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The Value of Engaging In Conversation Thru Feedback


I’ve been very busy with speaking and presenting at different events this year alone. As a speaker, I value great feedback especially when I know that I can take it to improve myself. While events and conference organizers provide feedback forms in both paper-based and online formats, I make it a point to ask attendees for their personal feedback after my presentations.

At the last PASS Summit in Charlotte, NC, I spent some time at the Community Zone to engage attendees in some conversation. Both first timers and alumni have their own different perspectives about the event. I was specifically interested in what the first time attendees had to say so I scanned name tags to see if they were indeed first timers. Conversations after conversations, my question simply boiled down to a single theme: How was the PASS Summit experience for you? The responses were similar, ranging from “Great” to “Wonderful,” but that wasn’t what I wanted to hear. I knew for a fact that these would be the common responses. That wasn’t the goal. The goal was to find out what specific details led them to saying it was a great experience.

I like asking WHY questions (Michael Hyatt wrote a blog post about 7 Suggestions for Asking More Powerful Questions.) Apart from the fact that I’m just really curious, the WHY questions lead to more WHY questions. This triggers the one answering the question to really think about and articulate their response. It also engages the individual in a conversation. Let’s be honest, we all feel like we have something to say. We sometimes just need an opportunity to be heard. That’s what I try to accomplish whenever I ask for (and provide) feedback. When I asked the conference attendees why they consider it a great experience, they started telling stories about their experience on how they felt being at home in a group of complete strangers. For the event organizers, this is a more detailed feedback about knowing that the feeling of community is something of importance to the attendees. Of course, my curiosity didn’t stop there. I asked what specific event that made them feel that way – Community Zone, speakers, SQLKaraoke, SQLRun, etc. These are just a handful of events happening within the context of the main event. Everyone of them made the attendees feel like they were a part of a bigger community.

Unfortunately, these types of detailed feedback go unaccounted for. Feedback forms are not made equal. What’s worse is that a lot of feedback forms are designed to capture scores and not engage in conversation. The challenge I see here is that it is difficult to automate the process of capturing meaningful feedback in free text format. Imagine trying to read every single comment from thousands of attendees. Even businesses who try to capture feedback from their customers have this challenge (Aaron Bertrand (blog | Twitter) provided some insights on the PASS Summit feedback for speakers.) What’s more important is to think about gathering (and providing) feedback in a way that engages conversation. Sam Walton, founder of Wal-Mart, was known for visiting stores and asking employees how they feel about the store and asking for suggestions to improve operations. While he could have afforded to pay consulting companies to design and implement the perfect feedback form, he opted to have a conversation. No scores nor numbers, just conversations and stories that he took from those he talked to.

Beyond scores and ratings, providing and gathering feedback should be a conversation. And when the conversation starts, meaningful insights emerge. No amount of business intelligence technologies can substitute for the insights gathered during meaningful conversations. What’s more, relationships are built which, for me, are the most important factor in the overall feedback system.

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I So Hate … Leaving My #SQLFamily


Leaving

Leaving the station by TJook

The cab driver was waiting for me to get in while my wife and kids are still giving me “the hugs and kisses.” He was commenting on the fact that my kids – ages 9 and 11 – still feel very comfortable of giving us hugs and kisses whereas his 3-year-old can’t even be bothered while playing with his iPad. To which, I responded, “I hate leaving but travelling is part of my job.

This past week puts another PASS Community Summit in the books. This happens to be the world’s largest and most intensive technical training conference for SQL Server and BI professionals. Its amazing how active the members of the SQL Server community have been throughout the week, tweeting and talking about their experiences – even after midnight.  I have had the privilege of volunteering every time I attend this event. I even wrote a series of blog posts for first time attendees on how to maximize their attendance at the event. Part of that preparation is getting assimilated to the #SQLFamily. I talked about building meaningful relationships at the PASS Summit in a previous blog post where the conversation transcends beyond Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn or email. We hang out during events, sometimes even outside of events – #SQLKaraoke, #PASSPrayers, #SQLRun, PhotoWalks, and a whole lot more activities. This brings the community members closer to each other beyond the usual T-SQL conversations and the references to BigData and BI. It is indeed like the biggest and most intimate family reunion you’ve ever experienced.

I’ve asked a lot of first time attendees what they think about the PASS Summit experience. The common responses were “amazing” and “awesome.”  To which, I asked follow-up questions like, “what made it awesome?” One first time attendee commented, “I feel like I’ve found an extended family.” Another one responded, “I feel like I belong here.” I pointed to some of the attendees giving hugs and high-fives and told them that this is a common thing among members of the SQL Server community, especially during events like this. They were a bit shocked at first but slowly have gotten used to it throughout the week. It’s no wonder some of them felt similar to how I did come Friday. It was time to say goodbye.

