Blog – Letter From John
April 2013: Letter from John By John Sarvay | April 10, 2013
I spend most of my waking life telling clients that feedback is just data, just information -- and they should embrace opportunities to hear and act on it. But I am not so unlike the rest of you. Feedback makes me anxious! I often find myself working to avoid it. Or having mild emotional meltdowns when I receive it.
This was reinforced a few weeks ago when two pieces of feedback consumed my attention -- a stakeholder survey for Floricane and feedback on a lunchtime presentation I did in March for the Virginia Society of Association Executives.
Let's go with the "feedback is just data" idea for a minute. The data was good! Hundreds of people told us what they thought. (See below in the newsletter for details.)
People told us that they generally like Floricane and the work we do, and gave us good feedback on ways to be better at what we do. Here's a taste about what Floricane does that stands out: "Think differently. Have opinions. Say what's right. Do right things. Look like you're having fun even if you're not always. Initiate." Score!
The lunchtime crowd at the VSAE event had very kind things to say about my casual style, my use of humor, my transparency and the content of the presentation I delivered on leadership. One perspective: "John's information and his style were excellent. I was most impressed by how authentic he seemed. I would welcome hearing him again." FTW!
Oh, but the devil, my friends, lives right in the briar patch of the details.
I wonder what other words people used to describe Floricane? Let's dig deeper. "Disappointing." Cue me getting hijacked.
How about another take on that presentation? "His program started off like an infomercial." Ouch.
Feedback is awesome. Until it cuts to the bone.
My reaction to feedback always brings to mind one sentence from my very first Insights Discovery personality assessment -- "He dislikes being criticized by others as he is already burdened by his inner voice of self-judgment." Preach on, Insights.
It also surfaces words of wisdom from the late Charles Seashore, one of the greats in organizational behavior. "Feedback," Charles told me in 2007, "tells you as much about the giver as it does about the receiver."
That said, it's important to listen to feedback. In both of these cases, I am the receiver, not the giver, and I have a choice -- to listen, or not. Acting on feedback often is less important than clearly hearing and internalizing it.
The truth is, I have left clients disappointed. More than once. And I know I'm prone to talking too much about my experiences. This recent feedback is a reminder of both facts -- and a call for me, and for the Floricane team, to do better.
"Change is inevitable. Growth is optional." That was the first slide in my VSAE presentation. It was followed by a picture of Charlie Brown saying, "This is going to take more than one night."
It's perfectly normal to have mixed feelings about feedback. It's a bit harder to treat it like a gift. But people complain about (and applaud for) things that matter to them. If I listen clearly, I get to make choices about how I grow, and to what degree that growth is in response to people who matter to me.
Charlie Brown has it right. This is going to take more than one night. This journey is going to take the rest of my life.
March 2013: Letter from John By John Sarvay | March 13, 2013
Next week, I wrap up an engagement supporting ChildFund International's executive team through a series of strategic conversations.
You may recall that our team spent a week last spring with their Global Sponsorship Team as they built alignment around a shared vision of work. I'll be doing something similar next week with another global team.
It's a bittersweet space for a guy who was one phone call away from a career with the Foreign Service back in the spring of 2001. (Short version: After an 18 month recruiting process, the State Department made me an offer -- my dream job in the Middle East. For the right reasons, I turned it down.)
Spending time with an organization of global travelers with a passion for making the world a better place is a reminder of the many ways each of us can make a contribution. It's also a reminder that even jobs with life-changing missions are, some days, just jobs.
Living your passion, or a piece of your passion, or your passion of the moment is important work. Holding onto a passion after it has served its purpose in your life is an invitation to sadness and regret.
I often talk to leaders about the ways in which our beliefs -- about ourselves, about others, about the world -- shape our decisions, and the ways in which we engage with others.
I share that our beliefs are shaped by our experiences, thousands upon thousands of large and small moments that help mold our thinking, our reactions, our views. When you reach a point in life where your beliefs are no longer serving a purpose, or are just flat out wrong, it's time to change them.
Because that's easy, right?
