The holidays are a perfect time to catch up on reading just for fun.  This Christmas you won’t catch me knee deep in a James Michener novel.   Instead I look for lighthearted tales, with a tinge of sarcasm.   So if that’s your cup of tea as well, I recommend heating up a nice cup of hot chocolate and sitting down to read Tina Fey’s book “Bossy Pants.”

In Bossy Pants, Tina describes what she learned at Second City, an improvisation and sketch comedy theater in Chicago.  She says the rules of improvisation will change your life and reduce belly fat. And, maybe these rules can also improve the engagement on your team or the relationship with your significant other.  You be the judge.

Rule#1- Always agree and say yes.

In a business sense this doesn’t mean that we simply run with any idea no matter how bad.  Instead, as Fey puts it, the rule reminds you to “respect what your partner has created and at least start from an open-minded place.”  Fey points out that in improv, this takes the form of saying, “Freeze, I have a gun,” to which your partner should avoid saying, “No you don’t, that’s your finger.”  See.  That’s not funny.  In business when employees say, “This new software stinks,” we should avoid reviewing the three competitive bids and 20-page document that shows why it does not stink, because this kills employee engagement.  An alternative might be to say, “Yes, it sounds like we have some bugs to work through. Let’s see if IT can help us through this.”  In both comedy and business, saying “yes,” validates the other person and shows you trust what they are talking about.

Rule #2 – Say Yes, And. 

In improv, Fey says that it’s all about adding something of your own.  When your partner lays out a line like “Boy it’s hot in here,” you could respond with, “Yes, and that can’t be good for the wax figures.”  The point is relationships are positively impacted when you respect what the other person has presented and add something to it.  Fey says this rule is about not being afraid to contribute.  So as leaders we want to encourage contribution to make a little bit of magic happen.  That magic, according to Professor Fey, is the result of showing people that their initiative is worthwhile.  As employees we need to take a risk and speak up, ask for that assignment and stretch a little bit.

Rule #3 – Make Statements

This rule is Fey’s shorthand for something we often try to teach in our leadership development training curriculum.  I’m simply going to quote Fey because I don’t want to ruin the humor while making the point.  She says:   “Be a part of the solution, don’t just sit around raising questions and pointing out obstacles.  We’ve all worked with that person.  That person is a drag. It’s usually the same person around the office who says things like, “There’s no calories in it if you eat it standing up? Or, “I felt menaced when Terry raised her voice.”  As leaders we sometimes need a reminder to stop raising obstacles and get out of our employee’s way.   As employees we need to think positively and act with positive intent.

Rule #4 – The Best Rule:  There are no Mistakes, only Opportunities.

Employees won’t believe this if they are chastised when they try something new and it doesn’t work out.  So, while this saying is great, employees want to know they can use a little bit of trial and error.  Obviously trial and error is not a recommended practice in the surgery suite or for the employees who manufacture your car.  Fey’s words are an encouragement to create engagement by letting people takes risks.  Why?  Because, in her words, “Many of the world’s greatest discoveries have been by accident – I mean, look at the Reese’s Peanut Butter cup or Botox.” 

What are you reading over the holidays?

*A big hearty thank you to Garth Wade at Regional and Tom Minas at Clovis for mocking their supervisors on camera. Directors Drenda Montgomery and Brenda Diel – you both are role models of supervisory wisdom!  Thanks for helping me illustrate this tale.  Happy Holidays!


*This blog was originally posted on Community Medical Center’s Blog – It Takes Community.  Follow Peg on Twitter @peg_breen


catching fire jpg

Thanksgiving was lovely.  The Ina Garten recipe I used to make the turkey and stuffing turned out beautifully, the weather was gorgeous and I had the chance to indulge in one of my favorite past times – watching a great story told on film.  The Hunger Games Catching Fire box office sales reportedly topped $200 million in its first six days, and nine of those dollars were mine.

At first I was caught up in the real story.  Katniss Everdeen, who had survived the Hunger Games in book one is now suffering posttraumatic stress syndrome.  In a twist of fate, she must join her faux love interest Peeta, to go back into the game and kill or be killed.  But as I thought about it on the drive home, it came to me that her survival skills could work just as well in our everyday work lives.

