Sunday, May 29, 2011

My Commencement Speech at Mentor University

I heard a number of commencement speeches this graduation season, some good and some – well – they should have been shorter. Reflecting on them I wondered, what makes a good commencement speech, and what would I say if I were asked to be a commencement speaker?

Below is my response, in the form of my speech to the 2011 graduating class at Mentor University. Mentor University is not at real university, but that’s OK, because this isn’t a real commencement speech.

I rise to the podium and proceed as follows:

A good commencement speech should be:

  • Wise – providing useful advice and insights into the future;
  • Entertaining – to amuse the spirits of graduates, family, and friends; and
  • Short – it's hot, it’s stuffy, there is impending rain, and all anyone really wants is to see their graduate get his or her diploma and then go out to eat.
While I aspire to be wise and entertaining, my children have advised me to be short. As I heard Dean Frank Thompson say, “There is no such thing as a bad, short speech.” So I have three things I want to say.
  1. Keep learning
  2. Appreciate feedback
  3. Ask good questions

Here’s the first: Keep Learning.

Now that your schooling is completed, you are prepared to learn. When you learned to drive a car, you first obtained a learner’s permit and then a driver’s license. But the real development of your driving skills, the continuing process of mastering those skills, began after you received that license. So it is with the diploma you receive today – treat it as a license to learn.

To stretch this analogy further, you did not learn to drive alone. At first you had a teacher, but then, license in hand, you were alone behind the wheel. You learned from other drivers. You learned habits from them – ways of interacting – safe and courteous habits, we hope, but also perhaps, ones less so. So too in the world of work. You will learn from others. Be conscious of what you learn and whose habits you acquire. Learn what is right and good.

Here’s the second: Appreciate Feedback.

At the foundation of your continuing education and personal growth is the feedback – positive and negative – that you can receive from those who are close to you. Encourage and benefit from it. Think of it this way – if I hadn't asked my kids for feedback on this presentation, you'd be hearing a longer speech.

And the third: Ask Good Questions.

Whether at a job interview, on the job, or in a meeting, ask good questions. The key to asking good questions is listening. Listen to what others say, and ask about what they meant; clarify before you evaluate. As Moses Maimonides said, “Teach your tongue to say ‘I do not understand.’” People learn more about you from the questions you ask than from the answers you give.

I said I would say three things. I said them. I'm done.

The audience bursts into delighted and rambunctious applause.

Sunday, May 8, 2011

Advice for Building a Collaborative

I received an email from a woman who had written a grant proposal to expand an existing program. The funding agency referred her to me. At the risk of this sounding like an advice column, here is an excerpt.
Through the process of applying for the grant, I became interested in opening up the decision making that we do, and otherwise improving our group process to broaden the base of support – and I don't mean only financially. We‘re really seeing a need for it – this is the type of program that we feel can be so very beneficial for a community, and we'd love to see it grow and spread and we'd love to find ways we can facilitate that. We have put tons of time into it, and realize that we simply can't keep it up ourselves – we need to bring others in somehow. We‘re right now in the thick of getting going for this year‘s program. I'd really like to concentrate on the above. Do you have any advice for us?

I'd be glad to help out.

Here are some preliminary suggestions for building a collaborative. I think it is useful to distinguish convening a group (as in getting the group together) from facilitating a group (as in facilitating a meeting). In the convening stage, which is the stage I think you're at now, it's useful to think about four things.

1. Meaning. People will get involved in your collaborative if it has meaning to them. A statement of purpose is useful. Think about creating one as a vehicle for engaging others and inviting them into the collaborative. Be willing to accept their comments and revise the “purpose” accordingly.

2. Understanding. It is important for the participating individuals and organizations to understand each other – their purposes, how they work, their short- and long-term needs, their understanding of important issues and problems. And to have genuine understandings replace misconceptions and presumptions

3. Choices. You mentioned that you want to “open up the decision making that we do.” It might be useful to make a list of the decisions you‘re making, especially those that have an impact on the purpose. Again, think about this as a vehicle for engaging others and inviting them into the collaborative.

4. Relationships. Whose involvement would help accomplish the purpose? For whom would this collaborative be meaningful? Whose expertise and perspective would be valuable in making those decisions? What role would it be useful for them to play in the collaborative?

Meaning is what we want.
Understanding is what we need.
Choices are what we make.
Relationships are what we have.