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Posts tagged ‘Jane Watson’

Live a Deliberate Life, “Beyond the Picket Fence”

This week, I’m interviewing Chris Taylor, writer, entrepreneur, and speaker, about his first book Beyond the Picket Fence, now available for pre-order. I was intrigued about the message of Chris’s book to live a deliberate life and wanted to know more about what this means for employees and employers, and Chris did not disappoint. I think that his message captures the mindset that many of us (regardless of generation) are drawn to in light of the changing dynamics of our economy and the evolution of the traditional ’psychological contract’ we enter into with our employers. Employees and employers both stand to gain by considering his thesis. I caught up with Chris in Spain via e-mail.

  1. Congratulations on your book Chris! Is it weird to be on the other side of things, being interviewed about your own book, rather then you asking an author questions about theirs as founder of Actionable Books?

Thanks Jane. It’s definitely a different experience, but I’m enjoying having a message to share that I feel so strongly about. I always thought the best interviews I’ve hosted were with people who were passionate about their material, so I’m just hoping that comes through now that I’m on the other side of the proverbial mic!

  1. So, if someone did an Actionable Books summary of ‘Beyond the Picket Fence’, what would the ‘golden egg’ be? What’s the key take away?

I would hope that when someone finishes reading Beyond the Picket Fence, they’re left with the understanding and sincere belief that everything we do is a choice. To thrive in the 21st Century – both professionally and personally – we need to take ownership of our lives and live deliberately.

We have more flexibility and option now than ever before, and that can be overwhelming for many of us. I want to encourage readers to pursue their own version of “the ideal life”, even if that means deviating a bit from the “expected path”, and provide them with the inspiration, resources and skills to do so confidently.

  1. Why do you think the ‘white picket fence’ ideal continues to drive the way so many of us live our lives and approach our careers? Do you think that it’s just groupthink, or individual fears, or is it maybe more broadly embedded in our capitalist economy?

Jane, I think it starts with our education system. Most of us spent 12-16 of our formative years taking direction without question and working to fit into a box that rewarded compliance and rote repetition. We were told “do your homework”, and you had two choices – do it and get rewarded, or don’t do it and get punished. 12 years of that pounded (most of us) into a mentality that we should follow the “normal” path, and that deviating from it would hurt us.

Back when it was a reasonable to assume that we could keep a job at the same company for 35 years, the “pursuit of the picket fence” was a safe path – one that wouldn’t raise eyebrows from your co-workers or friends, and one that addressed our base level needs – food, shelter, security, etc. But fast forward 50 years, and where has it taken us? Divorce rates and employee apathy are at record highs, suggesting that most of us are not happy.

Some people are happy in the “White Picket Fence” model, and that’s fabulous. I’m genuinely happy for those people. I just think it’s naïve to assume that we all want the same thing. As I travel the world and see, first hand, the wide range of lifestyle approaches available, I’m also seeing that the people who are happiest are those who have taken control of the direction of their life, the pace of it and, in some cases, even the geography. They’re doing this despite the fact that it may not be appreciated by certain people in their lives, or may cause friction with the status quo.

  1. Should organizations fear or embrace a workforce made up of individuals that seek to build deliberate lives?

I love this question. A couple weeks back I’d half-jokingly suggested to someone that they pick up copies of the book for every employee in their company. The response was, “No way! I need my people pursuing the picket fence so they don’t leave me!” I’m starting to realize this is a common belief, but it’s dangerously flawed.

I don’t think it is news to anyone in your audience, Jane, that we’re on the cusp of one of the biggest talent shortages of the modern era. With Boomers retiring at a rate far greater than the younger generations can replace them, attracting and retaining top talent is going to get more and more difficult over the next couple of decades. The best of the best are going to gravitate to the companies that provide them with the most opportunity, which includes cultures that encourage them to pursue a deliberate life.

I believe the paternalistic approach to business management – employees blindly relying on their employer to care for them, while employers dole out punishment and reward based on following prescribed behavior – is an antiquated model.

The businesses that I’ve seen maintain high engagement rates and low turnover numbers interact with their employees on a more equal footing. They appreciate the fact that an individual who is actively in control of their own future is more engaged with life and work, automatically providing better output and customer service, and so they work to encourage employees to live a full life on their own terms. We see this in the rise of flexible benefits packages, paid volunteer-days and self-directed work days, where employees are encouraged to work on projects of their own choosing.

