April, 2010


If you hang around Jewish people like I do, you will eventually learn the term tikkun olam.  Very roughly translated, this speaks to an obligation for every Jew to help repair the world.  Of course, it’s hugely more complicated than that.  Everything in Judasim is.  I know this from many years as a Methodist person driving my three Nicaraguan kids to Hebrew school.  Oh, go scratch your head.  It’s ok.

So,  tikkun olam became one of my ‘take-aways’ from being Blondie at synagogue.  But how do you fix the world?  Well, I always liked to think that my professional work has a positive impact on the world but that I’m paid pretty well kind of erodes my point tally in the “Book of Life.”  Writing a couple of big checks every year, sure, that helps.  Mentoring younger professionals coming up, ok.  Serving on a couple of nonprofit boards, that’s fine.  Doing work for groups for free, absolutely should count.  But you know what all this stuff is?  It’s safe.

But now, I’m about to venture into new territory.  If not this week, within the very near future, I will get my first case as a CASA (Court Appointed Special Advocate).  A CASA is a trained volunteer appointed by a judge to monitor a foster care placement and to advocate for the best interest of the child; the work involves weekly meetings with the foster child(ren), and regular contact with foster parents, birth parents, teachers, and other people involved in the child’s life.  I’ve been told that judges regard CASAs as  people with extremely valuable insight into how a foster child is doing and what he/she needs in the future because the CASA is the only person in the foster child’s life who is looking at all the pieces of the puzzle.

In my mind and what motivated me to pursue this is if a CASA had been monitoring Christopher Thomas, Jr.’s kinship placement with his aunt, he would be alive today.  If the name doesn’t ring a bell, google it and then prepare to have your heart broken.

So after mulling it over and finding a dozen reasons why I shouldn’t become a CASA, I took the 34-hour training course and was sworn in as a CASA by Childen’s Court Judge Yamihiro a couple of weeks ago.  Next step is the case.  I’ll get one case and I’ll have it for a year, minimally, maybe longer.

What’s the big deal?  This is so not me.  I don’t do direct services.  I write about direct services.  I describe people’s problems.  I don’t try to solve them.  You get where I’m going here?  Oh heck, I can talk to anybody and get information.  Give me 5 people in a desert, an easel and some decent markers, and I can run a focus group on jackrabbits.  But be up close and personal with people in serious trouble over a long period of time — oh, this is stranger in a strange land time for Jan. 

I feel prepared.  (Kids Matter, the local CASA coordinating agency, provides great training and support.) And I really feel challenged – to take on what’s not so ‘safe’ and comfortable.  To maybe stop talking and start walking, if you get my drift.  Wish me luck.  And think about what you are doing in the tikkun olam department.  Will keep you posted on how it goes.

Going Off Half-Cocked: Business Lessons from My Dad

One reason why I don’t have ulcers or lose sleep over work is that I keep in my back pocket a finely honed ability to go off half-cocked. I don’t do it all the time and, as I get older, tend to do it less and less, but I have no fear of pushing my chair back from the table and saying “I’m done with this” if the foolishness quotient goes beyond a certain level.

I learned this from my Dad.  Well, learned probably isn’t accurate.  It’s more like I absorbed it.  My father didn’t do a lot of direct instruction and probably wouldn’t have known a role model if one sat in his lap.

My dad knew how to pick up and leave.  Now, get this right.  My dad was not a rich man.  He couldn’t always afford to go off half-cocked and several times his family paid the price for his unilteral decisions to sell his business, move to a new town, buy a business, move again.  There were a lot of 29 cent chicken pot pies eaten while he played in dance bands at night or sold Muntz TV’s door to door in Detroit to pay the mortgage and keep his day business operating.

But you know what I respected about him?  He didn’t take a lot of crap from people or situations.  He took some.  He wasn’t some super-sensitive guy who was always getting his nose out of joint or running out the door because his pride was hurt.  He would negotiate, try to change things, come at problems from a new angle.  But if none of that worked, he’d just get to a certain level and, man, that was it.  He was done.  He was on to making a new plan.

Without even thinking about it, I realized early on that I approached my work life the same way.  And it has brought a value to my work that might be underestimated by many people.  Because I know I am not afraid to walk away from a bad situation, I’m less stressed about staying in one.  As a co-worker in a nonprofit organizations where we both worked said when the agency was going through a particularly wicked period, “This isn’t the kind of place you should work if you don’t have options.”

I have colleagues who just seem to suffer every single day on the job.  “How’s it going,” I ask.  Then the torrent…”they don’t use my skills, I never have any say about my assignments, no one ever listens to me, I’m not appreciated and on and on.”  To which I say, “You’re smart.  You’re competent.  You have options.”  Invariably, I get the arguments back about how they don’t have options, they have families, it’s a bad job market, they’ve got a pension to worry about.  A hundred reasons why they can’t control their own lives.  I feel bad for them – not really. 

