Someone taught her to flinch.

Last summer I adopted a rescue dog. Her name is WiFi (pronounced WeeFee...the French way) and she is the love of my life.

To say she’s spoiled is to make a joke of the word “understatement.” Whatever I can figure out that might make her happy, I’m on it. She gives me unconditional love and I do my best to do the same.

But someone taught her to flinch. And I can’t do anything about that.

WiFi was just two years old when we met. Sadly, the folks that were fostering her had no background information about her. She was just there. In a cage with her brother (who, I’m happy to say, was adopted the same day). Laying quietly. Waiting.

When I took her for a stroll around the pet store sponsoring the adoptions, she walked slowly and low to the ground. She seemed to need to catch her breath every so often, as if walking around was something she didn’t get a lot of chances to do.

She also threw up, pooped and turned over so I could rub her belly. How could I not fall in love?

It didn’t take long after moving in with me for her coat to get shiny, her eyes to get bright and for me to find out that her normal “walk” is a prance. She also still loves to have her belly rubbed.

But sometimes she flinches when I reach out to pet her. And I can’t do anything about that.

Something happened during those two years that preceded her time with me that taught her that sometimes, just sometimes - and you never know when - a hand that provides support and love is also a hand that hits.

And that got me thinking about employees and the reasons they react the way they do - and executives and managers can’t figure out why...especially when those executives and managers have made a point of treating their people well.

Too many organizations are designed to make their employees flinch. To distrust. To expect the worst...or the best only in bread crumbs.

As a result, too many employees are taught not to speak honestly or put new ideas forward or participate and collaborate. Sometime in their past, they did. And they were taught to flinch.

No matter how much you know about the people working for and with you, you’ll never know what happened before. Even if they tell you. Because no matter how clear the words, the outcomes - emotional, psychological and, sometimes, spiritual - can never be fully expressed to or understood by others.

All you can do is watch and do your best to identify those times that your employees ‘flinch.’

You may ask the question, “why?” - but you shouldn’t count on getting a clear answer. They may not be able or willing to give that to you.

You, however, can track those times that you’re getting a response that, to you, makes no sense. As you identify those trends, you can adjust to ensure that they are able to contribute the most they have to offer. Because they want to. Because they like being there. Because they feel valued and valuable.

For all the years that WiFi and I will be together, I’ll watch for those flinches - always with the hope that, someday, they’ll go away.

What I know is that, through all those years to come, I’ll do everything I can to make that happen.


There’s lots of talk in the tech, education and government sectors about the importance of STEM (Science / Technology / Engineering / Mathematics) education. That's a good conversation to be having.

We need kids to learn STEM so that they can compete in a marketplace that demands that knowledge and a society that requires it.

The problem is, with all their marketing smarts (particularly among the tech types), they’re missing the easiest doorway to kids wanting to learn STEM.

Teach them music.

From the moment they’re in a classroom, make sure there’s music in the curriculum. As they grow, make sure there’s a music teacher at the school. And a band. And orchestra. And instruments. And a choir or glee club.

Put on musicals for the parents to watch and be so proud. Or choral concerts with the school choir and orchestra playing together. Teach them to dance.

Have a list of music and dance teachers in the community - all of whom have been vetted for their safety with kids and their music chops - to give to parents.

Teach music.

Why? Because music is math. Whether it’s rhythm or harmony - music is math.

Think intervals. What does a fifth sound like? Or a third? And aren’t those fractions? And how is harmony created? Or discord, dissonance, counterpoint and resolution?

Now think rhythm. For those of us not in the know, we may think four-four time. Or a waltz in three-four time. (Which also look like fractions, by the way.) 

But let's be real. Kids are listening to rap - and that's all rhythm all the time. And rhythm is counting.

I asked my brother, a professional musician, what the most difficult time signature was that he remembered playing.

It was 19/8. And for those of you who think that’s nuts (which he called “fun”) and can’t imagine how to count it (which I couldn’t), the answer is 332221222.

Or if you think that 'classical' music is played in only one time signature, you’re wrong. Listen to Stravinsky’s “Rite of Spring” and you’ll be confronted with what my brother (again... professional musician) says has the most complicated / quickest / highest number of time signature changes in a single piece that he can recall...and he can recall a lot.

Then there’s the soul-satisfying aspect of being part of something that simply makes you feel good - no matter the challenge. Because whether it’s singing a song or dancing a dance or playing an instrument, music transcends...which means kids transcend with it.

It inspires. It teaches. It guides. Music makes you more - whether you’re the one creating it or participating in it by being in the audience.

What else do you get? You get collaboration and listening skills and self-expression. You get innovation.

And all the while, music is math. And math is part of STEM. And STEM is success. For you. For kids. For society.

Explain. Please.

Fred Wilson, the VC and brilliant blogger of AVC (to which you should definitely subscribe) wrote a piece recently on a machine learning concept called "Explainability."

Basically, it's what and how sites automatically "learn" which ads, links, news updates, etc. to send  to you after you've visited pretty much anywhere online.

Fred's question was "why?" Why are those the sites that are 'recommended' once a platform you're using or visited has 'seen' what you're writing about, clicking on, messaging....

I can't speak to machine learning (other than to say that I think it's creepy) but I can definitely speak to the question "why?" and just how powerful a tool it is in developing your leadership chops.

Too often, employees are told what to do and how to do it. And that's all they're told.

What they're rarely told is why, like:

  • Why are they being asked to perform a particular task a particular way...or at all?
  • Why are they being asked to deliver a specific amount of product per day or week or month?
  • Why do they have to answer a certain number of calls - or only take a certain amount of time on each call?
  • Why can they only ask or contact certain people or functions and not others when they need information or guidance?
  • Why is training available to some but not all employees?
  • Why aren't they being developed the way they were told they would be in their annual performance appraisal review meeting?
  • Why is there a salary ceiling for their job - and why doesn't that ceiling apply for new employees hired to do the same work?
  • Why do they have to work onsite - or certain hours or days of the week - when their job doesn't require it?

Frankly, there isn't an aspect of work that doesn't benefit from having the "why" answer attached to it.

Why? Because when you explain why you need what you need from colleagues, coworkers, teammates or subordinates, you'll get more and better information about what it really takes to create success than you'd ever otherwise have access to.

And when you explain why there are constraints on salary, benefits, working conditions, etc. - especially if those constraints are because of competition - you'll get more support from your employees in helping turn the organization in the direction and the speed you need.

"What" and "how" are management directives. They lead to specific, measurable outcomes that fulfill management indicators and requirements that most often come from some other level and were set at some other time.

"Why" opens the door to information access - for you - about the processes and systems within which employees are operating...and why they don't work. Or make sense. Or are doomed to fail.

Give it a try. The next time you're giving a directive or making an announcement, explain why. Then just wait. You'll be shocked in the most positive way at the level of problem-solving and innovative thinking that your colleagues - and, particularly, your subordinates - are more than willing to give you.

They've had it all along. You just didn't know that all it would take was a single word to be invited to share in all their thinking.