These top companies also seem to embrace a paradox of (a) operating with the trust and planning as though these top employees will be around forever, while simultaneously (b) understanding that most employees will move on at some point, and that encouraging conversation around an employees career trajectory (even if it means leaving the company) is to be embraced, not feared or ignored. There is most definitely a level of leadership maturity required to embrace the “deliberate choice movement”, but I believe it to be one of the most important components of retaining top talent going forward.

  1. Personally the ideas of ‘living a deliberate life’ and ‘designing a lifestyle’ really resonate with me. How do you see this concept in relation to the ‘Do what you love’ movement? I’ve been critical of DWYL because in my view it ignores significant barriers and economic realities for most of the workforce in favour of starry-eyed idealism. Can everyone live a deliberate life?

I think that, while well intentioned, the “Do What You Love” movement only examines a narrow slice of living a deliberate life. If you’re actively designing your lifestyle, I would hope that you’re including “what you love to do”, but as you say, there are other factors at play that need to be considered. To be clear, living a deliberate life is not about hedonistic anarchy. In fact, it’s only partially about the tasks and projects you fill your days with, and as much the mindset you bring to each task.

Circling back to the “golden egg”, everything you do is a choice. You may not “love” every aspect of everything you do, but you do it because you’re mindful and appreciative of the benefits that the task’s outcome(s) provides. (Ie. You go to work because you appreciate the opportunity to provide for your family.) If you don’t love the nature of the work, then you can work to replace it with something that does resonate more strongly with you, but you don’t just throw it away because you don’t like a particular project or you have a bad day. That’s a short term, emotional response, and not inline with deliberate lifestyle design.

Of course, if something doesn’t provide real benefit and you don’t love it, then you should take active steps to remove or replace it. That’s what living a deliberate life is all about.

  1. You and your wife picked up and moved to Spain for a year, while you continued to run (and grow) an internationally successful business that you started here in Toronto. I really liked your blog post last year that called out the people who kept telling you how ‘lucky’ you were to be able to do that, when in fact you made some very conscious choices and did a ton of prep work to allow it to happen. I noticed that you also allude to this in the video preview of your book. What were some of the deliberate decisions or preparations you made that allowed this to happen?

Thanks for the question!

First off, we had two false starts, where we’d planned to move at a certain date, and then pushed it out by at least 6 months due to business needs or financial uncertainty. I think a big part of lifestyle design is about that – put your best foot forward, but then roll with the punches.

Secondly, I’ve been very clear – since day 1 with the business – that I wanted to build something that was (1) derivative based (meaning I could sell the same thing over and over), and (2) allowed me to be geographically flexible. To that end, I’ve assembled a team that was comfortable with a high level of autonomy. I’ve had long conversations with key team members about how often I should be back in Toronto, and what the pros and cons are of having me 6 hours ahead of most of our team and clients. My wife, Amy, and I had (and continue to have!) similar conversations about what life would look like in Spain (one example – I often work until midnight to stay accessible to the eastern seaboard).

Those are another two big parts of successful lifestyle design, I believe – (1) steady communication with those it will impact, as well as (2) appreciating the tradeoffs/impact that will come with making deliberate choices – both in a work context, but in regards to life, as well. That comment, “You’re so lucky!” is often followed by “I wish I could move to Spain.” The grass is always greener, as they say and, as much as I love my life here, I’m not sure it would be ideal for everyone. That’s the point though, isn’t it? I don’t believe that anyone else’s life should be the exact model for our own. We need to define what’s important for ourselves, and then work to build that; testing assumptions and taking time for review and reflection along the way.

As an entrepreneur, Jane, I appreciate the fact that I have certain flexibilities that other people might not have. That in mind, I’d also like to share the story of Andy Budgell, our Managing Editor at Since joining the Actionable team 3 years ago, Andy has lived in Vancouver for 6 months, London, England for a year and is now getting set to move to Toronto. He regularly travels to Los Angeles, New York and Paris for his other interests and, with a little forward planning and regular communication, he can do it without shirking his work responsibilities. For context, Andy is an employee of a rapidly growing company with no direct reports. I share this with you because I believe that lifestyle design doesn’t require the freedom of an entrepreneur.

