Leadership Blog

Saturday, March 17, 2012

Leadership Series – Part XI – Make Sure It Is Enjoyable

Let’s face it!  We are at work more hours during our careers than we are awake at home.  If we work 8 hours a day, take an hour for lunch and commute for an hour and if we get the 8 hours of sleep we are supposed to be getting, that means there are only 6 hours left at home. And the 6 hours we spend at home are not our best hours because we are tired from working (but that’s another story).  So if we are at work that much for 35 years or so, we damn well better enjoy it.
We are at work for a reason. We have a job to do and there are certain expectations of us. But everyone has a little down time, even at work. Or, at least they should. If not, there is something seriously wrong. It could be that we are not working smart enough. It could be that there is just too much work to do and if that is the case, it is time to look for another job. It could be that our career is our life or we are using our career to cover for other things. For purposes of this little essay, I am going to assume a normal 8 hour a day career.
We don’t have to like our colleagues but we should respect them and hopefully, we are working in an environment where we can have a little fun. In my opinion, keeping your head down and focusing on work for the entire time you are at the office is going to be far less productive than if you enjoy yourself there. There is nothing wrong with the odd practical joke at work as long as no one is offended by it. I have already talked about the importance of walking around and getting to know people. It is great to hear a little laughter in the workplace occasionally. It is much easier to come to work, in my opinion, when the mood is light. The work will still get done and probably more effectively.
We used to have team building sessions occasionally. Year end was always an extremely busy time of year, involving a lot of stress and overtime and a team building event always followed the closure of the year. I call it an “event” because they were meant to put the staff in a situation that required interaction that would be fun and figuratively, about as far away from work as we could get. One year we went on a river cruise for an afternoon. But there wasn’t much interaction. The same little groups that socialized at work did the same on the boat. Then one year I decided to have a picnic at a beach where we could play volleyball and mingle a bit more.
What really made it successful was the request that everyone bring water guns. Most did and they came in all shapes and sizes. We had our picnic and then the water guns came out. There was more laughter among the staff that day and yours truly came home soaked. It was something people laughed about for weeks and the following year it was back by popular demand. The only difference was that the water guns got bigger each year.
The atmosphere in the office starts with the boss. If the boss doesn’t enjoy his or her job and lets that show, it is not going to be a good environment to work in. If the boss is grouchy, there is a good chance the entire section will be grouchy. Everyone has personal problems from time to time, but it is how we deal with and express our problems that makes the difference. And let’s face another fact. No one really cares about your problems; they care about their own. So keep them to yourself and deal with them on your own time. They serve no purpose being dragged into the workplace. Maintain a good disposition at work and others will do the same.
I am a firm believer in enjoying your time in the workplace while getting the work done. There are times to put your nose to the grindstone to make ensure the work is done effectively and efficiently. That is satisfying in itself. But there are also times to come up for air and enjoy the people around you. It relieves the stress, people are more willing to go that extra mile without being asked and it sure makes it easier to get up in the mornings. I can honestly say I have enjoyed my time at work throughout my career and if you can say that, you will be much more satisfied and your life will be just that much more complete.

