Less Seeking More Finding: My Day At The Zen Center With Marc Lesser

I had the privilege to attend a day-long workshop recently with Marc Lesser sharing ideas from his latest book, Seven Practices of a Mindful Leader. Lesser is a Zen teacher, former CEO of multiple companies and co-founder of Search Inside Yourself Leadership Institute – based on a program he helped develop to better train employees at Google in emotional intelligence.

The small and eclectic group gathered at the Austin Zen Center to talk through the seven practices:

  1. Love the Work
  2. Do the Work
  3. Don’t Be an Expert
  4. Connect to Your Pain
  5. Connect to the Pain of Others
  6. Depend on Others
  7. Keep Making in Simpler

As with most valuable frameworks, it allows us to think through each idea as more than just the role we play in a particular setting. These seven practices in particular also highlight a focus on doing less, looking inward, and integration. The idea that we can be someone at work and someone else outside of work is an unsustainable practice and Lesser reminds us of this non-duality throughout his book and the workshop.

So, over the next seven weeks I am going to dive deeper into the learning experience and publish a post each Thursday morning focusing on one of the practices. Think about picking up a copy of your own and sharing your thoughts each week in the comments.

Lesser opened our workshop by paring us up and asking each other two questions:

  1. Why are you here?
  2. Why are you really here?

Two simple questions, but a quick and effective way to bring an audience into a state of presence.

I’ll share that I answered the first question by saying I was there to become a better leader of my team at work. But, then the answer to the second question revealed that I was “really” there because like so many others I’m sometimes caught in a loop of seeking. There is always something new to learn or try and it’s easy to get lost in thinking something better is waiting around the corner.

Endless seeking clouds our ability to find. Near the end of the workshop, Lesser reminded us of Siddhartha’s advice to his boyhood friend, Govinda, in Hesse’s classic story.

What could I say to you that would be of value, except that perhaps you seek too much, that as a result of your seeking you cannot find.”

I’ve been to more leadership workshops than I can count throughout my career. And I usually leave them excited to try something new or am reminded about something I should be doing. Lesser and his 7 Practices left me feeling differently – in a good way. And I’m looking forward to sharing those feelings with all of you over the next seven weeks.

Success! You're on the list.

70/20/10 & 70/20/10

Over the last few years, I’ve been sharing a 70/20/10 mentality around professional learning. The idea is well-known throughout the training & development industry and hypothesizes that 70% of employee learning occurs through on-the-job experience, 20% comes from direct conversations with co-workers, and only 10% comes from formal learning workshops.

Just recently I had the opportunity to hear an additional take on the 70/20/10 concept that looks at who should hold decision-making control of professional learning. Who knows best where our areas of need lie and who should be deciding how we spend the precious moments we dedicate toward our journey as life-long learners?

At an organization I had the privilege to visit recently, individual employees are expected to drive 70% of their own learning, their leaders determine 20%, and the remaining 10% is the mundane compliance-type training we all get to sit through. The organization provides a vast array of professional learning experiences for its staff, however, 70% of the responsibility for self-awareness and decision making is owned by the individual, not her leader. Goals and expectations of performance are set together, but the individual charts the path and seeks help where they feel it’s needed.

I’m incorporating more of both 70/20/10 frameworks into my decision making as a leader of leaders in my large suburban public school district.

Adopting this mindset requires resetting expectations for both the learner and the teacher, the team member and the team leader. Clarity in where agency lies will be key in navigating from an environment which creates passive learners who are waiting to be told what to do, to an environment where learners are trusted to be self-aware and trusted to take action.

And it’s more than moving more trust toward the learner. It’s recognizing that her decisions are better. Even if I don’t agree with the path, if she and I agree on the outcome then I should not be charting the path. 

“But what about the new or struggling team member who does not yet have the experience to know what they don’t know?” you might ask. Don’t we as leaders need to prescribe a list of technical skills for the novice to learn or a catalog of workshops to attend over the next year?

Just remember that if we are honest with ourselves as leaders about how adults really learn at work, then as the leader we have roughly 20% decision making power regarding time and direction and roughly 15% power regarding the overall impact on someone else’s learning. Think about how you learn. Sure, you may give someone else credit for molding your thoughts and helping your grow – I certainly do. But, it was your decision to listen to that person and embrace their philosophy. Growth is not driven by compliance.

