Author Archives: SimpleIntentions

Values Are The Key to Making Tough Choices

101217_ValuesBy John Rex, former CFO of Microsoft North America, executive coach, and friend to Simple Intentions  

My dad wore his values like a badge of honor. Raised as the son of U.S. diplomats stationed throughout Latin America and North Africa in the 1940s and 50s, he especially cherished the value of adventure. When I was a kid, he would often say, “Just call me Bwana” – a nod to Bob Hope’s 1963 farce film by the same title – then lead our family off on some daredevil backcountry excursion across the wild deserts of the American West. His impish grin would make us kids roll our eyes, but in the end, we always loved exploring the wondrous natural playgrounds he showed us, particularly the deserts of Utah, Nevada, and Arizona. 

Fast forward twenty-five years. February 2003 found my siblings and me embarking on an off-road expedition from Mesquite, Nevada to the Grand Canyon’s north rim, with Dad leading the way. Just like the old days. A couple of hours into our journey, a freak desert storm dumped about six inches of snow on us as we followed Lime Kiln Canyon into the rugged hills east of Mesquite. The dirt road we were climbing soon became treacherously slick, so we stopped to take stock of the situation. The sun was fast heading to the horizon, and snow was still falling hard.  

The great Bwana consulted the map, presumably to chart a detour around the snow-laden hills. It turned out that our navigator was not exactly sure which road we were now on (we don’t call this “getting lost” in our family), so the map was not too helpful. To make matters trickier, at this point it was revealed that planning our route had not been done with precision. I’m not naming names, but some adventurous spirit had figured that we would “make our way” across the upper left corner of Arizona by generally following dirt roads in a northeasterly direction. As a result, it wasn’t clear when or if we would arrive at the first day’s waypoint, Colorado City. 

Faced with unknown hours of snow travel and the real possibility of spending a frigid night in the Grand Canyon-Parashant National Monument, our little band turned back toward Mesquite’s lower elevation, where there was no snow, only cold rain. We followed our tracks in reverse and a few hours later, none the worse for the experience, we rolled into Mesquite, where we quickly warmed up with some hot chocolate. 

It doesn’t take an expert navigator to know that plotting and following a course is key to reaching a given destination. By the same token, if you don’t know where you want to go, it’s certain you won’t get there. As Lucius Annaeus Seneca wrote two millennia ago, “If one does not know to which port one is sailing, no wind is favorable.” 

In my work as an executive coach, I find that many of my clients figuratively navigate dangerous terrain all the time. In these situations, it’s good to remember that in the journey of life, our values serve as our compass. They are the criteria by which we make numerous decisions every day, both large and small. Our values inform everything from whether we return incorrect change to a sales clerk, to how to vote in elections, to how to treat loved ones and strangers, to how to behave in business dealings. Without clear and honored values, we are like the person who cannot read a map or who does not know where they want to go. 

When we hit the snow on our journey to the Grand Canyon, my dad could have stuck with the original plan and insisted we keep going. If his highest values had been persistence and achievement, we could have ended up struggling through the snow in the dark. But the values my dad honored the most were adventure and connection. We’d already had the adventure to come as far as we did. The best way for us to experience more connection now would be to turn back, sit in front of a warm fire drinking hot chocolate together, and talk about what fun we’d had. 

Somewhat surprisingly, a good number of my clients have never carefully identified, recorded, or internalized a personal set of values. When I run into this, one of the first pieces of work I do is help them gain clarity in this important part of their lives. Armed with their unique values, my clients can then make choices aligned with their most cherished beliefs, principles, and passions. This approach results in greater peace of mind, satisfaction, and confidence when they face both straightforward and complex decisions. 

If you haven’t already, I challenge you to define and memorialize your personal values. Here are three tips for how to do it: 

1) Think about a time in your life when you were “in the flow,” a time when the place, your actions, and your mindset harmonized almost effortlessly, producing a pinnacle experience. Try to remember the ingredients that were at play, including the people you were with. The elements that converged to create that magical moment can be vital clues to your values. 

2) Consider the causes that matter most to you. The organizations, activities, philosophies, books, places, and ideas that you are genuinely passionate about can be shiny signposts signaling your personal values. 

