Category Archives: Change Management

Leaders and the Learning Organization

senge2It is a testament to our naïveté about culture that we think that we can change it by simply declaring new values. Such declarations usually produce only cynicism. ~ Peter Senge

Peter Senge is one of my favourite Thought Leaders. You will probably know that he has been around for a while but his message, at least for me, is as relevant to our current time as it was when he first introduced his book, The Fifth Discipline, twenty something years ago.

So far, in my experience anyway, we have not been great students of his philosophies…or we have been great students but just, well, crappy at the execution part, proof perhaps that naïveté also lives in our belief that any of this stuff is easy.

There was a time when everyone was jumping onto The Learning Organization bandwagon. This usually happened when times were good, when organizations felt a little more ebullient about their prospects and generous toward their employees. And then when things started to look a little gloomy, heads turned back to the way things were. Budgets were cut and the Learning part of the organization dried up while the focus snapped back in line with the notion that wisdom and decisions could only come from the few and learning for the many was a luxury no one could afford.

I’m thinking though that it is in the difficult times that leaders need to embrace the concepts of the Learning Organization and to build a culture of shared leadership.

I must confess that not being particularly academic in my own learning process, I found The Fifth Discipline a little dry. Having said that, I also think the five main components of a Learning Organization continue to make great sense and are actionable, to greater or lesser degrees, by everyone regardless of whether we lead in large organizations, small ones, or are simply striving to lead a meaningful life.

Each of the Learning Organization components, personal mastery, mental models, team learning, shared vision and systems thinking allow for the opportunity to create lives and organizations that are resilient, flexible, inclusive and dynamic. The question often is though, how do we to start?

Here are some of my thoughts about that:

Personal Mastery: is, for me, the place where everything really begins. Taking the time to study and understand our reality, and our purpose, serves not only ourselves but also everyone with whom we come in contact.

Practically speaking, there are a lot of instruments available on the Internet that will help us confirm what we might already inherently know about ourselves or uncover some things we didn’t know. However we do it, the key to successful personal mastery, I think, is to trust in the information we receive; to be curious and ask questions either formally or informally; to observe the impact we have on others when we interact with them; and to act on any new knowledge we get about ourselves.

Mental Models: are, simply put, about assumptions and biases in our thinking. There is a proverb that says, “If the only tool you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail”.

This speaks to the dangers of clinging to, and operating from, narrow perspectives. I believe the goal for leaders in this century is to widen the lens of their thinking by challenging not only their own assumptions but also the beliefs and biases on which their organizations operate. I hazard to say that if we were each to bring heightened awareness to our assumptions, our ability to be receptive to change would be that much greater.

Team Learning: There are many books written on the topic of teams, and an amazing array of teams within organizations too. It can get pretty complex. But suffice it to say that in an age where shared leadership is, or will become, critical, the need to understand the dynamics and functional operation of teams is pretty great. Here, I think it starts with gaining an understanding of what a truly successful and highly functional team looks like. In my observation, it always seems to come down to how team members communicate with each other; how they manage conflict and; how they examine their successes and more particularly, their failures.

Shared Vision: I expect this one is pretty familiar to most people. And yet its usefulness is so often diminished because the vision is developed at the top of the organization and seldom shared by those who are expected to work toward its achievement. To me, a Shared Vision is just that…shared. It may start with one person but if it is going to come alive and guide the company’s activities, it must be embraced and shared by all. It doesn’t have to be a sweeping statement with big words either. For example, Zappos.com, the online department store’s vision is, Delivering Happiness. It is a clear, simple statement that provides great direction to anyone who works there. To me, the message is, if what you do delivers happiness, it’s probably the right thing.

Systems Thinking: When most people talk about Senge’s model of a Learning Organization, they usually start with Systems Thinking. I keep it to the end because really this is about paying attention to the connections between and among a variety of elements that make up the whole. In organizations, we have this tendency to create silos of operation where people make decisions based only on their own needs. When this happens, others are affected, (often negatively) and that creates unnecessary and unproductive tension within the organization.

So, I suppose a place to start with respect to systems thinking is to ask, Who will be affected by what we are about to do? How do we involve them? Why should we care?