If we are dictating 70% of their time, then I’ll argue our teams may be learning surface-level technical content, but are not engaging in the level of learning necessary to make lasting adaptive improvement. Give even your newest team members the respect to own their learning.

So, how do we allocate our 20% as leaders to help our staff members make the best decision with their 70%? My plan is to make sure the readings, workshops, and learning experiences I require of my team focus on self-awareness, understanding one another, and how their work contributes to the success of our students. 

I’m working through this idea as I write so I’m sure my thinking on this will continue to evolve. What are your thoughts? I would love to start a dialogue around this idea. Share your thoughts in the comments. 

3 Things I’ve Learned Sharing My User Manual This Summer

In my last post, I shared the idea of creating a personal user manual with your coworkers. Hitendra Wadwha introduced me to this idea at a recent workshop and since I came back and started sharing the idea with my coworkers, it has resonated more than anything I’ve shared over the last five years. And, I often find myself at workshops and share a lot.

The idea of sharing your quirks, beliefs, habits, areas of improvement, and preferred communication methods caught on so much that I then provided semi-weekly sessions throughout Round Rock ISD. From campuses at every level to departments at the administration office, I had the opportunity to share the idea that just being upfront with each other will allow us to give each other grace, get on with the work, and reduce anxiety.

Those experiences taught me a few things:

  1. Choose to be Open and Positive  – Share your struggles and be real. Authenticity is so rare. When I get up in front of a group of long-time colleagues – or strangers as was the case recently with the Texas School Public Relations Association – and tell them I struggle with building deep 1-1 connections, I can physically feel an emotional shift in their connection with me. And at that point I know I’ve captured the room. I know my message will stick. Be real and you will resonate. You are now a leader.
  2. It’s About Sharing – Many folks I’ve worked with have written their manual, but aren’t comfortable sharing it. If that’s you, take out whatever you are uncomfortable with and share the rest with your team. This process is useful as a diary entry, but the power comes in sharing it with those you spend your time with every day. Take baby steps in your vulnerability.
  3. Get Credit for Your Work – If we don’t let others know how we are trying to improve, they are not likely to notice. It is incredibly hard to change someone’s perception of us. But, it’s easier if we tell them how we are trying to improve. So, I’m sharing with my team that I am working this year to be better prepared for my 1-1 meetings. I want to make sure I have done my homework and am crafting more effective listening skills. If my team did not know I had that focus this year then they may start as wondering why I was all of a sudden asking more pointed questions or trying to help them dig deeper on their own goals. And at the same time, selfishly I want them to notice when I get better. Nothing wrong with a pat on the back.

I’m excited to see the idea catching on as I truly believe that reducing our anxiety at work will have a direct effect on improving instruction in classrooms throughout Round Rock ISD. Let me know in the comments if you have any specific questions.

Thanks for the time.

The Clarity of a Personal User Manual

I was introduced to the idea of a professional User Manual in a workshop recently and it’s becoming a valuable addition to my work. The idea of creating and sharing your User Manual is to let those you work with on a daily basis know how to you tick – similar to stereo instructions. Adam Bryant popularized the idea a few years ago and highlighted the idea that a blueprint or user manual has been used by many successful leaders.

It’s an opportunity to provide clarity to those around regarding your values, as well as blind spots you may have, preferred communication protocols, and also briefly share your own influences. And it’s really only valuable if you actually share it, so here it is:

Cultivating a beginner’s mind is a daily personal aspiration and I expect those on my teams to embrace curiosity and a Unity of Purpose mindset. We need to seek every opportunity to work with other teams in the organization and worry more about outcomes for students and teachers than who gets the credit.

Others tell me I tend to not show too many emotions and have been told that I am hard to read. So please just ask me if you are unsure as to how I feel about your work. I’m working on getting better at delivering clear feedback and will accept any and all assistance.

I trust those on my teams to make decisions and create solutions with the experience of students and teachers as the driving factors. That trust means I don’t need to sign-off on every decision or be cc’d on emails and if I pop into one of your meetings or presentations, I’m there to give feedback and just listen so please don’t interrupt the flow and introduce me. If I feel the need to chime in I will.