Friday, March 9, 2012

Leadership series – Part X – Communication is Not Only Electronic

At first I wanted to call this post, “Communication is a Sideways Street” because I wanted to discuss communication across organizational lines. I also kind of liked the title but since I have managed to work it into the post anyway, now I can move on to a different angle. Communication is so important, I thought I would talk about the electronic aspects of it.
It is through communication that relationships are built, issues are resolved and decisions are made. It is through lack of communication that misunderstandings develop and fester or things just don’t get accomplished. I have already touched on the need for individuals to reach across organizational lines to communicate with their colleagues. That is quite often done, but it is now often by email. I really think it would be possible to go through an entire career without meeting someone you talk to on a regular basis!
I am going to risk sounding like an old fuddy duddy so before I launch into this, I would just like to point out that I think I embrace technology as much as the next person. In fact, some of my friends call me Mr. Gadget, although they might be a little technologically challenged themselves so I am not sure how much it means coming from them. The fact is that communication has to be face-to-face occasionally. There, I’ve said it!
Email, text messaging and chatting certainly have their place but communication involves delivering and receiving a message. Sometimes the message gets lost between the two parties because it is impossible to interpret tone, inflections or body language through electronic communication. As everyone who writes a blog or even a letter knows, the only way the writer can know if he or she is actually reaching someone is through feedback.
I went through an interesting exercise related to this when I was working and it really brought home to me the need to ensure that the message you are conveying in your email is what you intended to say. It also emphasized the need to speak to someone face to face sometimes. There was a problem at work that originated a few years previously and that was potentially going to be subject to public scrutiny. I had to go through 100s of emails related to the subject to review how they might be interpreted by someone who was new to the issue or who wanted to interpret them a different way than intended. I was shocked.
Some were meant as a joke that had lost context. Some were cryptic and no longer had meaning. Some could be read in different ways. Anyone with the wrong intentions could easily deliberately misinterpret them for their own advantage. It left us very vulnerable and required a lot of work to prepare for any eventuality.
There are a few lessons I learned from this that I wanted to share. An email is in writing and is in the public domain. Be very careful what you write and think about the consequences. Think about how it will be interpreted. Read it from the point of view of the reader. Would you read it the same way it is being written?  And finally, why not walk over to talk to the person or pick up the phone? Decisions can be documented but maybe far more of the discussion should be verbal. It might reduce the risks!
Saturday, March 3, 2012

Leadership Series – Part IX – What About the Under-Performer?

 Okay, so far all the posts have assumed that everything is great with those you are leading. You treat everyone with respect, you are getting respect in return, everyone is doing what they are supposed to.  Tasks are being completed, communication is amazing, the lines of accountability are being respected. Everything is great! Utopia!?  Yes, that must be where you are because realistically, you should probably remove your rose coloured glasses and realize that things are not always going to be that way.
No matter how much you strive for perfection, not everyone will fall in step behind you. At any given time, someone may be trying to get ahead of you, undermine you, sabotage you, ignore you or just plain not bother doing what you ask. Harsh? Maybe, but you have to be prepared to deal with the situation if and when it arises.
The key thing is that you just can’t let things fester. They have to be addressed before they get way out of hand. What is it about one bad apple spoiling the barrel? It is a cliche but it applies. Unfortunately, a disgruntled individual can often influence others quicker than a solid performer. Why? Because people see someone getting away with something. Why should someone work their butt off when the slacker next door is being paid roughly the same salary for doing half the work? It spreads like the worst possible epidemic.
The situation should be addressed first by the immediate supervisor. If that doesn’t work, then it should be elevated. The problem should be identified, explained to the employee and, most importantly, documented. Consequences for failure to improve need to be explained. And they have to be real consequences. Don’t just blow smoke. The employee has to realize that you will carry out your threats or they will not have any meaning. Try to understand the reason for the poor performance. There may be things you can help the employee with, such as training.
Sometimes there is nothing to be done. The employee could just be a square peg in a round hole. If that it the case, it is time for that individual to move on. The key, once again is to to make it as quick and as painless as possible.  Your organization and everyone involved will be the better for it.

Saturday, February 25, 2012

Leadership Series – Part VIII – Lines of Accountability

Lines of accountability.  That sounds ominous. What the heck is it? Well, organizations might have executives, directors, managers, supervisors, chiefs, assistants, executive assistants, CEOs, CFOs, CEs, deputies, assistant deputies, employees, staff, etc. Depending on the size of the organization, there may be divisions, sections, departments, directorates, branches, etc. Get it? Anybody need a program to tell the players?
Well, believe it or not there is a reason for all that. It is to establish lines of accountability or various layers of responsibility so that accountability can be assigned to each one. And there are usually maps available called Organization Charts. They lay out who reports to whom and within which area of the organization. So the work gets done by everyone having access to and talking to everyone else, right?
Well, yes…and no. The work gets done by talking to your coworkers in other areas of the organization. There is nothing wrong with communication across the organization and, in fact, it should be encouraged. But the decisions get made by the appropriate layers within the organization.
Let’s say you are in the Finance Division working on the budget and you need some clarification on a line item from another branch. There is nothing wrong with sending an email, or heaven forbid, picking up the phone and calling or even speaking face to face with a counterpart in the other branch to get some clarification. That gives you the ammunition you need to discuss it with your boss. Your counterpart will love you for involving him or her in the process and for representing them. But you don’t go running to your counterpart’s boss to discuss the situation for a few reasons.
  • It makes your boss look bad because it appears he or she has no control over the staff.
  • It makes your counterpart look bad because you are bypassing him/her and going above their head.
  • It leaves your boss blind because he/she was not involved in the discussion. You think your boss will be upset? You bet your britches!