It’s difficult to kill people once you know them 

Woody Harrelson plays Haymitch Abernathy, a hard-liquor drinking, yoda-like mentor who tells Katniss that she better form an alliance with a couple of the other more experienced players or she’ll surely be killed.  This is smart advice right?  The world runs on relationships. What if we employed Katniss’s strategy at work, by sharing more of our authentic self with the people with whom we work.  Or giving compassion to people we know are struggling to avoid the poison fog. It would cause people to pause. There might be better teamwork, less blaming, more fun and less stress.  If you had to choose someone to get to know better at work, who would it be?

Prepare to fight but refuse to shoot first  

In one scene, Katniss draws her bow and arrow on a fellow fighter who pleads with her not to shoot him by saying, “Remember who the real enemy is.”   She had honed her skills and could take him down, but instead lowers her bow.  Showing restraint and emotional intelligence when things are tense is one of the most sought after skills in business.  Are you as empowered and confident as Katniss?  If not, whom can you trust to help you develop this skill?

Beware of the baboons

I just had to mention the baboons.  At one point I embarrassed myself by screaming like a little girl when one of the raging creatures charged our heroine.   But beyond my fear of angry monkeys, a message is buried here.   Fear is way too common in the workplace.  We fear failure.  We fear the people we report to.  We fear we’re not smart enough. We fear someone will find out we are imposters.  What’s your personal baboon?  What fear is keeping you from peak performance at work, or finding contentment and happiness?

Remember the lightening strikes at noon and midnight

Toward the end of the movie we discover that the lightening is a signal that a threat is coming. You know, the regular stuff…blood rain, floods, angry baboons.   But our fighters also figure out that there is a pattern – that the lightening strikes at specific intervals of time.  Being able to recognize patterns and respond to them is a skill that helped Katniss survive.   Managing change and having hope, even when times are uncertain, is as necessary for our survival at work as the bow was to Katniss.  How well do you deal with change?  What techniques can you use to better manage stress?

Take time to relax, spend time with friends and family, and take in some entertainment over the holidays.  If you watched the Hunger Games or took in another movie, share your review and anything you learned about yourself.  Happy Holidays.

(This post originally appeared on the Community Medical Centers website in a blog titled “It Takes Community”.  Follow Peg on Twitter @peg_breen )

There are a lot of adjectives that could describe Truong Nguyen (pronounced Joon Win).  He is a clinical systems analyst at Community Regional, a former Asian vegetable farmer, a great father to daughter Jessica and twin boys Justin and Travis, an avid boating enthusiast, a cancer survivor and an expert in the eco system of salt-water aquariums.  So, in one all encompassing word – Truong is an entrepreneur. Image

He credits his work ethic and drive to his father Tho Van and his mother Quan.   “My mom is my hero,” he said as we sipped iced green tea at the Starbucks at Cedar and Shepherd.  She owned restaurants in Vietnam, but in 1980 when a new communist constitution was being adopted, the family decided to leave for the United States.  He arrived at the age of five along with his six brothers and sisters and his parents, who were expecting another child.  No one spoke English.  Shortly after arriving in San Francisco, they moved to Clovis and into a small three-bedroom house  near DeWitt and Sierra to be close to family.  “We had nine people sharing one bathroom,” Truong said with a smile.  “I remember being really happy there.”

To pay the bills, everybody worked.  “We were the Fresno Bee family,” Truong joked.  “At 4 a.m. everyone would get up to fold newspapers and then we’d all deliver.”  But the newspaper business didn’t provide enough cash to care for a large family, so his mother, whose keen eye saw a market niche, started growing Asian vegetables in their garage.  Veggies like bitter melon, which Truong said is ‘really really bitter,’ bok choy, Chinese okra, daikon, long beans, moqua, singua, Thai chili, and lemon grass.  Demand was so great; they outgrew the garage and built a greenhouse.  Then they outgrew the greenhouse and leased some land.  Until one day the Nguyen’s purchased a farm.