3) Reflect on your upbringing, your faith tradition, your formal and informal education, your heroes, role models, and mentors. Look for teachings and characteristics that you admire to this day. These too will uncover clues about the values you hold or want to hold.  

Once you have thoughtfully identified your values, record them. Something about writing them down in a notebook or typing them into a document makes them real, makes them a part of you. Share them with your loved ones and others you care about. Giving your values a voice is a powerful way of making them truly yours.  

It may sound simple, but when you are clear about your values, and you strive to honor them, you lay a solid foundation for quickly making choices that others around you, wide-eyed with fear or confusion, may consider too difficult, too fraught with the opinions of others, or too personally risky. You will confidently proceed in the knowledge that your choices are congruent with your dearest principles and beliefs – your unique values. They will give you the courage you need to make the most crucial decisions, some much more pivotal than whether to spend a cold night in a snowy desert with the great Bwana. 

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Finding Neutral  

d-holmes-132627By Lara Gates, Managing Editor, Simple Intentions 

Working in a newsroom can be a rush. You spend all afternoon stacking and writing your show with one eye on the clock. And then, without warning something happens. And usually that “something” is not good news. It starts with accelerated chatter on the scanners, followed by phone calls to gather information while “launching” crews toward the activity. It could be a wrong way driver, or 19 “hotshot” firefighters gone missing or an active shooter. The team in the newsroom shifts gears and as the energy rises, every member moves into a place of efficiency and high alert. Each one has an important job to do, whether it be coordinating, reporting, shooting and editing video, writing and rewriting, fact-checking or graphics-building. In scenarios like this, we always work quickly to deliver as much information as we have confirmed to be true, in a way that is fair and informative to the audience. To do this job you need to move instantly into a place of “neutral.” 

Whether it is a devastating act of nature or hideous atrocities that human beings do to one another, witnessing news at arm’s length can be tough. After the terrible 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, designer and tsunami survivor Nate Berkus said that when he was trying to find a way out of the aftermath of the storm he called a TV producer. You see, problem-solving under pressure is what we do.  

Professionals like ER doctors and nurses, surgeons, hospice workers and first responders live with this need for neutral daily as well. In today’s climate sometimes even watching the news brings on feelings of anger or disbelief or even numbness. Finding neutral is a skill that can serve us all, no matter what our background or workplace or role. (It’s also a great parenting tool.) 

When we are in a place of neutral it’s like taking a step back. We are watching and comprehending but breathing through the knee-jerk feelings. Perhaps most importantly, not finding neutral is an astronomical risk. People who struggle to find neutral fall mainly into two camps: Reactionary (angry) or Numb.  

Reacting without pausing can bring about regret very quickly. When we say something in reaction sometimes we don’t actually mean what we say. And perhaps more often, what we say in reaction is laden with emotions and sometimes a hurtful tone or destructive language. We’ve all be there. And there is a simple fix. (Simple yes, but not easy.) Just pause. That’s it. Pause to process and let the emotions settle before responding. 

The biggest danger to not navigating your way to neutral is the risk of going numb. Standing outside a home where a baby was pulled unresponsive from the pool happens in Phoenix all the time. And every time it breaks my heart. But for the first responders and news crews who have to report on the tragedy, it is sometimes a survival mechanism to “flip a switch” and report without emotion the facts of the story. But the most authentic and well-adjusted officers, firefighters and journalists I know remember to grieve the story afterward so that they don’t go numb. 

“Feel the exhaustion, pain, and sadness later in private,” an anchor friend whom I admire said. “And you must make yourself feel it and process it or you will stop “feeling” going forward. You’ll become jaded professionally and emotionless, distant and walled off personally. In other words, it’s good to cry it out sometimes.” 

I encourage you to practice awareness the next time you have your feet swept out from under you. Whether it be a deadline missed or a contract broken or a call from your child’s school. Step one is to take one beat, be aware and shift into neutral. And then wrap it up at the end of the day (or sometimes hourly) with allowing yourself to process the feelings. The more times I practice this shift, the more quickly I can make it. And best of all, I find my “neutral” self is my most productive and helpful contributor in all my relationships. 

