Toddler Parenting: The Ultimate Crash Course in Being Effective at Work

 Me and my little 'extreme user'

Me and my little 'extreme user'

Demanding. Frustrated. Stubborn. Selfish. Emotional. Impatient.

If you’ve ever had a tough boss or a tough client, you’ve probably privately used some of these words to describe him or her. 

Yet, if you’re a parent, you know that these adjectives can also easily be applied to another tough crowd: our children.

As my son makes the transition from infant to toddler to preschooler, I’ve been reflecting on how parenting has changed me as a person and as a professional. My theory? Parenting is by far the best crash course – the best on-the-job training you could hope for, really – for improving your effectiveness and success at work. Here are my top three parenting lessons that also help me at work:

Communication and Empathy are #1

The craziest thing about little kids, even ones who are too young to talk, is that they are constantly communicating with you and you are constantly communicating with them. Whether it’s through your words, your body language, your eyes, even your energy – our children soak up all of these cues even when we don’t realize it.

Parenting requires you to be constantly vigilant about what you are communicating and how you are communicating it. Every signal sends a message. For instance, using words to describe our planned activities for the day helps my son create a mental script that he can follow and find comfort in as we move throughout the day. Similarly, If I’m nervous about my son’s doctors appointment, even if I don’t communicate that message verbally, my body language might tell my son that we’re about to enter a situation that makes me anxious, which in turn creates anxiety for him.

In crisis moments, communication – and especially communicating empathy – becomes especially important. One of my favorite parenting books, Love and Logic, outlines a step-by-step process for how to tame a toddler meltdown. The first step is called “locking in the empathy”. Simply put, this means getting down on on your child’s level, making eye contact with them, and starting first by expressing your understanding for their feelings and emotions. By showing your child that you are focusing on him and his experience of the situation, you’re much more likely to make progress trying to calm him down and move on to the next thing.

As professionals, this emphasis on communication and empathy is equally important. Whether it’s making a recommendation for a new strategy, having a tough conversation, or simply nurturing a professional relationship, being mindful about how and what we communicate is vital both for our clients and for our colleagues. How often and how well do you communicate the planned activities for any given client project, or lock in the empathy with a tough colleague who’s not making things easy for you?

Life is about Choices

This is perhaps my favorite toddler trick and it’s all about control – or at least the perception of control. Being a toddler is tough for a lot of reasons, but a big one is that you’re self-aware enough to want to have free choice and independence, but at the end of the day you’re still two years-old, which means you get to do practically nothing on your own (at least, this is what I think being a toddler is all about). When a toddler confronts this inner conflict head on, it’s like instant internal combustion. So, to help ease this disconnect, you offer choices. 

Love and Logic talks about offering choices that are first, equally acceptable to you and second, don’t knowingly cause any harm to anyone. To demonstrate this, imagine a scenario in which you struggle every night to get your child to eat vegetables at dinner (in my experience, this is a very likely scenario). You don’t care what vegetables your child eats, but what you do care about is that he has something green on his plate. Instead of asking him, ‘would you like vegetables or a cookie at dinner,’ you ask him, ‘would you like broccoli or green beans with your dinner?’ All of a sudden, the conversation has shifted to one about choices, and usually this is enough. Your toddler feels in control of the situation, and your end goal of getting something green on the dinner plate is accomplished (although whether he eats it is another story). 

Since learning about the mind-blowingly effective world of toddler choices, I’ve started playing around with choices at work too. It’s been especially helpful with colleagues when I need to engage them in a conversation about pivoting or redirecting our work to focus on something unexpected. With a little bit of pre-planning before the conversation, I can pick a couple of choices – either of which will work for me – and then present them to the group for discussion. By selecting a few options that I’m ok with and then letting go of the final decision, I’m able to steer the group in a direction that I feel good about, while still including others in the process and giving them ownership of the final decision. 

Staying Present and Mindful

By far one of the toughest things about parenting is that our children make it tough to multi-task. Those pesky kids with their needs and wants! 