  1. You obviously have a strong belief in the power of the written word to improve people’s lives and workplaces. What books (business or otherwise) come to mind as being especially life changing for you?

As an entrepreneur, Small Giants, by Bo Burlingham was hugely impactful for me. It was a reminder that growth for growth’s sake is blind, and that we need to make deliberate choices in how and why as entrepreneurs we want to grow our business(es).

Seth Godin’s the dip was also massively impactful. I honestly don’t know if we would have made it through the dark spots without the clear message from this little book reminding me that the only things worth pursuing have periods of friction that make most people give up. The rewards go to those who persevere.

  1. What’s next for you?

I’m keeping busy! The business is growing fast – over 100% each year for the last three years, and we’re starting to work with larger clients, which is fun and an exciting growth curve. A big part of the growth is focused on the measurement and study of real world employee engagement, accountability & behaviour change, a collection of topics I find fascinating and increasingly important to organizations of all sizes.

We’re “officially” launching our Consultant Program in Australia in August, which will be my first trip down under, and then scaling up with 4 new North American markets in 2015.

From a lifestyle standpoint, Amy and I are heading off to Panama in November for 4 months of strategy, writing and product development. Apparently, there’s also a family of dolphins that lives in the bay in front of our place down there, so a regular midday snorkel may be in order. I’ll keep you posted ;)

You can pre-order a copy of Beyond the Picket Fence here.

Chris Taylor is a writer, entrepreneur and speaker. He spends his daylight hours helping consultants and employees alike find meaning in their work and discover rich team relationships through his company, When he’s not engrossed in work, Chris is an avid traveler, cyclist and snowboarder who loves nothing more than a well prepared meal paired with a decent bottle of wine and good friends. Chris and his wife divide their time between rural Spain, an island in Panama and Toronto, Canada. This is Chris’s first book.

Everyone Must Be Exceptional

An explicit focus in almost every area of HR is getting, developing, growing, and keeping top performers. The cream of the crop, the engaged, motivated and committed super star, showering discretionary effort wherever they go like flower petals.


And yet, we accept that performance distribution will look like this:

Bell curve

Or, if you agree with Josh Bersin, like this:

Bersin Curve

Either way, it’s easy to grasp the basic logic that most people cannot be the best. The exceptional are by definition exceptions, and the majority will hover in and around the average point of a distribution curve. In any organization there will be a range of performers, and in comparison to one another there will be some superstars, a few bad apples, and then sandwiched in between these a big swath of employees who vary in their degree of competence and potential but are ‘pretty good’ performers. Meets expectations, 3/5 type folks. At organizations which are more successful at attracting, developing and retaining “top talent” these distribution curves aren’t different, because they are comparing people in relation to one another within the organization. Their average performers might be operating at a much more effective level than those of an organization which experiences obstacles in attracting “top talent”, but they are still average within their organization. Likewise, if you fire an organization’s poorest performers, you don’t cease to have poor performers, you just (theoretically anyway) raise the overall performance standard and the next poorest performers find themselves at the tail end of the curve. This is the basis of most prevailing performance management efforts.

So, given that the majority of the employees in any of our organizations will fall into the “pretty good” category, what are we doing with them? Where are all the articles, blog posts, inspirational quotes and social media chatter about the average performers? It seems to me that if you’re not a super-star or a pain in the ass that you’re mostly being ignored. Except perhaps by HRM Online, with their article this week boasting the provocative title “What To Do With the “Competent Squatter”?”

Competent squatter. Oh boy.

This term was not actually coined by HRM Online, but rather is contained in a quote from R.J. Morris, director of staffing at McCarthy Building Companies. He describes these individuals as competent, but not interested in growing their skills, advancing in the organization, or investing discretionary effort outside of their formal duties.

Although Morris acknowledges that not every employee can be a top performer, the use of the word “squatter” is telling. It implies that the competent person is unfairly and selfishly taking up space that they do not have a right to, and which would be better filled by a more motivated and high performing employee.