Going off half-cocked — important skill to have. It’s not about being flaky or temperamental or egotistical.  It’s about having standards and a sense of one’s own capabilities and contribution.  And knowing what you will and won’t do to make a buck.

And believing, at the end of the day, you can make a new plan.


Jumpstart Your Meetings

“Let’s go around the room and have everyone introduce themselves,” the group leader says.  “I’m Fred from UWM.”  “I’m Gladys from General Motors.” You know the drill.  I decided recently to just give my name with no affiliation, a Cher-envy play that got no attention whatsoever.  “I’m Jan Wilberg.” Kerplunk.  Everyone waited the decent interval (where my affiliation would have been) and went on to the next person.

So boring.  SO BORING.

There are ways to do introductions that a) make them fun; b) break the ice; and c) and most importantly, build the relationship strength of the group.  Focus on the last point for a moment.  If I go to meetings with you for ten years and all I ever hear is that you’re Fred from UWM because you never say much and flee immediately following the meeting, I’m missing a chance to build a relationship with you and UWM that could be of value to both of us.

So what to do?  Start the meeting with disclosure and laughter.  Here are some things that either I’ve done or I’ve seen done by way of juicing up the introduction drill at the beginning of meetings:

  • My all time favorite intro/ice breaker is to ask people to tell us their name, affiliation, and one thing about themselves we wouldn’t find on their resume.  This is how I found out a local economic development leader was the San Francisco spelling bee champion and how an incredibly mousy state bureaucrat was a bungee jumper.  I’ve also found people who were studying to be ordained, raise Christmas trees in their off hours, spoke five languages, ran marathons in foreign countries, and a whole bunch of other weird, quirky thing that immediately enriched the interaction of the group.  Why?  Because we right away feel like we know each other better.
  • A good friend of mine, Marcia Jante, former Director of UW-Extension in Waukesha, would start each coalition meeting with a completely off the wall question for introductions.  If it was national dairy month, she’d say, “Tell us your name, your organization, and the dairy product that best represents you.”  Huh?  People are totally taken aback by a question like that – which is good because they giggle, chat with their neighbor, the room buzzes.  It’s good energy.  I was Gouda cheese.
  • Friday, I was at a meeting where the facilitator asked each person to introduce themselves and describe one relationship that had developed as a result of their membership in the coalition.  This seemed to take forever — but it was truly worth it.  Generated heartfelt comments, made people feel connected and happy.  A good use of time.

What bothers me about  boring introductions is that we are missing opportunities for better relationships, better projects, and more impact.  You know how Facebook, by sharing little snippets of people’s daily lives, makes you feel like you know a lot more people a lot better?  Think of that approach – the widening and deepening of social networks – as a way to create a more dynamic community for your group.

We’re more than where we work.  And when we share that, somehow it makes our work richer, more worthwhile, just better.

Goodbye to Meetings from Hell

I once watched a well-respected doctor throw a pencil at a female colleague whose ridiculously long, whiny oration during a proposal planning meeting had put him and the rest of us around the bend of polite behavior.  I remember being shocked at the time but also deeply appreciative.  The meeting had truly gone way beyond human endurance.

At a Passover Seder, we recite the Ten Plagues.  You know them: blood, frogs, lice, flies, cattle disease, boils, hail, locusts, darkness, death of the firstborn.  Because I was at a Seder last night and I have an unusual fondness for lists, I’m thinking of  Ten Meeting Plagues.

  1. Anonymity – skipping introductions in the interest of time
  2. Hunger and Thirst – no offer of coffee or treats
  3. Puzzlement – meeting purpose that is confused or secret
  4. Exclusion – tiered group with clear insiders and outsiders
  5. Humorlessness – absence of chitchat or jokes
  6. Aimlessness – meandering, undisciplined discussion
  7. Endlessness – no respect for people’s time or patience
  8. Hopelessness – deep belief the meeting is meaningless
  9. Discontinuity – no traction from previous meeting
  10. Disinvestment – decision to bug out – literally or figuratively

These days people don’t have to throw pencils to vent their frustration.  They Blackberry – google other people in the room, play Scrabble, text other attendees they sense are bored and frustrated.  Basically, they’re there but they’re not there.  I know this.  I’m one of these BB’ing folks who can’t tolerate bad meetings and would otherwise be arming myself with pencils.

What to do?

Here are five simple steps:  1) Have a purpose and an agenda; 2) Designate someone as the facilitator who will implement the agenda and manage the conversation; 3) Keep and distribute minutes; 4) Implement the ‘everybody talks/everybody listens’ rule; 5) Be glad to see people and have a little fun. 

There’s a reason why we got into this business – it’s interesting, important, and worthwhile.  When we get together to solve a problem or plan a project, it’s an opportunity to make things better in the world.  Let’s enjoy it!