In truth, while we all love to check email while watching TV or doing any number of things at the same time, being a parent forces you to put down your devices, your to-do list, and pretty much everything else and focus completely on your child. Parenting is, in fact, the best form of mindfulness training you can find. Some of my happiest, most fulfilling, and most memorable moments with my son are the ones when I am able to drop completely into parent mode: sitting on the floor building a train set, listening to my son describe his day at school, getting lost in the plot of a playful library book. I may never finish cleaning the house or doing laundry, but I’ll also never regret the moments when I stopped worrying about chores and errands and instead spent my time being completely present with my son. 

Being present at work often feels in direct conflict with what I’m supposed to be doing at work, which is being productive. How can I let go of my to-do list and be present at the office when my inbox is overcrowded and my calendar is filled with meetings? My approach to this is to find moments of being mindful in the midst of the day’s chaos. This could look like any number of things, but right now for me it looks like closing my laptop when I’m in a meeting so I can focus on the conversation. It looks like asking how my teammate’s holiday was, and then genuinely listening to the answer. It looks like enjoying the progress my client makes in a workshop, without worrying about the work that inevitably comes next. 

At IDEO, I learned about the value of looking to extreme users, or edge cases, for insights into how to design solutions or services that work for everyone. Three years into my parenting journey, I can safely say that toddlers are most certainly extreme users! 

How has being a parent changed your approach at work? I’m curious to hear what you think.

"Eats, Shoots and Leaves"

Have you ever heard of a book called Eats, Shoots and Leaves? The premise of the book, by author Lynne Truss, is to “remind readers of the importance of punctuation.”

The book's title comes from a (potentially bad) joke on punctuation:

A panda walks into a café. He orders a sandwich, eats it, then draws a gun and proceeds to fire it at the other patrons.

'Why?' asks the confused, surviving waiter amidst the carnage, as the panda makes towards the exit. The panda produces a badly punctuated wildlife manual and tosses it over his shoulder.

'Well, I'm a panda,' he says, at the door. 'Look it up.'

The waiter turns to the relevant entry in the manual and, sure enough, finds an explanation. 'Panda. Large black-and-white bear-like mammal, native to China. Eats, shoots and leaves.'

I have to admit I’ve never read Ms. Truss’ book, but I do often think of its title whenever I’m writing.

Clearly it's meant to serve as a reminder of the importance of punctuation. But more than that, I think of this book when I need a good reminder of the importance of language itself.

Here’s an example:

Since moving back to the Bay Area, I have been very pleased to see so many options to recycle and compost. After living in the Northeast for a couple of years, it’s almost shocking to be able to recycle as much as I can in California, not to mention the number of restaurants, businesses and events that offer the option to compost.

While my enthusiasm remains high, I’ve now been given the option to compost often enough that I have one major request:

Keep it simple.

How many times have you been at an event and needed to throw away a plastic cup? You head toward the garbage area and realize you actually have three options: throw it away, recycle it, or compost.

Most likely you’ve seen a sign that looks a lot like this:

Confusing Recycling

You could just toss the cup in the garbage, but you have a feeling that it goes somewhere else. What kind of plastic is it? Can it be recycled? Or is it made out of a plant-based material, for instance, that can be composted?

If you’re like me, you stand there – practically paralyzed – knowing that whatever decision you make could be the wrong one.

Eventually, you peek into the depths of each bin, see where other people have left their cups, and dump yours in there too.

To make matters worse, at each event, or each restaurant, the rules seem to change! What’s recyclable at one place can be composted at another – or can’t be recycled at all.

What’s a concerned recycler supposed to do?

Of course some of the confusion comes down to a lack of coordinated standards across cities and towns. Whether it’s local government policy, or the ability of your local waste management company to recycle various items, some of it really is geography-specific.

Still, let’s pause a moment and think about Eats, Shoots and Leaves.

At the end of the day, how you choose to communicate your message – literally, the words, punctuation, and images you use – influences how people understand and respond to the point you’re trying to make.

I’ve found a couple of real-life examples that I think really drive the point home.

A few weeks ago I was at Fairfax Scoop, an ice cream shop in Fairfax, CA, when I spotted this sign on the trash can:

Fairfax Ice Cream

The message here is clear and understandable: “Lift this lid, and you’re sending stuff to the landfill.” And, for the folks who want to know more, they’ve included a few short and sweet ways that everyone can make more sustainable ice cream choices (Idea #2, the edible waffle bowl instead of a paper cup, was by far my favorite).