I think that the competent but unambitious employee has a place in all of our organizations. In fact, their average but reliable performance is quite often the bedrock that supports the few top performers to achieve their best. I am disturbed by the notion that someone who is competently doing their job but lacks the ambition and aspirations to voluntarily take on more or advance to another level can be viewed as an undesirable thing. But I also think that Morris’s viewpoint is just one example of ways in which the more general fixation on “top talent” that characterizes prevailing HR discourse manifests itself. Another is the recent announcement from Zappos that they intend to do away with job postings and instead hire from a community of would-be Zapponians who will share their relevant skills and enthusiasm for the organization with its employees through social media channels.

Followed through to their logical conclusions, the shared assumptions underlying these two scenarios (that every role should be filled with an over-achieving, enthusiastic, top performer) would have major implications for our organizations and the societies they exist within, and for that reason they should be examined and questioned.

  • Would we be better off if average, competent employees were all replaced by motivated high achievers?
  • Should all employees have the ambition and desire to advance to the next level in their organization?
  • Do we truly expect that employees should or could maintain a perpetual state of enthusiasm and ambition for a promotion or job offer that may never materialize?
  • What would our workplaces look like if that were the case? What kind of society would we live in if this were true?

Our workplace might be filled with perpetually over-performing super-achievers, hungry to move up the ranks, who will be replaced by the most promising hi-po from the mob of brand-zealots circling like buzzards in the digisphere, striving to out-enthuse and out-last the competition in a ceaseless virtual networking performance – “Dance, monkey! Dance!”. As competent performers are replaced by great performers, and then by exceptional performers, the organization will speed towards its own ‘talent event horizon’, when its performance distribution curve will cease to exist, a mere dot floating in space…

Of course I exaggerate, but I do so intentionally because engaging in such a thought experiment can serve a useful purpose. I don’t know about you, but I think that this sounds like the most grotesque, dehumanizing future imaginable, and I think that we should question whether placing a disproportionate value on exceptional performers at the expense of ‘the big middle’ threatens to move us in its direction, even incrementally. The fact is, if we were to ‘evict’ all or even most of the “competent squatters” within our organizations, they would fall apart. And we might then find ourselves living in a Mad Max-esque dystopia…or at least a world where ‘good enough’ is never an option.

Image credit: eparales via Flickr Creative Commons

The Tyranny of the Happy Workplace

“An office is a place to live life to the fullest, to the max. An office is a place where dreams come true.” – Michael Scott, Dunder Mifflin

Have you noticed how organizations are no longer content with simply having engaged employees? Now they must also be happy. Why? In part because research claims to show that happy employees are more productive and create more value for their organizations.

Ah, say the social science majors, welcome to our world, where proving causation (rather than just correlation) is not such an easy thing to do. In fact, as reported in a recent article from Inc, competing research shows that happiness may in fact be a bi-product of focus and productivity, not the other way around. Read more

A Complete Guide to Your Mentor

If you follow this blog, you’ll know that I have strong feelings about the ability of mentorship to accelerate career progression and professional achievement. So, it will come as no surprise to you that I am up on my soap box at the EOList this week. Check out my post about how proteges so often overlook the influence they have over the results of mentorship: A Complete User Guide to Your Mentor

Organizational Forgetting

One of the very few downsides to becoming a homeowner is that people (ok, your parents), don’t want to store your things (ok, junk) anymore: “You have your own basement now.” Fair enough. That is how I found myself sorting through half a dozen boxes of books, notes and random items that I had not seen since 2002, when I packed them away after University.

I’ve always had pack-rat tendencies, which at least partially explains why my inventory of these boxes turned up one (practically fossilized) high-school geometry notebook (the only math I ever truly enjoyed), my Forensic Anthropology Training Manual (with margin annotations about the intertrochanteric crest), the outline for my 4th year Social Theory thesis paper on postmodernism, ethnography and Ludwig Wittengenstein’s ideas about language and meaning (duck rabbit), and a stack of other random university papers I authored.

Reading these papers was unpleasantly disorienting. It wasn’t just that I didn’t remember writing them; it was as though they were written by a completely different human being, someone who was not me. I have frequent occasion to think “I wish I knew then what I know now”, but never before “I wish I knew now what I knew then”. Read more

Postscript: Why YOU Should Become an HR Blogger…and How

A few weeks ago I had the good fortune to be able to attend the 2014 HRPA Conference as a blogger to observe and share my thoughts on this year’s keynotes, sessions speakers, trade show vendors and after-party shenanigans. It was awesome (thanks HRPA and Achievers), and proved to be excellent inspiration for a handful of blog posts over at By far the most read and most shared post I wrote was based on Bonni Titgemeyer‘s great session about becoming an HR blogger (republished below). I got lots of comments on Twitter, retweets and favorites, and many of them were from non-bloggers. Clearly Bonni’s presentation, and my post, struck a nerve. I can’t help but think that there are many HR folks out there (possibly lurking in shrubberies) who love the idea of blogging and are looking for their chance to dip a toe in the water.

