The Gift of the Green Pen

We’re all trying to squeeze out 28 hours of productivity from the 24-hour day. We entered the balancing act of classes, recruiting, and social life in order to learn how to manage and lead in our careers. But with so much to do, how can we be sure we’re extracting real value from our experiences?

Professor Linda Ginzel has given this a lot of thought. She believes the solution is to live the examined life: collect the data of your experience across time, look for patterns and trends to analyze in order to get insight. To this end, she gives all of her students a pen—a green pen—to help them be their own coach. She asks that students prepare for class by writing in a different color, and bring their green pen to class.

In her negotiations class, for example, students complete a worksheet prior to doing a role-play in class. Afterwards, the students get feedback from their negotiation counterpart and provide their own feedback in the body and margins of their worksheet. Then during the course, they have the opportunity to chart trends and patterns. The data doesn’t lie. Any gaps in thinking are captured by what is (and isn’t) in green ink.

But, why green? Professor Ginzel was inspired by Chilean poet Pablo Neruda, who wrote in green because it is the color of esperanza, or hope. She emphasizes that self-understanding is essential to leadership development: “When we practice experimenting with our behavior and analyze the data of our experiences, we extract more value from our everyday experiences to become wiser, younger.”

The theory behind the green pen is aligned with the approach of the Harry L. Davis Center for Leadership, where Professor Ginzel is a faculty advisor. She has written about the approach and the seminal paper by Harry L. Davis and Robin Hogarth on which the approach is based. The main idea is that there are four components to performance: conceptual knowledge, domain knowledge, action skills, and insight skills.

  • Domain knowledge is what you learn on the job that is specific to the job: customers, suppliers, company culture, etc.
  • Conceptual knowledge is what you learn in the classroom: accounting, statistics, economics, etc.
  • Action skills are the ability to work with others to achieve a goal.
  • Insight skills are the ability to reflect on and learn from experiences.

OK, so we get domain knowledge at work and conceptual knowledge at school—where do we get action skills and insight skills? For most of us, it’s a little “haphazard,” to use the word from the original paper. But it doesn’t have to be, and that’s what the Davis Center does: it facilitates the pursuit of action skills and insight skills.

Back to Professor Ginzel for a moment now. She spoke at the spring graduation last year, and had this to say about the approach:

When you were working hard in your classes, you were focused on the conceptual knowledge provided by your professors. You were focused on the details of the required assignments. And you were focused on being a good student so that you could learn and perform well in your formal studies. But we, your professors, we were focused on another goal. We were preparing you to balance buildings on birdcages… the most important thing that you received from your education at Booth is the willingness to question your load-bearing assumptions and to make a different choice, when necessary… When I teach leadership, I emphasize building our own personal frameworks. When we create our own structures, and reduce our reliance on externally provided ones, we increase our ability to handle ambiguity… Creating our own frameworks can help us to be wiser, younger, and to learn more from everyday experience—and what we learn can better inform our choices. Frameworks can help each of us to create a better future. Just like a skyscraper’s strength comes from its core, the clarity, vision, and support for your own framework must come from your core.

To strengthen your framework, don’t forget: experiment with different actions; question load-bearing assumptions; and be ready with your green pen.

This is the first post in a five-part series on the Harry L. Davis Center for Leadership at Chicago Booth. Look out for the second post, where we will talk to Professor George Wu about how to have tough conversations at work. 

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