Lessons from the Rink

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It was a Wednesday afternoon in April 2017, and I kept checking my phone for alerts. I was waiting on a delivery that would dictate the rest of my evening. Depending on the arrival, I was going to be playing hockey on ice for the first time in my life. In order to do so, I had to have the proper gear. My pants, shoulder pads, shin guards, and elbow pads were all set to arrive between the ever so precise window of 8 a.m. through 8 p.m. I paced my hallway, taking a break to periodically glance out the front door. See, I was invited to join a group of like minded hockey enthusiasts with varying degrees of skill, and our ice time began at 7 p.m.

Around 5:30 p.m. a box large enough to house a “major award” arrived. I hurriedly peeled the stickers and labels off everything and shoved the gear into a bag. Upon arriving at the rink, my heart began to race as the thought of actually maneuvering myself around the ice began to seep in. I had skated before, but turning, skating backwards and, most importantly, stopping were all foreign concepts to me. Beyond that, I never really thought about the order of how to put on this gear. I non-creepily checked out what everyone else was doing. Some did skates before pants; others went pants, then skates.

Having helped my son get ready numerous times over the past year, I mentally checked off the order of that process and managed to get myself ready. Spoiler alert, I was already out of breath. I hit the ice in time to meet at center ice with the rest of the team. Coach had us circle around him and he introduced himself and then asked if there were any FNGs.

FNGs?

Funny New Guys?

Close.

The F, did not stand for funny.

I raised my hand and he skated over to me. “Hey big boy, do what you can and we’ll get you there.” We then immediately started some drills. It had been a long time since I had subjected myself to anything where I was clearly the worst skilled individual out of the group. For the first drill, we were to line up at the far end of the ice and skated backwards as a group to the other side of the ice. I turned myself around like everyone else did and coach blew the whistle, indicating the start of the drill.

Nothing happened.

I was essentially a sweaty statue. I stood there trying to make my legs propel me backwards.

Still nothing.

I then started to drift forward…you know, the complete opposite direction as everyone else. “How are these people making their legs do this?!” Dread began to creep in.  Coach skated over to me, told me not to worry and instructed me to do something called “C” cuts with my skates and to bend my knees a little more.

Right…I was simply trying to stay upright at this point.

Enough time had passed that now everyone was at the other end waiting for the next drill and I was holding them up. All eyes were on me.  It felt like the sitcom equivalent of when you walk up to the chalk board and aren’t wearing any pants.

What have I gotten myself into…?

Some how I muster two “C-ish” cuts with my skates.  My adrenaline-filled brain won’t recall the precise details, but I do remember that the entire row of players started tapping their sticks on the ice with encouragement. It was a beautiful thing. Like a Disney movie, did the music swell as I then skated backwards the entire rest of the way?

Of course not, my back was burning and I felt like my spine was going to pop out of my jersey. I glided forward, hunched over and rejoined the team at the other end of the ice, where I was given further fist bumps of reassurance.

It’s now been a little over a year and a half and I’ve gone back almost every week. Am I now Bobby Orr?

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Pictured: not Bobby Orr after a mid-ice collision.

Clearly no. More often then not, if I catch a glimpse of myself on video, I appear as fluid as the Tin Man in need of some oil. However, I’m continuing to play with the same group trying to better myself as well as helping coach two youth teams. In doing so, I’ve added another layer of life experience and relationships to my journey and most importantly, I’m really enjoying it.

I share this story,  not as a humorous anecdote to fill space, but because I’ve skated away with these three reminders:

1. The importance of having the correct “gear” in order to be successful. For example, education via a degree or certification may have equipped me with knowledge, but what good is that gear if you don’t know how to put it to use? Just because I have shoulder pads and skates, doesn’t make me a hockey player. (see “In the Weeds” for more gear/ tool metaphors) I’ve been fortunate enough to have many coaches along the way help me put my gear to good use.

2.  Don’t be afraid to put yourself in a new/unfamiliar situation. Doing the same activity or duty over and over again can help sharpen and fine tune the skills used for that circumstance, but it doesn’t allow for growth outside of those skill sets. However, putting yourself out there and trying something new will help you expand experiences and grow skill sets. As an example, back at the beginning of my District 2 Presidency, I had to attend my first PRPS Board of Directors meeting. There were similarities between that meeting and my first hockey practice. I wasn’t exactly sure what my role was, and I wasn’t familiar with the format of the meeting. (Probably pulled the sweaty statue move too) It can be uncomfortable at first. However, each time afterwards I became more familiar with what to expect and how to contribute. Having gone through that process has equally enriched my understanding of PRPS as an organization, as well as put me in the path of some great peers.