By the same token, if you are the one in a position of authority you don’t go below your direct reports to discuss issues related to work with their subordinates. It undermines your direct reports.
Anyone who is a parent will have been in a situation where your little Johnny has had a run-in with the neighbour’s kid. You wouldn’t immediately go running to the neighbour’s kid to find out what is going on.  Nor would you talk to the kid’s parents first. You would talk to your own kid to get the facts before doing anything else. It is common sense and no different in business.
Lines of accountability are in place for a reason to keep chaos from erupting in the workplace. The lines should be respected.

Saturday, February 18, 2012

Leadership Series – Part VII – Setting a (Good) Example

A person who worked for me for a short period of time and whom I barely had the chance to know came up to me at my retirement party and said, “You have been a real inspiration to me.” I was stunned. I was flattered, but I was stunned. How could I have possibly influenced this person when we had spent so little time working together? But obviously, something had happened that they felt was influential. It made me realize something very important after all those years, although I had probably been vaguely aware of it. When you are in a position of leadership, people are watching.
I have mentioned before that I learned throughout my career from people that I wanted to emulate and from others that showed me how not to do things. When we are in a position of leadership, we don’t necessarily realize that we are under scrutiny at the time but when you think about the way you probably observe others, it makes perfect sense. We have to be aware at all times. We have to set an example. We should try to be a positive role model whether we are a coach , parent, boss or in any other role of leadership.
An example can be good or bad. In an earlier post I talked about a staff member who told me when I was a shiny new supervisor that I should always show up late for everything to differentiate myself from the staff. Well….that IS an example. But it is not the right kind in my mind. An example of setting an example to me is always being on time. Everyone’s time is important and to show up late for a meeting is showing a lack of respect for the time of others. You are basically saying that your time is more imporant than anyone else’s. Is it really??
Setting an example can be in the way you dress, the language you use, the way you carry yourself, the way you treat others, the instructions you give, your willingness to do tasks that you expect others to do… It is the way you conduct yourself in your daily life. It is being inspiring to others. It is called leading by example and it applies equally to anyone in a position of influence. It starts with setting a standard that you want the people you are leading to reach and then demonstrating by example the best way to get there.
The early readers of this blog may have noticed that I changed the name from “management” to “leadership.” There is a difference. A manager plans, organizes and administers.  A leader offers inspiration and motivation. A manager is not necessarily a good leader and a good leader may not be a good manager. If you can manage and lead by example, you will truly be someone that everyone can look up to.
Leaders have a real responsibility. They are in a position to influence and sometimes even shape lives. So a leader has to decide on the message that they want to send, whether it is being sent directly or indirectly.  Sometimes, it is the messages you are sending without even being aware of it that are the most important.

Saturday, February 11, 2012

Leadership Series – Part VI – The Fine Art of Wandering Around

MBWA (Management by Walking (or Wandering) Around) became a popular term in the early eighties when management consultants Tom Peters and Robert H. Waterman coined the phrase in their book, “In Search of Excellence.” It is an extremely valuable technique for leadership, in my view, and one that I tried to use often.
So what does “wandering around” mean exactly. In a nutshell, it means being human.  There was an opposite view of management around the same time. In the recent book about Steve Jobs, he is quoted in the early stages of Apple as saying that you have to be ruthless if you want to build a team.  He went on to say, “It’s too easy, as a team grows, to put up with a few B players, and they attract a few more B players, and soon you will even have some C players.”  According to the book, Steve Jobs did wander around, but it was more often to berate his employees for something that wasn’t being done to his expectations. It is obviously difficult to argue with Jobs’ brilliance and success, but I am not sure leaving a trail of broken people in your wake is an appropriate way to get the best from your staff. I will address the issue of C players in a future post.
Wandering around helps you know your staff on a personal and work level. It involves dropping by unannounced at someone’s desk to say a few words. It could be to talk about last night’s game, a new baby, things they do in their free time, etc.  It is an opportunity to show that you are the leader, but that you are also human. It is a few minutes to understand their work and some of the difficulties they face in their jobs and in their daily lives.  On some days, it may be just walking around and saying good morning.  The purpose is not to get too close, but to just to be visible and approachable and to listen and share normal everyday conversation for a few minutes.
It may also be an opportunity to explain what the organization stands for and how it affects each individual and where they fit in.  It may help individuals feel more valuable to the organization.
It should not be an opportunity for the complaint department to open from either side.  If the conversation turns to issues the employee is having with his/her supervisor, it is time to remind the person that they should address those issues with the person they are reporting to.  And it is not an opportunity to remind them that they could be doing better. That too is a conversation that should be held with their supervisor.
The best way to show the people you are leading that you are human is to ask questions of them. What are you working on? How was your weekend? How is (name of child)? Once you know a little about them, it is easier to ask questions about things that may interest them.  Everyone should receive the same amount of attention so there is no feeling of favouritism.
This only takes a few minutes, it gets you away from your desk, it helps you understand the issues of the office and it is actually kind of fun.  The payback is well worth the time invested.

