Friday, June 10, 2011

Leadership is ‘deciding’

LeadersLeadership, like innovation, is much discussed but seldom understood.  What makes a leader?  Ideas?  Charisma?  The willingness to lead?  The passion to believe?  Derek Sivers, in a wonderful TED talk, says simply that Leaders have Followers (click the picture to watch his examples).

I think that Leaders Decide.

Every day, decisions must be made about how we run our business.  Who will we trust to take on tasks; what conditions govern investment?  What is fair compensation for a valuable contributor; do lab results  justify further development? 

Or, today, Is this single sentence, buried in a contract, important or trivial? It has the potential for mischief, but the investor says he’d never use it that way. Still, he wants the sentence in or he won’t invest.

Accept the condition, or forfeit the money?

I’m realizing how important the quality of decisions, as well as the process that I use to make them and the style that surround the process, defines my leadership in many ways.  It’s not just about making successful choices, it also determines whether people talk with you, trust you, follow you, believe in you.

I met with a business coach yesterday (bewilderingly, one supplied by the UK government to encourage job creation in micro-businesses).  We had a good talk around one question: What are you good at; what can you be better at?

I’m good with ‘hard’ skills: plans, numbers, analysis, budgets.  Existential things that are what they are, can be manipulated as fixed components, and that can be connected to reveal truths and accomplish goals.

I’m worse with ‘soft’ skills: negotiating, persuading, presenting, arbitrating. These are subjective things that are what they are perceived to be, and that must be formed and fit.  It takes skill and (for me) focused effort to be an open listener, to patiently understand reasons beneath the positions, to create common ground, to build trust despite competing agendas.

Effective decision-making, and good leadership requires both skills: the style and the substance of the process matter.  When I look at my own methods, I find that I move through five steps:

  • Understand:  Take time to understand the question  and the points of view. (Be aware of but don’t give into intuition.)
  • Collaborate:  Talk to people with vested interest and also to outsiders with relevant experience.  (Be aware of but don’t give into personal bias.)
  • Judge:  Take a “time-out” to reflect and choose.  (Take ten minutes of peace: listen to your gut.)
  • Communicate:  State the decision, left vs. right, the reasons, and make peace with the people I disagree with. (Be clear and crisp.)
  • Commit: Move on, and don’t revisit the choice unless the evidence mounts against it. (Lets all act like adults.)

Confident decision-making is not confidence that I have chosen the right path all the way to the endpoint.  It’s confidence that I have chosen the best step towards that goal from my current position; confidence that, once I’m there, I can deal successfully with whatever I find there.

So, if I decide not to take an investment because the conditions are onerous, I am confident both in that choice and that I can find alternatives.  I may not know who, yet, but I know I can.

DeciderIn 2006, Pres W famously called himself “The Decider”, affirming his leadership through his personal responsibility and accountability for his administration’s actions.   But the quality of his decisions were poor, people questioned his biased rationale, and his stubborn policies.  Ultimately, many refused to follow his leadership.

Substance, process, style: thus do decisions define and legitimize leaders.

Thursday, June 9, 2011

Wrapping up the week’s intake

taalklasIt been a week of highs and lows, ending somewhere in the middle.  I’m almost looking forward to the weekend just to be able to step back and get a little perspective (and sleep).

Dutch classes ended on a frustrating note.  I am clearly on the right trajectory now, focused on the language learning and past the cultural training.  I leaned into the conversational exchanges, determined not to be timid, but would quickly run up against an unfamiliar word and have to stop to navigate around it.

Tell us a news story you’ve read?  There was a thunderstorm in Arnhem, water flooded under a bridge and submerged three older folks in their car.  The fire department got them out, everyone is fine.

I got as far as the water under the bridge, but froze: what word do I know to explain deep, submerge, flood, pool, lake, fill…De auto is onder het water?  The teacher looked baffled. 

Ouders…brandweer… The rest of the story was no problem.  Just one word between me and expressing a coherent paragraph.  I wanted De auto rijdt in het meer, but couldn’t get there.  Maddening.