3. Sincere encouragement goes a long way. We’ve all been FNGs at one point or another. Whether it’s your first day of a new job or your first time attending a conference, it’s nice to have someone who knows the ropes give you feedback and support. I implore everyone to do their part. If you notice someone new at the next conference or district gathering, give them a stick tap and help them on their way to becoming a better member of our society.

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Opening the Swiss Army knife of integrated professionalism

Sharing expertise across disciplines and jurisdictions create better solutions.

SwissknifeProfessionalism: it radiates ethics and expertise, competence and character, and a good number of other worthy virtues—all good!

And yet…

What tends to be missing from the mix is enough mixing—among other disciplines. It’s not that we don’t have enough professionalism; it’s that it’s not shared enough.

Studies show that most governments, industries and organizations fail to collaborate across business functions when meeting customer and client needs. Such silo practices create an inability or unwillingness to share data, information, resources, or collaborate with others on shared missions.

For want of collaborative agility in our fast-paced society, a response delayed is an opportunity missed, a solution lost, and a future vanished.

That missing agility-ability is particularly far-reaching in the recreation and park profession. Because modern recreation and park systems are multifaceted physical and socioeconomic structures, they daily deliver foundational needs and essential human services.

Much of what constitutes the appeal and livability of our communities is our direct connection to our public spaces and our natural and cultural assets. Their facilities and features build a strong and resilient infrastructure. Their recreational opportunities bolster our wellness and life satisfaction. Together, our park and recreation systems contribute expansively to a healthy economy, environment and society in dozens of documented, tangible ways.

Park and recreation professionals are among the highest enablers of personal and community wellness, yet are often hindered by a lack of full interagency and interdisciplinary awareness, cooperation, and integrated services. Their public effectiveness in enabling community solutions would only improve with more interaction with their counterparts in public health, social services, community development, public works, transportation, food distribution and other services.

Moreover, many governmental agencies and public organizations do not yet readily identify parks and recreation as a go-to industry to help meet pressing social and economic issues. And while they may be willing to work toward positive change, they are often hampered by politics and/or bureaucratic structures that simply cannot move quickly on opportunities, make timely and productive decisions, or efficiently contribute to innovation.

To bring integrated solutions to complex public issues, we need integrated professionalism. Like opening a sophisticated Swiss Army Knife, we need to access a wide array of sharp professional tools, resources, capabilities and systems. Not only can we then combine savvy specialists and the best resources for the job, our collective synchronization of services spawns innovation, adds value, and reduces costs.

How can park and recreation leaders fashion such a purposeful toolkit?

Begin by focusing on shared opportunities. Construct intentional working relationships within agencies and organizations whose missions coincide with yours. Educate decision-makers and stakeholders on the ways park and recreation services contribute to community wellness. Such tools may look like these:

·  Integrated Professionalism Forum. Facilitate open forums among working professionals in recreation, parks, conservation, health, public works, maintenance, transportation, resources, economic development, therapy and social work, and urban and land use planning.

·  Top Co-op Day. With help from fellow professionals, convene an annual meeting with department heads (or their empowered reps) whose duties include community and economic development, conservation and natural resources, drug and alcohol programs, education, environmental protection, health, human services, transportation, and labor and industry. Build meeting agendas from real world examples and cases of need; plot practical sharing and collaborative resolutions.

·  Cooperative Exchanges. Create themed opportunities to share joint concerns with representatives from state and county commissions who deal with crime and delinquency, children and families, rural affairs, physical fitness and sports, green government, museums and heritage, arts, opioids, etc. Invite members to Park Champion and other public recreation and park events.

These are some of the strategies outlined in PRPS’s new Strategic Plan: let’s work together to shape a sharp new collaborative future! What cutting-edge applications can you apply? What successes have you had? What other transformational tools can you suggest for more integrated professionalism?

Customer Service Training and Trends

Does your staff groan and complain when you announce Customer Service training? Do they dread it, think they are already doing a great job, or just dislike sitting in training? Do we still need Customer Service Training?

Here’s the thing… Yes, your organization needs it. For all the reasons you already know, Live Chat Imageincluding improving your Customer Service or improving parts of it, but also because you need to keep up with changing trends, most of them driven by the online environment. The “customer” is changing in a Google and Amazon “on demand” world. You can get pet food delivered to your door almost instantly. Don’t think that people will wait days to hear back from you on their question about their pool pass.

And – for your staff – do it for them. Give them the tools they need to navigate the sometimes challenging path that includes unhappy customers. Help them not feel beat up at the end of a tough encounter, empower them with the tools they need to say “I can help you with that”, and help them be in control when policies and procedures need to be followed.

