicit conversation about this with the team and many of them have wondered why we don’t share the golden nuggets, frameworks, workflows, and stuff that we have inside the team with our audience.
And many people have told me that what they’ve liked most about me and what we do here is that there is a breadth of topics that typically leave them with something useful or provocative to think about. Turns out there’s a match between what I want to do and what people would like me to do more, and if I stop hiding and show my work, the process and outcomes are better. If this sounds like something you’ve read or heard in Start Finishing — well, as I said, it’s a practice for all of us.
It’s hard to say whether we’d have been better off had I not focused on the brand, as different doesn’t always mean better. There are no free lunches with strategic decisions, as every truly strategic choice accepts disadvantages. I’m thus not going to say “in hindsight, we should’ve done …” because it’s too early to tell what the full scope of consequences will be.
The #ThanksCOVID moment here is that the crazy increase in demand for content to help managers and teams adapt to the shift in the ways their teams work together affirmed the direction I was going with my next book and the work I was already wanting to do. My agent is already shopping that book and I’m ready to get into building that book. This time around, much more of it will be shared as I’m writing it — the advantage of not having written about all of it is that you get to see the work evolve closer to real-time.
But the other #ThanksCOVID moment ties back to the Productive Flourishing Academy because it’s provided many more moments for our members to remind me and nudge me to share more about some of the content and insights I have on how to build teams that work together better. And their incessant nudges and speaking up about it made us see that we needed to make some changes in the Academy.
I’ll tag in Angela to discuss what’s happening with the Academy in the next post in this series.