Really, systems thinking is  kind of like the plumbing in an old apartment complex. If there is a breakdown in one person’s apartment, it can affect the water supply to all of the others.

Some people may think the concepts put forth in The Fifth Discipline are old too. But, I think that they are timeless. If more organizations were to embrace and enact these philosophies, they would find ways to remain pliable and resilient in even the most treacherous of time.

That’s what I think anyway.  What do you think?

*note: this post was originally published in 2010

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Filed under Change Management, Leadership, Leadership Development, Leadership Vision, Leading Teams, Learning, organizational culture, organizational Development, Organizational Effectiveness

Leadership and Human Nature

flowerIn October, 2012, Superstorm Sandy was top of mind for a great many.  Not only was it a catastrophic storm for thousands of  people, it served to remind us, once again, that disasters pull people together like no other phenomena.

I say this, not to be flippant, but to call to attention how the best in good people seems to rise to the top whenever the worst things happen. It’s almost like our greater brain kicks in and we gain full access to whatever stores of resilience, resourcefulness and generosity we have inside us.

It would be great if we could bottle it, wouldn’t it?  Perhaps then we could take a spoonful whenever we begin to forget what’s important.  After all, in life or death situations, things have a way of shifting our view, away from politics, bottom lines and winning at all cost toward something decidedly more genuine, more human.

So what is it we forget about people when we are not in crisis that we would do well to remember and respect? And, how would doing this serve to improve our leadership efforts?

The answers to those questions require more than this one person’s scrutiny but when I think about it, I’m reminded of a few truths about being human, like:

Necessity is the mother of invention ~ When we feel an urgent need, we are driven to seek a solution that will fill it.  That necessity drives change.  For most of us, before we are willing to change, we have to both see and feel the need for it. The role of leadership in this is both to help people feel the urgency and to believe that the pain of change will be worthwhile in the end.

People are more resilient than they are typically given credit for ~ While, firm structures are important during times of uncertainty, so is faith in peoples’ ability to adapt and contribute to bringing about a new order of things. In leadership is it wise to remember that in general, human beings are not that fragile.   We fare much better when we are regarded, not as part of the problem but as part of the solution.

Caring for and about others is in our DNA ~ In crisis, our list of priorities tends to look different from the list we might draw up in more stable times.  Specifically, the safety and welfare of people always seem to come first when things are truly scary.  Everything else falls away.  Regrettably, when we are not in crisis, it is easy to forget that and shift focus to other, more financially or politically rewarding pursuits.  I suspect though that when leaders actively care for the people who follow them, the financial and political aspects of organizational life don’t suffer at all.

When we know the score we have it in us to be patient~ With a few exceptions, those who have suffered, and continue to suffer hardship from this latest blast from Mother Nature seem to have borne the discomfort and inconvenience of power outage and fuel shortage with stoic resignation.  People expected to lose electrical power.  Likely too, they expected to have to line up for batteries, gas and other supplies.   I  think that people who are not in crisis also appreciate it (and are much more patient with themselves and each other) when they know what to expect.  Patience allows for clear thinking. Clear thinking allows for greater productivity and problem solving. From that perspective, keeping people informed pays off.

That’s what I think anyway.  What do you think?

Note: This article was originally posted in 2012

 

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Four Things to Remember When Change Hits “Upside the Head”

woman-ice-pack_300Change.  It’s a topic that provides much fodder for discussion among leaders.  We anticipate it; study it; plan for it; and, if we are smart (or lucky), we make it happen or respond to it with strength, a sense of purpose and a clear head.  Sounds pretty simple.

But of course, it’s not.  Sometimes change hits us “upside the head” and cares not whether we have had time to think about it or prepare for it.  It simply happens, rudely and without ceremony, leaving us grappling to make some sense of it all.

Yes, there are ways to mitigate the impact of such brutal changes but for the most part, they have a way of sending us into a tailspin and causing even that which was once so familiar to seem somehow foreign and out of sync with how we understand the world.

The trauma brought about by such change happens every day to countless people, people without contingency plans, or any idea how they are going to cope with what has happened to them.  And yet we do, cope I mean, under many conditions and through many challenges.