Saturday, February 4, 2012

Leadership Series – Part V – Confidence or Arrogance?

I think all strong leaders have an ego.  That’s what makes them want to be leaders and that’s what makes them successful.  But it is how they display that ego that will determine how they will be remembered. The Free On-line Dictionary defines ego as an exaggerated sense of self-importance or  conceit OR an appropriate pride in oneself or self-esteem.  In other words, it is confidence or arrogance and there is a fine line between the two.
I think you have to have confidence in yourself and to display that confidence outwardly to be an effective leader. I can recall many times when I second guessed a decision I had made but I tried to maintain the air that I had made the right decision.  We just have to ensure that the air of confidence isn’t misinterpreted as arrogance. I am sure everyone can identify a politician or leader who appears to be arrogant.  If you have to describe them in few words, what would be the first to come to mind? Successful? Likable? Memorable? Someone you would want to have dinner with?  Probably none of those would be the first.  Although these people may be highly successful in their own way, probably the first word that would come to mind would be Arrogance.
I thought it might be fun to look at the differences between confidence and arrogance.  It will be easy to see which we want to be.
If you are confident, you are prepared to:
– Listen and learn; – Share accolades; – Admit mistakes; – Encourage results; – Be approachable; – Train others to replace you; – Reach for higher goals; – Explain expectations clearly; and, – Carry yourself with self assurance.
If you are arrogant, you are prepared to:
– Not bother listening; – Take all the credit; – Try to share the blame; – Expect (demand) results; – Be distant; – Ignore training for others; – Assume higher goals will come to you; – Expect people to know what the expectations are; and, – Walk around with an air of self importance.
It seems pretty clear, doesn’t it? None of us would ever allow ourselves to slip into one of the traps of arrogance. Or would we?  Sometimes in the pressure of work we take shortcuts…like expecting someone to know what we want or not bothering to listen.  It may not be arrogance that is the issue. It is the perception of arrogance.
Confidence on the other hand encourages others to have confidence in themselves and in you. Famed football coach, Vince Lombardi said, “Confidence is contagious.  So is lack of confidence.” Just remember to walk that fine line between confidence and arrogance and you will be a better leader.
Friday, January 27, 2012

Leadership Series – Part IV – Would Someone Please Make a Decision!

Paralysis by analysis is a term that has been around for decades.  We are surrounded by it.  In fact, if you Google it, you will find a paper with 97 case studies!  Maybe that is what is happening in Washington, although I am not sure analysis is the reason for the lack of progress there. Perhaps it is the analysis of how to get re-elected.
There are a lot of reasons for not moving forward but is there anything more frustrating?  I don’t think so.  There seems to be a fear of making decisions in organizations or anywhere for that matter.  In fact, it seems to be so bad in some large organizations that managers are just happy if everyone is working.  As long as no decisions are being made, there is no danger of making a mistake.  There is no accountability.
I shouldn’t say no decisions are being made.  You have probably experienced some of the more regrettable ones. You must know the feeling.  You spend hours, if not weeks, putting together a study paper with some brilliant recommendations.  You just know it is going to impress the higher ups so much that you will probably get a promotion or at the very least, a raise. You wait expectantly for the decision and finally, here it comes:
  • I think we need to study this further; or
  • I can’t concentrate on this right now; or
  • We have other important issues we have to focus on; or
  • More thought has to be given to your arguments; or
  • Let’s wait for the situation to change; or
  • Let’s put it aside for now and hope it will go away; or finally, the real killer response
  • I can’t agree to this; there are typos in your paper.

