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I’m trying to get healthier.

I’ll be 49 years old in a little over a month. I recently had a nonthreatening skin cancer removed from my face and I’m having a torn meniscus in my left knee repaired in a couple weeks. I’m very aware that my body is not what it was in my 20’s.

I have a degree in kinesiology, a bunch of exercise equipment, a fancy fitness watch, lots of athletic clothes and shoes, and a shelf full of books about wellness. I’ve invested quite a bit into understanding what I need to do to be more fit.

And you know what? It all comes down to diet and exercise.

All the trendy workout programs…
All the latest miracle foods and supplements…
All the apps, gadgets, and memberships…

And the vast majority of what we really need to do to improve our physical health comes down to eating more of the foods we already know are healthy, less of the ones we all know are not, and making sure we get active more days than we don’t.

That will probably cover 90% of what most of us need to do; if we actually do it. I spend too much time, money, an energy chasing after the last 10% when I’m not consistent with the basics.

The same is true in leadership.

Many of us invest way too much in another leadership conference, course, coach, or consultant trying to find the latest magical tool to unlock greatness when we would be far better off to make sure we’re doing the basics – the diet and exercise of leadership.

(Some of you are now anticipating me listing those basics, maybe hoping that will expose the secret cure for everything that ails your organization; but I’m not going to do that. I’m confident that you already know most of what you need to know to lead very well.)

I love developing new tools and workshops for leaders. I wrote a leadership book that I’m proud of. I’m one of those consultants that hopes to provide you with valuable insights that can help you increase your impact through greater leader and organizational health. But in the majority of the sessions I lead I explain at the start that there’s probably nothing I have to share that is truly new. Most leaders could come up with these same basics on the back of a napkin if they sat down and thought about it for a bit.

So maybe the real value isn’t providing some miraculous new system, but in reminding one another that the basics are readily apparent most of the time. Let’s get the diet and exercise stuff right first and we can figure out the last bits afterward.

Let me know if I can help.

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One of the most difficult things a leader ever has to do is walk away.

Whether it’s by choice, by retirement, or by termination, too few leaders show their best selves on the way out. This pattern holds true across industries and the costs of it are deeply damaging.

Sadly; a generation of long term charity leaders have provided far too many examples of what not to do. There are numerous well known stories of leaders who hang on too long, become self-serving in their final seasons, meddle in the organization after their departure, or are found to have betrayed their integrity.

There are many other similar stories that are known only to a small number of affected people.

Why is it so hard for leaders to leave?

1. They have too little identity outside of their role. We want leaders who exemplify the cause and values of the organization, but when that becomes the centre of their sense of self the thought of leaving it behind is devastating. It drives a dark insecurity that pushes good leaders to do things they would never have done in their better moments. 

2. They haven’t invested properly in developing successors. Many of today’s senior leaders never experienced being mentored by their predecessors. They rose to the top of their field somewhat independently and, while they may believe in the idea of preparing for succession, they simply don’t really understand how to help younger leaders prepare for senior roles. This leaves them with a sense that no one is ready for the responsibility and that they have to maintain control themselves.

3. They have no outlet. Decades of holding authority in primarily top-down leadership structures does not prepare the leader for stepping aside and finding influence in other ways. They are aware of all the accumulated knowledge and wisdom they hold and don’t know what to do with it if not in the first chair. The very real sense that what they offer is important is undermined by an inability to conceive of a way to contribute differently.

4. They thrive in power. Weaving through all the previous challenges is the truth that many leaders have become so accustomed to having, using, and managing power that the prospects of living without it are demoralizing. 

So what can we do better?

1. Normalize transition. Succession planning needs to be a constant, not something we reluctantly engage in when the current leader appears near departure. I’m an advocate for long term leadership but it’s unwise to not be always preparing for the possibility of change. Boards can take initiative on this with lead staff.

2. Mentor them in mentoring. Create the expectation that senior leaders are actively developing the leadership ability and technical skills of all their direct reports. Building understanding of generational tendencies with a resource like Sticking Points may be useful. Provide mentors with training, active feedback from their mentees, and accountability to deliver on this as a non-negotiable aspect of their role. 