At the age of 17, Truong was managing the operation. At 19 he bought 15 acres from his parents and took over all the financial and operational duties, including daily and sometimes twice daily deliveries to Sacramento.  You’d think that this would keep him busy enough.  But in the winter, when things slowed down, Truong decided to take computer science classes.  As I listened to his story, I was awed by his humility, sense of humor, resilience and willingness to tackle big challenges.

“How did you get interested in tropical fish?” I asked.   Around the age of sixteen he fell in love with fishing when he accompanied his uncle to the pond at Woodward Park.  He also became mesmerized by salt-water aquariums, and explained, “This is an expensive hobby.”  So, in what seems to be a normal pattern of inventiveness, Truong discovered that he could buy used aquariums and then sell the parts for enough money to cover the cost of outfitting his entire tank.  “The ability to hammer a nickel into ten cents – I get that from my mom,” he said with a smile.

“I’ve heard it’s pretty tough to keep a salt water tank going”, I commented.   “Not really,” Truong responded.   What he explained next seems like a playbook for keeping clown fish and corals, but also to building healthy teams.

Steps to keeping your Eco-System healthy:

  • Keep it simple & create a consistent environment: “Consistent environments help fish thrive,” Truong said.  “Inconsistent environments wreak havoc.”  Teams also thrive in environments that are fair and consistent.
  • In a crisis, take it slow: “When a mistake happens, make small changes slowly versus big changes quickly,” counseled Truong.  That way the fish don’t get shocked and sickened by big chemical changes.  Coming from the Midwest, this advice also mirrors what my father told me to do if my car started to slide on ice.
  • Promote Diversity:  Truong said it’s best to keep multiple species with multiple colors and shapes together.  The more diversity, the less fighting over territory!  How true.  We all want to be valued for what we bring to the table.
  • Create a community of symbiotic relationships:  An eco system thrives when organisms depend on one another, Truong said.  As evidence of this he refers to his cleaner shrimp.  The other fish in the tank just instinctively sidle up to the cleaner shrimp when they get the disease called “ick”, so that the shrimp can scrub them clean.  Teams can also get “ick.”  We’ve all been there!  So we need to identify and stick close to the people in our groups who can rub off the bad stuff and get everyone smiling and engaged.

How healthy is your eco-system?  If you love the team you are on, share some of what makes your environment healthy and fun.  If you have suggestions about how to make teamwork better, let us know.  If you know Truong and just want to recognize him for his support of your team, you can add that too.  Add a reply with your name and you’ll receive a package of yummy goldfish crackers.Image

Thanks Truong for sharing your story!

(This post originally appeared on the Community Medical Centers website in a blog titled “It Takes Community”.  Follow Peg on Twitter @peg_breen

If you were wine..

July was a blissful month.  I had the opportunity to take a vacation and one of the highlights was my visit to Chamisal Vineyards in San Luis Obispo.   This little piece of heaven lies between San Francisco and Los Angeles, in rolling vineyards that imitate the Italian countryside.


We drove up and opened our doors to a breeze that was “warm-cool.”  I’m trying to coin a new meteorological word – definition:  climate that is warmed by the sun to 69 degrees but cooled by the ocean breeze just five miles west.  It’s the kind of warm-cool that beckons you to an Adirondack chair to take a nap. The kind of weather than calms your mind, and raises your spirit.  The kind of weather that is absolutely not found in the Midwest where you either sweat or freeze.  You get the picture.

We ordered a wine flight and were delighted when we tasted a Pinot Noir called 8-N.   “That’s an unusual name,” I commented to our hostess.  “Is this a placeholder name?” I asked.   Sort of like naming a baby, “Baby Girl Smith,” just after the delivery and before you leave the hospital?   But our hostess explained that this wine was named after the exquisite little piece of soil that gave birth to it – 8 miles North of Chamisal Estate Vineyards.  How did it taste?   Conjure up the scene from the movie Sideways where Paul Giamotti’s character describes why he likes Pinot so much, and you can tell he’s really talking about himself.

On the label, as if written by Shakespeare, is the description of 8-N:

“This wine boasts of black cherry, raspberry compote and strawberry flavors, backed by supple tannins and salted dark chocolate on the sultry finish.”