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Embracing the Vulnerability of Leadership

092817_PoppiesBy Elaine Jones, Market Intelligence lead at Microsoft and Friend of Simple Intentions

Since I was little I’ve never really found a way to accept praise well. Every time someone gives me a compliment or expresses praise or admiration the resulting swelling of emotion is not one of pride and happiness but of awkwardness and discomfort. This particular feeling is so ubiquitous there is a name for it – the fear of being the “tall poppy.”

Brené Brown recently addressed this in a speech she gave while talking about her new book, “Braving the Wilderness.” This fear is born out of a basic human need for belonging and connection. It drives us to communicate and work together, but also hurls us into loneliness and that fear of sticking out when we are singled out for praise, admiration or leadership. Through her interviews with students about fitting in and belonging, Brené described the experience of compromising oneself to pursue a false sense of belonging: “You start to engineer smallness in order to fit in.” She told stories of kids with sport all-stars for parents who just wanted to play video games all day, of employees staying silent about a critical business flaw to avoid the risk of public shaming. They were tales of a paradox between being true to oneself and the risk and vulnerability of loneliness.

Brené defined vulnerability as “being uncertain, taking risk and having emotional exposure.” As the audience laughed to her stories, my mind flashed back to a day in high school when one of my best friends said to me, “You know you’re not fooling anybody by pretending to be stupid. Why don’t you just get over yourself and help out with this science problem?” In that moment it struck me: every moment of praise, every promotion, every request for leadership was an opportunity to lean into the vulnerability that makes me not only stronger, but closer to my true self. And I had missed almost every one of them.

I am certain that I am not alone. I work with several incredibly passionate, talented and intelligent individuals, and often see that downward glance when I commend a job well done, a sudden shyness when I praise great behavior, I hear the ubiquitous question, “But what can I do better?” In the past, I’ve often brushed aside the tension that arose, focused on my intent to earnestly send a positive message and expected a “logical” outcome of delight instead of discomfort. Brené speaks to leaders when she acknowledges that we were raised to be brave but not courageous. We reward the greatness in others, yet concurrently ignore the vulnerability of leadership that comes with that greatness.

Yet, there are so many ways to embrace the vulnerability of leadership, to lean into that space and to invoke a genuine connection with others.

  • By acknowledging the vulnerability of putting the work out there, “Thank you for seeing this idea through when the team decided to look elsewhere”
  • By extending praise, “Thank you for the great feedback, what can I do to help others benefit from this?”
  • By celebrating the unique talents that every member brings to the team and refusing to encourage emulation of another’s success, or associating any single working or leadership style as a model for success
  • By standing with team members who “brave the wilderness,” speak out and take a stand on what they feel is right, and modeling that same courage, taking that same risk ourselves
  • By giving feedback on the work, positive or negative, without references to personhood

The human need for connection is real. The fear of being the “tall poppy,” the shame of being different is real. But I am so encouraged that it is not necessarily accompanied by loneliness. Paradoxically, leaning into the fear liberates me from it, embracing the vulnerability evokes support and security from others, my team and community. The choice is mine to stand alone, or instead, lead with a band of like-minded souls with whom I share a connection, each of us blazing a path uniquely our own, following our wild hearts. In reflection, I would have it no other way.

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Establishing Boundaries and Priorities

glenn-carstens-peters-190592By Karen Starns 

Starns is a seasoned global brand and marketing leader who is poised to begin her next chapter. She has held senior positions at Pearson, Amazon and Microsoft and is a friend of Simple Intentions.  

The first time I read Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less by Greg McKeown was the Spring of 2014. At the time, I wasn’t ready for how it would eventually transform my outlook on priorities and contributions. The premise of being disciplined about where to invest energies and where to step away resonated, but I’d allowed my time to be swallowed up by other people’s needs and agendas for years. As a leader, family member and friend driven by accomplishment, I felt the need to do it all. This modus operandi had become so ingrained and rewarded, the reason for change wasn’t obvious enough. 

Several months later, I took on a new global job that required 50% travel – a good portion of it spent in London. This professional change spurred a complete reset of how I spent my time. The juggling that had been challenging became infeasible and I realized that if my in-person relationships with my husband and kids had to get packed into weekends and every other week, I was going to need a system to support me. Having less time at home was catalytic in helping me take that first critical step toward committing to the things that were most important to me and becoming aware that embracing other people’s expectations and drowning in to-do lists was taking me off track.  