Having experienced an “upside the head” change myself, I am given to thinking about aspects of change that I perhaps did not give so much consideration to in the past. Here are a few of those thoughts:

Change is primarily an emotional and people-centred event

In 2001, Jeffery W. Greenberg, Chairman of Marsh & McLennan Companies headquartered in New York, presided over a firm of 58,000 people worldwide.  1,127 of them worked in the World Trade Centre, some in Tower One and others in Tower Two.  Mr. Greenberg’s office was in Mid-town Manhattan.  From his window, he had a clear view of the towers and of the horror inflicted on those who went to work there on September 11th.

At the end of the reckoning, 295 of the company’s employees had lost their lives.  In the midst of the pain and disarray that was to ensue in the days, weeks and months following the attack, something significant emerged.

In telling his story, Mr. Greenberg’s primary observations were not about executing business disaster recovery plans or repositioning Data Centres and telecommunications systems but about the people in his organization; their courage, resilience and determination to pick up the pieces and move on.

This suggests to me that successfully moving through horrendous change events relies more heavily on the preservation of emotional health than we might otherwise think.  It reinforces, at least for me, that building an organization with a strong sense of purpose, widely shared values and an engaged workforce is not a faddish notion.  It is a business imperative.

During times of drastic change, people are often given far less credit for having resilience than they deserve

It is tempting, I think, for leaders to assume that because a change is frightening, people will fall apart and be unable to participate in working toward a new normal without constant hand holding and caretaking. I believe though, that it is during such frightening times that we each have the potential to discover inner stores of strength and courage that might never have been tested.

While, firm structures are important during times of uncertainty, so is faith in peoples’ ability to adapt and contribute to bringing about a new order of things.

“Upside the Head” kinds of Change bring out the best in most people.

It would be naïve of me to suggest that when disaster strikes, there won’t be some who will take advantage of it for personal gain, or fail to rise to the occasion, but for the most part, people are amazingly supportive of one another during times of trouble.  Even if, in ordinary circumstances, they spend time bickering, there is something galvanizing about life-changing, scary events that brings out the best in most of us.

For leaders, it is something to perhaps remember…and to trust.

Recovery requires us to dig deep and see the funny side of things.

It’s hard to even think of laughing when your world has been turned upside down.  After all, the experience of being caught in a chaotic and foreign situation is far from funny. But, in my experience, there is always something ironic or just downright comical about every situation.

My husband had a stroke, a very serious one.  It scared us both, badly. But, for some reason, along with the crying (and there was some of that), there was also a fair amount of laughter too.

I just think that, sometimes reverence can be overrated and looking at the lighter side of life, even if it seems a bit out of place, has a way of lifting the load for a time. It is even possible that through a recovery period when the going is hard, laughter is indeed a very potent medicine.

That’s what I think anyway. What do you think?

 

Note: A revised version of a post originally published in 2009

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Leadership and the Challenge of Change

ten-tall-tales-climate-change-skeptics-29-Jun-11I am not a baseball fan. Nonetheless one day, I sat, somewhat reluctantly, in front of my television and watched the movie “Moneyball”. I say somewhat reluctantly because, well, Brad Pitt was involved… so I forced myself.

For those who are unfamiliar with it, “Moneyball” is based on the story of Billy Beane, General Manager of the Oakland Athletics. It’s about how he defied deeply entrenched tradition and beliefs and changed the game’s system of player selection forever.

There are valuable lessons and reminders in this story that are worth considering when it comes to making change happen. Here are just a few of them:

Begin by defining the problem correctly

Change usually begins with a problem. While everyone involved might acknowledge its existence, it would be a mistake to assume that everyone sees it in the same way. Here is a clip

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Billy Beane saw the problem as one of disadvantage. His scouts saw the problem, more traditionally, as one of deficiency. If, collectively, you fail to see the problem in the same way, resolving it will be that much harder.

To find a different solution, you have to employ different means and sometimes, different people

In order to better understand and resolve his problem, Billy partnered with a very unlikely individual. Peter was an economist, newly graduated from a prestigious University, who had developed an unorthodox method of player evaluation. It was an untested process and yet to Billy, it spoke of possibility. Sometimes to make change happen, you’ve got to take a leap of faith.