How frustrating is that?  Your boss has just done what many people do when they are buying a television set or computer.  Because things are moving so fast with technology there is always the fear that if we buy today, we won’t have the latest technology by tomorrow.  It is easy to keep putting the decision off so that we make the right decision. So what happens?  We sit there with no TV and no computer!  Is that really accomplishing the goal of having a tool that will do what we want it to do?  If we really want one or need one, eventually we have to jump in and buy one.  And it will be outdated tomorrow.  But we will have moved forward and we can focus our attention on something else until we have to start thinking about upgrading.
I believe that there is a desperate need for decision makers in business.  And decision makers are at all levels.  Peter Drucker said, “Most discussions of decision making assume that only senior executives make decisions or that only senior exectutives’ decisions matter.  This is a dangerous mistake.”  I couldn’t agree more.  Everyone in an organization has some level of authority to make a decision.  We might be stymied at some point by someone more senior who doesn’t want to make a decision, but at least we can take comfort in the knowledge that we have made our decision.
Don’t be the one that says more study is required or that uses any of the other feeble excuses for not moving forward. A good leader will encourage their staff to do a good job and then back them up when they do. They will be sure it is a good product by ensuring that their expectations are understood.  When the product is received and, if it has met the expectations that were laid out, a decision should be made so that the organization can move forward.
I might add that this applies to personal life too. Quite often good things pass us by while we are trying to make a decision.  Make the decision and move on!

Next week: Setting an Example

Sunday, January 22, 2012

Leadership Series – Part III – Use the Experience Around You

We often find ourselves in awkward situations that are very uncomfortable to deal with.  When we are placed in a position of authority, it probably happens more often than we would like.  There are two situations I had to deal with that stick out in my mind.
In the first situation, I was given management responsibilities at a very young age and had a number of employees working for me who had much more experience (and yes, age) than I did.  Anyone who has been in that situation will have heard the expression, “I have been here for fifteen years andTHISisthe way we have always done it.”  Well,THISmay not necessarily be the best way to do it.  But how is the new guy/gal supposed to gain the respect of the people who have been there forever and who are twice his/her age?  Awkward!
In the second situation, I was asked to take over the amalgamation of two units that both had managers.  I was to become the new manager with both of the previous managers reporting to me.  They each had the respect of their staff.  Double awkward!
In situations like these it is necessary to gain credibility as soon as possible. I tried to sit down with each of the people reporting to me as soon as possible to understand their role and to ask for their continuing support.  After all, they are the experts. I don’t say that facetiously.  They have been there and understand the business so their input is invaluable.  It won’t ALL be valuable advice. For example, when I was a young upstart manager and met with one veteran staff member, he told me that I should always be late for everything. Come in to work late, arrive at meetings late…  He said that was the best way to establish that I was the boss.  Some advice can  be ignored, but much of it is valuable.
In a small organization it is possible to meet with each staff member individually.  However, in larger organizations where there are organizational layers, the manager has to be sure to maintain the lines of accountability and authority.  Meeting with employees below the level reporting to you can make those reporting to you feel threatened or blur the lines of accountability.  If you want to meet with employees below your direct reports, do it with them.
Yes, you have to establish yourself as the boss and build your credibility but do it through positive actions and build your team.  You need help and that comes in the form of your staff and their experience.  Use that experience.  Make sure they are aware that you need their help. Thank them for their advice.  Make them feel that they are an important part of the organization you are trying to build.  Everyone wants to make a contribution in this world. Some are more equipped than others but use the skills that everyone brings to the table and you will gain buy-in and much needed credibility and respect.  And if you want to think about it in a slightly selfish way, think about it this way. They will make you look good!
Henry B. Adams said, “All experience is an arch, to build upon.”  I believe it is not only your own experience.  Use the experience of those around you and it will turn into the building that the arch leads into!!
Next week’s topic will be “Would Somebody Please make a Decision”