I spent the entire week catching up with friends and folks that I have met at previous events. Some I have considered very good friends, others like part of my extended family (I always refer to Pinal Dave as my half-brother from a previous life.)  Still, a week is not enough. But it was time well spent.

As I race back to the parking space to grab my rental car, I was stopped more than ten times to say goodbye to my #SQLFamily. I was glad that I had a flight to catch, otherwise, I could have stayed longer. I was coming home to my real family. However, I felt the same way when I was leaving home a couple of days earlier. I hate to leave. But it is part of my job – leaving my family so I could share the love to those who need it in my workplace. When I teach and mentor a junior DBA in my team, that is because I received the same love and care from my newly found family. When I face difficult challenges resolving a database performance issue, I face it with confidence and courage knowing that they’re there to support me. This is not just a SQL Server community. It is “the #SQLFamily.”

This still doesn’t change anything. I so hate leaving my #SQLFamily.

Leadership Lessons from Running a SQLSaturday Event


SQLSaturday Philippines

I’ve been involved with the SQL Server community ever since I can remember. I’ve been both a speaker and a volunteer and I know how it felt like to be on both sides of the fence. However, the one thing I haven’t been is an organizer myself. Until SQLSaturday218. This is the very first SQLSaturday event in the Philippines that was held last 9-Mar-2013.  Attendees, volunteers and speakers all claim that the event was a huge success and that they want it to be an annual event. But what they didn’t realize until the event was finally over was that SUCCESS always comes at a PRICE. The rewards of a champion only comes after the hard work and sacrifice, not before. SQLSaturday218 has reinforced a lot of leadership lessons that I have been practicing and teaching throughout the years.