Once you’re committed, there’s no going back

Billy’s story made me think about just how hard it is to make a major change in any organization. At some point in the process the going is bound to get tough, often unbearably so. In spite of it, a leader’s belief in what s/he is doing cannot waiver, especially in the face of naysayers. Failure is always a possibility but giving up too soon, or not trying in the first place, is a kind of failure in itself.

In the face of immovable obstacles, go around

In the movie, the Oakland Athletics Team Manager was fiercely opposed to Billy’s new approach. Billy’s suggestions for player positioning fell on deaf, and very stubborn, ears. The manager continued to play in his time-honoured way, honestly believing that Billy was making a terrible mistake. No manner of persuasion would convince him otherwise. So Billy traded the players favoured by the team manager, effectively forcing him to do something different. Sometimes you have to rattle the cage hard.

Know when it’s your turn to take charge

The introduction of a new process and a new Assistant GM was a great boon to Billy in initiating change. When something is working it is tempting to become reliant on it for all the answers. However, good leaders understand that a system, process, or even the advice of others can only take you so far. That means that on occasion, decisions have to come from your own experience, your own talents and your own understanding of what’s going on. It goes with the territory.

That’s what I think anyway. What do you think?

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Please Note: The clip used from the movie “Moneyball” is not used for commercial purposes or financial gain. It is respectfully borrowed from Sony Pictures for illustration purposes only and not intended to infringe on copyright.

* This post was written and originally published in June, 2012

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The Language of Leadership in the 21st Century

I’ve always loved language. Admittedly, my facility in it is sadly limited to English, a few French words and phrases, body language (on a good day) and oh yes, a little pig Latin. But, what I love about language is its power to shape ideas, create images, evoke emotion and give birth to new habits and traditions.

In organizations, language also has the power to determine what matters. For instance, the language of the 20th Century stressed, among other things, the importance of control, competition, individual targets, winning, losing and results. And while many of these words allude to activities that continue to be important, there is other language creeping into the 21st Century landscape that will affect our behaviour and change the way we go about things.

To some, this language is associated with the softer side of life. In the past, It has often been derided and dismissed as being too ethereal or without merit in the workplace. But, as this new century unfolds, language like this will re-shape what matters and reveal its harder edge as we put it into practice.

So, what specifically am I talking about? Well, no doubt you will have heard and used the words. But because I often think it’s easy to use words without really understanding what they mean or how they might be used in any sort of practical way, I thought I’d have a go at bringing them into the light if only for the sake of provoking your own thoughts about their applicability in these highly challenging times. Words, after all, have a way of being open to interpretation and I’m sure you will have yours. But, for what it’s worth here are mine:

The first word is Empathy. To me, empathy in action looks like this. You and I are sharing our viewpoints over a particular issue. It is a difficult conversation. What I’m hearing from you sounds foreign and unlikely and yet I want to make sense of what you are saying. So I stop. I let my ego and my belief that I am right go, and I step into your shoes. I do that by asking questions and exploring the issue from your perspective. I seek to see what you see. In so doing I search for what you might be feeling and when I find it, I begin to understand what it’s like to be there. In short, empathy is about understanding. But just to be clear, it is not necessarily about agreeing.

Here are some other key words that come to mind:

Inclusion is about creating an environment where people feel they belong; are valued and respected. Including people means asking their opinions frequently; trusting them to take the lead in situations where their strengths will better serve the purpose; acknowledging their contributions sincerely and often.

Self-awareness is about knowing our own strengths, weaknesses, behaviours and attitudes well enough to understand our impact on those around us and how effective, or perhaps ineffective, it is in certain situations.

Cultural awareness is about the values, beliefs and perceptions that are part of the organization and the people who work in it. Organizations with an enduring culture will be ones that align their activities and practices with their values and beliefs. These values and beliefs are brought alive through action and thought; in their approach to the customer; in their hiring practices and in the kind of business they choose to conduct.

Diversity is about achieving a real appreciation for the heterogeneous nature of the world and it’s people. To me, embracing diversity means appreciating, understanding, valuing and using our differences to enhance the work and create something greater than we might otherwise do by behaving divisively and out of ignorance or fear.