Make sure I know the big ideas/goals around your projects. I believe in the mantra, “Dream big, start small, move fast,” and will continuously push my teams to question their ideas, projects, and programs.

If you make a mistake, let me know early and we will figure it out. If something does not go as planned, let me know about it before I hear about it from someone else.

I have two young boys and do my best to be present with my family or present with myself outside the workday. If for some reason I email you outside of work hours – and I rarely will – do not feel like you need to respond until the next workday. If for some rare reason I need to get in touch right then, I’ll text or call. Please follow this same system with your teams.

If you need to get in touch with me I prefer either in-person, call my cell (512) 632-5062, chat/text, email – in that order. I rarely use my office phone line. I’m pretty good at staying current with my email, but if you need a response in the next 24 hours, please say that in the message or subject. I often batch respond and may “snooze” your email for up to 24 hours if you don’t communicate a need for a quick response.

The one area of your work in which I expect to be heavily involved is in hiring. Inviting someone to join our team is the most important decision any of us make as leaders. I expect to be involved in decision-making processes around hiring/interviewing.

Finally, a couple recent books that may help you understand how I think regarding work are:

An Everyone CultureRadical CandorPrinciples

I’m also pretty transparent about my thinking on my blog at ryansmith.blog.

Writing and sharing your own is highly encouraged – even if you don’t necessarily lead a team. The more we know about each other’s inclinations and influences, the better our work will become and we can spend less time making assumptions and putting on fronts.

I would love to hear your thoughts and stories about the use of User Manuals or Personal Blueprints. Please share them in the comments or with me on Twitter.

Let the Reading Path Circle Back

I rediscovered Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance recently due to a triangulation of events. I turned 40 which is the age of the father in the story, at work I had to pick a T-shirt with my favorite book on the front, and finally, in the last few years, I have spent a great deal of time thinking about Zen Buddhism.

Firstly though, I felt I better re-read the book because even though I read it in my early 20s, if I was going to wear it on a shirt to work I better refresh in case anyone asked questions or made any references.

Secondly, I was reminded that there are books we need to re-read during each decade of our lives. The titles are different for each of us, but there are 5-10 that resonate to a point in our early years that we need to revisit them as we move through the decades. I remembered a convoluted story about a father and son on a motorcycle trip, some other character called a Phaedrus, and the narrator going on and on about “Quality.” But revisiting the story, it became a powerful dive into values and personal freedom. This “re-read” provided much more meaning than trying to keep up with the most recent “must-read.”

We may start with a couple books from our 20s, a few from our 30s, and so it goes.

I’m continuing with these:

What am I missing? What’s on your list? Leave your thoughts in the comments.

Making Peace and Moving on

“I’ll make peace with the fact you couldn’t hear the video and move on…O.K. moving on,” said Hitendra Wadhwa recently working with the inaugural districts of The Holdsworth Center. His time with us focused on personal leadership, not around presentation skills, but that statement resonated with me as much as anything else.

How often are we thrown off course by some unforeseen hiccup or unavoidable obstacle? To set the scene, there was an audio issue with a video which was part of his presentation. Who hasn’t been there?

Upon realizing that a portion of us couldn’t hear the video and quickly realizing that replaying it would interrupt his flow, he verbally made peace with it and moved on. He didn’t apologize to the audience, he forgave himself. And we won because he was his most-present self for the rest of the workshop. There was no looking back. No lamenting on some technical snafu.

Authenticity and presence are so rare that we talk about it long after the encounter.

Here’s a video to learn more from Dr. Wadwha:

Everything else he shared was incredible, but that honest moment of self-awareness and self-forgiveness resonated with me the most.

Thanks for listening.

Mouse Books Just Make Me Feel Good

I like to think I’m someone who would rather read Oscar Wilde or Mark Train while waiting in line at Starbucks than mindlessly scrolling my Instagram feed. If given the choice between two pockets, which will I choose? My left back pocket contains a time-tested, classic work of literature. My right front pocket contains a Google Pixel where I can encounter new likes, notifications, follows, and a portal to the world.