They handed out the schedule, above, at the end of the day: my heart sank.  Four days each week, seven hours per day.   I can rationalize that they are cramming lessons into the time that I am in the Netherlands (about 50% of my total), but when will I Work?  Exercise?  Sleep?  I know, it’s about priorities…

Still, I felt like a complete failure – the woman next to me was four hours, three days per week.

But, that’s in the future, next return to the Netherlands.  For now, I need to keep up from on the road for the next couple of weeks.  I’ve got podcasts to listen to from Radio Nederland,  books and newspapers to read, “Dutch Buddies” to talk to on Skype, daily paragraphs to write and to e-mail.  I will make this work.

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Cleaning up the cash flows

With all of the inburgering challenges, it’s may be hard to tell that I’m still building businesses.  Work life does go on, although mostly after 3 pm (unlike the gardening business).  Lately, though, I’ve felt that my accounting was becoming more and more scattered.  Income was sputtering in from multiple sources, flowing into personal accounts as well as business, expenses seem to be mingling, taxes are falling out of sync, it’s harder to track whether I’m paid the right amount.

I sat down the other night to sort things through and ended up with three pages of questions, ranging from areas that I might be double- or under-taxed to pending contracts and employment agreements.  This was a wake-up.

So I called Patricia, my accountant, and hit the train north immediately after Dutch class today.  We spent two hours going over my situation: here are the highlights:

  • Feed revenue through the Dutch corporation.

This solves all of my cross-border issues.  Set up every job as a contract with my corporation for my services, then invoice them for my salary and direct expenses.  They pay without deducting payroll or social security tax; I avoid any hint of excess taxation.  And, most wondrously, my time in the UK/US is considered an “expat assignment” from the perspective of my Dutch corporation.  Thus, previously unreimbursed expenses like rent and utilities now become Dutch business expenses. 

  • Put expenses on the company cards.

I’ve used my personal cards exclusively, reimbursing through the corporation.  Not only does this impact personal resources, but it builds up debt that the Dutch government treats as a loan.  They assume 4% interest and charge tax on the debt.  Adds insult to injury, as we say: From now on, company expenses go on company cards.

  • Agree on records to exchange

I spend a day each month preparing an expense summary, which the accountants find incomprehensible when they try to use it.   It gums up tax reporting, VAT refunds, expense deductions, and payroll taxes.  We’ve now agreed on a simple list of documents that I’ll provide, with a check-up in three months to make sure that things are going more smoothly.

I left the meeting feeling like I had simple solutions and a lot more confidence that I was keeping as much of my income as I could.  I’ve always advised students to seek competent financial and legal help; I’m now going to add the importance of a yearly review.

   P.S.: It was a beautiful day in Amsterdam, especially the light along the canals and the flowers along the streets.  That, alone, would have made the trip worthwhile.

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

On the right trajectory (finally)

DSC04672By last night, I was starting to see the humor in it.

It’s still a bit difficult to tell were the intake for my inburgering went off the track, but the simples explanation seems to be this: in trying to tell people what work I do, they came to the conclusion that I don’t really know how to do anything at all.  So they put me on a vocational track that would teach me how to get along in Dutch society, how to speak the rudiment of the language, and to acquire a useful trade. 

Gardening, to be precise.

I went through the necessary steps with the Gemeente, not worrying why it happened, but just getting onto the right track.  I’ll have to re-sign my contracts with everyone, but it’s behind me: I was invited back among my classmates this morning.  ‘Off towards NT(something – not quite sure if I’m on the 1 or 2 track).

A few observations after the restart:

This whole inburgering is going to take a huge commitment of time.  ‘nothing wrong with that, but I mis-underestimated it and clearly need to shuffle days and priorities to meet it.

It’s also going to be relentlessly Dutch.  This, too, is as it should be, but complicates administrative negotiations terribly. I wish that they would relent when solving sign-up problems. It’s frustrating and slow to work through alternatives that I don’t understand in sentences that I don’t understand, confusing them with my Dutch as much as they do me.  Mistakes get made, time gets wasted, and everyone ends up with more work.