No, not so much. We change our beliefs by changing our experiences. We let go of old passions by embracing new ones. We replace old stories that box us in with new stories that liberate and inspire us.
The work of leadership is to create opportunities for those around us to engage in work that reflects their deepest, best beliefs -- and to recognize when beliefs and values and fears and ego drivers (more on those another time) are keeping those around us from living their passions most fully.
It sounds a little Pollyannaish, I know. But once we get past the motivating force of a paycheck, it's really all we -- as employers and leaders -- have left. In his book, Drive, Dan Pink talks about autonomy, mastery and purpose, about the role intrinsic motivators play in inspiring people to do great work.
It's a long leap from "I'll be hanging out at ChildFund next week" to "look for ways to engage people where it matters most to them." But isn't that the best work we can do in this life, whether we do it in Bangladesh or in Manhattan or in a brick office building off of Broad Street?
The best way to start? Look in the mirror. Uncover your own beliefs, and ask in what ways they are inhibiting you from doing or motivating you to do your best work in this life.
February 2013 Letter from John By John Sarvay | February 13, 2013
Welcome to Floricane 2013. If last year was all about financial survival (it was), then this will be the year of stabilization, alignment and delight.
It's a tricky balance.
Even as I try to absorb some very important lessons about discipline and fiscal prudence, Floricane's business model pushes our team to constantly explore the edges of the envelope. And while our clients appreciate our ability to stretch the conversation and increase their discomfort in constructive ways, they also value constancy, effective planning and execution.
One of the hardest things to do as a business is to simultaneously give customers what they want, and to delight and surprise them in the process.
As I chew on the end of my pencil and reflect on my recent experiences as a customer, I'm hard-pressed to come up with truly great examples of a business that wows me in the process of meeting my needs. I mean ones that really, really wow me.
Earlier in the winter, Thea and I wandered into the new WPA Bakery in Church Hill to check it out, and get something for breakfast. It was warm, cozy, personal. The muffins were good. The staff was friendly.
And then Kendra, one of the owners, gave Thea a cup of buttermilk hot chocolate with a massive, homemade marshmallow floating in the steaming mug. The look of delighted surprise on Thea's face -- that's what I mean. It is so freakin' easy to deliver, and yet so hard.
I think it starts with the basics. You have to get the fundamentals right every time.
Then there's delivering on your brand promise. At each touch point in an interaction, customers should consistently experience the unique and distinct aspects of your business, especially the ones that you market and promote publicly.
The third element is built around relationships. Your business should feel personal. Your customers want to feel a connection with you and your employees that suggests they actually matter to you as something more than a transaction or receipt.
You have to land all three of these cornerstone elements. Only then can you delight a customer.
As Floricane hits 2013 at a hard sprint, we're taking time to work our way through our business approach. We're retooling our processes, the basics of our business. We're recommitting to ensuring each client touch point is aligned with our brand. We're redoubling our investment in our relationships -- with our past and current clients, our partners and our friends in the community.
And then we're going to make sure we deliver a massive, homemade marshmallow atop every interaction.
December 2012: Letter from John By John Sarvay | December 5, 2012
In 2006, my engagement with the Richmond region went from passive to active -- thanks to my participation in the first Greater Richmond Challenge.
Created by Stephanie Kirksey and her team at the Greater Richmond Chamber, the Challenge was a reverse play around the traditional InterCity Visit. Instead of heading out to see how other cities create success, the Challenge invited a hundred-plus Richmonders to explore successes in their own back yard.
I found myself on a small team exploring some inspiring work in the realm of affordable housing. What we discovered during our 24 hour blitz was eye-opening and inspiring -- organizations like Better Housing Coalition and Virginia Supportive Housing that are transforming the way our region deals with serious housing issues.
But the Challenge's real lessons weren't strictly educational. They were relational.
Earlier that year at a Creative Change Center event, I had my first introduction to Andy Stefanovich. (Some of you know exactly how much "Wow!" can be packed into a first encounter with Andy.)