I so badly want to think I’m someone who reaches for The Happy Prince or The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass rather than my phone. And that’s why I pulled out the debit card when I came across Mouse Books Kickstarter. I contributed $50 so that means I’ll get these little classics in the mail throughout the next year. I loved Mouse Books advertising campaign because they gave me an identity. I want to be someone who reads Mouse Books.

The folks behind Mouse Books created a vision of a version of myself I yearn to be. They tapped in. I’ve been carrying my book for a few weeks and wish I could say I’ve pulled it out more than my phone when idling about, but we are all a work in progress. Baby steps, I’ve read them. To inspire change, it is so important to give your people an ideal to live up to. Give them a beacon on a hill, a hero with whom to identify, and a better future.

Of course, my end goal is to be someone who connects with other people during idle times waiting in lines or for the train to arrive. I’m working on being better at going first and I’m working on taking the initiative to make those connections.

And as I’m working on “going first” I can report that I don’t get hypnotized into a Mouse Book the same way I get sucked into my phone. Other humans are more likely to initiate a conversation with me if I am reading something on paper than if I’m interacting with my device. Finally, they just make me feel good. The Mouse Book is the underdog in the war for our attention. But, it deserves our respect. Give it a shot

Informal and Powerful Learning at EdCamp Round Rock ISD

The power of the participant-driven learning model came clear recently at EdCamp Round Rock when I looked around the room at teachers from five different public school districts, a private school network, and even a future teacher still in college choosing to spend their Saturday morning together. That room contained classroom teachers from early elementary to high school. There were librarians, Instructional technology specialists, a few of us administrators, and even a school board member. The conversations revolved around personalized learning, tools to enhance Instruction, better ways to communicate with parents, etc.


Screen Shot 2018-02-05 at 8.55.52 AM


I venture though that even more powerful connections and conversations took place between sessions, during breakfast, or during the share-out sessions at the end. Click here to check out the tweets using our #EdCampRRock. I tweeted the below question after the event for folks to share some highlights:






The power of getting diverse sets of voices and ideas in a room is never more clear than when we keep it informal. I was at the TASA MidWinter conference last week. Thousands of Texas school district administrators getting together to listen to presentations and get pitched to by vendors. The most valuable hour I had at the conference was sitting at a corner table with my compadres from Liberty Hill, Hutto, and Manor ISDs. We could do that at any time, but for some reason, we need a state-wide conference to make it happen. We need to do better.

EdCamps are an incredible start to providing the space for these authentic conversations. They are free to attend, and vendors can donate door prizes, but not attend in person. Stay tuned for more EdCamp opportunities here in Round Rock ISD and throughout the state of Texas.

Don’t forget to check out the shared notes from this past weekend’s event!

Can Enough Be Enough?

I’ve been eating a lot of Asian food lately. And along with the soups, rice, thinly cut meat and tea, comes the fortune cookie. Most are left behind on the table, but occasionally they find their way to my wallet or posted in my office. Perhaps it’s karma or luck, but it seems that certain restaurants produce better fortunes the same way that certain convenience stores sell more winning lottery tickets than others.

I finished enjoying some pork vermicelli the afternoon of this past December 22nd before heading off for winter vacation and cracked open the fortune below:


He who knows that enough is enough will always have enough.

I realize that this is a statement and not necessarily a fortune, but it is a keeper nonetheless. And purposeful timing heading into Christmas and a season of excess. But enough doesn’t necessarily refer to material things or even emotions we perceive as negative. The idea of enough is much more complex. The ability to recognize happiness and know when self-satisfaction, aka enough, is reached must be liberating.

The idea relates to our work life: When have I prepared enough for the speech I’m delivering next week? When do I have enough commitment from my team before moving forward with a decision? When have I interviewed enough people to be confident I’m hiring the best person?

The idea relates to our personal life: How much money is enough? How much is enough free time? When have I spent enough time with my kids?

The idea relates to our health: When is my diet clean enough? When am I happy enough? When do I know enough about a certain topic?