My radio and television need to be tuned to exclusively Dutch stations.  I understand more than I think I can if I focus, but it does take that focus., otherwise, my mind just free-wheels over the sounds.  I also need to multiply the opportunities to express myself in Dutch: a Twitter feed, a Tumblr post, where I can put short notes for my “Dutch Buddy” to read.  (Did I mention the importance of  Dutch Buddy – someone who can speak the language with me daily?)

This first week was a waste.  We are getting used to being in class, getting oriented to the computer, endlessly reviewing the college rules (over an hour on Bezwaren and Klachten yesterday – complaint procedures).  I just want to move on improving vocabulary and conversations.  Still, the Theory of Sunk Costs say never look back: Simply assess where you are today and move on forward tomorrow

Confidence Is Everything.  When the class gets rough and unfamiliar, its easy to get cautious right when I need to be vleaning into it.  Yesterday I got so flustered that I couldn’t conjugate a simple verb or remember the personal pronoun for “him”.  Fluency will come with practice; understanding with time, and everyone started out here (even the woman next to me going a mile a minute…).  It’s important to keep perspective and to know that I can do this.

Monday, June 6, 2011

Work vs. NT1 Trajectories

Kafka dwgNo day starts well with coffee poured into a bowl of cereal.

I’ve been running of five hours sleep each night for several days, making slow progress against the inburgering modules. I currently have ten of the 34 done, feeling like I have a good shot at finishing this week.

This morning was muzzy, though: I was studying my text with one hand, pouring coffee into my flakes instead of my cup with the other.  The overnight mail yielded new reports and agreements to review; diligence documents and contract notes had to be sent off before school.  I mashed the “Send” button time and again, watching the clock and calculating the bike ride.

9:00 am: class begins.  Our new teacher handed out the week’s assignments, setting me aside from the other two students.  I just don’t understands why you are in the Work Trajectory.  ‘time to figure out what was going on.

An hour of digging with various administrators confirmed that something had gone very wrong.

In the path through the interviews and tests, my file had been marked as a Work Trainee.  So, I was shunted onto a Work/Study course, in which I would receive equal parts straining in the basics of everyday life and study skills, and basic language fluency.  Afternoons, I would be expected to work in the garden or the shop, learning a trade.


Since I scored highly on all of the tests and had a university degree, I belonged in the Staatexamen I (NT1) trajectory,along with the rest of my classmates.  This happens all the time; the Gemeente never gets it right.  And all of the modules I completed this weekend? Don’t worry, you don’t need to do that program.  And to get onto the right trajectory? You will need to talk with your contact at the Gemeente and ask them to change it.

Kafka dwg 2The college head gave me a scrap of paper with my manager’s name and phone number at the city hall and suggested I could come back tomorrow and start right once things were straightened out.

They were very nice about it, but, in truth, where to begin again?  I’ve been following a trail laid down through a series of letters directing me through a series of interviews for months.  There was no continuing human contact; I didn’t even recognize the name o my case manager.  Who could know where it went off track (if only I’d know where to drop my non-existent Dutch children off for school…)?

And what vocation were they about to train me for?

I called the Gemeente; a clerk told me that my case manager was unavailable until next week.  <sigh>  No, I’m sorry, could someone help me to fix this today?

So it began, and continues.  I’m likely making some progress, I have a new workbook and new login codes that seem focused on gaining language proficiency rather than recycling and insurance skills.  The Gemeente-clerk is consulting with the head of the college, and assures me that this is an easy fix.  I’ve decided to take the afternoon off from Dutch.


Sunday, June 5, 2011

Zondag bij de Maas

Not a lot of time for writing today, but it was a beautiful Sunday afternoon in the city.  Thunderstorms threatened (finally breaking into late afternoon showers), but it didn’t deter the many people finding their individual ways to start summer.