Here are some business trends you should know about with Customer Service. Some impact the Recreation sector as much as the business sector:

  • Chat: Use of instant chat is on the rise. What does that look like on the back end? When does a person take over from the auto-responses that get the conversation started? (I also wonder how many chats is that person juggling at once? And where in the world they actually are).
  • Artificial Intelligence: Forbes.com says that 80% of companies will use AI by 2020. That is just around the corner now, after using the statistic for a few years, so I wonder how that will hold up.
  • Social Media Service: This is a big one for Recreation. People have a question, first they Google it. If they cannot find it quickly, they click on Facebook or Twitter and they message either your organization or the universe at large. The Universe does not always provide an accurate answer while they are waiting for your answer. If your answer doesn’t come until four days later or after the weekend, you have a 35 message feed waiting for you to now navigate. But how realistic is it to have someone (the exhausted Director?) checking social media all weekend?
  • Google: People with a question go to Google first, and then they want a human. It’s that simple. The trends are showing less time and patience in seeking out the answer themselves.
  • Remote Customer Service: It’s much more likely now that your Customer Service agent is stateside rather than overseas, depending on the international level of the company you’re dealing with and very likely that person is working from home/remotely. So, within recreation, is there an opportunity to have a designated customer service team who is not actually on site?

Only you can know how busy your organization is and what level of customer service you need to start providing. But keeping an eye on the trends is important.

If you’re not sure where to start, start with social media. Be sure you are posting updates and precise easy to find information to prevent as much confusion as possible from the start. Consider a banner on your website for important things like pool closings, weather related info, holiday event updates, etc. Also, take a look at the back side of your website and what people are most navigating toward.

There is a word that pops up often in the Customer Service field: Customer-centric. That customer-centricity-icon-260nw-1062868253means your processes and navigations and available options need to be tailored for exactly what works best for your customer. The flip side is sometimes that it’s not always what is best or easiest for you and your staff.

This a great exercise during that staff training that you’ve been putting off having! Be aware of what is challenging or what customers are complaining about, what is the customer-centric solution, and then how can you actually make it work on the back end?

This is all important work that will pay off in the long run and it’s important to keep up with the rapidly changing times.

Getting comfortable with being uncomfortable

action-adult-advice-1120344.jpgby Pete Ramsey, Guest Blogger, President, Pennsylvania Turfgrass Council

March Madness for me isn’t about basketball.  It is the NCAA Wrestling Championships.  This year Cael Sanderson, Penn State head coach explained in a press conference how they repeatedly train to recover and scramble out of bad situations.  It happens in wrestling all the time.  It kind of defines the sport.  There’s someone right in front of you with the single-minded goal of putting you in a bad situation.  Sanderson feels the more you are willing to operate outside your comfort zone, the more adaptable you become.

The American Military has the same approach.  They refer to these situations as VUCA environments.   Volatile, Uncertain, Complex and Ambiguous.  These situations are destined for negative outcomes if we are not prepared.  I am not suggesting that careers in the turf industry come remotely close to military service.  But there is a lot we can learn from people who are successfully operating at extreme levels.  Turf at a tenth of an inch or working in professional sports is an extreme.  There is still significant stress that comes with careers in this industry.  Chief cause being the weather.  Add some unrealistic expectations, lack of funding, politics and unique personalities to the mix and out comes a stressed out turf manager.  We have all been there.  Did you ever notice the people who are really there for you when you’re down is your family or your closest peers?

The best information and support I have ever received has come from interaction with my peers.  Sometimes at seminars or often outside of work.  There will never be a replacement for face to face exchange of information and fellowship.  Taking to Twitter doesn’t solve everything.  Avoiding the uncomfortable only results in it never going away and our inability to deal with it.  Chances are a colleague has successfully navigated situations you are struggling with.  Sanderson cited a few specific keys to Penn State’s success that we can apply to our careers:

1. Fundamentals – you can never get away from them.  It’s amazing how quickly things can go wrong when we stray from the fundamentals we know.

2. Evolution – Our industry is going to change whether we like it or not.  Expose yourself to the cutting edge of what is new and consider if it can improve your performance.

3. Weakness –Stop avoiding the areas you are most uncomfortable.  Your spouse can help you identify them.  Failure is an opportunity.  Avoiding it is tragic.

4  Perspective – Alter your perspective.  Stepping outside your comfort zone will force you to look at your situation differently.  Volunteer work is a fast-acting prescription for looking at things differently.

I am the greatest…and so are you!!!