Andy said something that night that I've carried around with me for seven years now. "Look around the room," he said. "There are people here who caught your attention. Give yourself permission to have a business crush on someone in the room tonight, and write them a business love letter. Ask them out for coffee or lunch, and get to know them better."
For an introvert like myself, Andy's invitation to be extraverted had remarkable power.
I was just looking at the business crush list I compiled at the end of the 2006 Challenge: Stephanie Kirksey and Betsy Borders Mangum, Robert Dortch, Sam Rugg, Scott Sutton, Lawson Wijesooriya are all now serious, essential friends. I never would have connected with them without Andy's permission to have a crush.
As I head into 2013, and year five with Floricane, it feels like a good time to identify a new batch of inspirational, amazing people with beautiful spirits - and to fall in love all over again with people who make this community sing. I've started working on my business crush list for 2013. I'll leave a few slots open on my calendar for a business crush blind date or two.
Go fall in love with amazing people. The magic never wears off. (Though someone needs to tell Kirksey she owes me lunch...)
Happy New Year, Richmond. You rock, and I want to hang out with you.
Letter from John: Having good partners By John Sarvay | November 14, 2012
Having a baby? Starting a business? It helps to have a good partner in the mix.
Four years into this business of Floricane -- and almost five since Thea was born -- I can make an easy argument that Nikole has played seriously large role in my successes as a businessperson and a parent. As a partner and as a wife, she's been solidly invested from the start.
Like the life of a newborn, the first year of business at Floricane was a heady mixture of having no clue, soaking it all in and constantly waiting for the next meal. Nikole thought and celebrated and worried through all of 2009 with me.
There were no terrible twos -- at Floricane, anyway. The second year of business was a lot of fun. The toddler stage of the business was busy, and growing, and good. Nikole celebrated every success we hit in 2010.
Year three was bumpy -- more growth, along with a handful of mistakes and more than a bit of unwarranted cockiness. All of which conspired to make this fourth year of consulting challenging beyond belief. Having a partner at home to help hold things together, and push me at the right moments, hasn't made the work easier, but there's something reassuring about having someone alongside me in the boat.
If Nikole has been at my side through the thick and thin of Floricane's emerging adolescence, I've also been fortunate to be surrounded by a great community of coworkers and supporters.
Bill Martin (of Valentine Richmond History Center fame) and I had drinks earlier this summer to discuss the challenges of these entrepreneurial preschool years. He suggested that I didn't know enough to do anything different in the first year, was too busy to do anything different the second year, and too stubborn to change course during the third year. He also advised me not to wait until year five to adjust course.
And so 2012 was the year I finally stopped screaming, "I can do it by myself!" (see Playground Perspective, below), and started allowing the excellence of others to really shine. (Admittedly, not until I hit a wall.)
Leap forward sixty days, and Floricane faces its 4th birthday (and enters its fifth year) with a new home, a solid team of star players and a steady pipeline of fun, meaningful work. We're busier than ever, and optimistic about the future. Did I mention fun?
As Floricane moves into its fifth year, I find myself saying "Thank you" to a lot of people. Friends, family, clients, business partners, community supporters -- there's been no end to the steady stream of caring, supportive people who have helped us thrive. My commitment for year five is simple: Give Nikole more successes to celebrate, and help the team turn Floricane into the business we all want it to be.
Happy anniversary, Nikole and Thea. Happy anniversary, Sarah and Tina and Debra and Caroline. And thank you, friend, for being a part of this fun, fantastic, stress-inducing journey!
- Fulton Keeps Rising
- Basketball Illuminates the Individual v Team Leadership Rift
- Seven Brainstorming Lessons
- Dive Into A Summer of (Self) Discovery!
- A Time To Play
- Write the Future
- 11 Lessons from a Facilitation Marathon
- Playground Perspectives: Now We’re Cooking
- April 2013: Letter from John
- Explore the 1E Collaborative Space on April 2
- Thanks, ChildFund International
- Take Them to the River
- Congratulations, VCU Parkinson’s and Movement Disorders Center!
- Everyone’s in Transition
- Congratulations, National Alliance on Mental Illness Virginia!