Openness is about being truthful and giving people the information and resources they need to do their jobs. It also reminds me of the critical need to be receptive to new ideas from a variety of sources and people. In the last century, information was often used as a power tool by a few against the many. Today, I think that power is at its most effective when it is collectively held and willingly shared.

Adaptability in this century will be key to not only successful organizations but ones that simply seek survival as well. This is about learning to accept change as an every day occurrence as opposed to an event that must be planned and carefully managed. It speaks to the necessity to be continually reading, questioning and challenging the current environment. Today becomes yesterday in the blink of an eye. I think that those who learn fast and change faster will do better in these times than those who don’t.

Collaboration speaks to the need to work together for a common purpose. The 20th Century organization was rife with silos and walls that provoked, or perhaps encouraged, internal competition and rivalries. Now it’s time to build bridges between people and lines of business; to eschew hoarding behaviour and learn to share ideas and resources for a purpose that will be of service to everyone involved

These are just eight words that I think, when put into action, will define leadership, and organizational life, in the years to come. There are, of course, others. But, my point is that the more we use this language, and seek to understand its meaning and application, the better equipped we will be to meet the challenges that this century presents.

What do you think? What words come to mind for you when you think about leadership today? What do they mean to you? How will they affect the way we work?

Note: This post was originally published in October 2010

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5 Actions That Help Create Stability in the Midst of Uncertainty

 According to a Mayan prophecy, on December 21, 2012, the World was to come to an end…again.  Obviously, it didn’t.  But these prophesied World-ending events  show up from time-to-time on the global radar.  The good news is that apparently one quarter of our planet is now online so, the next time it comes up,  we’ll  have some time to say our goodbyes before we all fade to black.  However, while my tongue remains firmly in cheek regarding prophesied catastrophes such as these, they serve as a reminder that there is always something afoot, something changing, interfering with, or otherwise upsetting our equilibrium.  It’s the way of the World.  And, through technology, we are choosing to make that World more intricate and more accessible which renders our day-to-day dance both exciting and sometimes  horribly stressful.

To me, all this suggests that a leader’s role, (at least one of them), is to create a platform for stability, often where none exists, because in a world of constant change and increased complexity, people need to feel anchored to something they can count on.

For some, it is as simple as knowing that in the face of the unknown, they can still be all right.  For example, during the Second World War, The British Government gave the people of Britain reassurance that they can still be all right through a poster campaign that said, among other things, “Keep Calm and Carry On”.

Of course it wasn’t the only thing they did to help sustain the people but it served as a vote of confidence in the spirit and capability of the British people to stay the course and overcome the hardship, terror and uncertainty that war had foisted upon them.  They, in turn, rose to the occasion finding ways to support each other; share what little resources they had and keep their upper lips proudly stiff.

Today too, we are bursting with uncertainty. We have come to know that just at the moment we begin to feel steady, things are going to change. So finding ways to create stability amid inconstancy is, in my view anyway, a primary goal for the 21st Century leader.

The question is, how? The answer is…well I’m not sure.  But I have some ideas and here they are:

1.    Be Purposeful

Knowing our organizational purpose is a great beginning to creating stability. After all, while change affects the way we go about fulfilling the purpose, the purpose itself, more often than not remains the same.

2.    Extend the purpose beyond the confines of organizational boundaries.

Most organizations support charities or causes of some kind.  Just as the causes can vary, so can the motivation for supporting them. To me though, doing good works that align with the organizational purpose helps the company grow roots and contribute to the creation of stable communities, both inside and outside corporate boundaries.

3.    Keep Learning

Broadening our knowledge base creates a more stable environment.  In other words, the more we know and understand the less there is to fear.  So giving true value and support to learning, not just training, will build a company of people who are confident, resilient and eager to see and experience what comes next around the corner

4.    Be Guided by a set of strongly held values

World events, economic instability and a constant feed of both useful and useless information contribute to a dizzying existence for most people.  Sometimes we just need to stop and remember what’s important and what we stand for.   It’s kind of like being out in rough seas.  When we can’t see the shore and the boat is tossing us around mercilessly, our values serve as the lighthouse beacon that gives us the promise of solid ground.