3. Form exemplary peer groups. Senior executives need to move beyond the “lonely at the top” idea by actively connecting with current peers (and successfully retired examples). Seek out leaders who have departed well in a variety of ways and make it part of your dialogue. Share stories of transitions that went well and dig behind the scenes to find out what it took to make that happen.

4. Actively dismantle the damaging myths of leadership. Beyond the previously mentioned myth of isolation, there are expectations that leaders need to hold authority, control the organization, dominate meetings, and retain their influence. None of this makes for healthy transitions. More collaborative models of leadership and approaches that emphasize the leader’s role as developer rather than controller of the organization set a better tone. More than that; leaders seeing their identity beyond their work needs to become typical and affirmed.

5. Promote healthy versions of retirement. The idea that the only options are 60+ hour weeks or complete leisure is outdated and unhelpful. Look into creative options of part time consulting, board work, voluntary mentoring, resource development, and exploring new interests. The phrase “choice to work” helps me reframe the idea of a stage of life beyond full time employment.

It seems every relevant expert agrees there is a coming wave of leadership transitions and a shortage of qualified leaders to take over. The best way to manage this challenge is ensuring that succession is prepared for well and handled in ways that allow departing veterans to continue sharing their hard won wisdom even after they move on. Accomplishing this requires intentionality from boards, senior leaders, and successors. As leaders, we know the importance of handing this well. We can’t afford to continue seeing sloppiness, selfishness, stubbornness or insecurity making things more difficult. 

Photo by Anete Lusina from Pexels 

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I usually avoid conflict and controversy.

I have strong opinions on lots of things but I generally prefer to share them discerningly and in contexts where trust has been established and any misunderstandings have a good chance of being addressed. I’m not afraid of tough topics (some friends tease me about always hunting for the elephant in the room) but I prioritize maintaining healthy relationships over trying to win an argument. It has served me well, mostly.

In a time and culture where there can be a lot of affirmation for posting or saying things that dismiss or demean others in search of a clever mic drop moment I sometimes struggle. The thing is, I can be highly judgmental and I’m quick witted enough to craft some pretty clever tweets that could probably earn me some kudos from those on my side.

But that’s not what I deeply want.

As much as the endorphin rush of a cutting comment can be fun, it always leaves me feeling crappy afterward. It’s the fast food of human interaction; enticing and immediately satisfying but often with regret later.

I would ultimately much rather persuade someone to consider my viewpoint than embarrass them online and have them turn away. (And in my best moments I am even open to being persuaded by others that I may be wrong too).

I’ve written before, and delivered a webinar, on the things leaders should consider before taking a stand on controversial topics. As much as I am convicted that there are times when bold positions must be taken, I hold to the belief that the real desire is not to win a debate or “dunk on” someone but to help them choose to join us. That may take time, it may require extending more grace than I want to, and it definitely means I have to resist the temptation to blast away at people who have different positions than I do. But it actually helps me.

There are many things I was pretty sure about years ago that I see completely differently now. I often say that my most fundamental theological conviction is that I am wrong about a great many things. That perspective should remind me to keep some humility in play.

I respect that some people are drawn to battle. They are wired to engage in debates and are able to stay emotionally removed from the conflict. That’s never been me. And from what I’ve observed its not the majority of us.

Everyone I know seems to agree that increasing polarization and division is dangerous. In our honest reflections a lot of us can think of a friendship that was lost over an issue that is really not worth that much. There are too many big issues, too much we have in common, and too much we need one another to achieve for us to willingly part ways without making greater efforts to stay connected.

I’m not saying bite your tongue when someone says something offensive or overlook any of the toxic behaviours or abuses of power that are so common and so damaging. I’m just asking us to forego the cheap rush of blasting each other and try instead to remind ourselves that flawed humanity is our universal affliction. From that basis we can address the real issues in ways that hang on to hope for change and the possibility of growth for as long as possible.

There are some things worth closing the door on someone, but getting a few likes or emojis from the echo chamber isn’t it. And I need that reminder, probably more than you do.

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“How much longer are you going to let this one person require too much of your energy and drag down the team culture?”

Some version of the question has been one of the most important challenges I’ve given to leaders I’ve advised over the past several years. I’m not an employment lawyer or HR professional so all I can offer is the insights gained from my own experience, observations, and reflections.