Still, leave it to well-known design firm IDEO to make the best signage I’ve seen so far. I had the chance to visit their San Francisco office last week, and at one point I needed a trip to the ladies room.

I repeat: this sign was in the bathroom.

And yet, I was so taken aback by its simplicity that I just had to take a picture.

Imagine a normal trash bin (aka: Landfill), with another silver bin labeled Compost standing next to it (not pictured).

IDEO1

In between both bins was this sign:

IDEO2

This was a no brainer. I had two options: put my paper towels in the garbage (and send it straight to landfill) or compost instead. The sign, placed directly above the compost bin, gave me clear instructions so I knew just what to do. For practically the first time ever, I knew exactly where to put my hand towel.

Just to make sure, I peeked into the compost bin - and sure enough, it was filled with paper towels. For comparison I looked into the trash can - and it was empty.

I walked out of the ladies room feeling unusually pleased that I had made the right choice (not to mention having even more respect for IDEO’s communication and design skills).

Now ok, you can argue that hand towel signage is not the same thing as trying to get thousands of event-goers to put their biodegradable utensils in the compost bin.

But imagine if every business, every cafeteria, and every concert found a way to communicate more thoughtfully and clearly with people?

At the end of the day, I really believe that people want to do the right thing. They want to recycle, they want to divert waste from the landfill, and they want to make smart consumption choices. But they need guidance.

The next time you’re planning a call to action – even if it’s just in the bathroom – think about Eats, Shoots and Leaves.

What message are you trying to communicate? To whom are you talking? And how can you keep it simple?

The Challenge of Translating Sustainability

CeresLet’s face it: sustainability can be a challenging topic for many people to understand. For example, when you hear someone on the news or in business talk about alternative energy or cap and trade policy, can you honestly say you understand it all?

I’ll go out on a limb and admit that when I hear the word “carbon,” I sometimes struggle to pay attention – let alone understand what’s being discussed. That’s why tools like Annie Leonard’s Story of Stuff are so powerful – they take complicated subjects and translate them into everyday, actionable language.

This idea – the challenge of translating sustainability – was front and center for me at this week’s Ceres Conference: “Roadmap for a Sustainable Future.” Let me explain.

Ceres is a well-known and well-respected national network of investors, environmental organizations, companies, and other public interest groups working together to address issues of sustainability.

This year’s Conference included a number of interesting panels – covering topics like sustainability reporting, environmental policy, corporate governance, and energy. As a challenge, I decided to stay away from familiar topics (like social media for CSR) and instead really immerse myself in learning about issues I'm not as familiar with.

Over the course of the day, I sat in on two sessions:

  • Tiers of influence: driving change throughout the supply chain, and
  • The ripple effect: exploring financial risks along the water value chain.

When it comes to supply chain and water issues, I would call myself “an experienced novice” – so it was exciting to hear and learn about the work that companies, NGOs and investors are doing in these two areas.

And, I’m pleased to say, it’s clear that they really are doing work.

From the open source, apparel “eco-index” created by the Outdoor Industry Association, to the water management system implemented by Molson-Coors Brewery, I was pleased to learn that these organizations are truly digging into some very important sustainability challenges – and that they’re actually driving change in their business and in their communities.

Yet throughout the panels, I kept wondering about how these organizations communicate, and perhaps more importantly, translate the value and importance of this work to “everyday” people like you and me.

Transparency kept coming up as a central theme throughout the day. Apparel manufacturers talked about how the internet has transformed information sharing, while water utilities talked about the importance of explaining where water comes from and how we use it. (Seriously, if I could have collected $1 for every time “transparency” was used in conversation, I might not be rich, but I could certainly go out to nice dinner!)

Yet, in my opinion, talking about transparency just isn’t enough.

The way I see it, there’s a big empty space that exists on the spectrum between companies and consumers – and in theory, transparency is supposed to fill this gap. “Transparency,” after all, as it is used in a sustainability context, is meant as a proxy for information sharing, for education, and perhaps even engagement.

The issue, though, is that being transparent is really not the same thing as providing education. Disclosure of information doesn’t do any good if no one explains to me what I should do with that information.

What are companies doing, I asked myself, to educate and inform me and others about why I should care? This “next step” in transparency was missing from the conversation – and while some might argue that it’s beyond the scope of a conference like Ceres, I would disagree.