With the premises of Essentialism as underpinning, developing a system that works for me has been a 2 ½ year process of discovery and fine-tuning. While having very little time flexibility, I’ve found more balance and internal peace than ever before by investing in the fewest number of important things. As I prepare for another career transition, I’m delighted to celebrate how full my life is. These are the steps I took: 

I first clarified my “non-negotiables.” This included creating a clear distinction between those things in life that were most important to me and separating those from everything else. My list was intentionally short: family and work. Deep relationships with my husband and kids, coupled with rewarding work that I love is where I make the highest contribution. Energy and time devoted to my non-negotiables come first. 

 I then examined “everything else.” This is a huge bucket and it probably goes without saying that all things in this category are not created equal. I’ve further segmented this into “to-dos,” “opportunities,” and “personal priorities.” 

There are a lot of “to-dos” in life and if we’re not careful, the tasks and errands on our lists can run us ragged and leave little time for anything else. I’m a list maker and have spent years measuring progress via scraps of paper and piles of note cards. Today, I embrace the realization that while there are must-do tasks, crossing things off a list every day does not move me toward my highest contribution. 

There are also “opportunities,” invitations, and possibilities. These are optional. They are not obligations and it important to remind yourself that you have a choice. Not wanting to disappoint someone else is not a good reason to say yes. If they are aligned with your priorities, make them priorities. If they are not, let them go – even if they are good opportunities. While I devote just a couple of sentences toward this topic, it is huge. Greg McKeown has a lot of provocative and useful commentary on this if you struggle with this like I do. 

The third category I created to sort through everything else has provided the most upside for me: “personal priorities.” The label itself has been incredibly empowering and the things I’ve put here have enriched my life. This category and what I’ve done with it has been the difference maker. 

Personal priorities are a mix of the aspirational “someday” things that rarely get attention and some really important things that are easy to let slip. Here’s my current list: 

  1. Side Project (I have some business ideas to cultivate) 
  2. Write (like this article, I want to write/publish more frequently) 
  3. Read (for pleasure, for knowledge, and to escape) 
  4. Board/Advisory Work (I’m on a non-profit board and mentor a woman leader who runs a social enterprise and a non-profit) 
  5. Learn Spanish (my mentee’s organization is based in Mexico and I’m using Duolingo every day to learn Spanish) 
  6. Marathon Training (I’m in the midst of a 20-week program training for the NY Marathon, this is a big mental and time commitment) 
  7. Career Planning (meetings, correspondence, and network engagement) 
  8. Time with Friends (an important thing that I’ve let slip) 

While eight personal priorities may seem like a lot, I am actively working on all of these. I’m using a reminder app that allows me to establish a prompt and track momentum for each priority. For example, I want to do 15 minutes of Duolingo every day and write 3 times a month. 

There are other things that I’m not doing because I have my two non-negotiables and I’ve also declared my eight personal priorities. This is not just ok. It is great! Having this level of clarity has been tremendously freeing. As Greg McKeown says in Essentialism, “Essentialists see trade-offs as an inherent part of life, not as an inherently negative part of life. Instead of asking, “What do I have to give up?” they ask, “What do I want to go big on?” 

Being unapologetic about establishing non-negotiables and personal priorities has been a game changer. Now more than ever, I am confident in my ability handle curveballs that come my way and embrace new opportunities in life that are aligned with what’s most essential to me.  

 

 

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Abundance

robert-wiedemann-273670By Lara Gates, Managing Editor, Simple Intentions  

The town where I live has a loud fountain and beautiful landscaping at the freeway exit. There is a prominent sign that says “Life in Abundance” greeting guests and neighbors as they cross the threshold into suburban living. Ever since the sign was erected I’ve been uncomfortable with this term “abundance.” How is life here abundant if there are families who still need the food bank or can’t pay their mortgage this month? Some days the word “abundance” feels presumptuous because even in a country as rich as the U.S., there are still people in need. So many people. In so much need. Shouldn’t we be satisfied with just enough? Is it just me?  