  1. Find a higher purpose. I’ve blogged about this before and I’ve taught others about finding a higher purpose for things that we do.  SQLSaturday218 for me is more than just a SQL Server community event. It’s an attempt to express my patriotism in ways that I can do best. While most SQLSaturday organizers talk about technical education, I talk about loving my country. With the upcoming national elections in the Philippines, political candidates talk about bringing about change. I just made change happen thru SQLSaturday218. This wasn’t my original idea. Marlon Ribunal (blog | Twitter) and Justin Dearing (blog | Twitter) came up with the idea of running a SQLSaturday event in the Philippines. They included me in the conversation because they knew I was a die-hard FILIPINO. And the rest was history. My higher purpose helped me pursue even when the times are tough.
  2. Find allies, ignore detractors.  Every noble goal will have both. I always say that only fruitful trees get picked on. Nobody picks fruits on trees that don’t bear any. And, so be ready to have both allies and detractors. I heard a lot of folks tell me this is an insane idea. Nobody has ever organized a SQLSaturday event without physically being there. I was in Canada planning and organizing an event that was thousands of miles away from where I am, not to mention with a 12-hour time zone difference. I only knew (and have met) a handful of the volunteers. Regular SQLSaturday sponsors won’t fly to the Philippines just for this event. The odds are stacked up against me. I expected to have detractors. I was willing to take the stones that will get thrown at me. But I also did find allies. Niko Neugebauer  (blog | Twitter,) a fellow SQL Server MVP and PASS Community Evangelist was my greatest ally. He was the one who told me that it is possible and that I can make it happen because he was able to do it before. Allies will help you raise your shield when the detractors start throwing stones at you.
  3. Build a GREAT, UNITED team. People are what make things happen. That’s why you need to build a GREAT team. I’ve enlisted the help of people I knew who had the same passion for the community as I have. Culture is very important to me. That’s why I made sure that members of my team share the same values. They all went the extra mile to do things that I can’t because I wasn’t physically available. Some of my allies ended up being a part of the team.  And that’s why I brag about the people in my team who made SQLSaturday218 a huge success. But a great team will only go so far. A GREAT, UNITED team is unstoppable. In order to build a united team, they need to feel that they are a part of it in the first place. And building relationships is what makes that possible. Talk to team members. Understand what matters to them. Make them feel that they are special. Be willing to go the extra mile for them. If we are willing to do this for them now, imagine what they will be willing to do for you in the future.
  4. Over communicate.  It’s the leader’s job to keep the team informed. But sometimes, the same message has to be communicated several times in order for every one to get it. Over communication breeds clarity. It also addresses misunderstandings among those who receive the message. SQLSaturday has a website that organizers can use to do whatever they need to organize and run the event. While I maximized the use of the feature to send email communications to speakers, volunteers and registered attendees, I went the extra mile of sending personal emails. Every week for the past 6 weeks, I sent event updates to the registered attendees and those on the wait list. I also sent emails to the volunteers, giving them a picture of what to expect and what is expected of them. I also sent emails to my team about things that matter to us in order to make this event a success. I responded to emails, answered questions on instant messenger, did Skype calls, etc. in order to properly deliver the message.
  5. Ask for help but operate with a bootstrap mindset. My idea was to run SQLSaturday218 with very minimal to no sponsorship. That’s is because I wanted to create a mindset of creativity and resourcefulness. Plus, I also understand the challenges that most of the SQLSaturday sponsors have. It’s hard to spend money on sponsorships without the possibility of having immediate returns on their investments. I call myself the “self-proclaimed marketing guy” and I try to practice what I preach. I didn’t just go around asking for sponsorships. I only asked those who I believe will benefit from doing so. I even turned down several potential sponsors and explained why this would not benefit them. However, I didn’t just turn them down without offering them a long-term perspective of their marketing initiatives. And because we kept the bootstrap mindset, we operated as if we didn’t have resources. It’s amazing to see how people come up with creative ideas just because we don’t have the resources. So, when the resources became available, they were used to reward those who came up with creative ideas that got implemented.
  6. Have a detailed plan but be flexible enough when things don’t go as planned. I had a detailed project plan in place from start to finish. I shared it with my team and allowed them to make suggestions and modify it as necessary. But everyone knows that nobody can prepare and implement a perfect plan. Being flexible when things don’t go as planned is necessary for success.  We had delays with some of our deliverables. There were changes in the room assignments that affected the schedule and the signs that we printed out. But because everyone on the team understood what was expected, they all made things possible outside of the plan.
  7. Step back when necessary. Leaders have the tendency to do everything because they believe that success (and failure) lie in them. What they don’t realize is that not stepping back prevents potential rockstars to shine. At the day of the event, I knew exactly what I needed to do. Same thing with the volunteers. What’s really surprising is that I didn’t even have the chance to do a briefing session before we start doing the real work. All I did was shake their hands and introduced myself to them. Now, understand that these are people whom I haven’t personally met. But it’s as if they knew me very well and knew exactly what I expected of them. The volunteers were running on auto-pilot. That kept me focused on what I can do best. Had I not stepped back, I could have ruined the creative ideas that they were able to pull off and possibly discouraged them from trying again.
  8. Give as much A.I.R. as you possibly can. I blogged about giving appreciation, inspiration and recognition. As attendees were commenting on how great the event turned out to be, I took that opportunity to thank the sponsors, volunteers and speakers for making the event a huge success. At the volunteers’ and speakers’ dinner, I commented on the fact that I felt like having a great team from heaven. I sent emails to my contacts about how the event turned out to be, again, mentioning the fact that I had the best volunteers and speakers ever. I sent emails to the local sponsors, highlighting some of their staff who did a great job of volunteering at the event. I kept telling others, even sending personal emails and instant messages to the volunteers and speakers after the dinner, and constantly appreciating and recognizing their contributions. All of them wanted to be a part of next year’s SQLSaturday Philippines.

Leadership expert Dr. John C. Maxwell once said that “Everything rises and falls on leadership.” It’s one of the reasons why I’ve been a student of leadership for the past decade.  The lessons I’ve learned help make me become a much better leader and also inspires others to do the same. With the outcome of SQLSaturday218, I think this will become an annual event with the help of the local SQL Server user group.

Empowering Others By Giving Them A.I.R To Breathe

February 23, 2013 1 comment

Flight Emergency v.2

Flight Emergency v2 by Patrick Cheng

In a previous blog post, I talked about empowering individuals with double As. The idea came up from the concept of lithium powered batteries that power up electronic devices: appreciation and affirmation really do empower individuals. This past week, I was listening to an episode of the EntreLeadership podcast where Chris Hogan, a former All-American college football player, talks about empowering others by giving them A.I.R to breathe. We all know that air is vital to our survival, much like food and water. A general rule mentions that humans cannot survive if they do not breathe air within 3 minutes.  That’s how important air is for our survival. Conversely, we also need to breathe A.I.R. on a constant basis in order to survive in any organization. Leaders need to understand the importance of A.I.R. in the success of their organization.