I’m about to tell you about that chance! Read more

Robot-Proofing the Jobs of the Future

A couple of articles in The Economist and The Atlantic this week have me thinking about peak jobs again. Especially since The Economist article pulls in the thoughts of anthropologist David Graeber, as my last blog post on the topic did. As a reminder, the concept of peak jobs refers to a point at which technology’s destruction of jobs (through automation or innovation) meets or exceeds its capacity to create jobs (through demand for technological goods and services).  As I’ve written about previously, anxiety related to peak jobs has amplified in recent years as the type of jobs being automated has shifted from the most menial roles to jobs that we previously viewed as safe. This, combined with a broad hollowing out of middle management jobs in many sectors (jobs we still tend to agree are safe from automation), has left a larger group of us watching our backs for the encroaching robot workforce. Read more

Leadership Lessons from Crack Mayor Rob Ford

As the late, great Whitney Houston said: “Crack is whack”.  Truthfully, it’s pretty hard to expand or improve upon Ms. Houston’s assessment of this particular issue, which is why it’s taken me a while to extract the deeper lessons that I knew lurked under the sordid surface of the Rob Ford fiasco.

Rob Ford is my mayor. That is, he was inflicted on me by a significant proportion of my fellow Torontonians in our most recent mayoral election.  But I don’t hold it against them; truly we lacked compelling alternatives, and they were all probably in a drunken stupor anyway, so how can I hold them responsible? The point is, while the world held witness to the most surreal, ‘Daily Show’ worthy portion of Mr. Ford’s downward spiral, the good people of Toronto have had to endure actually having him as the mayor of the fourth largest city in North America.  This reality holds some genuinely important lessons about leaders and the organizations that create and empower them, buried as they might be under a fine, white powder.

Read more

A Belated Happy New Year!

A belated happy New Year to you. You may have noticed that I took a little bit of a blog-cation over the last month or two. I’m still here, but had a few things to take care of as 2013 drew to a close. Despite that, 2013 ended on a high note, with the outstanding Michael Carty of Xpert HR selecting my post ‘Manatees, Tube Tops and Policies for the Clueless Few’ as a top HR blog pick for the year! Who knew that those peaceful water elephants of the mangrove swamps would prove to be such good luck? If you missed that post, and enjoy a good rant about rules made for the willfully ignorant among us, please check it out here.

In other news, I’m really excited to report that I’ll be blogging from the 2014 HRPA conference this week; you can catch me (and a distinguished panel of my fellow HR Bloggers) at LiveHR. The annual HRPA conference is the premier HR event in Ontario, always bringing together the best and brightest in Human Resources, and I look forward to sharing this year’s high points and musings with you. Thanks to HRPA and Achievers for their support of the HR blogging community!  Perhaps I’ll see you there?

Hipsters, Tomatoes, and Employee Engagement

In recent years, retro approaches to food have come back into fashion in a big way. I’ve seen several food shops in my city offering canning and preserving classes, and keep coming across articles telling me that Aunt Mabel was totally on to something with her pickled onions. At TEDxToronto this year, I will admit that I was mystified when the audience’s biggest wave of anticipatory applause rose as Joel MacCharles of Well Preserved took the stage to talk fervently about his love of preserving and canning.

I blame hipsters. Their earnest nostalgia and revivalist zeal seems to have infected a broad swath of young urbanites with the desire to can food. Luckily the ‘lumberjack beard’ strain does not seem to be airborne…yet. But at TEDxToronto, as I sat in Koerner Hall, surrounded by many young urbanites dreamily imagining themselves tying on an apron and getting down to some good old fashioned pickling, all I could think was “Oh really?”.

I keep a long list of things that sound great, but in practice require a surprising amount of hard, messy work. Two things that I place on that list are canning food, and employee engagement. Read more


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