5.    Take Blame out of the Equation

When things go wrong, and they do, it’s easy to panic.  When we panic we look to place blame.  Blame is the enemy of stability.  It rattles people and often for the wrong reasons.  Blame is not about accountability it is about passing a hot potato and making sure it lands in someone else’s lap.  By taking blame out of the organizational culture and replacing it with a more solution-oriented demeanour, more people will have the confidence to participate in solving problems rather than defending themselves or looking for places to hide.

That’s what I think anyway.  What do you think?

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Four Leadership Reminders from Nuisance the Cat

It’s been a year since I wrote this post about Nuisance, my cat.  She has proven to be a lovely addition to our household (apart from the occasional lapse in toilet etiquette).  On the outside, she looks like any ordinary black cat, but over the time she has been with us, she has displayed nuances in her personality that are unique to her and have become special to me.  In the workplace, it is easy to look at people as ‘just ordinary’ too, but like Nuisance, each will bring something unique to the collective effort that is worth looking and listening for.

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Her name is Nuisance.  She just turned up one day at our window, a little black cat with bowlegs and signs of the stress that spending too long outside alone can bring.

When I first caught sight of her through the window, I thought she must belong to someone but as the days went by and she spent even the rainy ones sleeping on the gravel under the eaves of our condo, I realized she was a lost little soul who needed some help.  Even the “found cat” note I posted went unanswered

So I began to feed her.

Some nodded knowingly when I admitted to doing that.  “You’re stuck with her now”, they suggested.

“She’ll keep coming back and then what will you do?”

To be honest, I didn’t really know.  My experience with cats had been limited to a time when I was eleven years old and that was, well okay, about a century ago.

But she kept coming back and I kept feeding her.

And then I began to feel responsible for her.  She was all right outside in the summer sun and warmth but winter was coming.  What then?

So, after several failed attempts to coax her inside, one day she simply jumped in the open window and claimed me as her guardian.

We have been quite happily learning about each other ever since.

So what has this got to do with leadership or people?  You may well ask.  It may be a bit too much of a stretch but perhaps there are some parallels worth exploring.  Let’s give it a try anyway.

When I think about it, Nuisance has reminded me that:

Engagement is a two-way street ~ We can talk all we like about employee engagement but my experience with Nuisance suggests that no manner of coaxing or demanding can make others respond well, if what you want is not what they want.  Also, had I grabbed for Nuisance and pulled her inside the window without her permission, I would have destroyed any trust she was beginning to place in me. And, I would have been left, if not broken, certainly bloodied from the experience.

Engagement, after all, is not about leaders turning themselves inside out to get peoples’ attention, blinding them with science or forcing them to pay attention.  It is more about leader and follower doing a dance of sorts, one that includes conversation, inquiry and patience.  And it’s about each taking responsibility for their part in the connection, taking some steps forward together to serve a mutually beneficial purpose.

Effective communication involves all of the senses ~ It’s taking a while for me to anticipate her wants and needs, but Nuisance and I are learning to read each other.  We don’t speak the same language of course but she is trying hard, through her actions, to let me know what works for her and what doesn’t.  I’m doing my best to convey my own wants and expectations.   It’s a mutual effort borne out of respect for each other.

In most workplaces, we have the advantage of speaking a common language.  That should make communication much easier.  In some ways though, common language is not necessarily an advantage.  It can make us lazy and less willing to go beyond what is being said to understand more deeply what is not being said and the real feeling or need that comes from that.

Consistency & Continuity are important ~ Nuisance is a typical cat. She likes to eat, sleep, prowl and play at a certain time in the day.  She does not like me to interfere with her regular routine.  It upsets her and makes her feel unsafe.   Many people are like this too.

But we all know by now that change  is an ongoing, relentless and often necessary thing.  So, along with change must also come a large measure of consistency in  leadership.  That means, showing up and conveying a constant message about the future.  And it means providing the opportunity to take a little of what is already working into that future.   In short, consistency and continuity are two things that bring a measure of reassurance and allow people, (and cats) to be open to, and eventually embrace, change.

Love rules ~ Whether we are talking about animals or people, no matter how conscientious or skilled we are, our progress will always be impeded if we fail to care.  Love makes the work worth the effort.  And, it is a powerful motivator.

That’s what think anyway.  What do you think?

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