Time and again there is a hesitance to explicitly confront problematic people, or to terminate them when the leader has determined in their own mind that the needed change isn’t going to happen. 

I get it. Firing people is costly on many levels and I’m not sure I’d want to work with someone who enjoyed it. On top of that there is  the fear of legal consequences and a very human desire to not hurt anyone. It’s tough.

We know the axiom of “hire slowly, fire quickly” but actually doing it is rare.

Too often we tolerate people who’s attitudes, behaviour, or relational failings are negatively impacting the entire group. It’s so tempting to keep trying to nudge them into line or justify the need to wait just a little longer before making the move, especially if they are otherwise productive. Some blend of compassion, confusion, and cowardice extends the situation and increases the damage.

What if we reframe the dynamic?

Instead of firing the person, fire the behaviour. 

Once you’ve determined that a pattern of behaviour needs to be eliminated be decisive about getting rid of it. As a leader that’s your responsibility. The individual is then responsible for their efforts to remain in the organization by changing, or they can leave. (I know the ultimate effect is the same but the mindset shift may make it easier).

By firing the behaviour early and providing the individual with every opportunity to stay through coaching, training, accountability, or whatever accommodations you can reasonably provide; you are emphasizing your organizations capture and values. You are defining the way things are around here. And you are creating space between the person and the problem for a solution to be found. You are giving them clarity and a chance.

Set yourself, your team, and your employee free from the unhealthy dynamic. Focus on the real issue. Reinforce what matters. And do it now.

You can not afford to keep hoping the situation gets better, and you don’t want to fire the employee: Fire the behaviour. 

Photo by Anna Shvets from Pexels

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Take a block from the middle and you put it on top…

If you’ve never played the classic family game of moving wood blocks out of a stable tower and placing them gently to build the tower higher just click on the link above; it’s a classic.

A leader I’m working with has been getting a lot of resistance to some of the new initiatives they are bringing to a long established organization. It’s frustrating to follow all the theories about how to introduce change and still have people making complaints and accusations about mission drift and abandoning the good history of the cause. Even more so when you’ve deliberately over-communicated, slowed things down, and carefully explained how well aligned these projects with the mission/vision/values and the opportunities for greater impact that will come.

So what’s happening here?

I think its a game of Jenga.

For some people, moving any block from the stable tower (even if the tower is becoming outdated and declining in results) puts the whole tower at risk. They can’t discern which pieces are load bearing and they are afraid everything that has been accomplished could be destroyed by moving the wrong block.

These fears aren’t entirely unreasonable. There are endless examples of organizations that have collapsed or lost their centre when leaders moved the wrong block.

Some people, whether due to demographics, personality types, lived experience, or the influence of others who oppose change, are simply unable to perceive which blocks represent essentials and which ones are actually moveable. (This may be more true in faith based organizations where opinions about some matters may be rooted in deeply embedded traditions and convictions with limited room for nuance.)

Coming back to organizational values is a key part of getting this right. When Accidental Values are mistaken for Core Values change is going to be seen as a threat.

Strong leaders have a knack for identifying which blocks can better be used to grow the tower, and which ones need to stay in place to keep things from falling apart. Wise leaders also have the insight to help others see the difference so they can join in the process of change instead of resisting it.

Ultimately there may be times when your certainty that a block can be moved safely can’t convince everyone. That’s when you need to carefully consider the risks and benefits and then make a confident decision. Either leave it in place for now and trust that if it needs to be moved there will be a better time to do so, or move it and accept the possibility that it may fail, and even if it succeeds some people may never be able to acknowledge that you were right.

And even if the tower falls, you’ll probably have a chance to gather the pieces and start again.

If you could use a little help articulating values, figuring out which blocks to move, or leading with confidence, clarity, and compassion; contact us for a free conversation about how we can help.

Photo by cottonbro from Pexels

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Which comes first?

As we work towards Healthy Leaders and Healthy Organizations the question arises:
What is the higher priority; the health of the leader or the health of the organization?

Of course we want to see growth in both, that’s obvious. What leaders are asking is how the two important things interact and affect one another. Do healthy leaders make healthy organizations or is it more the other way around?