Sunday, January 22, 2012

Leadership Series – Part II – Own Your Mistakes

This is the second of what will probably be a multi-part series (see list of potential topics) of short essays on the people side of management/parenting. Comments are welcome!
Unless you are infallible, you have probably made a mistake or two in your life. I know I have! Even Spider Man made a huge mistake when he allowed Tobey Maguire to play him in the movie. I mean c’mon. Tobey Maguire! Really!??
I made many mistakes during my career. I had bosses who made many as well. Didn’t someone once say, “If you aren’t making mistakes, you aren’t doing anything?” The great thing about mistakes is that we can learn from them. We can also learn when our boss makes a mistake. I felt I learned something every day during my career. Sometimes it was by doing something I would try to do again. Sometimes it was by doing or watching someone else do something that I resolved never to try again.
But I think we all know that we can learn from our mistakes. The key issue that I want to address here is owning our mistakes when we make them. Management and yes, parenting, are all about gaining respect and credibility. And there is nothing that does that faster than admitting we have made a mistake when we make one. It is fun to accept kudos and we are all willing to do that. It is not so much fun when we make a mistake and have to own up to it. Yet, by doing so, it shows the individuals around us that we are prepared to admit our mistakes and move on. It takes a very big person to do that.
There is another reason for owning our mistakes. If we try to hide from it or blame it on someone else, it can be very debilitating. It can be like an anchor that we are carrying around, hoping no one will find out that we are the one responsible for the mistake.
There used to be an unseen individual living at our house whose name was “Not Me.” Whenever something happened it was usually Not Me who was responsible. I am very sure that Not Me has many brothers and sisters living out there in various households and offices. Eventually, with age and maturity, Not Me was replaced by the equally popular but more appreciated Yes It Was Me.
Making mistakes and moving forward are the keys to a brilliant future. That is why we have come as far as we have. Man didn’t land on the moon without a few mistakes along the way. But admitting them is the key to building credibility and respect and that is equally important. For as someone by the name of Lawrence G. Lovasik one said, “Any fool can try to defend his mistakes–and most fools do–but it gives one a feeling of nobility to admit one’s mistakes. By fighting, you never get enough, but by yielding, you get more than you expected.”

Sunday, January 22, 2012

Leadership Series – Part I – Critcism is a Sandwich

I have been thinking a lot about the subject of criticism lately. Not because I have been overly criticised, but I have been reading about authors who have received negative criticism about their work. I have also been back at work on contract, which is giving me flashbacks to my 33-year career, mostly as a manager. Believe me, after that length of time, you get to know what works and what doesn’t!
Everyone is placed in a situation where they have to criticize others from time to time. Whether we are managers, reviewers, parents, shoppers, etc. the situation arises. It is often an uncomfortable situation to be in. There is a way to do it that may not be understood by many.
There is a trick to criticism that can make it inspirational. Being critical for the sake of criticizing doesn’t work! Oh, it will for awhile. The person on the end of the criticism will react positively for a period of time…probably more out of fear than anything. Inevitably, the person being criticized will tune out.
When the tune out occurs, and it won’t take that long, the person doing the criticizing is finished as a manager or reviewer or whatever role he/she is playing. Any influence, respect or credibility the manager/reviewer has will become lost. Think of the coach of any sports organization who “loses” the team, or even one superstar. It isn’t the team/superstar that goes. It is the coach.
I like to think of criticism as a sandwich. The critique is the meat of the sandwich but it should be covered top and bottom with positive reinforcement. Everyone reacts to positive reinforcement and if it surrounds a bit of criticism, that criticism is more likely to be heard and reacted upon. Let me give you a very simple example:
Top of sandwich – Overall, I think your work was excellent. Meat – I thought you might have been able to improve it by doing this and this and (this is important) here is why… Bottom of sandwich – Keep up the great work and please consider the suggestions for improvement.
I spent the last 10 years of my career directing a group in a pressure cooker to account for, analyse and report on over $300 billion of the Canadian federal government’s revenues. Yes, that’s billion with a “b.” I had over 50 people reporting to me and we successfully did our job month after month and year after year. But there is one thing of which I am particularly proud. I am still friends with many of them seven years later!
I am convinced that the only way to properly critique someone and expect something in return is by using the sandwich technique. Try it! It worked for me!
Since I am on the subject of leadership/reviewing, I will post next time on “Owning Your Mistakes.”

5 thoughts on “Leadership Blog

  1. Most of the information is based on my experience as a manager over the years. If you have any specific questions, I would be happy to try to answer them.

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