[Life Back West] May 2011 – “The Coffee Klatch”


Bulldozer - Image via Wikipedia

There are some things that may be better left unsaid – calling out the parishioner who regularly passes gas in church comes to mind – but staying quiet generally means that nothing changes.

And it was a need for change – to crib a line from Maya Angelou, that “bulldozed a road down the center of my mind” when I attended, as a Community Connections co-chair (school-speak for diversity and inclusion), my first formal meeting of the Parents Baord at my son’s grade school.

The group of around 35 people was mostly moms – with three of us (we?) males in the mix. A couple of other guys I expected to see were no-shows. Almost everyone at the meeting were current or former “professional types” – bankers, lawyers, analysts, educators, wealth managers,  etc. The meeting itself was run professionally and effectively. And yet while I’ve been in all sort of settings with all sorts of people from decades of doing group and team sessions, this meeting felt oddly different.

As in it felt I didn’t belong.

And as someone who has worked in and around the “D & I” are for over three decades, that feeling was oddly unsettling.

  • You don’t have to read aggregation research from others that is the basis of The Female Brain by Dr. Louann Brizendine to know that men and women are frequently different. Watch any group of small kids play and 80% of the time the young boys are doing trucks (or bulldozers) and the girls are playing dress-up. It’s hard-wired, and if you read Why Gender Matters by Dr. Leonard Sax you’ll discover that there are tons of differences beyond the obvious gender-apparent ones; things such as brain maturation, hearing sensitivity development, vision development for colors, etc.
  • While there’s some hopeful state of transition, many parts of business, particularly the more senior levels where I spend most of my time with clients, are frequently male-dominated. “Who won Sunday’s football game?” or “Is Scott’s Turf Builder or Greenview Fairway Formula the best lawn fertilizers?” and “How was your golf round Saturday?” are the subjects of much conversation. Hunch is that most women at those levels get very adept and adopt. Or sadly, leave.
  • The research is compelling from people like Scott Page that diverse groups out-perform homogenous groups. And a read-through of James Surowiecki’s Wisdom of Crowds shows that this same diversity advantage can extend to tasks such as jury decisions, and even the decision about what’s the best lawn fertilizer to use.
  • Sameness – an alarming trend in boards of directors that are becoming more male and white – is a bad sign if you want better performance for the companies these boards oversee. As the Motley Fool warned when speaking about leadership diversity, “Your Company Could Lack this Advantage.
  • Effective, higher functioning groups  have a knack for balancing all the differences that make you unique – race, religion, color, national origin, sex, etc. – or they get plain lucky. It is hard to feel part of something if you don’t feel included; you don’t have to be (actively) excluded to feel like you don’t belong. Inclusion is that act of reaching out, finding common ground, drawing someone into the circle of comfortable conversation that is mutually enriching. What did I hear as side conversations from my first official parent meeting board meeting? “Where did you buy those great shoes?” or  “How are your nails?”  and “What are your summer travel plans?”
  • Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg has a terrific video from TED about the ways that women can assume more leadership positions in North America. But she also notes that on women’s turf – the playground for example, women don’t always play so nice with stay-at-home dads. So just as it’s important the moms include the stay-at-home dads at the playground, men have an obligation (a word I don’t use lightly) to make sure women are sitting at the decision-making table.
  • Groups get a leg up on the inclusion (and performance) game in the area of gender by engineering the group whenever they can with smart balance. When I served as a trustee from my son’s preschool, the Little School in San Francisco, my hunch is our success in having things be comfortable (and productive from a performance standpoint) for the board was by having no gender be more than 1/3rd of the 18 person group. That mix kept general conversations more down the middle – preventing what  a female colleague called “girlie girl” conversations or “locker room jock talk” from dominating.

While my experience was with a group of women at the Parents Board, this phenomenon of not being included can happen in all just about any of the ways that we differ from one another once you have some factor where one aspect of that difference – relative age as one example – dominates and fails to include others.

The thing that makes my heart smile and feel optimistic about the Parent Board change opportunity is that my son attends a school that is seldom complacent about anything. Many, many things are done well yet the constant undertone is to seek and address the opportunities to do better. And by intent it’s an “intentionally diverse community” that recognizes there is much work to be done.

Abraham Lincoln said, “I don’t like that man. I must get to know him better.” I don’t like feeling not included, and Abe’s sentiment is one I’ll take forward to me next meeting.  I need to get to know the group better and help everyone – and me – feel included.


Life Back West is an occasional set of writings focused on ways people, teams and organizations can be both more effective (doing the right thing) and more efficient (doing the right thing well). More about executive, career and team / leadership coaching services can be found at the “About J. Mike Smith and Back West, Inc.” sidebar or the “Hire Me” tab above. You can also read an online interview with me at WhoHub, as well as participate in my learning community courtesy of KnowledgeCrush.


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