Here’s what I’ve seen:
-An unhealthy organization repeatedly hire apparently healthy leaders who either became or had hidden the truth that they were already unhealthy resulting in several years of dysfunction and underperformance.
-A healthy organization that hired a leader who was coming out of an unhealthy organization and was currently unhealthy. After some initial struggles the leader got healthier and there was significant success.
-An unhealthy organization promoting a healthy leader who invested heavily in organizational health with significant success, but later became an unhealthy leader due to outside factors.
-A healthy leader who took over an organization that appeared healthy but was stagnant. The efforts to bring change exposed some unhealthy patterns that were difficult to overcome because unhealthy people didn’t know they were unhealthy.
-A healthy leader leading a healthy organization that came into dramatic conflict with an unhealthy global head office that had hired an unhealthy leader resulting in great pain and the closing of the global organization.

And there are many variations on these themes.

Understanding that healthy is not truly a binary reality: neither leaders nor organizations can be fairly typed as definitively healthy or unhealthy; there are still some strong tendencies that are worth considering.

Organizational culture is very powerful and not easily changed (even with effective tools like The REACTION Dashboard). Most people are more affected by the relative health of their organization than the affect they have on it. In general, unhealthy organizations are more likely to drag down healthy leaders than the opposite.

But that is not always the case.

Some leaders who are healthy and have positions of significant influence can transform the health of their organization. Most organizations come to resemble their senior leaders over time so healthy leaders can absolutely bring health to organizations, if they are attentive, intentional, and persistent in both their own health and that of the organization.

So which comes first?

For leaders in positions of limited influence it is rare that their own health can bring enough change to make the organization healthy. In fact, if they find the organization’s dysfunctions beginning to negatively effect their own well-being it is often best to consider the possibility of leaving. 

But senior leaders who are committed to their own health can bring health to unhealthy organizations.

So the first step is Healthy Leaders, with Healthy Organizations following very closely behind and the clear understanding that neither is ultimately effective without the other, and that both are ongoing practices not achievements or certifications to attain and set aside. Health is a constant process of assessment, action, and adjustment.

Whether you see your primary need as Healthy Leaders or Healthy Organizations we have insights, tools, and workshops that can help you improve your current reality and develop ongoing practices that will ultimately lead to more resilient people and greater lasting impact. Contact Us for a free consultation to see how we can help.

Photo by cottonbro from Pexels

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I love the Olympics.

Even though I am well aware of the many (many) ethical problems in the International Olympic Committee and the many (many) ways the movement fails to live up to its espoused ideals I find myself caught up in the competition, the stories of the athletes, and the raw emotion on display. I’ll be staying up too late and getting up too early most days until the Closing Ceremonies of Tokyo 2020 to watch as much live as I can.

This morning I watched Canada’s beloved swimmer Penny Oleksiak set a new national record in the 100m freestyle as she attempts to become the most decorated Canadian Olympian (winter or summer) of all time. She came up just short of that goal this race and finished 4th by 7/100ths of a second. That tiny fraction was the difference between it being a massive accomplishment and a disappointment; although she handled it with her typical class and optimism.

It’s funny and fascinating to me that the entire planet has somehow agreed that finishing first, second, or third is deserving of a precious medal and historic acclaim, but fourth is essentially meaningless. It’s interesting that the current system didn’t start at the first modern Olympics in 1896, but eight years later. I can’t find any explanation of why there are three winners instead of just one, or four, or seven. And yet it’s absolutely ingrained into the collective conscious of humanity.

I believe celebration is one of the most powerful and often untapped resources available to us. Intentionally drawing attention to things we want to affirm is highly motivating to most people and it reinforces the things we want to see repeated and advanced in society, any organization, and in our personal lives. Celebration is one of the dominant themes of The REACTION Dashboard and one that gets the most discussion and impact from leaders who use that resource to improve their organizational culture.

The Olympic example shows us that even entirely arbitrary standards, like top three performances being award worthy, can become hallmarks of a culture and drive enormous engagement from both active participants and interested stakeholders on the sidelines. 

The same can be true in your organization.