Lately I am coming across this word “abundance” more and more often. And I continue to wrestle with the meaning. The lesson here is not to focus on the lack (of time, of money, of support) but rather to see that there is enough. We need to really notice, welcome and even expect our needs to be abundantly met. It’s a difficult shift for some (read me) who were raised to focus on hard work with an emphasis on hard. When we expect a job to be stressful and difficult, guess what? It is. But the shift in perspective is possible with some practice. 

By flipping my inner dialog to focus first on the positive, and the “haves” over the “have nots” I am noticing the abundance more and more. There is a print that hangs over my desk from Brian Andreas that says “Everything changed the day he figured out there was exactly enough time for the important things in his life.” I bought this almost 20 years ago but I think only recently began to truly believe it. There is enough time. I do have an abundance of support from friends and family. And my team at work will always have my back when I reach out and ask for help.  

Here is a light bulb moment. Having abundance means I can share. I have more than enough to meet the needs of my family. I can use the surplus to seek out ways to help people who are struggling. The collective community has an abundance of what we need. I just need to focus on the “we.” When I come across a client or neighbor with unmet needs, it’s easy to lend an ear, a hand or an idea when I have already recognized my own abundance. We are not meant to simply survive. We are meant to thrive. And when we get to that place of thriving – that place of realizing true abundance – it is incumbent on us to reach out and share. Share the knowledge, share the inspiration, share the wealth and the many opportunities.  

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How to Manage Energy at Work

090717_EnergyCommon themes in the workplace that zap energy from a person or a team.

By Jae Ellard, Founder, Simple Intentions

What gives you energy at work? Odds are strong an answer quickly sprang to mind. Now consider what drains your energy? Likely a feeling came to mind before the root cause of that feeling did. For many people gaining clarity around what drains their energy and how to redirect it can be a tricky. Having worked with thousands of people in over 50 countries teaching the skill of awareness, I’ve noticed five common themes in the workplace that transcend geography, gender and job type when it comes to zapping energy from a person or a team.

Drama. You might be attracted to it or you might create it – either way the purpose is to use it as a distraction to avoid unpleasant issues. As a way of dealing with fear or uncertainty (or procrastinating dealing with it), it’s common for people to invent “stories” to fill in missing details in an attempt to create certainty. It’s ok we’ve all done it. Next time you see it happening, make an attempt to “see the story” and go back to the facts. Ask yourself or the people involved “is this true?” Asking this question can interrupt the downward drama spiral that can kill productivity and morale.

Perfection. This is the belief that there is no room for mistakes. When people feel they are working in an environment where their best is not good enough, it can not only be demoralizing to each individual but impair innovation as people will avoid taking risks if they believe there is no room for mistakes. The way to redirect this energy drain is to know what you know and own it as equally as you know what you DON’T know. Letting go of the idea of perfection and being open to failure is how we learn.

Control. This shows up as a compulsive desire to know everything and control outcomes. (Also known as micro-managing.) When we employ controlling behaviors likely it’s coming from a place of fear – either of the outcome not going our way or fear of being “exposed” as not good enough – both of which can deplete energy by focusing on incomplete or false data (aka drama). The way to get the energy flowing is to allow the natural flow of action to occur, take a step back and reflect when something feels forced. Releasing control doesn’t mean you stop caring, it means being able to see things from many points of view and assuming positive intent from all involved.

Boundarylessness. This use of energy creates a state of confusion in knowing what is and what is not acceptable, comfortable and tolerable. When we don’t know the limits we don’t know where we are in relation to them. Setting and communicating boundaries, individual as well as team, helps redirect energy by creating clarity for all parties involved about what is and what is not expected and allowed.

What’s not working. The habit of focusing on what is wrong, flawed or not working is downright exhausting. More than that, if a person stays in that space too long it can lead to a state called hyper vigilance, which creates feelings of helplessness and deep anxiety. Recognize and celebrate what is working, start each day by reflecting the “wins.” This doesn’t mean avoid or ignore the issues and challenges that need to be addressed, rather start with what’s going well first.

There is no right or wrong way to shift the energy of a person or a team – what matters most is the willingness to see when energy is low and the courage to redirect it.