If I stood in front of one hundred random people and flashed a picture of the boxer to the left, and said, “Who is this?”, everyone would say, “It’s obviously Muhammad Ali.” If I pressed a little further and asked for an Ali quote, I am sure someone would tell the group that he famously said, “I am the greatest!.”

If I asked the audience the same question about the boxer to the right, how many would know his name? That gentleman is Mr. Sugar Ray Robinson, owner of a professional boxing record of 173 wins and 19 losses. Notwithstanding Ali’s boasts, Robinson is considered the greatest boxer of all time, but most of us have never heard of him.

You are probably wondering, where’s the analogy here? It’s all about perception. Ali was a master of public perception, while Robinson was just a master with the gloves. When it comes to park and recreation professionals, the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania has some of the best and brightest minds in the business. But at the end of the day, we all go back to our Boroughs, Townships, and Cities and our performance is evaluated almost exclusively by our residents and elected officials.

Therein lies your opportunity. Your community’s perception of your department, your programs and parks and ultimately, your value, can be steered by unleashing your inner Muhammad Ali! He wasn’t the greatest, but he said he was…and now the general public believes it.

There are a few ways you can cultivate public perception. Tell people about your successes. It sounds simple enough, but your community needs to know their investment in parks and recreation is worthwhile. It may be a pain in the butt, but every department should complete an end of year report with facts, figures, pictures and a clearly framed progression towards goals. Boast about your programs, your staff, your parks. Quantification is also useful, numbers mean something. I’ve started to use the iSOPARC (System for the Observing Play and Recreation in Communities) to leverage park user totals into data findings that are impactful. In 2017, I was able to report to my Board of Supervisors, that our parks had over 225,000 visitors that translated into a health care savings of $7.3M! Did I mention iSOPARC is completely free to use, all you need is an iPad!

Just as boxers (and WWE wrestlers) seek the championship belt, park and recreation professionals should also submit their best programs for awards. Our communities and elected officials have limited knowledge of the truly positive impact the parks and recreation field has on quality of life. But do you know what they do understand…awards. Elected officials love to come to ceremonies, shake hands, stand for photos and that is a good thing. That is part of their role, and part of your role should be delivering them those opportunities. Practically speaking, our residents have so many recreational pursuits they can take part in, its a competitive field. Pasting a big flashy gold sticker on your program flyer that says “award winner” instantly gives you credibility before you’ve even said, “want to sign up” or “25% sibling discount.”

You might be saying right now, I hate to boast, I hate to brag. The field of parks and recreation is an amazing profession. We teach kids to swim, ride bikes, feed families, combat obesity, breakdown barriers, reintroduce retirees to social networks, and so much more. That isn’t an “I am the greatest” speech, that is straight fact; we make people’s lives better. Tell your community you are awesome because you are.

 

 

 

In the weeds

In the WeedsOne evening, I was watching one of those cooking competition shows with my wife. One of the contestants was in the midst of a particularly stressful moment in her meal preparation. She was working on five different components to her meal, as the stove top flared up, a mixing bowl was knocked over, and she couldn’t locate the kosher salt. The omnipresent ticking clock was dipping under 3 minutes to go when another contestant asked her how she was doing. Her reply? “I’m in the weeds.”

I don’t believe I had ever heard that phrase, yet I knew exactly what she meant by it. That chest tightening- panic induced cocktail, part dread, part helplessness with a dash of frustration and disappointment, shaken not stirred.

Last fall I found myself in a similar situation. Though not in a cooking competition, I was just drowning under the weight of a smorgasbord of work …multiple projects, deadlines, budget cuts, exasperating decisions that were out of my control, on top of my everyday work/life responsibilities. One small part of those obligations was helping get the word out for the District 2 Fall Social. I was emailing back and forth with a fellow PRPS member about how surprised I was that it was already October and that I needed to get an email out to the District. During that conversation I confessed, “I’m in the weeds.”
His reply, “Well, weed whack yourself out of the tall stuff.”

This got me thinking, what tools do we have at our disposal to help us escape the “tall stuff?” My incomplete, but growing tool shed has accumulated the following:

• Make a list of all the tasks that need done and prioritize them. Don’t let the length of your list intimidate you, just dig in and start chopping away at it. Inaction/ mental paralysis will only compound your problems. Start with a few small things to get the wheels turning. Soon your long list will be a short list. Celebrate that sense of accomplishment, and feel the relief of the weight lifted from you.