You can choose the goals, behaviours, values, and attitudes that you want to celebrate and build a system of formal and informal ways to do so. They can be as structured and quantifiable or as free and subjective as you think will best serve your people and your mission. Realizing that even Olympic medals are just somebody’s arbitrary idea that was systematized and repeated until it became unquestioned globally reminds us that there’s nothing magical about celebration: it’s a leadership skill that you and your team can learn and improve.

If you want to develop a healthy culture that gets better results, has less unwanted turnover, motivates staff, volunteers, clients, and donors to deeper levels of commitment and contributions, one of the things you should be actively exploring is how to become skilled at celebration. 

Don’t worry, it doesn’t have to take a lot of time or resources and you don’t have to hold podium awards ceremonies with anthems playing at every quarterly team meeting. Taking some small steps towards a healthy culture of celebration is probably easier than you think. In fact, there are probably some relatively simple things you can do on the next month to improve your current practices of celebration that will have significant benefits.

How can you get started?
1. Pick up a copy of The REACTION Dashboard online or (better yet) through your favourite local bookstore.
2. Contact Us to talk about how Catalyst can help you grow in this area. Coaching and facilitating your growth in celebration is one of the most rewarding things we do and we have multiple proven tools to help.

And just for fun, let’s see if we can cheer on some 4th-6th place Olympians, there’s no good reason not to celebrate them as champions too!

Photo by Nataliya Vaitkevich from Pexels

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Some people get a kick out of offending people. They find it exhilarating and it gives them some sense of superiority and righteousness.

These people are usually jerks.

Most respectable leaders try to avoid causing offence when they can. They go out of their way to consider the perspectives of others and sculpt their communications to ease the way for hard things to be received. They know that in the long term winning people over is worth the extra effort.

But sometimes it can’t work. Sometimes there’s no third way, no compromise, no managing the message that can keep everyone satisfied.

I’ve had several coaching sessions in recent weeks where we talked through specific, current situations where no matter what path a leader or organization chooses there are sure to be some stakeholders who are not going to be able to agree. There is no fully peaceful path.

So what does a wise leader do?

Offend on purpose.

If it is clear that you can’t keep everyone happy you need to have the courage to make a deliberate decision about who to hurt.

Of course this doesn’t mean we desire to hurt anyone. We do what we can to avoid, minimize, and compensate those who we can’t help but upset. But it is far better to do the work to consider who is likely to take offence and anticipate their reactions, prepare for them, and then move forward intentionally in the confidence that you’ve done your best.

I wrote about the process of discerning how to handle these tough situations a couple months ago. I think it’s one of the best pieces I’ve ever offered.

As I said in that previous post, your mission/vision/values are extremely valuable anchors to deciding who to offend. But they may not be enough. You also have to consider some other factors:
-Are we choosing who to offend based on what is easiest or on what is truly best?
-Are personal and organizational biases being acknowledged and prevented from undue influence on the process?
-What are the real probable costs of this offence (both immediate and ongoing)?
-Is it possible that another leader would be able to find an alternative path that would require less or no offense at all?
-How can we guide those we decide to offend through the situation with compassion and grace; even if it means losing their contributions to the organization? What other organizations can we encourage them to consider?
-How quickly do we need to move forward? Would slowing down help find better options or outcomes (or are we dragging our feet because we don’t want to make the tough call)?
-What would a leader who reached a different conclusion about who to offend be considering that would lead them to a different approach?

I get concerned about any leader who relishes these situations, but I rarely come across people like that. Far more often I’m taking with leaders who feel they’ve exhausted every reasonable possibility of an approach that could keep everyone aligned. They’ve thought, discussed, reviewed input, consulted others, prayed, sweat, and lost sleep over the situation and reluctantly found themselves looking for the best of bad options.

To these leaders I say: Offend Intentionally. It’s not the most enjoyable part of leadership but it may be one of the most critical decisions you can make to keep your organization true to your values and moving forward.

If a coaching call could help you work through a no win situation Contact Us.

(Photo by Liza Summer from Pexels)

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For too many leaders a bruised ego can feel like a life threatening injury.

When we are driven by insecurity we are dangerously vulnerable to being devastated by the slightest critique or failure. Our self worth is tentatively balanced between arrogance and self-hatred and we need constant boosts and affirmations to keep us from tipping into despair.