The real question though is knowing when we are successful or happy. I suppose it all comes back to Coach Wooden’s definition of success:


The hard part is keeping that self-satisfaction even if events following our decision that enough was enough do not play out the way we expected. When someone else tells us either directly or through their interpretation of a situation, that our enough was not enough do we let them control our happiness? It’s in those moments where we must remember that success does not necessarily depend on the outcome, but rather on our own perception of the outcome. We define our success and happiness, not the scoreboard, societal norms, or even our parents.

Finally, our fortune under focus is actually the final line in a longer stanza from the Father of Taoism, Lao Tsu in his ancient Chinese text Tao Te Ching:

There is no greater sin than desire,
No greater curse than discontent,
No greater misfortune than wanting something for oneself.
Therefore he who knows that enough is enough will always have enough.

A lofty goal from Mr. Tsu for sure! Perhaps a first step is simply recognizing which current desires are causing discontent. Then ask ourselves, “Why is enough not enough?” And so it goes.

Hungry? The best fortunes lately have been coming from Hao Hao in Round Rock, Texas. Enjoy the Hot and Sour soup.

Three Ideas I Got Wrong a Decade Ago

I love the question, “What big idea have you changed your mind about over the last ten years?” I’ve asked it in countless interviews professionally and enjoyed hearing people answer it in numerous books and podcasts.

When I think about my answer I think about where I was and who I was ten years ago. Where I was in 2007, was Deerpark Middle School in Round Rock ISD moving into my first leadership position as an Assistant Principal. Who I was, was nervous. All of a sudden I had to tell people what to do and hope they would do it! I remember the first time I had to give someone critical feedback about their work. I think it went well, but who knows. The experience was a blur and I hope I’ve grown that skill set since.

Back to the question at hand. Here are three key ways I’ve changed my mind about big ideas as a leader in my organization the last decade:

  1. It’s better to be transparent and vulnerable. This is always a work in progress. Earlier in my leadership journey, I was even more guarded than I am now – by design. I remember feeling that I needed to play the serious role at all times, never show any weakness, and never admit I was not the expert people were expecting me to be. Or at least I was telling myself they expected those things. But in reality, they wanted a real person. They wanted someone who struggled with the same things they did, has some insecurities and asked for help. I still struggle in this area of my leadership because I tend to be guarded and put on a strong front even when dealing with difficulty. The change though is that I am working to be more transparent and vulnerable rather than actively working in the other direction.
    • My advice to new leaders: Lean into your newness and own it. I would have been more successful in my first couple years if I asked for more help from the people I was leading. Your team wants you to succeed. Let them help you.
  2. My default answer should not be yes. Ten years ago I said yes to everything and cast judgment on those who did a better job of balancing work and home life. That mindset damaged my personal and even though I convinced myself at the time it was helping me professionally, it probably wasn’t.  Choose your projects carefully. If you are not completely excited about the opportunity, learn to say no in a nice way. When presented an opportunity ask yourself two things: Is this going to allow me to build a relationship with someone I value? Is this opportunity going to provide me a significant experience or increased exposure which might directly lead to personal growth? Then decide if the value of the potential relationship or experience is equal to or outweighs the time commitment.
    • My advice to new leaders: From day one, don’t be afraid to not say “yes” to everything. You don’t need to say “no” but rather redefine how you can contribute to a project. Maybe you won’t be at every meeting, but you would love to provide support the day of the event. Or, maybe you won’t co-lead a new workshop but would love to share some of your resources to help your colleague.
  3. I’m not as important as I think I am. I remember the first time I came to work with a fever as an Assistant Principal. I was convinced chaos would reign during passing periods, teachers would show movies all day, and nobody else knew how to get kids on a bus at the end of the day. We think we are indispensable as leaders/managers because it makes us feel more important than we really are. Yes, we are important and I still believe that there are fewer people who either can or want to do what we do. But, let’s all agree that we are not as critical to day-to-day operations as we like to tell ourselves.
    • My advice to new leaders: Don’t come to work sick and take a day off every now and then. It will be better for everyone and your team will respect you more if you  Banking sick days is not a badge of honor.

I hope I’m not the same person with the same ideas I had a decade ago. Ten years ago I had no kids and still had my Thyroid. If I still believed everything I believed when I turned 30, then I would be doing a disservice to those I work with every day and those I’m building a family with outside or work.

Thanks for listening.