  1. Appreciation. I’ve already talked about this in my previous blog post but it is worth repeating. Appreciation is one of the cheapest and most rewarding way to reward your staff. It applies to anybody as well: your spouse, your kids, your parents, your customers, vendors, suppliers, etc. A short, hand-written thank you note still has its place in this day and age of digital communication.
  2. Inspiration. To inspire someone is to literally stimulate their energies to achieve something beyond their imagination. Bill Gates was inspired by Dr. Henry Edward Roberts to start Microsoft back in 1975. Steve Jobs inspired a lot of people to do something great. As leaders, we need to be pedlars of inspiration to people around us, especially our staff. You’ll be surprised at what they can accomplish when they get an inspiration from you.
  3. Recognition. Didn’t we all love getting those stickers and stars when we were in pre-school? What about that plaque that we got for being best in math? Unfortunately, recognition, like dinosaurs, have become extinct inside corporations. Managers usually think that employees are already getting paid for what they do so no other form of recognition is necessary. Sadly, this is also one of the top reasons why employees leave an organization. To retain top talent, practice the art of recognizing them both privately and publicly. It could be as simple as giving them a plaque or certificate or as extravagant as hiring a marching band. Be creative, just make sure you do it on a regular basis.

If we need to breathe air within 3 minutes to live and survive, breathing it regularly makes us healthy. We need healthy individuals to fill our organization and what better way to do it is to empower our staff (and everybody else) by giving them A.I.R. to breathe.

You Are A Story Waiting To Be Told

January 29, 2013 1 comment

Gen. Colin Powell, the first African American to serve as the US Secretary of State, once told of a story about the immigrant vendor selling hotdogs in the streets of New York. Being a New Yorker and an immigrant himself, he understood the challenges of being an immigrant, much so as an African American. Every time he has an opportunity to go back to New York City, he always takes time to grab a hotdog from one of the immigrant vendors in the streets of Manhattan. In the past, every one seems to recognize who he is because of all the security staff and police accompanying him anywhere he goes.  After returning to private life, he went back to New York City, this time on his own and without anyone accompanying him. As he was about to pay for his hotdog, the vendor recognized him and refused to take his money.  After which, the vendor replied, “America has already paid me and my family because I was able to have my own business and make a living.”  That statement struck Gen. Powell that he goes about telling this story every time he delivers a speech.

Whether we like it or not, the things that we do every day do make an impact whether you’re a manager leading a team or a stay-at-home mom. It’s not a question of whether or not we’re making an impact but rather how we want to make an impact. Executives and celebrities tell stories about how their parents encouraged them to pursue their dreams, teachers who didn’t give up on them,  supervisors who believed that they can accomplish far beyond what they can think of. The list goes on and on.  I get to tell the story about how my mom exemplified honorable work ethic and hard work, how my pastor friend Alfred taught me that excellence must be a lifestyle and how my wife’s wise words of “your time will come” kept me going.

How we make an impact on someone else’s life may not end up on tomorrow’s newspaper or the next New York Time’s best seller’s list. But I’m pretty sure they will end up as stories getting told by your kids, the next generation of leaders or potentially as a story embedded in a TED talk.

Question: Do you have a story about someone who made an impact in your life? What about something you did for someone that is worth sharing to others. You can leave a comment by clicking here.

Leadership By Conversation

January 22, 2013 1 comment

Connected by Conversation

Connected by Conversation by mikecogh

With all the travel that I’ve done for the past few years, I’ve learned how to pay attention to the people around me – how they talk,  act and even how they carry themselves. I’ve watched people talk to their kids, negotiate a seat on a plane, ask for favors, etc. I’ve learned a lot about people just by observing and watching them go about their life. One thing that caught my attention during my recent trip was how people like to engage in a conversation. I was on a flight from Charlotte to New York City getting ready to tighten my seat belt as I heard the flight attendant talk to one of the passengers aboard the plane (I was just a few feet away to hear their conversation.) The passenger happens to be another flight attendant who is on his way to Europe for a vacation. What’s very interesting is that their conversation evolved from the trip itinerary to the strategic approach that the airline can undertake to improve customer service and satisfaction. In a previous blog post, I’ve highlighted how merchandise staff who didn’t even go to college talked about strategic positioning of products for increased sales. This is the kind of information that leaders value. But why isn’t this kind of information making it’s way into the boardrooms? Let me tell you why. It’s because upper management have not taken that extra step of engaging their staff in conversations. Do you remember one of those conversations you’ve had with your close friends where you kept talking yet they weren’t paying any attention? I bet you stopped talking when you noticed (or maybe tried to do something to get their attention back.)