As I sat under the orange awnings sipping 8-N, chatting with a friend and gazing out on the gentle curves of the vine-laced hills, I wondered what my label would read, if I were wine…  Maybe this:

  • Wine: Cloud 9
  • Where bottled:  Medical Center Drive Vineyard
  • Type of grape:  Pinot Noir
  • Vintage year:  2013
  • Wine description:  This wine boasts of sweet and nutty relationships with friends and co-workers, robust and full-bodied work accomplishments, velvety smooth project implementation, backed by an earthy vision and mission.

Think about your own work and home life.  What would your wine label read?

(This post originally appeared on the Community Medical Center Blog – It Takes Community.  Follow Peg on Twitter @peg_breen

I was sitting in the stands last Friday night, at Giants Stadium when Buster Posey came up to bat in the 9th inning with the game tied 1-1.   It was a full count.   “What’s his name again?” I asked Ron, a recent transplant to California. “That’s Buster Posey”, he said. “Watch”.

Almost before I had the chance to turn my gaze back to the field I heard a loud crack that could be nothing other than a 90 mph fastball against wood.  Posey had just hit his fourth homer of the season to win the game.  A sold out stadium of orange shirts let out a deafening roar, and without even realizing it, I was on my feet screaming too.  I looked up at the big screen to catch the close-up of a calm Posey rounding the bases, and then glanced back down to the field.  The Giants’ dugout had emptied as his teammates whooped with joy, surrounding home base to wave him in.

Image Yep.  I became a huge Giants fan that night, and on the drive back to Fresno started thinking about what it takes to “Be Buster”.    What I realized is that Buster has a lot in common with CMC nurses.

The road to being great isn’t easy

In May, 2011 Posey suffered what the sports writer’s describe as a brutal collision when Florida Marlins player Scott Cousins plowed into him at home plate.  If you can stand to look at it- watch the YouTube video or take a look at the photos online showing the grotesque position of his foot after impact.  He had fractured his fibula and torn the ligaments in his left ankle.  This kind of injury can be a career ender, but it wasn’t.  You have to believe that this was not only due to good doctoring, but  his own conviction to return to a game he loved.

Even though the road hasn’t been easy, our nurses show the same bravery and love for their life’s-work. This past year you’ve taken a hit at home plate too.   Weeks of code triage at Regional, the stress of a new bed tower opening at Clovis and continuing pressure to be efficient while hitting quality and patient satisfaction targets.  You have given all you got, and it’s paid off.  All of us, including the patients you saved, and the families who got their loved ones back in one piece, know you are an MVP too.

Quiet influence is the stuff of heroes

The sports media describe Buster as a throwback. He’s not the blustering, egotistical character Tim Robbins played in the movie “Bull Durham”.  He’s a quiet, take-care-of business kind of guy.  He’s achieved his superstar status not by talking to the media about his over- the- moon success, but by quietly making a difference on the field.

That’s what our nurses do.  Your dedication to innovate, to get things right and do the best for your patients is a game changer.   You’ve installed EPIC, implemented the Wellness Network and managed a large uptick in admissions with more than a few of your peers on the DL (Disabled List).   And yet, you deliver. No fanfare.  Just excellence.

MVPs step up when the chips are down

As the story goes, in October of 2012, the Giants were down 0-2 and feeling pretty dejected as they stepped up to face the Cincinnati Reds in game 3 of the Division Series.  In the locker room right before they went onto the field, manager Bruce Botchy said a few words, then handed center stage over to player Henry Pence. Whatever inspiration the speech delivered had a big impact on Posey.  He hit a grand slam home run into the upper deck for a 6-0 win.

To celebrate Nursing Week I offer these reflections, and leave you with an excerpt from Pence’s locker room speech.   Take it to heart.  We feel this, about working with all of you.

“get in here, everyone get in here…look into each other eyes…now! look into each others eyes, I want one more day with you, it’s the most fun, the best team I have ever been on” “and no matter what happens, we must not give in, we owe it to each other, play for each other, I need one more day with you guys, play for each other not yourself, win each moment, win each inning, it’s all we have left”..