• Delegate and/or ask for help. Whether a supervisor or a front line employee, we can all be a little too stubborn, embarrassed or proud to ask for help. Supervisors, if you’re feeling overwhelmed, task someone else from your team and give them a chance to shine. Frontline employees, ask your supervisor for help if you’re lost or need clarification on a task. Depending on the situation, the help doesn’t have to come from your own agency or department. I don’t know how many times I’ve reached out to my fellow local directors to see how they do something, or to pick their brains. PRPS and its member base is a vast resource of experience and knowledge that should be taken advantage of.

• Be honest about the extra dishes you’re adding to your menu. Now, I’m not suggesting you tell your superiors, “No thanks!” when being tasked with a duty. I’m referring to the extras that we all add to our days, whether you’re coaching or a member of a volunteer board, those extra dishes can add up. For example, last year Tim asked if I would help write for the new website during the height of my journey through the weeds. Even though it was a relatively small commitment, I evaluated my situation and had to decline. I feared I would have submitted something subpar and not up to the standards of my fellow bloggers. To his credit, he followed up three more times before I felt that I was in a place ready to add another course to my meal. (i.e. if you’re not enjoying this read, you can blame Tim and his incredible persistence.)

• Lastly, never stop tool shopping. Anyone who’s ever worked on a project, whether it be a home improvement project, or work task, knows that having the right tool is paramount to a more successful finished product. Seminars, workshops, conferences, or a simple brainstorming session with a peer is like a weekend stop at your local hardware store for your brain.  Those are the places to pick up a new skill or sharpen an existing one.

If you ever find yourself in the weeds, it is my hope that some of these tools will assist your journey out. I’m happy to lend mine at anytime and I hope that others with deeper or more varied sheds will share their collections as well.

 

Civility in the workplace

Ever meet someone that you wish you could pull aside and have a little chat with them about their civility or lack thereof?

If they are on your staff, the good news is – you can. And you should…

Let me clarify… in our workplaces, we train on computer skills, how to balance the cash drawer, how to add proper pool chemicals, how to take a summer camp registration at the front desk – but we very rarely train on the proper etiquette and expected behaviors for how staff treat other staff.

This beautiful concept goes hand in hand with how we (our team) then treat the customers.

So, when I get a request for customer service training, I always first suggest we take a look at the civility expectations and training that staff receive.

If you work for a municipal entity, they sometimes have “Codes of Conduct.” This is often a  “gem” of a document (excuse the implied sarcasm) that includes a harsh list of “Do Not” statements, such as “Employees will refrain from using harsh language” or “Do not disturb, annoy, or interfere with any other person.”

Instead, what if employees come together to talk about the impact that lack of civility in the workplace has on them (step 1) and discuss the standards for behavior that are appropriate and reasonable for their workplace (step 2). Then, by sharing these, employees at all levels are aware and part of this culture. It also becomes easier to welcome new staff into the culture as well. Then, we extend these standards on to our users and patrons.

How does incivility impact the workplace? Big ways, like two employees squabbling or INPE0814name calling or worse. But small ways: tiny jabs at one another, gossip that undermines the moral of all or deeply hurts an employee, employees who quit unexpectedly and you do not learn until later why, staff who call in sick to avoid confrontational situations, loss of productivity related to workplace influences. And so many more…

Another key perk to this process is that bullies or aggressive staff or “hey, I was only kidding, can’t you take a joke” jokers start to feel uncomfortable in the new civil workplace and will begin to be managed by the influence and feedback (even non-verbal social cues) of their peers.

For those that are not, Managers now have a way to discipline and council troublemakers. Sometimes it’s a “hey, can we talk about the last staff meeting? Your comment to Donna putting down her work on the event is not the kind of tone we like to set around here.” on to a full counseling session about language, harassment, or bullying.

Here are some interesting statistics:

  • In 2011, 50% of employees surveyed said they are treated rudely at least once a week at work. (In 1998, it was 25%) I’m anxiously awaiting updated numbers because I bet it’s even higher in 2018.
  • Out of 800 managers and employees surveyed in 17 industries:
    • 48% of employees intentionally decreased their work efforts due to incivility
    • 47% intentionally decreased their time spent at work
    • 80% lost work time worrying about an incident
    • 66% said their work declined
    • 25% admitted taking their frustrations out on a customer
      • From C. Pearson and C. Porath research

It’s time to make training and conversations and workplace civility a priority, regardless of what sector you’re in. I strongly encourage you to hire a consultant or trainer to help you with this, because sometimes employees receive the message better from an outsider versus their management. Look for someone who can be frank and candid but includes humor – Civility training can be fun!

However you approach this, educating yourself and the management of your workplace about the impacts of incivility and the importance of creating a civil workplace is an important first step, then move to a process that allows staff to be heard and be part of creating their own culture. You’ll see wonderful results!