Maybe your experience is less dramatic, but most of us can relate to the sense of our identity being too closely tied to our performance and the approval of others. If we don’t get a handle on that insecurity it can all too easily lead us astray; with potentially devastating effects.

So what can we do? How can we practically defend against being undermined by insecurity and threatened by bruised egos?

1. Dig Deep: Ask yourself “What are the deepest truths about me?”. Explore the things that root your core identity. Consider both the things about you that are apparent on the surface (roles, titles, achievements, etc.) and the things that are much more personal (essential relationships, fundamental attributes, deepest beliefs). What are the anchors to your confidence that are least dependent on things outside your control and that give you the the surest sense of being seen, known, worthy, and loved?

2. Regular Reminders: Figure out ways to bring yourself back to these truths as often as possible. Post them in your bathroom, tattoo them on your arm, create or buy artwork that brings them into focus, attend a weekly religious meeting that affirms them, set a calendar notification to bring them up daily… The point is to understand that there are innumerable distractions and lies that will try to prevent us from living out of a secure, confident identity and we need intentional rituals and reminders to stay on track.

3. Seek Support: Being healthy as a leader is a team sport and a group activity. Find people you look up to and get them to mentor you formally or informally. Find friends and peers who can run alongside you for peer encouragement. Choose a couple people with potential you can invest in so you can learn by teaching. Taking the risk of vulnerability with even one person who will call you back to your best intentions and identity is a needed and a powerful act of defiance against everything that tries to drag you down.

4. Give Grace: You’re going to mess this up. There will be times when you are fatigued, distracted, or just plain selfish and you let insecurity have too much say in your life and leadership. The question is: How long will you let your mistakes and failures stay in control? How much damage and discouragement will you allow them to bring? By expecting your own imperfection you create space to acknowledge it, address it, and move forward in healthier ways.

One of my favourite things to do with Catalyst is meet with leaders individually (PACE Sessions) or as groups (Kryptonite workshops) to talk through the dangers of bruised egos and the things we can do to foster deeper rooted confidence.

Contact us to talk about how we can help you and your team.

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I love my country. And I’m ashamed of it.

The ongoing discoveries of unmarked graves of indigenous children removed from their homes and forced into residential schools for the purpose of ending their cultures is a stark and painful reminder of one of the most insidious truths about Canada. While visiting our capital with my family last week we were silenced by the hundreds of children’s shoes placed in front of our parliament. Many more shoes, toys, and works of art surround the nearby Centennial Flame. The power of the message, pointedly framed with the Peace Tower and House of Commons, is immense.

People far better informed, far more impacted, and far more eloquent than myself have commented on the meaning of these horrific discoveries and the lasting impact of the evil done under the authority of church and state. 

Among the issues raised in some circles is the tension between loyalty to Canada and addressing the injustices perpetrated by it.

The thing about loyalty (as I’ve written before) is that it comes at the cost of trust and time, and must be earned, not imposed.

Loyalty to any country, cause, creed, organization, or individual should involve a degree of critical assessment, an unflinching reality check to see the best and worst of what it offers. Blind or compelled loyalty is at best idealistic and always dangerous.

In a couple weeks I will proudly wear Canada shirts and cheer loudly for athletes wearing the maple leaf at the Olympics (knowing there are a great many problems with the Olympic movement, including fair questions about the wisdom of these games proceeding). I will do so in the belief that at our best Canada can be a blessing and an example to the world. But I will also hold in my heart the shadow of knowing how terribly far from our ideals we have been, continue to be, and may always be if we fail to reckon with reality.

In different, but similar ways I must do the same with every organization I’m involved with: I celebrate what is good, believe in the potential of our ideals, and commit to seeing our failures and wrongdoing as clearly as I can. Only then can I offer the kind of loyalty that makes things better.

I have compassion for those who believe Canada, or any organization, is too corrupt to save. I am increasingly aware that my many privileges make it much easier for me to wait for incremental change rather than insisting on a radical push for justice now. I’m wrestling with what that all means and how to act in this awareness.

But I do know that Maya Angelou’s wisdom applies as we try to reconcile the best and worst of any entity:

“Do the best you can until you know better. Then when you know better, do better.”

One way to know better and do better is to read the Calls to Action of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada.

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