Leadership expert Dr.  John Maxwell said this in his book The 21 Irrefutable Laws of Leadership: “People don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.” Engaging people in conversations means more than just extracting information from individuals. It means paying attention to what matters to them. Even the small details matter. Sometimes, even as simple as listening could mean a lot. When we know that what we say matter to the listener, we’re more inclined to be open and speak more.

Leaders and managers have resorted to memos and emails to communicate their message to the organization. Unfortunately, this approach has created barriers in communication. As leaders, it is our responsibility to take that first step. Get out of your office, walk among the crowd and engage your staff in a conversation. Who knows, your next big product or service idea might come from the janitor.

Create An Environment For Learning

December 31, 2012 1 comment

Salamat sa regalo

Every time we have an opportunity to go back to our home country, the Philippines, I try to give back as much as I can.  We also try to schedule our travel around the Christmas and New Year season because it’s like a pilgrimage for every Filipino living overseas. It’s the season of getting together as a family and, most important of all, GIVING. Our alumni association based in Singapore – the University of the Philippines Alumni Association (Singapore) – has an annual community program called Pamaskong Pambata. Thru the program, the group partners with a local non-profit organizations that focus on the welfare of children and it becomes the beneficiary for the year. I take this opportunity to teach my kids about the value of community work while at the same time opening their eyes to the living conditions of our less fortunate countrymen. In 2007, my youngest son and I joined the community program as they partnered with an orphanage. As a 3-year-old, my son had the opportunity to distribute food and gifts to kids much older than him. One thing he remembered vividly was putting on a Santa hat as he started giving gifts. He still remembers how each recipient had immediately put on a smile as they received the gift he was giving.

This time around, I took my eldest son with me on this trip. I was informed that the location for this year’s community work was in Payatas in Quezon City. Payatas happens to be the main area for garbage disposal in Manila. Most of the people here make their living by collecting and selling recyclable garbage from the dump. The girl in the picture below is sorting out recyclable plastic in a place that she considers both her home and workplace.

Payatas Dump - Plastic Recycler

Payatas Dump-Plastic Recycler by suvajack

It’s easy to teach kids (and adults) lessons on gratitude and the importance of properly managing one’s resources. We can talk about it in the dinner table or even in the board room when we want to emphasize operational efficiency in the company. Internal memos, emails and parental nagging may end up being ignored and not get the results we want. But to really drive the message across, we need to create an environment for learning. And not just learning thru theory and concepts but something that they will always remember. Here are few ideas that you can use to achieve the results you want:

  1. Put it in their calendar. As early as November, I’ve already made arrangements to join the community outreach program. There were slight changes in the date but I made sure I update my calendar. I told my son about the schedule so that he can make the necessary preparations. Creating an environment for learning requires telling the people involved that it has to be on their schedule as well. 
  2. Engage their emotions. Theoretical and conceptual learning only lasts for a while. Emotional learning creates an impact. I bet you remembered a very important lesson that your parents or friends told you because of the experience associated with it. As we were heading to the meeting place, I kept showing my son the difference between our house and the ones he’s seeing along the way. He did see several kids playing near the dumps, most of them don’t even have anything to protect their feet. It’s priceless to see the look on someone else’s eyes (both kids and adults alike) as they see other people searching thru the garbage to find food that they immediately take in. That experience immediately teaches them the deeper meaning of gratitude.
  3. Tap in to their passion. My kids have different personalities. While my youngest son would enjoy engaging with people, my eldest is a bit timid. I thought about how he can make the most out of this trip. Then, I realized that he likes taking photos and videos. I told him to charge up his iPod and be ready to snap photos. I also let him take charge of my DSLR camera. Since I already taught him the basics of digital photography (I’m still learning myself), I was confident that he’d do a great job. And he did. As I was distributing food to the kids, he was taking as much photos as he can. It was easier for me to engage him in the moment because he was having fun with what he was doing.
  4. Re-tell the experience. The day with my son ended up with a trip to my alma mater. As we were enjoying a great snack, I asked him about the experience. I also told him some of those “remember when…” stories: “Remember when we couldn’t even buy you an ice cream cone?” We’ve told him this story several times but this time was different. Because now he has seen kids that are younger than him who can’t even afford to go to school, who need to scour the dumps in order to have something to eat and who think having an ice cream cone is a luxury. The lessons and stories we used to tell him now made  more sense because of his personal experience.

Whether you’re teaching a lesson to a kid or an adult, it is important to make sure that the lessons do stick. Because it’s not just about teaching them lessons, it’s about creating memorable experiences.

Question: What is that one lesson that stuck with you? Did it come with a memorable experience? You can share your story by clicking here