Companies clearly need to enlist the help of their stakeholders in order to achieve their sustainability goals – they simply cannot do it alone.

But if, for example, I’m not supposed to buy clothes made from cotton sourced in Uzbekistan (a country currently engaging in forced child labor in the cotton industry), I need companies to explain this to me in ways that are understandable, resonant, and actionable. In essence, I need companies to translate their sustainability programs and activities into language I can understand.

Transparency in theory is important – and it’s certainly a topic on everyone’s mind these days. But transparency without action, engagement, and most importantly translation, just won’t work.

I was encouraged to learn about a new website created by Anvil Knitwear that’s trying to close that gap I was talking about by providing education to children about organic cotton. Seeing the site made me wonder what other examples of powerful consumer education tools might exist.

What you have seen or used that has translated a company’s sustainability program into language that makes sense and moves you to act? I’d love to hear your ideas.

Request from a CSR Job Seeker

Raise your hand if you're graduating from business school!

I'm thrilled to announce that in two weeks I'll be graduating from business school!

As unbelievable as it sounds (even when I say it), the end of my MBA program is amazingly just around the corner. While it hasn’t always been fun – derivative equations in economics class come to mind – it has been an incredible two years of learning and 100% worth it.

Now with my diploma (almost) in hand, I’m ready to take all of my new knowledge and skills out into the big wide world and get to work.

The only problem? I need a job! Which is where my request for help comes in...

In past posts I’ve tried to stay away from obvious self-promotion – if only because I wanted the CSR stories and innovations to take center stage.

While this will almost always be true here on The Changebase, I also have to own up to the fact that I’m an MBA who’s done enough IT strategy coursework to understand the value of crowdsourcing.

Knowing that I'm lucky enough to have readers from all professions and areas of expertise, I was hoping to enlist your help in my job search. As you'll see below, I've taken a few paragraphs to outline who I am, what I do well, and how I might be able to help your organization with its CSR work.

And, if you like what you read and have some ideas or suggestions to share, of course I'd love to hear from you.

Who I Am: I’m a CSR strategy and communications specialist with a combined 7 years of experience in nonprofit fundraising, corporate philanthropy, marketing, and social media. As an MBA I have consulted with a number of corporate, agency and social enterprise clients on topics including sustainability strategy and reporting, stakeholder engagement, brand management, and consumer marketing. Curious to learn more? Check out my LinkedIn profile.

What I Do Well: While I like to think I’m pretty good at a number of different things, there are a few areas that I think are my core competencies:

CSR Strategy and Communications – I have deep subject-matter expertise and experience in CSR strategy and marketing, and I get especially excited about opportunities to help companies tell their CSR stories in ways that resonate with stakeholders and drive business value. Want an example? Check out this press release to learn more about a sustainability communications project I recently completed.

Social Media Strategy and Execution – Since starting my blog I have basically embedded myself in the social media world and, through thoughtful strategy (and lots of practice), I believe I’ve developed an approach to social media for CSR that is effective and successful. Want to see my social media work in action? Check out my Twitter feed – in just over a year I’ve built an engaged group of almost 1,200 followers through tactics that include developing a point of view, staying on message, and creating genuine conversations.

Research and Writing – Given my blog, it’s probably no surprise that I love to write. It turns out, though, that I also really enjoy doing research. Whether it’s gathering secondary data, creating surveys and analyzing results, or performing in-depth interviews, I have extensive hands-on experience with market research methods and tools. The best of all? I can turn that research into persuasive, actionable white papers for clients looking to create or maintain a thought leadership position in the CSR space.

People, People, People – It's safe to say that, in many ways, a successful CSR strategy hinges on whether you can build relationships and create allies both inside and outside your organization. Whether it's facilitating conversations, building partnerships, leading teams, or even engaging critics - you name it, I enjoy it. And I think I'm pretty good at it too.

How I Can Help You: I believe my experience and background in CSR, philanthropy and marketing can add value to the following kinds of organizations:

  1. Corporate brands that have CSR programs and/or a sustainability focus
  2. PR, communications, or consulting agencies that specialize in CSR marketing and strategy
  3. Start-ups with innovative business ideas for “doing good and doing well.”

Whether it's crafting a CSR communications strategy for your client; integrating social media into your corporate marketing portfolio; or developing a sustainability strategy for your new start-up, I know I have the skills and experience to help you get to where you want to go.