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Balance in Service

083117_tightropeBy Chelsea Elkins, Peace Corps Volunteer and Friend of Simple Intentions

My time working at Simple Intentions began almost 2 years ago and the bittersweet feeling that comes with a last day of work was just a few weeks ago. The significance of working for a company committed to disrupting workplace patterns of imbalance and burnout was not lost on me – as my own experience with burnout in the nonprofit sector still lingered when I started.

I was fresh out of college when I got my first job in the public health field, working as a Housing Specialist at a HIV/AIDS Center in Los Angeles. There were some issues with the role that are common with a career in non-profits: high workload, lack of resources, understaffing issues, a pay that was not quite comparable to my peers, and the mildly chaotic feeling that comes when an org with positive intentions simply can’t offer the funding and support needed to its employees. Those are all challenges that can be tricky to navigate but, with the right tools, are manageable.

After all, the reason why I took that job was I cared. I cared about the issue and about the population I was serving. I thought because I cared, because I was passionate, I’d be able to jump over any professional hurdles with ease. However, I soon learned that something as positive as passion can also be a driver of imbalance if you don’t set boundaries.

And that was my real issue: boundaries. Boundaries with my co-workers, with my clients, but mostly with myself. I fully admit to having a tumultuous relationship with ‘No’ and I was filled with remorse each time I used the word with a client seeking housing assistance.

“No, there’s nothing available.”

“No, your rental application was denied.”

“No, I’m sorry but I can’t help you.”

Though I wasn’t allowed to work overtime, I clocked in extra mental hours each night preoccupied with my clients sleeping on the streets and wondering who I wouldn’t be able to help the following day. As one might imagine, I began to develop a very unhealthy relationship with work.

I would dread Monday morning almost as soon as I’d step out the door Friday evening. I started to eat lunch anywhere besides the office, seeking temporary refuge at coffee shops or parking garages – until one co-worker pointed out while walking by one day, “Your car is not a lunchroom.” I had become Cady Heron on the first day of school, eating lunch in a bathroom stall.

My lunch habits did evolve and I eventually stopped taking lunch breaks altogether, instead scarfing down food in front of my computer in an attempt to manage my growing caseload. I was constantly anxious, adrenalin and stress hormones flooding – and I lacked the awareness to realize that I was spiraling out of control.

The road bumps that come with working at a non-profit suddenly seemed impossible feats as I had never been taught, never been equipped with the tools to protect myself from burnout. It wasn’t until a client stopped in the middle of yelling at me to ask if I was alright (my eyes had done the unthinkable and were shedding tears against my will), did I realize I had pushed myself too far. I had reached my

limit, a form of emotional exhaustion that years later would be described to me as a brutal climax of “compassion fatigue.” I gave my notice a few weeks later.

I learned a lot from that experience, although it remains one of my most painful failures. That was never the perfect job for me – and part of me knew that going into the role. But if I had some of the perspective I have now, I could have walked away with a better experience and less strain on my mental health. My story is not unique – a continual fight against stress and burnout can often feel like the norm in the nonprofit sector, or in any service oriented role regardless of field or title.

I find myself now with an incredible new challenge in front of me as I prepare to depart as a Peace Corps Volunteer to promote health and HIV Prevention in vulnerable youth in Lesotho. I know I will face many of the same challenges I came up against as a Housing Specialist. One of the differences this time is that I have the awareness to recognize when I start to spiral – and some knowhow to get my balance back before the spinning begins. A peer who works at United Way beautifully compared working in service to walking a tightrope. Below the rope is the knowledge that this work will always be needed. Most problems in our world will not be completely solved in our lifetimes. You can look down on this from two angles. From one angle, this knowledge can overwhelm you, depress you, discourage you. It can be debilitating and infuse a sense of futility in your work. You might be tempted to walk backwards off the tightrope.

But from the other angle? It can empower you. It’s a constant reminder that this work (whatever it is) will always matter – and it will always be important. You are empowered to continue your journey, whatever may come on the other side.

I looked from one side a few years ago and I think I’ll choose to look from the other side during this next chapter. My favorite thing I learned at Simple Intentions is that we always can choose and re-choose whenever we wish.

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