-Notes of Henry Pence Locker Room speech recorded by Giants coach Tim Flannery.

Happy Nurses week!

(This post originally appeared on the Community Medical Centers website in a blog titled “It Takes Community”.  Follow Peg on Twitter @peg_breen

The Unconquerable Soul

When my son was growing up, sports movies were one of our favorite modes of entertainment. I’ve always felt a little underprepared as a parent, so these outings were strategic on my part.  I figured that my rants and ramblings might not stick with him but maybe a movie with inspiring themes on leadership, perserverance, courage, and hope, would make an impression.  Some of our favorites are Rudy, Remember the Titans, Hoosiers and now Invictus, staring Matt Damon and one of my favorite actors, Morgan Freeman.

The film, based on John Carlin’s book “Playing the Enemy,” takes place in South Africa in the mid-1990s, just after Nelson Mandela’s election as the country’s first black president.   After 27 years in prison, Mandela takes office and then leads his nation by demonstrating compassion, forgiveness and even inclusiveness toward those who had imprisoned him.  When I left the theatre I still had no idea what the rules of rugby are, but I had a very clear impression of what great leadership looks like.

Since our future’s are bright and we all will certainly be applying our skills and talents to new organizations soon, I wanted to share several lessons on leadership that appear in an article written in 2008 by Richard Stengel, who worked with Mandela for two years as Mandela wrote the book “The Long Walk to Freedom”.  Although Stengle describes “Eight Lessons”, I’ll only list a few nuggets of wisdom here, but I found them all particularly relevant to my past and to our future journey:

  • Lead from the front but don’t leave your base behind. Stengel says that Mandela’s tactic was always, “What is the end that I seek, and what is the most practical way to get there?”  He was willing to do things to bring along a minority because they controlled the economy and the military and he calculated that he couldn’t succeed without them.
  • Appearance Matters – and remember how to smile. We often think that all great leaders are great public speakers – Obama comes to mind of course.  But Stengel mentions that Mandel was in fact not a very good public speaker and his audience would often tune him out after a few minutes.  He goes on to mention however that Mandela was a master at  knowing when symbols mattered more than substance.  There is a great scene in the movie when one of his personal bodyguards tells a new guard to smile as he faces the crowd of rugby fans who were booing Mandela.  Yep its true- how we appear can convince followers that we are being authentic or convince them we are not, despite the facts.
  • Quitting is Leading Too. Stengel says “knowing when to abandon a failed idea, task or relationship is often the most difficult kind of decision a leader has to make.” Mandela knew that leaders lead as much by what they choose not to do as what they do.

The movie’s title comes from a Latin word meaning “unconquerable”, and is also the title of the poem by William Ernest Henley that Mandela read while in prison and then passed on to inspire the Springboks team to win the national rugby title.   The closing lines can inspire us our next journey:

I am the master of my fate;     I am the captain of my soul

If you see this movie, share what had meaning for you.

About six weeks ago I spent time updating my information on Linked In, the popular networking and job search site. I was told it was very important that I spend time on Linked In, but I must admit that when I compared notes with people, I was humbled (or maybe humiliated). Some of my colleagues have several hundred people in their networks whereas I had about 25. The common wisdom is apparently “Network or not work”.

So is this true? Jon Piccoult in his article “Networks Too Big for Their Own Good”, comments that the quality of these connections has been greatly diluted. As I begin to add to the list of people who I’ve had significant interaction with in business, worked with on not-for-profit boards, or assisted with fundraisers, it was a relief to hear some validation that quality, not size matters when it comes to our professional networks:

“IS your company searching for proactive, enterprising people who take the bull by the horns and get things done? These people aren’t constrained by their networks. They’ve taken real initiative, researched your company, identified executives in their area of interest, and sent those people unsolicited résumés and thoughtful, genuine messages of interest. They’re the ones who have pinned their hopes on a belief that meritocracy deserves a place not just in a company’s dealings with its employees, but also in its search for new talent.”  (Piccoult, NYT column Preoccupations, Oct 17, 2009)

So, the hopeful message is networking is important, we need to nurture these relationships with care and over time, but in the end it’s our raw talent that will make the difference.