A few other details: as I mentioned, I graduate in two weeks and I’m able to start working shortly thereafter. Oh, and I’m focusing my search in the San Francisco Bay Area and the Pacific Northwest (Seattle, WA or Portland, OR).

So, what do you think? Are you looking for help strategizing, implementing, or growing your CSR program? Know someone who is?

Please feel free to contact me - I’d love to hear more and talk through specific ways that I can help you and your company achieve your CSR goals.

Thanks again for all of the support you have given me throughout my MBA journey. It’s an exciting time and I’m really looking forward to starting my next adventure!

-Ashley

Communicating Globally, Acting Locally

Dan BrossDan Bross is senior director, Corporate Citizenship at Microsoft and one of the most visible faces of corporate social responsibility at the company.

I first met Dan at the 2009 Net Impact Conference and recently we had the chance to reconnect at the Boston College Center for Corporate Citizenship Conference.

In between networking and learning at BCCCC, Dan was kind enough to sit down with me to talk more about Microsoft's corporate citizenship program and where it's headed.

But first, what does corporate citizenship at Microsoft look like? For starters, the company has four main areas of focus:

  1. Strengthening Economies through the use of technology;
  2. Addressing Societal Challenges like health care, energy and the environment, workforce development, and education;
  3. Promoting a Healthy Online Ecosystem by fostering innovation online and protecting privacy; and,
  4. Operating Responsibly through effective corporate governance, employee engagement, and sustainability programs.

While the company’s focus can clearly get bucketed into four categories, the overall reach of Microsoft’s corporate citizenship program – and its impacts – is much, much broader than that. 

To get a sense of just how far-reaching Microsoft's program is, check out the interactive Local Impact Map. Here visitors to Microsoft’s corporate citizenship site can filter the company's social, environmental, and economic investments by region and type of initiative, as well as read stories about Microsoft's work on a local level. 

Local Impact MapAfter reading through its website and playing with the map, it became clear to me that Microsoft is doing great work as a responsible and involved corporate citizen.

Still, I wondered, what is the company doing to tell people about it?

I asked this question for one main reason. Since I've met Dan and talked to people on his team before, I know that Microsoft is a leading player in today's corporate citizenship community. And yet, at times I've wondered how many other people out there even know that Microsoft has a CSR program in the first place? As much good work as the company is doing, you don't always hear Microsoft's name mentioned in the same sentence as other more well-known (and perhaps more vocal) CSR leaders like eBay, Gap, or Nike.

Fast forward to my conversation with Dan at BCCCC, where I started with what turned out to be a very serendipitous question: “When it comes to corporate citizenship at Microsoft, what would you say is your single biggest challenge and your single biggest opportunity?”

Interestingly Dan said right now these two things are one and the same:

It all comes down to communication.

It turns out Microsoft has done a great job reaching out to a small, select group of influencers – governments, think tanks, etc – and that its corporate citizenship message and story has successfully reached these audiences.

Yet when it comes to other stakeholders – consumers, customers, employees, and generally-interested folks like you and me – Microsoft still has some ground to cover.

Thus, according to Dan, the goal is to “broaden the audience,” do a better job of communicating more clearly, and speak to stakeholders “in a way that matters.”

An important and timely objective if I do say so myself (especially after last week's BCCCC panel on the lack of consumer trust of CSR programs).

And yet, if we think back to the Local Impact Map, this is where things get tricky. You see, Microsoft isn’t just trying to reach the American public; instead, it has a global audience to contend with. A global audience with different interests and causes to support, not to mention varying cultural preferences for the role of business in society.

The question then becomes: how can Microsoft build a global citizenship communications strategy that creates a cohesive message yet allows for flexibility across regions?

How can Microsoft literally communicate globally, but act locally?

This is the issue-at-hand for Dan and his team in the coming weeks and months, and there's clearly a lot riding on it. After all, for a company like Microsoft it’s not a stretch to say that improved CSR communications can lead to additional gains on the business side. In this way, Dan says, stakeholder communications truly can be “a continued driver for business success."

As someone who believes that CSR communications can effectively bridge the gap between companies and consumers, I'll be anxiously awaiting what happens next at Microsoft. Certainly sounds like an exciting challenge!