Covid: Who will sharpen the pencils?

Pre-Covid when I was heading up an NGO in New Haven Connecticut, where Yale intern talent was abundant, there was a tradition. The person selected to keep sharp the container of pencils on my desk, a seemingly menial task, was in fact a person identified as one possessing a talent, sometimes obvious sometimes not so obvious, worthy of recognition and nurturing. This tradition emerged after earlier trials picking the most junior person for the task, ended up being perceived as demeaning to the designee. The new approach, which remained in place as long as I steered the ship, converted what was perceived as a humiliation into a much coveted honor. Not entirely unintentionally, it also gave me the opportunity to have one-on-one interaction with an intern–a challenge in our busy go-get ’em world.

This revised approach to what I thought was a good exercise in humility grew out of a sense of something I had learned in my own career–which was that leading an organization was easiest when one had somewhere on the resume, held the most junior job that often involved humdrum tasks. It was only then as a leader, that I felt a person could truly have a properly developed sense of empathy, appreciate youthful eagerness to climb the ladder and sympathize with a young person’s sense of underutilization of their abundant intelligence. In the current workplace climate keeping the bosses pencils sharp seemed a good way to encourage humility–a lesson hard to learn or be taught in ivy league corridors. The pencil sharpener designation, in stark contrast to being viewed as a humiliation, became a coveted honor– able to generate just a little disappointment to those not selected for the task. Not accidentally, the sharpening exercise often led to a chance to sit down and have interesting exchanges with young wonderfully interesting students. Conversations about life, goals and direction often ensued.

In the Covid and post-Covid world, where many of us are now working remotely, the humility lesson gets taught twice. For those of us responsible for sharpening our bosses pencils so many years ago, we are left again to our own unassisted devices, to keep our own pencils sharp.

So if you find yourself on a teams or zoom call with me, and think I’ve gone silent, consider this: I may be, behind that mute button, sans interns, sharpening my HB#2 Staedtlers wondering when I shall ever again have the opportunity to share life’s lessons during an encounter disguised as a pencil sharpening session.


How to Teach Strategic Thinking

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Recently in a conversation with a faculty at a reputable law school, I was asked what I saw as the biggest shortcoming in recently graduated young lawyers. I shot the answer out lickety split–no question about it–they completely lacked the ability to think strategically. The question that followed was–well, one naturally to be expected: Would you be willing to conduct a lecture as part of a post graduate offering, on how young lawyers can learn to think strategically?  Again, my answer was far too quick. Flooded with the a rush of self congratulation over the invitation, the answer oozed out of me as smoothly as a salted  caramel from chocolate on a hot day…” I’d love to.”

Thirty days into the process of designing the itinerary for the self-discovery journey to strategic thinking, apropos of the subject, I find myself murmuring: What was I thinking? Was I thinking at all? One thing for certain there was nothing measured or tempered about my enthusiasm to take on the challenge. Dare I say–nothing strategic about that decision.   So on this glorious weekend summer’s day  in a small Connecticut village that New Yorkers kill themselves to get to negotiating I-95 every Friday night, I sit. At my computer. An intentionally made-to-look-retro fan keeps me cooled while its rattle drowns out  bird tweets and competes with gentle breezes. “Help Me Rhonda” fittingly plays in the background.

In the last thirty days, I have spent most of my discretionary time reading everything in sight and googling every conceivable variation of the phrase “how to teach strategic thinking”…to adults, to millennials, nay even children. After querying  colleagues and daughter MBA candidate came the flood of recommendations… Kahneman’s “Thinking Fast and Slow” and Covey’s classic, “The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People.” A trip to the book store lured me with no fewer than ten different volumes of HBR (Harvard Business Review) compilations–promoted as “must reads.”  I got the one on “managing people” possibly influenced by  the tag line “If you read nothing else on managing people, read these definitive articles.”  Sold.

So, in these intervening weeks since the caramel oozed out of my chocolate,  my world has become an exploration of mastering outside the box inventiveness, analyzing human effectiveness and managing intuitions and interventions.

For those of you who are regular followers, this is the part of my blog where I pull something out of the hat of my past and draw an connection that most assuredly seems to have little to do with the blog topic. My personal paraprosdokian literary widget.
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Not too long ago  on my way home from work, I passed Tate Modern and read a poster about an exhibit of Matisse’s cutouts. It was there, on the south bank looking up at the billboard promoting the exhibition, where I  learned, for the first time, that my favorite Matisse art piece was actually a collage fashioned from cut out pieces of paper. How did I not know that in the 40 years since my first encounter and subsequent love affair with the piece? Now come to find out, he didn’t paint or even draw my favorite blue nude–he pasted it.    I believed I knew a Matisse  painting when I saw one.  Turns out, I didn’t. As for pornography and knowing it when I see it–I’m going to have to reconsider that as well.  Which brings us to strategic thinking…right now I can’t quite pin down for you what it is or how you can acquire a knack for it, but I can tell you this: if you work with me, trip up and make that strategic fail and I can be all over you like a wet t-shirt.